Three Responses For Why God Lets Suffering Happen

By Nick Brzozowski


If God had a website and an FAQ page, I know which question would show up at the top. For thousands of years, people have been grappling with this particular challenge to faith, especially Christianity.


The question could be stated this way: “If God is all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing, then why is there suffering and evil?”


The question could be stated this way: “If God is all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing, then why is there suffering and evil?”

Pretty quickly, you can see the apparent logical impossibility of God holding these three attributes while there is the existence of suffering. An all-powerful God is able to stop suffering. An all-knowing God is aware of all suffering. An all-good God wants to stop suffering. Then, why is there so much pain and evil and suffering — even hell? Either God isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, or there is no God.


Not only does this question carry a logical load, but it is deeply personal and emotional. Philosophers, sipping their afternoon tea, are not the only ones grappling with this challenge. This is also a question for the son whose prayers for his dad to survive cancer seemed to fall on deaf ears. It is a question for the woman who discovered her husband’s affair had been lasting for years. It is a question that a dazed and confused, post-COVID world asks.


It is the question I had to face when I was in middle school, attending my 19-year-old cousin's funeral, after dying of a drug overdose. There are few times in my life when I stepped into a room so devoid of hope, where everyone questioned if there could be a good God out there.


So, the chances are good that this question has crossed your mind a time or two. In this post, I will provide three of my favorite responses to what has been traditionally called, the Problem of Evil. May God give you wisdom and comfort as you explore this difficult challenge.


Philosophers, sipping their afternoon tea, are not the only ones grappling with this challenge. This is also a question for the son whose prayers for his dad to survive cancer appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Response 1: The Greater Good Defense


A surgeon may cause more trauma to the patient in order to restore them. In a nutshell, that is the Greater Good Defense. God does not allow evil, flippantly. Rather, evil and suffering are necessary to bring about a better world.


Within the Greater Good Defense, there are multiple versions. We are going to explore three that I find to be the most compelling. Afterwards, we will address one objection for this defense.


Version 1: The Free Will Defense


This might be the most popular response to the Problem of Evil. When God created humanity, he made us with the ability to do right and wrong. Our own personal agency is a gift from God, that has come with some devastating consequences.

After Adam and Eve committed the first act of rebellion against God, there was a chain reaction that cursed the ground. Now, all of creation groans for God to bring restoration.


Having the choice to love God or reject him may be humanity’s greatest dignity. It is also the cause for humanity’s greatest fall.

Now, some theologians will reject this defense because it leans too heavily on our free will. Theologians have been debating for hundreds and hundred of years the question of free will. In what way are we free? And if God is sovereign over everything, how much freedom does that leave us?


Romans 9 may be the most shocking of chapters in the entire Bible, where Paul makes a case for why God would reject some people opposed to others. He uses the analogy of a potter and clay to argue that we have no real standing to question God. He is the Creator and has the right to do whatever he deems right.


All that to say, the Free Will Defense does not stand alone.


Having the choice to love God or reject him may be humanity’s greatest dignity. It is also the cause for humanity’s greatest fall.

Version 2: The Soul Making Defense

This version of the Greater Good Defense may be the most intuitive. Just reflect on your life. What are the circumstances and events that have caused you to grow the most? Were they comfortable and pleasant?


Of course they weren’t. The achievements that you are most proud of are the ones that were the most difficult to attain. Mustering the courage to ask that her out on a date. Completing an exhausting semester. Doing five more push-ups. Reading one more book. Making ten more calls. Pain is the number one ingredient for our growth.

In his book, Leadership Pain, Samuel Chand puts it like this: “Pain is a part of progress. Anything that grows experiences some pain. If I avoid all pain, I’m avoiding growth.”


Later in his book, he shares how our lives are like keys. Starting out, there is no cut. But, the problem is that it doesn't function very well without a cut. Rather, it is the cuts in life that shape us into people who are prepared to open doors.


That is why James challenges us to "consider it an opportunity for great joy" when trials come our way.


Rather, it is the cuts in life that shape us into people who are prepared to open doors.

In fact, pain is the only teacher that I know of that Jesus needed.

Still, some would argue that soul-making isn’t a knock-down defense. Hank Green argues that if the intentions of suffering are to grow us in our character and competence, then that still doesn't explain the severity of the pain that is inflicted on us. Famine, war, tsunamis. Couldn't a little heartburn or diarrhea do the trick?


All that to say, the Soul Making Defense does not stand alone.


Version 3: Second Order Goods


Everyone loves second orders. Extra fries. Extra grilled chicken on your burrito. Extra whipped cream. Some of the best things in life are extra.


But, seriously, could it be that there really is enough good to justify all of the moral and natural evil in the world?


Some of the best things in life are extra.

I remember my professor warning us about praying for patience. What do you think God is going to do, zap you into a more patient person? No, he is going to use people to test your patience.


In the same way, there is no compassion without deep hurt.


There is something inside of our consciousness as a society that longs for justice. The righting of wrongs. The reversing of hundreds of years of oppression. And when we see glimpses of justice, it is so gratifying that it almost feels as though justice itself is a gift. But, there is no justice without injustice. The glory of the righting of wrongs would never exist if it were not for wrongs.


In Hamilton, I get choked up every time I hear the song Uptown. After all the loss and all the pain that Eliza and Alexander face, the song reaches a climax with the words “Forgiveness, can you imagine?” After losing their son, they move uptown. Their relationship had been strained by Alexander’s affair and the humiliation he brought by going public with it. But, the sweet tenderness of Eliza extending grace to her husband may be the most powerful moment in the entire musical. Of course, the affair shouldn’t have happened. Of course, their son should not have died. But, the beauty and resilience of her love and compassion became a second order good.


C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” One way that pain is a second order good is that it is God’s way of getting our attention. I remember walking to school one day, hearing an awful violent shout coming from a dad to his little boy. My first instinct was that this was abuse on a poor child. After a split second, when I turned my head, I saw what was really going on. The three year old was about to step into incoming traffic. His dad was too far to grab him, so he yelled. His shout wasn’t in anger. It was in desperation. He was desperate to get his son’s attention. I wonder how often the pain that comes into our lives is God’s desperate cry to us coming from a place of compassion.

I wonder how often the pain that comes into our lives is God’s desperate cry to us coming from a place of compassion.

Could it be that much of our pain is protecting us from far worse consequences? I can think of a time in my life when I know that was true. One conversation with my wife, Hannah, was especially crushing, when she was both kind and honest. For the first several years of our marriage, I was finishing up my Bachelor's and Master’s and working in the church full time. My workload was unmanageable to say that least. I was constantly in a state of frustration, stress, and anxiety, with never-ending meetings, event-planning and studying. And Hannah took the brunt of it. But, since I offloaded in such small ways — an annoyed glance that said “I don’t have time for you,” nitpicking and blaming her for my problems — she kept it all in.


We ended up going to counseling to work through a lot of our dynamics. One of the exercises was to go through each year of our marriage and rate whether that was a winter year or a summer year. Overall, were you happy or unhappy that year? By that point, we had been married for about seven years. But, for only one year did Hannah say that she experienced summer. Facing the fact that my own selfishness had caused Hannah constant unhappiness was not easy for me. I was shocked, confused and felt terribly guilty. But, that was the exact experience I needed. Throughout those weeks and months of working through dynamics in our marriage, God had my attention with a megaphone. The pain was real. But, it was a second order good for both of us. Our marriage has never been the same!


Now, I couldn't tell you all the second order goods that have come out of pain and hardship. This week, the world is stunned to see all the of the devastation happening in the Middle East. If someone were to tell me their theory for why God is allowing war in such a way and the good that would come out of it, I would not be so quick to accept their theory.


In fact, I think most second order goods are mysteries to us. We don’t exactly know how God is going to make all things right, but we do know enough to trust him. He even gives us little glimpses into the new heaven and the new earth. One of the messages we see from the story of Joseph is that God will surprise us by how to turns evil on its head.

Evil and God's Agency


I have already shared a couple limitations with this defense -- that theologians debate to what extend we are free and that suffering appears too excessive. But, the three versions being available to us provide a much stronger position taken together.


However, there is still one more challenge to address. And that deals with God’s agency as it relates to evil. Whether we believe that God causes evil or only permits evil, most Christians would agree that God could have prevented it if he wanted to.


Could God be the cause of evil without being responsible for it?

Wayne Grudem offers an interested perspective on this question. Both Shakespeare and MacBeth killed Duncan. You could even argue that Shakespeare is a stronger agent or that he has more control over the action than MacBeth. But, it would be insane to charge Shakespeare with murder. Although he is the author of the whole story, he is too far removed from the action. The story of MacBeth is fiction and Shakespeare, although the creator of the story stands in a different world entirely.


If nothing else, I think this analogy provides an interesting solution to this objection. God is the author of everything, but because he stands in a totally different realm than us, he is not responsible.

God is the author of everything, but because he stands in a totally different realm than us, he is not responsible.

Response 2: This is Not Just a Christian Problem


Now, let’s admit that Christians are not the only ones who have to deal with the problem that evil and suffering exist. Any worldview would not be comprehensive without answering the question of evil and suffering.


Suppose you prefer to believe in Karma, opposed to Christianity. Mark Clark believes that Karma would have a really bad answer. Landing in a country, he saw a woman who was suffering deeply with her baby, begging for help. His guide urged Clark to avoid helping this woman. His reasoning was that if Clark helped, then the cycle of Karma would not do its work.

Let’s say that you do not believe in God. Then, you have a much more difficult problem to solve. How do you come to a definitive understanding of evil without a God? Morality becomes a lot more subjective. Of course, that isn’t a real problem if we all basically agree on the same things — you should treat others with fairness and you shouldn’t harm anyone.


But, life is never that clear cut. One example that moral psychologists use to demonstrate the complexity of our morality is the hypothetical family who ate their dog for dinner. Even though the meat doesn't harm anyone and the dog died of natural causes, many people still feel a disgust at the thought of it. The point is that there are hundreds of examples that one could use to show that harm and fairness are not the only ways in which to judge morality. But, the Atheist has at the more difficult challenge of explaining our conscience outside of those two factors.