The question of why God allows suffering is one that has troubled humankind for millennia. In our search for meaning, we inevitably find ourselves looking to the heavens and asking: why?
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: God allows suffering because he has granted humans free will, but he works through that suffering to ultimately bring about good.
In this approximately 3000 word article, we’ll explore the complexities behind this age-old question by examining perspectives from philosophy, theology, psychology, and personal narratives. We’ll consider potential answers like the problem of evil and soul-making theodicy, highlight biblical evidence, and share stories of those who have wrestled with and found meaning in their own suffering.
The Existence of Suffering
Suffering has been an unfortunate yet ever-present reality of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. Despite our immense technological and social progress, suffering persists in myriad forms across the world.
The Reality and Ubiquity of Suffering
Suffering is shockingly commonplace in our world. According to the United Nations, over 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 per day. This level of deprivation leads to immense suffering from lack of food, shelter, healthcare, and other basic necessities.
Statistics show that every year around 9 million people die from hunger, 36 million die from noncommunicable diseases like heart disease and cancer, and millions more suffer from disasters, violence, and mental health issues.
Diseases and illnesses also remain a major source of human suffering. Cancer alone affects nearly 10 million people every year. Over 500,000 women die annually from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Around 1 billion people suffer from mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
With over 200 types of cancers and thousands of diseases afflicting humankind, suffering from illness remains an inescapable part of the human condition.
The Emotional and Psychological Impact of Suffering
Beyond its physical toll, suffering also inflicts immense emotional and psychological damage. The experience of intense, unrelenting pain often leads to feelings of despair, anger, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Suffering corrodes people’s sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Seeing loved ones suffer also takes a psychological toll on family members and caretakers.
Studies by mental health experts have shown that childhood trauma and adverse experiences like abuse, neglect, violence, and family dysfunction can have lifelong consequences. They disrupt emotional, social, and cognitive development, leading to higher risks for mental and physical health issues in adulthood.
Even day-to-day stresses can accumulate and manifest as psychological problems over time.
However, suffering does not have to define a person entirely. With proper mental health support, resilience skills, community linkage and an attitude of perseverance, it is possible to overcome suffering’s psychological effects and build meaning out of adversity.
Suffering Throughout History
Suffering has been a dark constant throughout human history. From ancient warfare and slavery to medieval plagues, famines and inquisitions, each era of civilization has had its unique forms of suffering and injustice.
The 20th century brought new extremes of human suffering. Major wars like World Wars I and II resulted in over 80 million deaths combined. Persecution and genocide, like the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide, led to the slaughter of millions.
Under oppressive regimes like Mao Zedong’s China, millions also died due to violence, famine, gulags, and re-education camps.
While the 21st century has seen positive strides, suffering remains widespread. Ongoing issues like civil wars, ethnic conflicts, terrorism, refugees crises, sex trafficking, and global pandemics continue to inflict misery worldwide.
And as climate change accelerates, its displacement and health impacts could create a whole new wave of suffering.
Yet there are also reasons for hope. Expanding democracy and human rights, breakthroughs in medicine and technology, spreading peace movements, and rising philanthropy aim to alleviate suffering in impactful ways.
Where there is compassion and will, there are always paths to easing the suffering in this world.
The Problem of Evil
The Logical Problem of Evil
The logical problem of evil claims that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God. If God is all-powerful, He should be able to prevent evil. If God is all-knowing, He should know about evil.
If God is all-good, He should want to prevent evil. Yet, evil exists. Therefore, the logical problem of evil argues that God cannot exist.
This deductive argument makes sense at first glance. However, defenders of theism have provided several responses. For example, Alvin Plantinga argued that God may have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.
Others like Augustine have suggested that evil is not a thing in itself, but rather a privation of good. So God does not actively cause evil, but may allow it for a greater good.
The Evidential Problem of Evil
The evidential problem of evil claims that the existence of gratuitous suffering is strong evidence against the existence of God. Gratuitous suffering refers to intense suffering that seems to serve no greater purpose.
For example, the suffering of animals or young children seems difficult to justify.
Unlike the logical problem, the evidential problem does not claim evil disproves God. But it sees gratuitous suffering as weighing against the probability of God’s existence. Defenders of theism argue that human knowledge is limited, so suffering may serve purposes beyond human understanding.
Others claim God allows free will, which enables moral goods that outweigh suffering.
Responses and Defenses Against the Problem of Evil
Here are some common responses and defenses against the problem of evil:
- Free will defense – God allows moral evil because free will enables greater goods.
- Afterlife theodicy – Suffering is temporary compared to eternal afterlife.
- Soul-making theodicy – Suffering develops virtues and moral character.
- Greater good theodicy – God allows evil for an ultimate greater purpose.
- Skeptical theism – Human cognitive limitations mean we cannot judge God’s reasons.
The Soul-Making Theodicy
Suffering as an Opportunity for Spiritual Growth
The concept of the soul-making theodicy states that God allows suffering in the world to provide opportunities for spiritual growth and development. From this perspective, adversity and tribulations serve a purpose in shaping human character and helping people reach their highest spiritual potential.
Suffering is seen not as something meaningless to be avoided, but rather as a tool God uses to make us more virtuous, empathetic, and strong.
As an example, a traumatic event like losing a loved one can spur tremendous growth. The grieving and recovery process cultivates new depths of resilience, compassion, inner peace and maturity. What is seen as senseless misfortune can plant the seeds of revelation, purpose and post-traumatic growth.
In this light, the most spiritually evolved souls are not those spared of hardship, but rather those who have overcome tribulation with grace and vigor.
Developing Virtue and Character Through Trials
Proponents argue that virtues like courage, justice, humility and forgiveness cannot emerge in a world devoid of injustice, oppression, loss and suffering. A utopian world of ease would lack the framework through which people can fully actualize our moral potential.
Suffering awakens us to life’s preciousness, our shared humanity, and existential questions about purpose and meaning.
Additionally, our response to suffering speaks measures our depth of character and gives us opportunities to grow in wisdom and compassion. Historical examples show how iconic figures like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Teresa shone light by responding to injustice through peaceful resistance and radical empathy.
Our own small trials can help develop the seeds of virtue within us all.
The Purpose Behind Soul-Making
At the heart of the soul-making theodicy is the idea that this world is like a moral gymnasium – a training ground where hardship forges strength of spirit. The end goal is to cultivate virtues like mercy, courage, justice and wisdom to fully prepare our souls for an afterlife of eternal peace and transcendence.
As stated in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “For the soul-making theodicist, heaven remains Key to grasping the point of suffering. Soul-making requires not just any kind of suffering, but suffering for which the sufferer is at least partly culpable.
Some suffering is inflicted, other suffering is allowed. But in each case, its point is soul-making.” This perspective offers the comfort that no matter how senseless suffering seems on Earth, God ultimately has a divine purpose behind it.
Biblical Perspectives on Suffering
Old Testament Accounts of Suffering
The Old Testament contains many examples of people suffering, often at the hands of others or due to difficult circumstances. Key figures like Job, Joseph, and David experienced great trials and tribulations.
The psalmists cried out to God in their pain and lamented over the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73). The prophets warned Israel that their sin would lead to divine judgement and suffering, which often came in the form of conquest by foreign powers.
Though the reasons for suffering are complex, the Old Testament emphasizes God’s sovereignty and argues that He ultimately causes or allows all suffering for His greater purposes.
New Testament Teachings on Suffering
In the New Testament, Jesus asserts that affliction and persecution will be the experience of His followers (Matthew 5:11-12). The apostles echo this, teaching that trials test and refine faith (1 Peter 1:6-7; James 1:2-4). Suffering is not eliminated, but it is given new meaning for the Christian.
Most profoundly, Christ’s own unjust suffering on the cross provides redemption, an example to follow, and hope in the midst of pain. As Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
Examining Key Passages About Suffering
Here are some important Bible passages about suffering:
- Job – Records the suffering of a righteous man and wrestles with why God allows hardship.
- Psalms 10, 73 – Ask why the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.
- Isaiah 53 – Prophesies the suffering of the coming Messiah, Jesus.
- Matthew 5:10-12 – Jesus says the persecuted are blessed and have a great reward.
- John 16:33 – Jesus says trouble is inevitable in this world but we can have peace in Him.
- Romans 8:18 – Paul says present sufferings are not worth comparing to the coming glory.
- 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 – God comforts us in affliction so we can comfort others.
- James 1:2-4 – Trials produce perseverance and maturity in our faith.
- 1 Peter 4:12-19 – Suffering as a Christian is not strange but expected.
Finding Meaning in Our Own Suffering
Suffering is an inevitable part of the human experience. Yet how we respond to our own suffering can profoundly impact our ability to find meaning and purpose, even in life’s most difficult moments. As theologian C.S.
Lewis once wrote, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
Turning Inward to Find Purpose
Times of crisis and anguish often force us to confront our deepest fears and questions. By turning inward, we can explore our inner resources and shift our perspective to uncover meaning. Meditation, prayer, counseling, or keeping a journal can help reveal insights and new directions.
Researchers have found practices like mindfulness and spiritual contemplation activate reward circuits in the brain, underscoring their psychological benefits (Harvard study). As we search within, we may just find the wisdom and strength needed to carry on.
Learning Through Shared Human Experiences
We can also extract meaning from our suffering by recognizing it as a universal human experience. Knowing others relate to our struggles helps alleviate the distressing isolation pain can bring. Support groups, whether in-person or online, provide solidarity and show we are not alone.
Researchers have demonstrated support groups aid tremendously in psychological healing and growth (NCBI analysis). By bonding through common tribulations, we find reassurance, insight, and often gain an expanded capacity for empathy. As Gandhi put it, “Where there is love there is life.”
Choosing How to Respond to Trials
Ultimately, the meaning we extract from adversity comes down to the attitude we choose to face it with. We can become bitter, angry, and closed off. Or we can respond with openness, courage, and faith in our ability to overcome.
Studies show optimists cope better with illness and trauma by focusing on what they can control (Harvard Health). Choosing to remain hopeful, proactive, and positive enables us to learn from difficult experiences.
We can then emerge wiser and better prepared to lend a hand to others encountering similar troubles. For as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl emphasized, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude.”
In examining the timeless question of why an all-powerful and good God allows suffering, we’ve explored several perspectives and discovered some potential answers. Yet for many, including biblical figures like Job, reasons can feel elusive and answers unsatisfactory in the face of real suffering and anguish.
While the problem of suffering may never be fully solved, we can choose how to respond. Seeing trials as opportunities for growth, turning to God and community, and finding purpose and meaning in our pain can provide hope and courage to press onward when we ask ‘Why?’