If a loving God created the world, why is there suffering and death?
If you have hung around Christians for any length of time you will probably know the story. God created Adam and Eve physically and morally perfect. They lived in a perfect world free from pain and death. When Adam and Eve used the free will God gave them to rebel and sin, all of life on earth, people and animals, lost the gift of immortality and became subject to sickness, old age and death. The natural world was changed and broken too, subject to earthquakes storms and floods. Adam and Eve’s sin changed and corrupted human nature and this sin nature that has been passed down through the human race explaining our own tendency to sin as well as monsters like Hitler and Stalin.
This explanation goes back to Augustine. It is certainly a handy answer to why there is suffering in the world God created, God didn’t cause the problems he created a perfect world, it was humans who messed it up. The explanation has its problems though. There are serious questions about the justice of punishing future generations for a sin they didn’t commit, not to mention punishing animals who had nothing to do with it at all (except for the snake). There is also the problem that God knew very well what would happen and still went ahead. But in its various forms, this has been the main understanding of the western church, both Catholic and Protestants since Augustine.
The real big problem with Augustine’s explanation today, is that we now know that suffering and death have been around for billions of years, and that big toothed predators roamed the earth long before mankind.
This kind of argument explaining suffering and justifying God is called a theodicy (from the Greek words for God and justice). While Augustine may have based his theodicy on his understanding of Genesis, it is not how the bible explains the problem of suffering. The bible takes a different approach, not so much addressing ‘why does suffering exist?’ but the addressing much more personal question ‘why are we, the people of God, suffering?’. While Augustine’s theodicy is most familiar to us in the western church, the Eastern Orthodox follow the theodicy of an earlier church father Irenaeus and is based much more closely on how the bible explains suffering.
While Augustine though Adam and Eve were created morally perfect, Irenaeus, writing in the second century, didn’t think that this was possible. Good character only comes through the discipline of learning to make right choices and choosing what is right even when it huts. We see the this idea in the letters of Paul and James. Romans 5:3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
James 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Even Jesus went through this, as we are told in one of the strangest verses in the bible Hebrews 5:8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.
For Irenaeus, there was a purpose for this world of suffering. We need it to become truly human. He believed the process of creation still going on. God is using the suffering we go through and in it he continues to create us in his likeness1. John Hick in his book Evil and the God of Love, describes this idea as a ‘vale of soul making’, The phrase ‘vale (or valley) of soul making’ comes from the poet John Keats, who adapted an older phrase lamenting life on earth as a ‘vale of tears’. For Keats (and before him Irenaeus) this was missing the point.
Augustine assumed God could and would create Adam and Eve mature and morally perfect. But for Irenaeus it wasn’t a question of God’s ability to create that way, but of the creature being able to receive these gifts from God. While God could give the gift of moral perfection, we would not be able to receive it. Character was something we can only slowly grow into through the discipline of choosing to do what is right and turning away from what is wrong, day after day, not matter what it costs us.
Irenaeus, a theodicy for today…
While the Augustinian theodicy is tied in to a literal Adam and Eve, the Irenaean theodicy is much more flexible since it is based on God’s purpose for suffering and death now. Suffering is ultimately good and part of God’s plan rather than a failure that need to be explained away. Irenaeus himself saw Adam and Eve as immature children who need to grow through experience into the image of God, which is the view still held by the Orthodox church. But the theodicy does not even require a literal Adam and Eve. A century or so after Irenaeus, we find Origen who did not take Adam and Eve literally, had a similar view to Irenaeus. The world is a schoolroom where God employs suffering for our education and healing2.
You find a wide range of different views about Adam and Eve among Christians who accept Evolutionary Creation (aka Theistic Evolution). These range from belief in Adam and Eve as historical individuals, through interpreting them as parables, to thinking they simply reflect an ancient prescientific views of the writers. An Irenaean theodicy, which doesn’t need Adam, Eve or the Fall to explain suffering and death, fits very nicely.
Job: a study on theodicy
The whole book of Job was written to explore the question of suffering by looking all the problems Job had. In fact the book of Job presents us with a number of theodicies. Most of the book is taken up by the most popular theodicy of all, helpfully offered to Job again and again by his religious friends. Job is suffering because he sinned and God was punishing him. You would think seeing this theodicy being rebuked by God would be enough to squash it once and for all. Yet we see the same self satisfied assumptions behind the disciples questions to Jesus John 9:2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. Thankfully with Jesus rejecting this smug theodicy it hasn’t been a problem among Christians since, has it?
Now my first though when I heard the term theodicy was that God doesn’t need justification. Who are we to question God? In fact this was one of the main points of the book Job 38:2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Yet we find the same question being asked again and again in the bible in the Book of Psalms and in the prophets. In fact the book of Job itself was written to explore the problem of suffering and injustice, which gives us some grounds to keep searching for answers. What Job it telling us is that when we face the problem of suffering, when we go though it ourselves, that even though we do not understand what is going on or why it is happening, God who created the heavens and the earth knows what he is doing and we can trust him. We can cry out to God for answers like the psalmists but like them we also have to keep trusting God.
The theodicy in Job goes beyond saying the God created the universe, who are we to question him. It also shows that in the end God worked it all out for Job. Job 42:12 And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters… 15 And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. As Paul said in Romans 8:28 (NASB) God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
The most important lesson Job teaches us is that God’s ways are higher than ours and he knows what he is doing. Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. When we face suffering and trials we simply cannot explain, we need as to leave room for mystery3, that God is God and that he know what he is doing, and we can keep trusting him through the darkness.
The uselessness of theodicy
While these are important questions for someone wanting to understand the character of God, or questioning his existence in a troubled world, they can be pretty useless for someone facing pain or tragedy themselves. What they need is for us to be there with them and for them. We need to understand, to share as far as we can, what they are going through.
Which, if you think about it, this is what God did for us. That is why the heart of the bible is not a lecture on theology, but the incarnation. God comes to share our humanity, share our pain and rejection and ultimately share the suffering and humiliation of death.
A problem we have with our understanding of God is that our theology is so tied up in Greek philosophy. God is all powerful, all knowing and he is everywhere. He is. But the God who reveals himself to us in the bible is not the distant and impassive God of philosophy. He know what we are going through, not just because God knows everything, but because he chose in Christ to share our humanity with us. He wants to be with us as we go through it all. This goes far beyond, far deeper, than simply knowing everything about our pains and troubles. Hebrews 2:18 (NLT) Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.
As we face trials and griefs we can meet Christ at the cross where he not only carried our sin, he also bore our pain and suffering. Isaiah 53:4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. There is a transforming power there through Christ’s death and resurrection. We can know the comfort and love of God holding us and upholding, and in turn, we ourselves are transformed deeper into the likeness and love of Jesus Christ.
Biblical imagery of theodicy
A crucible for silver
The most vivid image used to describe and to explain suffering for believers is the refiners fire, burning away the dross in our lives and leaving pure gold.
Isaiah 48:10 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
Proverbs 17:3 The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.
Job 23:10 But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
We find this imagery being repeated in the NT by Peter. 1Peter 1:6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The potter’s wheel
A common metaphor in the bible is God the potter, with us as the clay. Isaiah 64:8 But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. The meaning is pretty clear, we are God’s workmanship, he is one who made us he is working in our lives forming us into the sort of pot he sees fit. But sometimes we see the other side of this, how this process feels for the lump of clay being moulded and squeezed by the hands of the potter. Jeremiah uses the metaphor of a potter reworking a marred clay pot to explain the approaching Babylonian invasion Jeremiah 18:6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. Though invasion and exile brought hardship and death, the promise of the potter metaphor was that all was not lost. God was in control that he was still working among his people producing something real value and worth.
The other great metaphor showing the pain and utter helplessness in suffering, as well the promise it holds, is the imagery of labour pains and childbirth. It was used of the suddenness of suffering or the helplessness of people caught up in it. Psalm 48:5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic; they took to flight. 6 Trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in labour.
Jeremiah 6:24 We have heard the report of it; our hands fall helpless; anguish has taken hold of us, pain as of a woman in labour. We also see it used in frustration, and with a certain amount of schoolboy humour, in Isaiah 26:17 Like a pregnant woman who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near to giving birth, so were we because of you, O LORD; 18 we were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind. Yet for all the frustration and seeming failure there is a promise that God would bring his work to completion. Isaiah 66:9 Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?
We see the same metaphor being used by Jesus to his disciples, really emphasising how much greater their joy would be than the suffering they went through. John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Jesus was speaking this the night before his death. In spite of the agony he faced and was already doing through in anticipation, Jesus took time to sit with his disciples and comfort them in the sorrow they were about to go through. And he was able to do this because he was distressed himself that evening as he faced the cross. We see Jesus’ pain and distress later that evening in the garden Mark 14:33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. This had been building during the final week. John 12:27 Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. The writer of Hebrews tells us that what Jesus said to his disciples in John 16:20 about the joy that come through childbirth is how Jesus himself endured the cross. Hebrews 12:2 looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame. We are seeing something deeply incarnational here. Jesus was able to reach out and comfort the disciples about to face utter loss and despondency because he shared the suffering with them. And because he was going through this suffering, he was able to comfort his friends with the comfort he was holding onto himself.
This is one of the deepest reasons God allows suffering and hardship in our lives. 2Corinthians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. God allows pain and suffering in our lives, so we can reach out to broken and suffering people too.
Only in a world of suffering and death that people can truly learn how to love. It is not just that God allows people to suffer so we can practice being loving to them. It is when love demands sacrifice that we really learn how to love, the sick child throwing up all night, the friend in trouble, caring for a partner with long term illness. Jesus told us John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. This would never have been possible in Augustine’s idea of a perfect Eden. If Adam and Eve had never sinned and never left the garden, they could never have learned how to love beyond emotion and sentimentality, never have become truly human, never have grown into the full expression of the image of God.
Only in a world of suffering a death could we become truly human, made in the image of God whose very nature is love, And only in a world with suffering and death could Christ die to redeem us from all the times we have fallen so far short of what God has called us to be.
In Part 2 I hope to look at theodicy and creation, God using evolution to create life on earth.
1 Irenaeus distinguished between image and likeness in Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’. The image is what we are created with, the likeness is the character God produces in us. That is probably pushing the text and any distinction between image and likeness too far. But there is a very good basis for seeing God work of creation in us as ongoing, that he is still making us in his image and likeness. Paul says that we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another 2Cor 3:18.
2 Mark S. M. Scott, Suffering and Soul-Making: Rethinking John Hick’s Theodicy
Scott sees John Hick’s ‘Irenaean theodicy’ as being closer to Origen than Irenaeus. However Irenaeus was the first Church Father to argue that the purpose of suffering is to form us in God’s likeness.
Web resources on Theodicy
3 Denis Lamoureux’s Web lectures on Science and Religion Episodes 193 -201 The Problem of Evil
Bethany Sollereder 3 part blog in Biologos How Could God Create Through Evolution? A Look at Theodicy