Updated: Apr 25, 2020
I watched a video on Facebook the other day, where Stephen Fry was asked what he would say if he died and discovered God was real. He chuckled at the absurd notion that God could exist, and then announced he would ask God, “How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It's utterly, utterly evil.” The man proceeds to mention the great calamities that strike the innocent. Cancer in kids. Worms whose sole purpose is to burrow into eyes and cause blindness. You feel his bitterness towards a deity would allow those sorts of things to happen or create them Himself. “He could have simply made a creation in which all that didn't exist.”
At first, I felt the sort of shock a believer feels when God is spoken of as evil. And then, several hours later, I felt compassion. Why does Stephen Fry not believe in God? Because he hates to see suffering and sorrow. His atheism does not come from hatred, but from love. It comes from seeing the great injustices in the world and screaming out, “why?!”
No one is safe from suffering. Even those who cling to God and His Son are not exempt from disease, cruelty, or natural disaster. Out of the twelve who followed Jesus as his earthly best friends, eleven died by barbaric execution or torture according to church tradition. Everyone dies, believer and non-believer alike.
I am not claiming to be wise or to have this all figured out! This is a question everyone struggles with at some point, myself included. There are no nice and simple answers. No tidy summaries compressed into a slogan that fits on a t-shirt. However, my search for understanding has given me some peace in this crazy painful world, and I'd like to share what I've learned with you.
So what then? How do we answer the question, why do the innocent suffer?
The short answer is: Sin. That word is not so popular these days, it sounds old fashioned and judgmental. Well, that's because it is! What is sin? It is described as lawlessness in 1 John 3:4. The law was given to the people to govern their lives and interactions, and sacrifices were given to them to cleanse them from their sins. You can read more about sin offerings in this post on understanding biblical sacrifices.
Sin goes deeper than just not obeying some rules. When Moses was preparing the people to enter the promised land he told them,
“Know then it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people . . . from the day that left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” - Deuteronomy 9:6-7
From the very beginning, God gave us choices. He could have made a world where there were no options, where our only choice was to be happy little creatures that cheerfully went through our day, without anyone being tempted to be selfish. He didn't though. He created beings in His image. (Genesis 1:26) He created an intelligent being with free will, one to be like Him. We, however, were more interested in what the great deceiver had to say and chose to go our own way. Murder and mayhem soon followed.
A lot of suffering lies right at our own feet. We look through history and out our front door and we see a whole stinking swamp of atrocities performed by our own hands. You can blame the devil for the temptation if you like, but it was human hands that carried out the horrors.
But what of natural disasters? What about disease, birth defects, chance accidents, and stuff like that? Things that are beyond our control? Did the devil give the little child cancer, and God was powerless to stop it?
Do not give the Devil power he doesn't have. As Jim McGuiggan says so well,
“... Since it was Satan's idea, and the humans went along with it, Satan was declared the prince of it, and everyone followed his malevolent lead. It wasn't that he owned them, how could he? He was a sinner like them; nothing more, just a fellow-sinner.”
So God actually chooses to let innocents suffer?
We have an entire book dedicated to a blameless, upright, and God-fearing person who is utterly smashed under the hammer of tragedy. He loses his kids, his livestock, and his servants all in one day. He is struck with painful, oozing boils from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Why? Because God wanted to test him and prove something to the deceiver. And Job passes the test. Instead of cursing God, he declares, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
Not that Job thinks this is fair. He declares his innocence to his doubtful friends and wishes he could present his case to God Himself. He gets his wish because God shows up right around chapter 38. God speaks from a whirlwind and says, “I will ask you, and you instruct ME! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . enclosed the sea with doors? . . . caused the dawn to know its place?” He goes on to challenge Job, speaking of the wonders of the universe to illustrate His mighty power. He ends with, “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.” Job meekly cries out he has no reply.
God asks, “Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (Job 40:6-8)
We cry out “I am innocent” or “they are innocent”, to justify our own righteousness. We say we are more righteous than God, for if it were up to us, the blameless would not be suffering. Like arrogant teenagers who know it all, we declare (subconsciously or not) that we could do it better. Better than creator Himself who created the universe we study to understand and yet still cannot hope to replicate.
And then God asks, “Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.”
God does not OWE us anything. Our very existence is due to Him. Our loved ones, our possessions, our very lives are not our own. This notion flies in the face of modern ideals because it makes one feel rather small, doesn't it? What good thing have we given to God that He owes us repayment for? Nothing! The giving is all on His side, and the best we can offer is worship and relationship, taking care of the earth, loving our fellow man, and yet we bungle that up too!
Before this gets depressing, the positive side to this is: how much He loves us, undeserving and ungrateful as we may be. He loves us enough to die for us! (John 3:16)
Job refuses to accuse God of being unjust, and says, “I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.”
God didn't give Job all the answers, but Job witnessed the power and might of God and saw how foolish it was to think he knew better.
We see from Job, and from other scriptures, that it is okay to pour out our painful questions to the Lord, Job wasn't struck down because he dared to ask God what was going on. Lay your burdens of suffering on God, and let Him comfort you.
In a world that is full of people struggling for "rights", it is hard to remember that good health is not our right. Long life is not our right. Earthly comforts are not our right. All of those things are blessings! They are good to have, we may do what we can to foster those blessings in ourselves and others, but the clay cannot say to the potter, “What are you doing?” (Isaiah 45:9) Some will live harder lives than others, and it's not because they deserve to, but because there is something bigger than their cancer or the loss of their loved one going on.
So we're back to the unfairness of it all. Wicked people are blessed the same (or more!) than those who do right. For now.
Suffering and injustice will not be allowed to last forever.
That is the key. Our time on this earth may be cruelly afflicted or cut short, but it not the end for those who are in God. For them, there is eternal life in His kingdom. We got a sneak peek into this Kingdom when Jesus came. He lifted up the broken and downtrodden. He healed the sick and restored dead loved ones to their families. He did battle with evil and won! Jesus told us that everything will be made right: The mourners will be comforted. The gentle will inherit the earth. Those who yearn for righteousness will get it. The merciful will receive mercy. The pure in heart will see God. The peacemakers will be called sons of God. The righteous who are persecuted will be given a kingdom. (Matthew 5:4-12)
Fairy-tales! The atheist cry. There is no afterlife.
They declare there is no great eternal reward from some fickle deity. The best we can get is what we can make of our lives here. If there is a heaven, it will be when we learn to love and share and get along. We will create our own Utopia, without a bearded fellow in the sky.
This, my tenderhearted atheists, is a cruel belief. For if a few should someday reach that glorious utopia, what of those who didn't get a chance? Just bad luck for them?
Jim McGuiggan says it well:
“How can we take pleasure in a philosophy that dooms billions to eternal injustice? Irish singer, Bob Geldof, took financial aid to the needy peoples of the world at the time Michael Jackson inspired vast contributions to the starving third world with his song 'We are the World'. Geldof made further visits and sincerely lamented the torment of nations ravaged by years of wars, famines, and stolen aid. To dismiss his work on behalf of these poor people would be unchristian and bitter rubbish indeed. But on a talk show, Geldof claimed there is no life after death, that the grave is the end of us and said that he was pleased it was so. Here's this rich, healthy, and well-received man who wants nothing to do with God and will be quite happy to begin an eternal sleep. But what of the masses he has seen (and the countless dead before them) and what of the war-lords who ate their flesh and drank their blood? Geldof is pleased that there is no God or life after death. This too is sin! For anyone who is pleased that there is no justice, no righting of wrongs, and no hope for tormented millions is selfish to the core!”
The atheist defiantly cries out, “Well, I guess I'm selfish then, because I will not believe in such fantasies.”
Well, at least, my tenderhearted atheist, now you don't think you're better than God.
How do you handle this difficult question on the suffering of innocents? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Quotes from Jim McGuiggan come from his book The Dragon Slayer, pages 23, 85, 86