From the first sinful thought that entered Adam’s mind to the very moment before Christ consummates his kingdom, we live in a world that is fallen and filled with sin. The Christian doctrine of original (inherited) sin makes more sense of the presence of evil and suffering in the world than any other worldview. I talked a lot about suffering yesterday, as I looked at the example Christ provides for handling suffering. Today, I would like to back up by discussing the realities of living in a fallen world with regard to suffering and evil.
First, suffering is inevitable. Richard Dawkins once rightly said, “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.” There are few points of agreement a believer can find with Dawkins, but this is definitely one of them. We can even take it one step further. None of us are exempt from this global suffering.
We are not Exempt
One of the biggest lies many people believe is that Christians are immune to suffering. It is wrongly believed by some that when people become Christians, their lives will automatically get better. They think now that they are children of God, bad things won’t happen to them. Surely a good Father will not allow such horrible things to happen to his children, they think.
But the truth is that God does not spare his children from suffering. We do not hold exemption status from suffering and evil. We will all experience suffering in one way or another. Some will suffer more than others. But none of us are exempt.
We are not Immune
However, most Christians do understand that just because they have trusted Christ for salvation does not mean they will not suffer. Many of us realize that if we are not currently suffering, we will at some point experience suffering in one way or another. Our world is fallen, and with one click of the remote or glance at the newspaper we can see it. And we know we are not exempt.
But we are still surprised that the suffering we inevitably experience is so painful. We are surprised it is so lasting. We want to believe that since we are children of God, we should be somewhat immune to the brutal pain that suffering brings. And yet, we are not. Shots at the doctor hurt us the same as non-Christians, and the pain that we experience through other forms of loss and suffering hurt us the same as well. We do ourselves no favors when we try to hide the pain.
Suffering is Impactful
But not only is suffering inevitable, it is also impactful. Suffering impacts our lives, particularly our lives as Christians in three major ways.
It tempts us to deny God’s Existence
First, suffering tempts us to deny God’s existence. Atheism still holds that one of the primary reasons for its rejection of God (especially the God of the Bible) is the presence of moral evil and suffering. Recalling the Oklahoma City bombing, atheist Ian McEwan said,
“The believers should know in their hearts by now that, even if they are right and there actually is a benign and watchful personal God, he is, as all the daily tragedies, all the dead children attest, a reluctant intervener. The rest of us, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, know that it is highly improbable that there is anyone up there at all.”
While it irks me to see people be so quick to deny God’s existence due to the presence of suffering, I can completely sympathize. It is difficult for us to comprehend God’s omnipotence and goodness in a world filled with so much tragedy.
The problem in many Christians and churches today is not that they feel tempted to deny or at least question God’s existence when bad things happen, but that they fear admitting it. Both suffering and temptation is real. And if you want to give in to them, the best way is to ignore them.
But the temptation to deny God’s existence occurs within many Christians as well. Bart Ehrman’s path to becoming a skeptical New Testament scholar and critic was from Christian fundamentalism to agnosticism through the problem of evil and suffering. He asks, “If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages, towns, and even countries?”
Haven’t we all asked questions like this? I see where God intervened in the Bible, but where was he in my tragedy? Atheism most directly flows from an unwillingness to see any possible purpose in suffering. Atheist Susan Jacoby recounted how she became an atheist in a New York Times piece a few years back. Listen to her story:
“I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age seven, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a nine-year old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, ‘Why would God do that to a little boy?’ She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: ‘I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.’ Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, ‘Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.’ He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.”
So, you see, suffering impacts our minds and hearts in such a way that they cause our emotions and circumstances to dictate our beliefs. It even tempts us to believe that God is not there, simply because we feel like he isn’t there or he isn’t doing things the way we want him to do them. And for some, like atheist Sam Harris, “The problem of vindicating an omnipotent and omniscient God in the face of evil is insurmountable.”
It tempts us to doubt God’s Goodness and distort God’s Bigness
Suffering also tempts us to doubt God’s goodness and distort God’s bigness. These two go hand in hand. People will either say that God is very good, but he lacks either the knowledge or the power to stop all evil and suffering. Or they will say that God is immensely powerful and all-knowing, but they are just not sure about his goodness and love.
Doubts in the mind naturally grow with pain in the heart. Greek philosopher Epicurus put the problem of evil and suffering this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Epicurus and many in Western society today cannot possibly see how God’s sovereignty and goodness could possibly be reconciled with the presence of evil and suffering. God is placed within the confines of the human mind and then it is reasoned that he cannot exist, or if he does exist he is not worthy of knowing or following. What a truly divine thing to say. For surely only one who has infinite knowledge is able to definitively eliminate the possibility of an infinite and perfect being having both absolute power and absolute goodness.
Suffering tempts us to deny that God is truly good. This is because many times we cannot immediately see how any good could possibly come from our suffering. When suffering invades our lives, we think we would rather have a god who is under our control, but what we need is a God who is totally in control.
A Return to Paradise
The inevitability and impact of suffering on our lives is the result of living in a fallen, sin-ridden world. The worst part is, this is all the result of our own doing. Paul wrote that when Adam sinned, we all sinned with him. We are guilty by association with the first Adam. Oh, but the story is not over. Christ came to undo all that we have done, and by no merit of our own, we can take part in his redemptive work and enjoy its fruit forever. We are counted righteous by association with the second Adam, Christ the Lord.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.