Christianity faces a tough question regarding the conflict between the Bible’s claim toward God’s sovereignty and our suffering. This question can be asked in a variety of ways—from skeptics’ challenges (“How can you say there is a God?”) to saints’ laments (“Why God, why?”).
In this article, written more to the saint than to the skeptic, I’d like to address one weak answer to this question and offer three better ones.
A Robotic Answer
An answer given to me early in my Christian education is one that appeals primarily to God’s desire for humans to have free will.
The argument goes something like this: Suffering is a result of sin / the fall. Sin was necessary in order to set up a choice for humanity—to love God or to be sinful. If not for this choice, God would be making people choose him, negating the possibility of genuine love. God does not want robotic love but real love. Therefore, all suffering can come back to this—God’s desire to have some people truly love him.
This is an inadequate answer for at least three reasons.
Overlooks Biblical Emphasis on God’s Glorious Choice
First, it looks past the positive statements the Bible makes concerning God’s choosing people. I mean here that the Bible consistently sheds a positive light (with a reverent tone) on God’s power of people’s will. One doesn’t need to look any farther than Ephesians 1:4–6:
He chose us in [Jesus] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.
The emphasis in this passage, and others like it, is clearly on God’s action that alters man’s state. God has a plan, and he will accomplish that plan—even if it encroaches upon the realm of man’s free will. It has nothing to do with how man responded, but everything to do with “the purpose of God’s will.”
Therefore, the robotic answer assumes God’s choosing would be negative, but that is not how the Bible sees things. The Bible doesn’t seem to have any problem with him overwhelming man’s choice!
Overcommits God’s Involvement in the Origin of Sin
Second, in asserting that God allowed evil in order to establish the choice to love him, this answer walks too far into the waters of topics beyond our understanding. Namely, to what extent was God involved in the origin of sin?
First John 1:5 says clearly that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” And yet, given the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, we know that he must have allowed it to exist as it came to be. To complicate matters, John writes, “All things were made through [the Word], and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).
Scripture presents us with a mystery that has not been fully revealed and may potentially continue to be a mystery in the new heavens and the new earth. Based on what Scripture teaches, we should expect there to be things we have a glimpse into but not enough information to understand (Ecclesiastes. 3:11). This tension is part of the Christian life.
But the robotic answer takes one step too far in arguing that God allowed evil primarily to present a choice to mankind. This oversteps biblical revelation and assumes we know the intentions of God. Given that our hearts were desperately sick and are now being slowly sanctified, we should only ever ascribe intentions to God, things that the Bible reveals to be his intentions.
Overcomplicates the Peace of Everlasting Life
A church member once asked me how it could be that the new earth would be free from sin. If true love depends on the choice between good and evil, would not the choice of evil continue in the next life, with some people inevitably choosing it?
This is an example where the wrongful, unbiblical emphasis on man’s choice has crept into a believer’s heart and complicated the glorious hope we have in Jesus Christ.
I don’t have space to provide my full answer to his question, but this simple idea will suffice: True love of God does not depend on our choosing God, but on God’s choosing to redeem us, to love us, and to dwell within us by the Holy Spirit. So, we can know there will be no sin for certain because we will have been redeemed, loved, and welcomed into God’s presence.
If we emphasize our choosing God, then we will live as if our connection to God depends on our ability to keep choosing him—never reaching the fullness of joy and peace and assurance of salvation that God wants us to have.
Some Better Answers
Therefore, when we present answers to the question of why God allows suffering, we must do so in a way that cherishes God’s choice, that stays within biblical orthodox boundaries, and maintains full peace and assurance of salvation.
Here are three theophanies: answers that the Bible offers to this question.
- Suffering Produces Christlikeness
Another clear answer that the Bible provides is that, for Christians, suffering produces hope, fruit, and Christlikeness (John 15:2; Rom. 5:3–5; 1 Pet. 4:12–13). Note that the Bible does not say that suffering presents an opportunity for humans to choose to be hopeful, fruitful, or Christlike, but that the suffering itself produces these good things.
- Suffering Compels Us to Consider the Final Judgment
In Luke 13, Jesus is asked about “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1), and in his response, he also talks about “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed” (Luke 13:4). His listeners seemed to think this had something to do with those people’s choices in life, but Jesus corrects them that this act of suffering points to a different reality: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
Thus, we can say it is true that one reason God allows suffering is to call all humanity to repentance. Does that mean it is the primary reason for every instance of suffering in every circumstance? No.
- Suffering Will Be Done Away With
Revelation 21:1–8 gives us a wonderful glimpse into a post-evil reality for Christians in the life to come. In this way, we know that there will be no more sin or doubt, or evil in that time. Jesus has made all things new!
This also presents us with a humble response to the question of why God allows suffering, for we can say, “I can’t speak fully to what God does and why he does it—his ways are higher than mine! But I can tell you he promises to wipe away every tear from people in the end. Believe in Jesus and be saved!”
Davis Wetherell (MA in English, Marquette University) is a writer and editor. He currently works at Crossway as a Bible proofreader. He previously taught college classes on literature, rhetoric, and composition. Davis has a heart for writers and loves to serve them. You can read more from Davis at daviswetherell.blog.