“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare You? How dare You create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?” With these bracing words, the comedian Stephen Fry, an outspoken atheist, voiced a crucial issue for Christians and non-Christians: If God is all-good and all-powerful, as the Scriptures claim, then why does He allow good people to suffer evil? All are confronted with it: a dear friend’s diagnosis with terminal illness; abuse of a neighbor’s child; terrorist bombings at a beach café; hurricanes devastating entire islands. When skeptics ask this question—or when fellow Christians ask, or when you ask—what is a biblically sound response?
It is essential to distinguish, and carefully engage with, two parts of the question: the head/intellectual side and the heart/emotional side. In the moment of suffering, a head-oriented answer (“It’s God’s will”)—even if doctrinally correct—may not be balm for the anguished soul. Often, the tender response comes first. But that must be grounded in the intellectual side, so we begin there and will circle back to the emotional side.
The head/intellectual issue can be rephrased like this: Does the suffering of good people disprove God? For if He allows such things to happen, doesn’t that prove that He is not good, is not all-powerful, or is nonexistent? Four responses should be made.
If we are merely atoms subject to physics and natural selection, suffering does not exist.
1. The question assumes there is such a thing as “good” and “evil” to begin with. The person asking the question has decided that one thing/person/event (earthquake, Hitler, terrorism) is “evil” and that something else (a suffering individual) is “good.” But how does the questioner know what is the “evil” or “good” thing? Not by personal opinion, for one realizes upon reflection that “evil” people (Hitler/ISIS/whoever) do not think they themselves are evil. The fact that anyone can protest evil at all requires a standard for good and evil outside any single individual or culture, which can only come from God and which has been revealed to all (Rom. 1:19–20; 2:12–16).
2. The question presupposes that the suffering of a “good” person has meaning. Rocks and trees do not suffer. Even “bad” things happening to creatures is proportional; few rage against God when a tsunami destroys millions of ants. The significance of human suffering, however, is intuitive to all and entails that humans have unique dignity that is being undone by the suffering. Such dignity can only be conferred by God. If we are merely atoms subject to physics and natural selection, suffering does not exist.
3. The question assumes that God never has good reasons for suffering. But according to Scripture, God does have such reasons, even if we dislike or do not understand them. Suffering can be due to the fallen state of creation (Rom. 8:19–22). Suffering can be a punishment for sin (Judg. 2:11–15), though not always (John 9:1–3). God can permit Satan to inflict it (Job 1–2). It can display God’s justice (Rom. 9:19–26). It can drive sinners to repentance (Ps. 119:71). It can be used to advance God’s kingdom (1 Peter 4:12–19) and sanctify us (Rom. 5:3–5; James 1:2–4). Indeed, the most stunning instance of a bad thing happening to a good person—the death of Jesus—accomplished the good of salvation (Acts 2:22–24; 4:8–12). But sometimes, when facing the most gratuitous and inexplicable of evils, we can but trust that God’s ways are beyond our own (Rom 11:33–36).
4. Finally, the question requires that there be such a thing as a “good” person, yet Scripture and life attest that all of us are broken and miserable (Rom 3:10–18). Indeed, another question might be why good things happen to anyone at all, given how bad we are. The skeptic believes the universe operates on the basis of “do good, receive good; do bad, receive bad.” If this view is accurate, why do utterly despicable people prosper? No other worldview can explain this except the biblical one, which reveals the sinfulness of everyone and the benevolence of God toward everyone for His own purposes (Matt. 5:45)—unto the final day of judgment, when all will be rectified.
We return, then, to the heart/emotional issue. When bad things happen, suffering and grief often confront us with the seeming absence of God in that moment. What do Christians do? The head/intellectual issue must be dealt with, perhaps when the dark clouds part. In the darkness, we comfort those who are suffering with the loving comfort we have received from God (2 Cor. 1:3–7). We grieve with them (Rom. 12:15). We sit in the ashes with them (Job 2:11–13). We bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). And most of all, we lovingly point them to Jesus, the one good person who suffered the greatest of all evils to redeem us, who wipes away our tears, and who promises a day when this will all be fixed (Rev. 21:4).
Dr. Greg Lanier is assistant professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla., and assistant pastor at River Oaks Church (PCA) in Lake Mary, Fla.