An interview with Stephen Fry went viral recently when he was asked what he would say if he came face to face with God, and he replied “… How dare you create a world in which there is such suffering that is not our fault? … Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god, who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
The question of suffering is a common objection to the Christian faith. The point being made is that, if God were both loving & almighty he would stop all suffering; but since suffering exists, either God doesn’t want to stop suffering or he is powerless to stop suffering. So, people conclude God cannot exist because there is suffering in the world. But is it a reasonable objection? How should we as Christians answer?
The question is flawed
The reasoning behind the question goes like this: ‘If God exists he would not permit suffering; therefore because suffering exists, God cannot.’ But who is to say that the first statement is right? It is both illogical and arrogant to say that I don’t know how God & suffering can co-exist, therefore God & suffering cannot co-exist. That is a huge assumption about human knowledge.
Secondly, the question itself presupposes an external moral law (& therefore a moral law giver) because it is based on a deep-seated feeling that suffering is somehow wrong, that the world shouldn’t be the way it is; that child-abuse, human trafficking, cancers & diseases are wrong, they shouldn’t be in the world;
that the holocaust and 9/11 shouldn’t have happened. And yet, if Atheism is true then such things are simply the process of Natural Selection – they are an inevitable aspect of natural life on earth; Dogs chase cats, Cats eat birds, birds eat worms … and people hurt one-another, they get sick... This is how life is. And yet, human suffering feels inherently unjust and out of place in the world, we feel people ought not to suffer - which presumes some external standard of good & evil, right & wrong.
Why do we suffer?
i. Our own choices
Firstly, we sometimes suffer because of our own choices. Obviously this is not true of all suffering, but some of the difficulties that we face in life are consequences of the choices we have made & the way we have behaved: I might be poor because I am lazy or because I am foolish with my finances, I might be lonely because I’m rude to everyone and so on. God has given us the freedom to make choices and they have consequences, & sometimes they are not pleasant. In the Bible God tells us how to live well, & that there are consequences to our choices – now it’s over to us. We can’t then blame God for the consequences of choices we have made. God has given us freedom to make choices, & sometimes we suffer because our choices are bad.
ii. The choices of others
Of course, not all suffering is brought upon ourselves. Clearly much suffering is inflicted by one human being upon another. Whether at a national level, or a personal level, people hurt one another. So, why does God allow such suffering?
The answer is the same one we’ve just given – God gives mankind freedom to make choices. And yet when it comes to others we can be inconsistent. So, we see terrorists or dictators or abusers hurting people & we think why doesn’t God do something? And we blame God for allowing people to hurt others. And yet, we also make choices that hurt others, but we don’t want God to step into our lives. We want the freedom to do what we want, but we don’t want others to have the same freedom. You want God to stop the suicide bomber in Israel, but you want to be free to bully someone in your class; you want God to stop human trafficking for the sex trade, but you want to be free to look at porn on the internet. Freedom is freedom – God wants us to use that freedom well, but we also use it to hurt others. The problem is not God – the problem is us.
iii. A fallen world
Thirdly, although some suffering is caused by our choices, some is caused by others, some suffering is not caused by people but by nature itself. What about that?
At the start of the Bible, God creates the universe & everything is good. But then Adam & Eve, the archetypal human beings, turn away from God & reject him & they bring judgement upon themselves. However, God doesn’t simply say this is a human problem, but they have brought evil into the world & therefore the whole earth is affected. Gen 3:17 “Cursed is the ground because of you.” This curse results in disease & crops failing & natural disasters & so on. All of which cause people to suffer. This is simply part of living in a fallen world – a world which is not what it was intended to be.
And this is why Jesus came into the world, this is why he died & rose again. Not simply so that we can be forgiven –though that is wonderful. Jesus came to restore all things to how they should be. In contrast to many other religions who believe that the world will continue in its current cycle endlessly, the Bible teaches that one day God will bring this suffering world to an end & will renew the universe. So, Paul says that for now we live in a world which is “groaning”, waiting for this day of restoration Rom 8:22 and until that day, we live with suffering.
Finally, God uses suffering to get our attention & cause us to turn to him. In his book The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis wrote: “… pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  The truth is that when life is good we forget God, but then suddenly our ship is sinking, our health is failing, we lose our job or fail our exams and we learn how to pray. Only then do we realise that life is fragile & we are vulnerable. Suffering gets our attention and the experience of most Christians is that they feel closer to God and grow in their faith, more in times of suffering than in times of prosperity. So, we don’t go looking for suffering but we do draw close to God when it comes – in hope that one day we will live in a world without pain or suffering as Jesus restores all things and fills his creation with joy.
 The Problem of Pain CS Lewis 74