The Issue of Evil: Sovereignty, Suffering & Free Will
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
If there is a God, why do the innocent suffer? Countless people throughout history have wrestled with this question, and many have rejected God as a result. Even many believers struggle to reconcile their belief in a good and loving God with the harsh reality of suffering and injustice in the world around them. But a proper rephrasing of that timeless question would be, if there is no God, what makes them innocent and who cares if they suffer?
This may seem like a rather callous response, but it highlights the presuppositions hidden in plain sight in the original question. Without God, there are no moral absolutes, and therefore there is no such thing as good and evil or innocence and guilt, only an amoral materialistic existence. If there is only amoral materialistic existence, then life is ultimately nothing more than a cosmic curiosity and suffering and death are merely part and parcel of that meaningless experience, being neither good nor evil. But the reason mankind has struggled with this question is because we instinctually perceive innocence and guilt and deeply feel that unjust suffering is wrong. But where did these feelings of a violation of moral law come from if indeed a moral lawgiver does not exist? Why does humanity intuitively understand that the world seems fallen and not all as it should be?
Many would claim that our understanding or definitions of moral rights and wrongs are either advantageous evolutionary byproducts inherent to all mankind or else culturally constructed subjective value judgements which differ from one society to another. Neither of these attempts to explain away the problem actually resolve the internal conflict however. One can intellectually believe these rationalizations, but it will not change the fact that they are deeply unsettled and even indignant that conscious existence does not align with their conviction on how it should be.
Furthermore, these rationalizations are far from sufficient in even explaining away the problem. Biological evolution cannot even begin to explain how these moral concepts came to be, let alone why they came to be. First of all, biological evolution—specifically Darwinian natural selection—selects traits which are most advantageous for the individual organism, not for the greater species. This mechanism is known as "survival of the fittest" as the weak are less likely to be able to pass on their genes to the next generation due to reproductive competition. But there is no "moral gene"—abstract concepts like morality, art, music, language, and culture are not biological traits encoded in DNA, so they cannot be genetically passed on even if they were advantageous to human life.
But even if morality was a genetic trait, it is not at all apparent how this random mutation would be beneficial to the host organism in which it first appeared. In the supposed early evolutionary years of humanity, how would for example the belief that one should not murder, be advantageous in the kill or be killed struggle for life? Clearly natural selection would favor selfishness, not selflessness, and bravado rather than meekness. If evolutionary processes are blind, then there is no feasible mechanism in which natural selection could promulgate the genes of an individual who does not act in a manner utterly consistent with self preservation. The nice pacifist caveman would be unceremoniously clubbed by the "less evolved" but far more pragmatic caveman and his peculiar non-violent branch in the human tree of genetic anomalies would come to an abrupt end. So random biological mutations somehow producing this conceptual moral trait would have quite the uphill battle in both producing this genetic expression as well as disseminating it into the rest of the human population. With enough attempts at the same hypothetical mutation it may be possible, but that kind of persistence is hard to argue as random or blind and begins to look much more like purpose and design.
So, without a plausible biological process, many have turned to the idea that morality is a social construct, a mere byproduct of human intelligence which at some point was able to deduce that while not always advantageous to the individual, morality could be beneficial for society. While this argument is much more plausible, it posits that as a result of being a social construct, morality is not a universal absolute, but rather subjective and relative with different societies constructing different value systems. However, this is not what we find in social sciences like cultural anthropology—there are indeed universal moral standards in all human societies. Chief among them is the notion that causing harm to another human being, either physically or by violating their rights, is morally wrong. Even in societies where head hunting and cannibalism is practiced we see these universal moral standards in effect as such societies developed rituals to first dehumanize the victim so as to assuage guilt and permit the otherwise immoral act—much like many modern societies dehumanize unborn babies in order to permit abortion or historically how chattel slavery was justified.
So if morality isn't a genetic trait explained by biological evolution and isn't a purely relative social construct explained by conditioning, where did humanity get their moral law from? This is a strong case for a moral law giver and why we experience such intense anxiety and angst when either we, or the world around us does not live up to that law.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. -Rom 2:14-16 ESV
Innocence, Guilt, & Redemption
But while the law may be written on our hearts from birth, social conditioning can and will disciple an individual to varying degrees, distorting and corrupting their understanding of good and evil, innocence and guilt. Culture is a powerful thing, and cultural beliefs are challenging to reject, which is why Christian discipleship and the daily renewing of the mind is so important. We must align ourselves with God's truth and God's definitions, rather than cling to traditions of man. So when a believer struggles with the question of why God allows the innocent to suffer, it is important to understand that such a category does not actually exist. Paul makes it clear that all men have sinned, and that the wages of sin is death. As such, James and Jesus also remind us that no man is guaranteed life.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God -Rom 3:22-23 ESV
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned -Rom 5:12 ESV
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Rom 6:23 ESV
... you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. -Jas 4:14 ESV
"And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you...'" -Luk 12:19-20 ESV
Given that all men are doomed to die and that death can come at any time, we realize life is a gift—whether it be what we perceive as a full life, or a few fleeting moments. That doesn't mean we don't grieve when life is lost, but in light of the scriptural perspective, becoming angry or bitter, or accusing God of being "unfair" due to different people dying at different ages is folly. All death is "untimely" death, there is no way around that—some deaths just seem more untimely than others. But man does not have the vantage point to judge what either a full or meaningful life is. If God does not exist, all is arbitrary and meaningless anyway. If He does exist, then we must also acknowledge there is not only purpose and meaning in life, but also beyond it.
Consider for a moment that the average human life expectancy in history, from ancient Greece up to the 20th Century, was only around 30 years, in large part due to infant mortality rates bringing that average down. It's only been in very recent history that human life expectancy has shot up to the current average of 73 years. Conversely, prior to the flood, average ages were multiple centuries. So, we must understand two truths: that no one is truly innocent, and any age at which one dies can be cynically viewed as unfair. With that foundation established, the common argument if there is a God, why do the innocent suffer and its variations don't hold any water.
Suffering and death are a fact of existence, but how we explain and reconcile that observed reality is critical. The naturalist view held by secularists and atheists offers nothing more than hopelessness and nihilism while lacking even a real explanation, let alone a solution to the problem. In this view, there is no ultimate cause, purpose, or possible redemption of this state of existence, it must simply be embraced and endured in a cold and uncaring universe. Why does suffering and death exist? The naturalist view offers no satisfying answer. How did suffering and death come to exist? Again, no satisfying answer. Can suffering and death be overcome? This innate human desire for redemption is present even in the naturalist worldview in the form of transhumanism, the belief that human consciousness can be transferred to a mechanical or digital host which can theoretically live forever—using a very loose definition of "life." But while a religious belief that someday medical science and technology can somehow overcome death may sound somewhat hopeful (at least for future extraordinarily rich people—not you), it does nothing to address suffering. This theoretical immortality would not negate suffering, it simply would prolong your (or at least a synthesized facsimile of your consciousness) observation or experience of it as the fundamental reality of humanity, the universe, and existence remains—despite the best efforts of endless failed Utopian experiments which replace God with government in these humanist scenarios.
A Judeo-Christian worldview however, addresses each of these questions and offers very logical and satisfactory answers. Why does suffering and death exist and how did it come to exist? Because a good and loving God created a universe in which free will exists, which also necessitates the option to disobey God, disregard good, and choose evil. This choice, first by angelic beings and then by mankind, had consequences—consequences which God explicitly warned us about. Nevertheless, man's free will brought sin, suffering, and death into God's perfect creation. God is not the one at fault here, we are. All of the suffering in the world can be directly or indirectly linked to human choices and behavior. Evil isn't an entity in and of itself—that would be dualism, which is not found in Judaism or Christianity. Instead, evil is simply the absence of good just as darkness is simply the absence of light. God didn't create evil, death, or suffering, they are just the long, gnarled shadow cast by our disobedience which obscures and obstructs the blessing found in God's light.
But a biblical worldview doesn't just provide an explanation of the origins of evil, death, and suffering, it also critically provides hope and redemption which is timeless and universal. God, in response to man's disobedience, came as a man and chose obedience, acting as the second Adam (see Romans 5). In contrast to man's choice to disregard and rebel against God's will, Jesus came to honor His will and draw man to Him. Despite being the only human in history to be without sin, Jesus bore the penalty for our sin, suffered, and died an excruciating and humiliating death. But death was not the end. Instead, it was the means which God used to bring about life as His sacrifice and payment for our sin redeemed the curse of sin and death for all mankind—past, present, and future. All we have to do is accept His payment for the consequences of our disobedience and we will be granted His redemption. If we accept God's unmerited grace and repent of our evil, like Jesus, our death will not be final. Instead, we will be resurrected when God judges the world and sin, suffering, and death are abolished as God casts out both the evildoer and evil itself from His creation.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. -1 Thes 4:13-18 ESV
I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? -Hos 13:14 ESV
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. -1 Co 15:25-26 ESV
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Rev 21:3-4 ESV
Sovereignty, Free Will, & the Origins of Evil
For many, the idea of God's sovereignty, omniscience, and omnipotence causes inner turmoil and conflict with their idea of man's free will. For some, these concepts are almost completely mutually exclusive. But scripture talks about both, and though the issue can be complex, it needn't be contradictory. The four main camps which have developed throughout Church history dealing with the issue of free will and God's sovereignty are Open Theism, Arminianism, Molinism, and Calvinism on a spectrum giving the most weight to free will or to God's sovereignty respectively. Open Theism puts so much weight on man's free will that it holds that God's omniscience is limited to what can be known rather than all knowledge as adherents believe God can't know what humans will do before they do it otherwise it would violate their free will. This view greatly diminishes God's sovereignty and foreknowledge and maximizes man's free will. On the other side of the spectrum lies Calvinism, which holds that God not only has foreknowledge of everything before it happens, but also controls them and predestines them to happen. This view greatly diminishes—if not entirely eliminates—man's free will and maximizes God's sovereignty. Between these two extremes are Arminianism and Molinism.
Open Theism, a name coined in the late 20th century after the 1994 book The Openness of God, does not pose a problem in terms of the origin of evil as it agrees that evil was a byproduct of the free will given by God to His created beings. If anything, the Open View emphasizes that point and paints God as rather shocked and surprised by His creation's rebellion, not even having foreknowledge of, let alone a hand in the origin of evil. Where the Open View does have some problems is in explaining over one-third of scripture which is prophetic in nature, predicting very specific events in history which are very obviously either tied to or influenced by man's free will. For example, how could Jesus predict that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed, or that Judas would betray Him if God has no foreknowledge of human actions and free will decisions prior to them occurring? Or how could the prophet Zechariah predict the exact price Jesus would be betrayed for nearly 500 years before Judas or the chief priests who paid him were even born (Zec 11:12-13)? This view seems to have some major flaws in its reasoning as it appears to assert that knowledge isn't just power, but control. This simply isn't accurate however, as foreknowledge is demonstrably separate from control. For example, I may know that tomorrow the sun will rise at precisely 5:53AM at my location, but that does not at all mean that I control the movement of celestial bodies in the universe. I know what will happen, but I do not control what will happen.
Where foreknowledge can potentially influence free will is when that foreknowledge is communicated. This mind-bending concept has been explored throughout history in many human narratives such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but might be most succinctly captured in the original Matrix film. In that movie, the protagonist Neo walks into a kitchen where The Oracle is baking cookies, hoping she will tell him his destiny. But the first thing she tells him is, "I'd ask you to sit down, but you're not going to anyway... and don't worry about the vase." Neo then replies, "What vase?" as he turns to look for one, and in doing so knocks it over and breaks it. The Oracle then says with a smile, "That vase." Neo, perplexed, asks, "How did you know?" Here, The Oracle captures this paradox by lighting a cigarette and responding, "Oh, what's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?" So, there is a very interesting discussion to be had in trying to understand the influence and affect God's communicated foreknowledge to humanity could have on their individual or collective actions and decisions. But could this influence be categorized as control? That would be difficult to argue as it doesn't fundamentally strip a moral agent of their free will and force them to do something, it simply influences them—consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously. We have many influences in our lives, but we still have free will.
But the reality is, most people make decisions on a daily basis which were not specifically foretold in the scriptures or by a modern day prophet to them. I ate a bowl of Cheerios this morning and skipped my shower not because it was foretold to me that on this day I would "partake of the grains of the earth and abstain from the waters of the sky" and that knowledge somehow subverted my daily routine, I simply made some questionable dietary and hygiene decisions in my haste. So though prophecy is tantalizing and fascinating, and it's arguable that it has some ability to influence outcomes, most of humanity's free will decisions would not be affected by it. I will say though, that it may be this paradoxical dynamic which could explain why biblical prophecy is so enigmatically worded at times. If a prophecy has multiple interpretations, is symbolically or metaphorically worded, or the exact meaning doesn't become clear until after the events unfold, it is more difficult to accuse God of putting his thumb on the scale and influencing outcomes. But then you have cases like Jesus just plainly stating Peter would deny him three times, so God clearly is willing to cross that line when necessary or appropriate (by His estimation, not ours). I would argue that such a warning would make Peter less likely to deny Jesus though, not more—yet it still came to pass. So, God's prophetic warnings are far more a demonstration of His grace than of any alleged manipulation.
Named after the 16th century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius and is the view usually pitted against Calvinism, Arminianism also leans heavily on the free will side of the spectrum. However, it does so without sacrificing major elements of Gods foreknowledge as the Open View does. As such, this view also agrees on the origins of evil being a byproduct of created beings' free will, though unlike Open Theism, maintains God's awareness of both Satan and man's choices prior to their rebellion against Him. Both Open Theism and Arminianism are synergistic, meaning God and man work together to bring about outcomes, at the micro and macro levels—events in individuals' lives as well as major historical events. This synergism places the blame of evil squarely on man, however many feel it also downplays God's providence and sovereignty which appears to be at odds with several passages of scripture. While some of this discrepancy could be solved by again acknowledging that foreknowledge doesn't equate to control, there are still some problem texts which have been debated throughout the centuries.
Named after the 16th century Spanish theologian Luis de Molina, Molinism emphasizes God's foreknowledge, providence, and sovereignty to the greatest extent possible without eliminating free will. It does so by proposing synergism on the micro scale, but monergism on the macro scale, meaning that God and man work together to bring about outcomes on the individual level, but God's sovereignty prevails on the larger level. This is because Molinism proposes three logical steps of God's foreknowledge: His natural knowledge, His middle knowledge, and His free knowledge. Natural knowledge being what can happen, middle knowledge being what would happen, and free knowledge being what will happen. The key in this framework is that God's creative decree occurs between His middle and free knowledge.
In other words, God's natural knowledge knows all the possible worlds He could create and all their possible outcomes, and then His middle knowledge knows out of those possibilities, which scenario would produce the best possible outcome, so He then selects that world to create and makes His decree. He therefore knows what will happen and in His sovereignty has decreed it to happen—His free knowledge. This logical progression underscores God's sovereignty (nothing happens that He has not decreed) without sacrificing man's free will as God does not micromanage our decisions or control the outcome, He has simply "run all the simulations" ahead of time and therefore has created the world which—by its own free will—ultimately produces the outcome which aligns with His own will. This framework appears to resolve many, if not all of the problem texts in scripture and strikes the balance between free will and sovereignty. In this view, again, God is not the author of evil—man is.
Named after the 16th century French theologian John Calvin, Calvinism maximizes God's sovereignty over all creation, to the extent that free will is essentially an illusion. In this view, everything that has happened or will happen is not only foreknown by God, but predestined by God. He controls all things and nothing happens outside of His will. As such, Calvinism is purely monergistic at both the micro and macro levels with man having no part to play in determining outcomes. In this framework, God predetermines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell and dictates every decision each and every individual ever make in their lives. While Calvinism is quite popular in certain denominational circles, this extremely fatalistic view has an enormous problem in regards to the subject of this article—it necessitates that God be the author of evil. Not just its origin, but each and every evil act throughout history—it was God's will each and every time and it was His hand which made it occur. This runs aground of numerous passages of scripture which state that God is perfect, without sin, or even shifting shadow and that He tempts no one. Forget temptation, in the Calvinist view, God directly causes people to sin and it's His will that many suffer and die, both in this life and in Hell.
This view, out of the four main theological options, is the hardest to reconcile with the issue of evil and makes for a very hard pill to swallow for those who are suffering. Most people struggle with the idea of a good God allowing evil, it's even harder to accept a good God actually being the cause of it. Now, just because it's an emotionally uncomfortable thought, doesn't necessarily mean it's untrue—that's a logical fallacy. But Calvinism runs aground of so many tenets of scripture regarding God's character, nature, and behavior, that I have no issue diverting people from this theological framework for biblical reasons. This theological position has such a problem dealing with the issue of evil that one of the leading apologists and champions of Calvinism, Baptist theologian James White, dodged and evaded the question for the entirety of an over hour-long moderated debate which was supposed to cover this very topic. His opponent, Wesleyan theologian William Lane Craig, meanwhile presented his argument for Molinism and repeatedly asked the Calvinist to actually make his argument, to no avail.
A Necessary But Temporary Evil
Many have wrestled with this process of redemption however and wondered why God couldn't simply have created a perfect world devoid of the possibility of evil, sin, death, and suffering from the outset. Surely such a world is possible and would be incalculably better than the one we live in, so if God is loving, good, and all-powerful, why didn't He create that reality? But it is precisely because God is loving and good that He couldn't create that world as such a reality doesn't allow for free will. A God who creates a world where people have no choice but to obey and be in relationship with Him would not be good or loving, but a tyrant and His subjects mere automatons, incapable of love. So love necessitates free will, free will necessitates the possibility of choosing disobedience, and disobedience and evil necessitate judgement and justice by God in order for Him to be good. Hence the temporal world which God created, where His love and goodness can be expressed, upheld, and experienced while also ultimately resulting in a redemption where evil, death, and suffering no longer exist.
Despite this clear and logical explanation, many still struggle with reconciling God's goodness with their personal experience of pain, suffering, and injustice. Why would a good God allow such evil to befall me? If He loves me, surely He would intervene and protect me! But there are several problems with this line of reasoning. First of all, the pain and suffering we experience in life are often a consequence or byproduct of our own free will or others' free will, which God must allow if He is loving and good. There is pain and suffering which is hard to connect to man's free will however, such as natural disasters, genetic defects, diseases, and random accidents. So what is the Judeo-Christian explanation for these broad and general observations of suffering? Wouldn't a loving God intervene in these cases?
First of all, we often forget that man's sin brought death and destruction into all the world—literally the entire cosmos in Greek—the whole created universe according to Romans 5:12. As such, all creation groans, longing for its redemption from the corruption it was subjected to according to Romans 8:19-22. So natural disasters, genetic defects, diseases, and other so-called "acts of God" are anything but—they are all byproducts of man's sin which brought destruction into God's creation, so even they are results of man's free will.
Furthermore, this desire for God to intervene to prevent us from experiencing the consequences of sin seems to start with an assumption which has become quite popular in modern secular societies—the belief that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. This belief that the the end of all being is the happiness of man necessitates that suffering and sacrifice be avoided at all costs. However, this concept is nowhere to be found in the Judeo-Christian worldview and nary a single verse in all of scripture can be found to support this popular notion. In fact, this aversion to suffering is antithetical to the biblical understanding.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. -1 Pe 4:12-13 ESV
The belief that happiness should be our goal in life comes from the philosophy of humanism, not the theology of Judaism or Christianity. Scripture makes it quite clear that happiness is not the ultimate good or end goal of man's existence, but rather that love, relationship with, and worship of God for His glory is. For only in our creator can the created find ultimate fulfillment, purpose, and meaning. Therefore, if God is good, He would create a world where the most people possible would freely choose His love and enter His embrace. Ironically, it is quite likely that evil, suffering, and death create the exact scenario in which the most people turn to God, recognizing their weakness, fragility, vulnerability, and moral destitution without Him. So in His goodness and love, God uses temporary suffering to produce eternal salvation for the maximum number of people possible. In effect, the creator's love led to the creation of man's free will, man's free will led to the creation of suffering, and suffering leads man to the creator's love, as He demonstrated it by lowering Himself and entering into His creation's suffering and death in order to redeem it all.
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers... -Heb 2:9-11 ESV
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. -Rom 5:2-5 ESV
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives... he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. -Heb 12:6, 10 ESV
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. -Php 3:7-11 ESV
The Theology of Suffering
As Western society succumbed to the philosophies of materialism and humanism, the church soon followed suit—a heretical reality which Paris Reidhead addressed in his famous mid-20th century sermon, "Ten Shekels and a Shirt." This cultural influence gave rise to the prosperity gospel, word of faith doctrines, and a myopic focus on material blessing in the church. Suffering and sacrifice wasn't a popular message and increasingly seemed irrelevant in a world where global poverty was in rapid decline, lifespans and modern medicine were experiencing massive increases and breakthroughs, and technology was improving man's standards of living exponentially. World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II may have provided a bit of a reality check for society's naïve idealism, but they were quickly forgotten as a post-WWII world experienced rapid development and economic success as central banks around the globe began printing and loaning money at unprecedented rates. Soon, the "New Age" was upon us and man was certain that we were turning the page to a new Utopian chapter of humanity, full of enlightenment, prosperity, and progress. Now more than ever, the notion that man could save himself and solve all the world's problems became in vogue. Man's potential suddenly seemed limitless and even the church was enamored with this conspicuous materialism and hubris. Sermons became self-help seminars centered on improving man's lot while messages on trials, tribulation, and the hope of eternity fell by the wayside. God became a supernatural means to a very materialistic end with eternity becoming an afterthought, a bonus thrown in just to sweeten the deal. As the author G. Michael Hopf noted, "Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times."
But this spirit of the age shouldn't have come as a surprise to the biblically literate as its pages are replete with examples and warnings that riches and success turn the heart of man away from God. Jesus spent most of His time ministering to the poor and the outcasts of society precisely because of this reality. They humbly and openly received the Messiah while the wealthy and the social elites largely rejected Him due to their pride and notions of self-sufficiency. Yes, Jesus ministered to those who needed hope the most, but He also pragmatically ministered to those who would actually respond to His message and His seed would fall on good soil.
You see, a biblical worldview doesn't view suffering as a burden, but a blessing, and that's because God's plan of redemption was so great, that He even redeemed the consequences of man's sin—suffering and death. He flipped death on its head and turned it into the pathway to eternal life through the cross and He transformed suffering into a process which draws men to that pathway and then purifies and refines them on it. He calls redeemed man to take up his cross and follow Christ in His sufferings so that we may be full of hope.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart [soul and spirit] is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. -Ecc 7:2-4 ESV
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the eagerly awaiting creation waits for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only that, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, through perseverance we wait eagerly for it. -Rom 8:16-25 NASB
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also celebrate in our sufferings, knowing that suffering brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. -Rom 5:1-5 ESV
Suffering, according to scripture, not only softens man's heart toward God, it also produces a heart like God's. Suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope. So it is clear that we cannot reject suffering or attempt to escape or circumvent it, otherwise we continue to live by the flesh rather than learn to live by the spirit. We must take up our crosses and follow Christ's example, share in His suffering, and in doing so, share in His character. For even in suffering, what the enemy planned for evil, God can use for good. God redeems suffering to produce good fruit in our lives for our benefit, but then He also uses our joy in the midst of suffering as an example for others, to draw them to Himself and encourage them as well.
Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. -James 1:2-4 NASB
You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word during great affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. -1 Th 1:6-7 NASB
But how do we have joy in the midst of suffering? First, we have to understand that we are new creations in Christ and we now must identify with the Spirit inside of us rather than our flesh. It is our flesh which despairs in suffering—and while that carnal nature is loud, we don't have to listen because we no longer identify with it. The Spirit rejoices in the midst of the suffering because it understands the end product and is unbothered by the physical, mental, and emotional process. Jesus also faced this struggle, particularly the night before His crucifixion, asking the Father if there was any other way, to take that cup from Him. But there wasn't—Jesus had to suffer and die. So He endured the cross and set the example for us all to follow.
Therefore, since we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let’s rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. -Heb 12:1-3 NASB
The joy wasn't in the suffering itself, but rather in what the suffering produced. Jesus looked beyond the suffering of the cross to see us. Likewise, we must look beyond the suffering of our cross to see Him. As we suffer, we are refined, develop perseverance, character, and hope, and as we suffer with joy, we also encourage and inspire others to look beyond their suffering to see the hope of salvation and the redemption of God.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. -2 Pe 3:9-12 ESV
...if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church... -Col 1:23-24 ESV
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. -2 Co 1:3-7 ESV
But God is also a God of justice, so as not all suffer equally in this life, so also not all will be equally rewarded or compensated in the life to come. Death is not only redeemed in God's plan, it is also the great equalizer and balances the scales of justice. This is why Paul could honestly claim in Philippians 3:7 that whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ, because he understood that gain in this life counted as loss in the next, and loss in this life counted as gain in the next. Paul was living in light of eternity as Jesus taught that after judgement, the first shall be last and the last shall be first—the servant among you will be exalted and the high and lofty will be cast down and humbled. This principle was told most vividly in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus and He preached a whole sermon on how the poor, hungry, destitute, scorned, and despised in society are actually going to to be the most blessed in heaven. So which would you rather have, riches and comfort in this life or in the one to come? The wise would willingly suffer loss now for the greater reward later.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. -Luke 16:19-25 ESV
And He raised His eyes toward His disciples and began saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when the people hate you, and when they exclude you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and jump for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For their fathers used to treat the prophets the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. -Luke 6:20-25 NASB
A Suffering God
Historically there has been a great theological debate between relational theism and classical theism with the latter believing God in His eternal and divine nature is unaffected by His creation and therefore does not suffer. Classical theism has fallen out of favor in the last few hundred years, but should be understood and appreciated as it takes a high view of God and does not anthropomorphize Him and project man's nature upon God as the relational view does. However, both views agree that when God took on flesh in the form of Jesus, He certainly suffered and died—though each view differs in the details. But whichever camp you find yourself in, you can be sure that God—either in His divine nature or in His incarnation as the Messiah—has endured more suffering than any man. God isn't responsible for death and suffering, but He allowed Himself to enter into both on our behalf. He not only endured the suffering and death of the cross, but also bore our pain and sorrows.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. -Isa 53:3-4 ESV
So, when we ask if there is a God, why do the innocent suffer?, we reveal our self-pitying egocentric perspective, blind to the fact that the most innocent being in existence is precisely the one who has suffered the most. Indignant and petulant, we blame God or question His motives and goodness with a victim mentality, too mired in our own pain to understand it is He who has been subjected to undue and unjust suffering, not us. It is He who is without sin. It is He who is without fault, guilt, or shame. Yet it is He who bore them all in our stead, lowered Himself, suffered, and died due to His great love and compassion for us. So let us lift our heads and look upon the cross with deep reverence, awe, and gratitude. Then and only then, will we gain the perspective necessary to join our suffering savior rather than abandon Him.
When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands in 1838, the ship captain tried to turn him back, saying, "Surely you will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages!" Undeterred, Calvert simply replied, “We died before we came here.” May we be as rooted in the love of Christ and share the convictions of the apostle Paul when he wrote:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Rom 8:31-39 ESV
Life must be faced with great courage, but in Christ, even death can be faced without fear. That is the counter-intuitive power of the cross. So let us take up ours and follow Christ, our example.