Questions about suffering and evil have been asked by Christians since the early church. A number of different theological responses have been offered. What we know is that we experience suffering and evil in life. What’s not so easy to know is where it comes from.
Could it come from God? Odd as it may sound, some early Christians thought so. Maybe God isn’t powerful enough to stop suffering and evil, they wondered. Maybe evil is such a strong force that God can’t fully control it. Some borrowing from Greek philosophy believed that God and an evil rival god coexist in a kind of eternal tug-of-war. This, some thought, explained suffering—God is good but just can’t do much to help.
Others thought our experience of suffering and evil is really just God’s way of bringing us to desire his saving grace. God doesn’t want us to suffer, they said, but it’s necessary for us to desire something more than this world. This was Iranaeus’s view in the second and third centuries after Christ. Suffering and evil, he thought, are tools in God’s toolbox as God works to redeem us.
Few Christians found these “answers” satisfying for long. So maybe the source of suffering and evil isn’t God. Maybe it’s us. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) thought the source of our suffering is our wills infected with original sin. We desire everything but God and bring suffering and evil on ourselves.
In Eastern Orthodox churches, these rational theological explanations for why a good God allows suffering and evil in the world haven’t been pursued as much. Many Orthodox theologians believe God’s ways are shrouded in mystery. Finite human minds can’t fully comprehend the infinite God. This was the view of an anonymous Christian in the sixth century. Suffering and evil, and why God does what God does, are simply beyond the cognitive capacity of humans. Instead of performing mental gymnastics, this tradition has urged Christian believers to trust that God knows what God is doing, suggesting a pastoral response is more satisfying than a rational explanation.
When a student walks into my university office with a story of suffering, very rarely does she want a rational explanation for why God allows it. Instead, she needs a listening ear and an open heart. Rather than answers, she’s looking for someone who will stand as a witness to her pain. And through his incarnation, Jesus comes alongside everyone who suffers pain in this world.
This raises a good question: What is the best response to questions of suffering and evil? Is it a rational theological system? Or is it a person who has been formed to be like Christ, someone who is willing to make space in their life for the brokenness of the world?
I think it’s the latter more than the former. This is why honest attempts to explain away the problem of evil with sound theology often fall flat. Sure, it’s helpful to have a theological framework in mind. But Jesus displays for us the priority of a compassionate pastoral response to those experiencing pain and suffering. Jesus made space in the very heart of God for the suffering of the world. He was willing to be interrupted and pierced by the pain in human life. He opened himself to the horrible depths of suffering and evil in the world. Christian faith is trusting that one day our hopes for both personal and cosmic healing will be fully realized by Jesus, who suffered on the cross and now reigns as Lord.