Possibly the most common argument against the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God is the existence of suffering [1]. It’s expressed in this syllogism:

Premise 1. The Bible claims that God is good (loving) and all-powerful.
Premise 2. Evil exists.
Conclusion. Therefore, God is either not completely good (loving), or not all-powerful.

Either conclusion denies what the Bible tells us about God. Does this mean we are caught in an antinomy, that the Bible is therefore invalid, and we have to choose between the Bible and the truth; between faith and reason? No, the syllogism is invalid [2] because there are several incorrect assumptions bound up in the premises, such as:

1. All the pertinent factors in the issue have been included.
2. We don’t deserve suffering/ punishment.
3. The Bible’s definition of “good” is the same as ours.
4. Suffering is, by definition, bad.
5. God exists to make our lives pleasant.
6. What God does should make sense to us.

1. All the pertinent factors have been included.
They have not. Yes, God is entirely good and loving, and among His other qualities, He is perfectly just. Because of His justice, He must punish all evil, in every form and in any amount: from mass murder and rape to taking a pen from your workplace or badmouthing a person behind their back.

This next false assumption is also a pertinent factor that the syllogism doesn’t include; however, it is significant enough to warrant being a separate point.

2. We don’t deserve to suffer.
The Bible says that no human is without evil: we all deserve punishment from God. (The exception to this is Jesus, who lived a perfect life: it was only in this way he could pay the penalty for the evil the rest of us are guilty of.) “Big” sins like murder affect individuals and society more than does the theft of a pen: but the fact remains that sin is sin, and through one way or another, we are all guilty before God. And as God is perfectly just, every sin must be punished.

In the US Civil War, a soldier accused of wrongdoing was brought before Robert Lee, the officer in charge of the Confederate army. Seeing the man was afraid, Lee said, “Don’t worry; you’ll get justice here.” The soldier replied, “I know, General; that’s what I’m afraid of.”

The man knew he deserved punishment. Likewise, can any of us picture a perfectly just God and believe that we have never done or thought or said anything bad? And more, sin, evil, wrongdoing, transgression – call it what you will – is not just the bad things we do, it also includes the good things we don’t. How often could we have done something good and failed to do it?

This concept of a just God connects to that of hell, which I’ve looked at in a separate article. I know, or know of, people who have endured intense physical or emotional pain, acute and chronic (about 35 years and counting), such as twisted intestines, migraines and kidney stones; rape and the abuse or murder of a child. I don’t know how they have endured the pain without committing suicide. Nevertheless, from the Bible’s description – and Jesus talked more about it than anyone else – hell is worse than anything that this life can throw at us. I don’t know how, but Jesus appeared to believe so.

These are two central factors that we must include in the equation: that God is perfectly just, and we are born rebels against Him – we are not morally neutral. No one likes this concept, but the Bible states it explicitly and unequivocally. If Hell is what we all deserve, then how can we rightly say that we don’t deserve to suffer in this life?

3. The Bible’s definition of “good” is the same as ours.
We naturally think that “good” denotes “pleasant”. It does not. What is good for us may be pleasant ultimately, but not everything good is immediately pleasant. For example, even though toddlers do not like eating vegetables, they are good for us, so parents make their children eat healthfully although it’s unpleasant for all involved. Unpleasant goodness now will pay off later. Or practising guitar when you just can’t get a clean six-string barré chord? Again, it isn’t pleasant but it pays off in the end. The armed forces have a saying: “More sweat in training, less blood in battle.” The Bible states a similar thought: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, though, it produces a harvest … for those who have been trained by it” [3].

What the Bible means by “good” is what God says is so; but this is not fickle: God Himself is good, and what God declares to be good is in line with His own character, which Jesus displayed in His life on earth. Of course, many times what we approve of will be the same as what God approves of – giving to the poor, helping the weak and defenceless, providing for your family et cetera – but what happens when we disagree with what God says is good and right? Do we usurp His right to rule and assert that we know better than Him? Of course not, but we attack the intermediaries: “that’s figurative”; “that only applied to that culture at that time”; “the Bible has been changed by people who wanted power” [4].

In asserting that we know what is good and evil, right and wrong, we are committing the same sin as Adam and Eve: eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whether the tale is literal or figurative, what it means is that Adam and Eve sought to decide for themselves what was good and evil; right and wrong. Essentially, they rejected God’s right to rule over them, and sought to control their lives. And so do we, when we affirm what God has rejected, and vice versa. This denial of God’s divine right is an act of infinite disrespect.

4. Suffering is, by definition, bad [5].
Most of what is in the preceding point applies here; vis-à-vis pleasure and goodness; discipline and delay. As we think that good equals pleasure, so we also think that anything bad is necessarily unpleasant. But the equation is false: pleasure and discomfort are experiences, not entities that can make moral decisions. And only beings that can make moral decisions can be good or bad. (Saying something is good or bad for you is a figure of speech, meaning that what’s good for you will give you a better quality of life.) Pain and suffering are unpleasant, rather than bad, and it’s normal for us to want unpleasantness to stop.

God uses suffering for a purpose. In chapter eight of the book of Deuteronomy, God mentions several reasons God might use suffering: to keep us humble in all circumstances; to turn us to Him and teach us to depend on Him; to test our faithfulness to Him; and over all, God uses suffering for our ultimate good, which is to bring us into a proper relationship with Him.

Suffering can make us greater people – able to sympathise with others and help them, able to endure – but it doesn’t make the experience good or pleasant. We may not see what the benefit of constant pain is (such as the chronic pain from a bungled operation), but as Hebrews suggests, we should

endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons…but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. [6]

5. God exists to make our lives pleasant.
The Bible says that we are all rebels against God; and how often do we complain about what we lack, or we blame God for something bad that happens? But what about the other side of the equation? How many times have we thanked God for the good things he gives us: our senses, freedom from pain, a job, a shelter, loving friends and family, a partner, comparative wealth? Of course not all of us have these things: at present I have no job, no girlfriend, and enough money to survive but not much else. Nevertheless, God does not punish us as we deserve unless we reject the death of Jesus as payment for our rebellion, and even then, not until after we die.

God has a plan for the universe and for every single person. His plan is bring all creation together under the rule of Christ, and to bring glory to Himself as we see and confess His patience, justice, mercy and grace to each of us in myriad ways.

6. What God does should make sense to us.
Isaiah 55:8-9 asserts that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours, so it’s hardly astonishing if God acts in ways that we don’t understand. Yet even the understanding of many essential elements of our universe elude us: gravity, light, black matter, the animals in the deep oceans, our own brains. If we could comprehend God, would He be worthy of our worship? Clearly not: we would be greater than Him.

With at least these aspects to consider, the original syllogism is clearly too simplistic to do justice to the topic of God and suffering [7]. This, obviously, is an intellectual response to suffering. When someone’s actually going through a painful experience, they most probably don’t want to hear all the above. What they want to know is, Does God care? The answer to that is found at Golgotha, and it is, Yes.

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Footnotes

[1] The study of suffering in relation to (the Christian) God is called theodicy.
[2] This is called a “false dichotomy”: making it seem as though there’s only two options. This is similar to the “pray about the Book of Mormon” test, which doesn’t allow the possibilities that you might not get a feeling, and (naturally that the Book of Mormon) isn’t true.
[3] Hebrews 12:11.
[4] This belief is the same that Adam and Eve committed: eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whether the tale is literal or figurative, what it means is that Adam and Eve sought to decide for themselves what was good and evil; right and wrong. Essentially, they rejected God’s right to rule over them, and sought to control their lives.
[5] Suffering is an experience, not a thing. Only a living creature, with a mind and the ability to make moral choices, can be evil.
[6] Hebrews 12:7-10.
[7] I haven’t explicitly dealt with the influence evil angels and the acts of other people.

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