Suffering and the Existence of God
As Ellis Goldstein watched the police car enter his driveway, he braced himself for the bad news. The officer handed Ellis the driver’s license of his seventeen-year-old daughter, Heather, regrettably informing him that she had just died in a fatal car crash. “When Heather died,” Ellis recalls, “I questioned God’s love for a long time.” Years later, Ellis’ wife began suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease,1 and she eventually succumbed. Ellis remembers crying out, “God, you have taken away my entire family!” He said, “The loneliness I felt was beyond description.” However, his experience in losing his wife was different compared to the loss of his daughter. This time, he found strength in knowing that his wife and his daughter were in the presence of God because of their faith in Yeshua the Messiah. In the midst of his loneliness, Ellis began to experience the presence of God. He said, “I saw God’s grace and his mercy in a way that I had not expected.”2
Ellis Goldstein entered a period of intense pain and suffering, but he emerged from his loss with his faith intact and thriving. However, some people have difficulty relating to Ellis’ faith-filled response to pain and suffering in the world. The evil in the world is too overwhelming, some might say, and too purposeless, to make belief in God reasonable.
The experience of suffering is a universal human condition. Each of us experience it, only differing in degree of magnitude. In this sense, the horrors of the Holocaust and the petty annoyances of everyday life beg the same question: why is there evil at all, and how could there be a God who allows it?
Why Is There Evil?
This is not a new question; in fact, it is one of the very oldest of questions. From the ancient Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures, to the ancient Greeks, to the great philosophers of the Jewish and Christian traditions, humanity has been in a millennia-long discussion about the experience of suffering in light of the existence of God. Although it may be common today for people to cite suffering as a reason to turn away from belief in the divine, the popularity of atheistic responses to suffering is a fairly recent development.3 For profound reasons, some of the greatest thinkers of the past and present—who themselves experienced deep suffering—have insisted that there is good reason to believe in God.
In the modern age, we have been told to see the universe as a cold, empty place that merely consists of “particles and progress,” as USC philosopher Dallas Willard put it. One atom bounces into another atom, causes some effect, and sometimes the random collisions of atoms produce a beneficial result, and the universe continues blindly on. But Jewish philosopher Mortimer Adler once responded,
The world is a cosmos, not a chaos. The universe has some order. Even those who doubt the perfection of its order, or who point out how it is marred by evil and irrationality, affirm an order or structure, according to which the universe hangs together and is in some degree intelligible to man.4
It is hard to deny that suffering is an example of disorder, and its existence is unsettling to any who experience it. But what about the existence of order, beauty, symmetry, and unity? A world that is mere chaos and particle physics cannot explain the transcendence of a brilliant sunset, or the wave of love that overwhelms a parent when first holding their newborn child. An accurate view of the world must account for both the presence of suffering and the reality of transcendent good.
Can Atheism Account for Both Good and Evil?
It is unlikely that atheism or agnosticism can provide answers for both realities. A chaotic universe with no God to give it order would be devoid of moral order as well. This is what we are tempted to think when we experience suffering: there is no moral order—that is the only explanation for the pain I am feeling. This is what atheist Richard Dawkins’ famous quote entails: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”5 If that were truly the case, then all our striving for politics, policies, and justice are, at bottom, hollow and meaningless. So too are the sunsets and newborn children of our lives. Every supposed experience of goodness would be a meaningless illusion, or perhaps just fortuitous electrical signals firing in our brains.
Is such a view of the world actually livable? Can we live our lives in alignment with this supposed meaninglessness? Unfortunately, all who have tried have failed. Dawkins himself is quite outspoken about his moral views, just as previous skeptics like Nietzsche and Sartre were. They wanted others to join them in their vision of a moral and political order, yet their worldviews disallowed the existence of such a moral order.
Ironically, our identification of suffering as evil is itself reflective of a moral order in the universe. We know that suffering is evil even if we ourselves are not affected by it. Where does this intuition come from? It would seem that if someone else is suffering on the far end of the globe, it should not concern us, if there is no moral design of the universe. Yet, even atheists and agnostics rally to fight injustice and oppression in far-off places. Why? Perhaps it is because we cannot live as humans without affirming that there is a moral structure that ought to guide our decisions individually and politically.
The existence of a moral structure in the universe is to be expected if there is a good God who created the universe with moral agents who were designed to reflect God’s goodness. A perfect God of harmony and order would also want his creation to live in harmony and order. Indeed, this is how the Hebrew Scriptures describe God’s design of the universe. After he created everything (time, matter, energy, immaterial realities) out of nothing, he declared it was “very good”—tov me’od (Genesis 1:31). This accounts for the splendor of a serene forest and the intricate functioning of the human eye.
A Very Good World that is No Longer Very Good
What it does not account for, some may object, is the pain and injustice inherent in our world. Such an objection is correct. We can no longer call the universe tov me’od. It may have been good after God first created the cosmos, but today it is something less. The situation is like a beautiful masterpiece on canvas that has been ripped with scratching fingernails; looking at it now, it is simultaneously a masterpiece and a tragic mess.
The Scriptures say the reason for the universe’s decay is the decision of the first human beings to break the moral order God had set in place (Genesis 3). When finite human beings decided to turn their backs on the infinite God, it brought a moral rupture to the universe that continues to wreak havoc today. That havoc includes evil that we suffer unjustly, but also the suffering we contribute through our own misdeeds against others. Every injustice brings more disorder and rips the masterpiece further.
God as the One Who is Repairing the Universe
God could have chosen to leave us alone in our suffering, throwing out the marred masterpiece and starting over. Instead, to show his incomparable artistry, he set out to repair what had been broken. The story of the people of Israel, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments, is the story of the Artist repairing the world. The story begins with our father Abraham, continues through Moses and the prophets, and culminates in the coming of the Messiah, who is the Artist himself. It is he, the Messiah, who was appointed to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) through his suffering and death. Ultimately, the Messiah will rid the universe of all evil, fully repairing the world, when he returns.
Today, however, we still experience tears in this marred masterpiece of a universe. Even so, there is hope. We already heard it from Ellis’ experience: in the depths of his greatest loss, he experienced the depths of God’s grace and mercy. That is what God does for us through Yeshua the Messiah: he satisfies weary souls, comforts the brokenhearted, and grants mercy and forgiveness to those who have contributed to the disorder of the world. He himself has suffered unjustly, and so he can sympathize with us and carry us through our grief. Suffering is not a reason to turn away from him; no, it is the very opposite. As Yeshua’s disciple Peter once said, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
For other articles about trusting God through suffering, see:
What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?
If God is Good, Why Do I Suffer?
- Also known as ALS, for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
- “Ellis Goldstein,” I Found Shalom, https://ifoundshalom.com/ellis-goldstein/
- Today, we in the West live in what Charles Taylor has called, “a secular age,” where the idea of atheism is presented as an option early in life. This option was unthinkable to previous generations. For a primer on Taylor’s magnum opus on modern secularity, A Secular Age, see James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014).
- Mortimer J. Adler, ed., The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas, Second Edition., vol. 2, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 888.
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), 133.