Why Does God Allow Suffering?
How could a good God allow cancer and other suffering? Doesn’t this prove the problem of evil?
By Chris Lawrence
When I think about the problem of evil or when I wonder why does God allow suffering, these questions are much more than theoretical for me.
As someone who has faced incurable cancer, in addition to several other difficulties in my life, I have asked these questions in moments of deep pain wondering why did this happen? And even more than that, how will I ever make it through it?
I realize that many people reading this may have faced cancer or some other type of suffering, or perhaps you know someone who is. You may be facing the biggest storm of your life and my heart goes out to you.
I would like to help clear away obstacles that are keeping you from experiencing hope—that expectation of good, even though your circumstances may be screaming the opposite.
The problem of evil, and the question, “why would a good God allow suffering?” challenge our hearts and minds to understand. There is logical problem and there is also the experiential problem. While I will address both, I’ll lean more on the experiential side, in other words try to help you make sense of suffering in your own life as you attempt to walk through it.
Why we hate suffering
When we experience suffering, there is indeed a very gut level feeling that this is not how we are meant to live. It seems there should be a better version of life we’re missing out on.
To suffer means that we experience or are subjected to something bad or unpleasant. This pain could be psychological or physical, or even a combination of both.
For someone facing cancer, the suffering is far more than just physical. There are aspects of fear and loss that wear on a person—mind and spirit. Indeed, one of the hardest aspects of cancer is how it attacks a person’s hope and can lead to a deep despair.
Suffering reveals a lot about our perspective on life and what we assume it should be like. This feeling of, “life should not be this way,” reveals the brokenness in our world, that a life free of suffering is beyond our grasp. Experiencing hard times seems inevitable, if not certain.
And quite naturally, many people wonder, why would a good God allow suffering?
What suffering reveals about life
Much of life and the human experience is very good and pleasing. In it, we long for “shalom,”—the Hebrew word for peace, wholeness and well-being.
Yet, suffering interrupts this. Wars, tsunamis and terrorist attacks plague us. Racism, human trafficking and school shootings break us. People get life-limiting illnesses like cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease or maybe even coronavirus (Covid-19) cuts their life short.
When we experience suffering, suddenly our hope for a good life is derailed.
Indeed, suffering casts a shadow over everyone’s lives, no matter what we believe.
More about my personal suffering
Before I experienced incurable cancer (you can read my story here), I also faced another hardship. My wife and I unexpectedly lost our first child, a son, when my wife was 32 weeks pregnant. The doctors couldn’t fully explain the stillbirth, and we wrestled with our grief for months and years.
In some ways it still unsettles us.
After this loss, it quickly became evident we were not living our Plan A life anymore. No parent should ever have to bury their children. It’s just not natural.
Indeed, like us, suffering has robbed many people from living their Plan A life, perhaps even taking them down to Plan X or Y.
Dealing with the logical problem of suffering
When people say that God is good and loving, and yet we look around at all of the evil and suffering in life, we’re left with a logical problem.
In fact, many would say this is the single strongest objection to the existence of God. Because if you believe in a God who is all-powerful and sovereign over the world—one that is also perfectly good and just—then wouldn’t he eradicate all of the evil and suffering? Therefore, since evil exists, people conclude, God doesn’t.
This argument was first raised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus who lived approximately 300 years before Christ. His ideas gained a resurgence in the 1700s by the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered,” Hume wrote in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X. “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is the evil?”
Modern culture makes it difficult to believe in God
Many obstacles in our modern culture make it difficult to believe in God. This is because we have a heightened view of what we can understand about the world through our own reason, which has been shaped by our culture.
In ancient times, people were more likely to trust traditional and religious institutions. They assumed that God or gods created the world and that there was a spiritual realm beyond nature.
But eventually, an intellectual revolution ensued in the 1700s called the Enlightenment. During this time, thinkers and philosophers began to question whether traditional authorities like the church could be trusted. This led to radical transitions in thought and reasoning.
“What is self-evident?” Asked the philosopher Immanuel Kant. “How can anyone know that what they see is reality? How does one know there is a God? How does anyone know anything?”
The French philosopher Rene Descartes, another popular voice of the time, came to the conclusion that to know anything for certain, a person would have to reject everything they know and start from the ground up. According to him, the ultimate source for knowledge and truth would be the self, not institutions like the government or church. Certainly not the Bible. As he famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”
Modern thinking and the problem of evil
You might ask, what does this have to do the problem of evil? I would say, much more than you realize.
A lot of good that came from the Enlightenment, but one downside was it eroded our ability to believe that God is real. Instead, people began to start from the opposite conclusion: God is not real, and if he is, it would have to be proven.
Even if you have not formally studied philosophy, what you think and believe about God has inevitably been shaped by Kant, Descartes and many others. It is the air we breathe.
As a result, when we come to this question about why does God allow suffering? and the problem of evil, our cultural framework colors how we approach it, leading us to a greater skeptism.
God’s help with suffering
The problem is that belief in a good and loving God provides the strongest resources for living in the midst of suffering (see the link at the end of this article for more details).
Not only that, while not downplaying the difficulty of it, Christianity views suffering as meaningful and helpful to transform people in very positive ways.
But the problem is that our modern way of thinking often creates a steep hill to overcome in order to believe in God. Our minds have to be able to understand all of why he allows evil and suffering. And if we cannot understand it, we disregard him entirely.
However, part of why this rejection happens is a view of God that oversimplifies him into a being that we can easily understand with our finite minds.
As we read the Bible, we are confronted with a different view of God. While he is knowable, we cannot know him exhaustively, nor can we understand all of his ways.
Finite v.s. infinite
As the Apostle Paul wrote:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?” 1
As Paul says, while we can know God personally, there are limits to how much we can know him, because he is the creator and we are his creatures. He is infinite and we are finite. As Paul wrote, “(God’s) paths are beyond tracing out.”
So, if God exists, and most people believe that he does, then we should not be surprised that we don’t understand everything he does.
The reality is, God no doubt has good reasons for allowing every evil and suffering in this world, we humans just don’t always understand what they are. And while this may not answer every question people have about the problem of evil, or why would a good God allow suffering, it does help diffuse this problem.
The loss of mystery
Our culture lost something vital through the Enlightenment, and that is a love of mystery, or the acceptance of concepts that are difficult to understand or explain. If something happens, our modern minds crave to understand it completely.
With suffering, we don’t often get to know why. And this often troubles us…deeply.
Yet we need to allow space for mystery in our lives. People who have a relationship with God embrace the mystery, that God allows events in people’s lives, and that he has good reasons for them, to benefit them and bring them good, even though they may be painful.
The God Who Suffered
Just because we allow space for this mystery, it still does not mean we want a relationship with God. We may wonder, does God understand what I am going through? Does he even care about my pain? For more on that topic, read this article (coming soon).
The reality is, God does not leave us alone in our suffering, and even more than that, he understands it.
After all, suffering is at the heart of Christianity.
The Christian story is that God sent his son Jesus to the earth to live as a human, and to pay for the sins of humanity by suffering a criminal’s death on a cross.
In the height of his agony, shortly before he died, Jesus cried out to God in prayer: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” 2
How can we explain this? Jesus bore a physical pain, but he was also bearing a psychological pain. He was bearing the sins of humanity, and the load pushed him to his limits.
The pain was so great, that he cried out to God, essentially saying, “Why, God, why!?”
Jesus wasn’t wrestling with logical problems, but the actual experience of suffering itself. He willingly arose to engage in deep human suffering.
Does he understand our pain? More than we could ever know. And even better, he wants to help us through it.
In the end, we find the problem of evil and our discomfort when we are unable to find the answer to the question, why would a good God allow suffering, has more to do with the problem of our modern thinking then it does actually does with a logical breakdown of the existence of God.
And when our minds can allow for the existence of God, then we have the opportunity to discover a powerful hope—a hope that nothing can defeat.
For more about how Christianity can help give you hope on your cancer journey, read God’s Help in Cancer.
If you would like to read more about why evil exists, read Where is God in Tragedy.
Note: We are not doctors and we cannot answer your medical questions. However, we welcome your questions about finding hope and knowing God.