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Philip Ellwood

How could a loving God allow suffering?

When you combine social media, an atheist friend and the enormous question of how a Christian accounts for so much suffering in the light of the dreadful earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, you have a potentially explosive question! You also have an opportunity: an opportunity to pray, study and live as a follower of Jesus – engaging with the world around and its questions. My friend has kindly allowed my response to form the rest of this article. 


Hi mate! So I have finally got round to responding! It’s taken me a while, in part due to the busyness of these past few months but also because I think the question raised in this article – why on earth does God allow such dreadful, awful suffering? – is so important and in need of careful consideration.

‘I don’t know’ is the essence of my answer! I really don’t and I’m not sure anyone can produce a nicely packaged answer. Just a few weeks ago, I was lying next to my dad in his bed as he virtually wept with pain, as bone cancer continues to attack his back. “I don’t know why God is allowing this,” was the thought very near the forefront of my mind in those moments. To engage with this question is to engage with real people’s real suffering and it’s important not to simply offer abstract, philosophical notions. Indeed the Bible consistently engaged with this theme. Much of the Bible is filled with humans lamenting and wrestling with God.

The author makes a number of points that require a response but would you agree that this excerpt best summarises the article:

Whichever way you look at it, logic allows no place for a loving, omnipotent God in this scenario. A God who creates a world that inflicts such indiscriminate violence upon its sentient inhabitants is either cruel or powerless.


Two kinds of suffering

It’s helpful at this point to draw a distinction between the two kinds of suffering that we experience: on the one hand, evil caused by human agency and on the other hand, suffering caused without human will. With a dreadful episode such as the Nepal earthquake, we’re clearly dealing with the latter and so I‘ll leave the former for another discussion.

I’m no scientist, and you’ll know this better than me, but at the core of the earth are tectonic plates, floating on the earth’s molten centre. When they bump and rub up against one another we can have tsunamis and earthquakes and so forth. Now, these plate tectonics are a very positive force as well: they’re essential for human life by supplying water and protecting us from cosmic rays via the magnetic field they generate. If there is a ‘designer’ at work behind the universe (as many highly credible and gifted scientists believe) then these plates are part of his good and intricate design for human life and flourishing.

But, one might say, surely God should have created a better world than this, one where tectonic plates only act for good? If he couldn’t, he must be fallible or malicious and, either way, not an all powerful, loving God. Not an unreasonable objection, but it seems to me that the author is presenting a very modern philosophical argument: if there was a good reason for God permitting suffering, we would know it. The writer and theologian, Andrew Wilson (in this helpful talk) explains that throughout history (and I don’t think we can just write off previous generations and civilisations as ignorant compared to our ‘enlightened’ state) this isn’t really where people have landed. They would say, “By definition, God knows all kinds of things I don’t”. It’s only really Europeans in the last 250 years who have said “If there was a reason for this disaster, I would know what the reason is.’’ Just because we can’t fathom for a moment why God would allow something so horrendous as the Nepal earthquake, I don’t think – philosophically – that means we can conclude that he couldn’t have a good reason and therefore he is powerless or wicked. It’s like saying, “I can’t see it and therefore it’s not there.”

For example, imagine you ask some aliens (bear with me here!) with no prior knowledge of earth and humans to watch a video feed of one scene of human life: a woman is screaming in agony on a bed, doctors then cut her stomach open with a knife, lift a baby out and then take that baby out of the room. To observe only this scene, the aliens would surely conclude that the doctors were indescribably cruel people. Without perspective, we cannot see the whole picture and therefore the wonderful joy that comes from skilful doctors conducting a successful caesarean section.


A different perspective

Does that mean that the Christian simply writes off a tragic earthquake as a mystery, the act of an unfathomable and distant God? I don’t think so. Whatever the reasons were that meant that God allowed the earthquake, that some were wonderfully rescued and others tragically killed, that some prayers seemed to be answered and others not, that some tears of terror were replaced by tears of joy and others continued to flow in grief, the answer cannot be that God is unloving or impotent.

The famous atheist philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, was onto something when he said, “The gods justified human life by living it themselves; the only satisfactory response to the problem of human suffering ever invented.” I agree with Nietzsche. The Christian story is the story of a God who gave up the bliss of heaven to live as a human being. God – Jesus Christ – suffered everything a human being can suffer: loneliness, rejection, the death of loved ones, false accusation, childlessness, betrayal, poverty, exhaustion and finally the most horrifically violent death the Roman Empire could invent. There is no depth of agony that we can experience that God does not understand.

Furthermore, reliable historical and textual evidence tells me that Jesus miraculously beat death. It is undone and defeated and an eternal Kingdom – one in which every tear is wiped away – awaits.

I simply don’t know why all those people died so horribly in the Nepal earthquake or any other natural disaster. I don’t know why my dad is suffering or what awaits him. But I do know that the reason God allows these things is not that he does not love us.


In writing this article, I have found a few talks very helpful:

Picture Credit:Earthquake in Nepal by Asian Development Bank