Why Does God Allow Suffering and Evil in the World?

Cross Examination

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.

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

See comments (9)


Thanks, Mike, for attempting a satisfying answer to the question of why there is evil and suffering in the world.  Of course the non Christian might look to the evolutionary development of humans within the animal kingdom.  Survival of the fittest always played a part, as to why there is suffering and always has been.

But religion, especially Christianity, doesn’t, so much, buy into such theories, and often looks to the supernatural for explanations.  What part does God play in the existence of evil and suffering.  Does he initiate it or simply allow it?  Even Reformed folk have differed on this topic.  Does God sovereignty extend to the realms of evil?  Of course Reformed folk believe in election, or a predestination unto salvation for God’s chosen.  But what about “double predestination?”  Some Reformers, especially in the past, have taught that God has determined an election unto salvation and also an election unto damnation.

To the end that God has determined an election unto damnation for the majority of people, he has credited all of Adam’s posterity with Adam’s sin.  All come into the world with a predisposed condemnation because all come into the world as sinners, falling short of sinlessness.  But not only do all people come into the world with Adam’s sin to their credit, they come into the world with Adam’s fallen and sinful nature.  All people come into the world with a natural inclination to sin, to do evil from birth on.  This also was given by God as an inheritance from Adam.  So there is no way that this sinful nature can be done away with entirely while living on earth.  For confirmation of this, give careful scrutiny to Romans 5:12-21.

So now the question of suffering and evil.  As to secondary causation, suffering most often comes at the hands of people who give expression to their sinful natures.  But as to primary causation, look to God who gave sin and a sinful nature to all people to accomplish his sovereign purpose of an election unto damnation.  Most Christians, even Reformed Christians, don’t appreciate such a view of God, so simply deny double predestination.  But the good book teaches it, not only in Romans 5 but many other places as well. 

I like your idea of offering human comfort by coming up alongside of those who suffer pain and evil.  To some extent we all have suffered and can offer support to others.  Thanks for your informative article.

I read C.S.Lewis's book on this subject years ago and vaguely remember what he wrote.  I also read a book by a French Reformed author whose main argument was that you could not make sense of evil because the main characteristic of evil is its absence of meaning, and according to that author, when you try to explain evil you end up trying to justify it.  I thought that was an interesting approach. But I vastly prefer the pastoral approach.  

Arguing about double election seems to me to be the sort of thing theologians do amongst themselves a bit like when they argued about how many angels stand on the head of a pin.  I can easily see why lay people would avoid that sort of discussion if they're trying to get a neighbor who hasn't darkened a church doorway in ages to attend their next church service.

As to whether everybody can show compassion, I have my doubts.  Obviously, all Christians should, but not all do, and it's not just a matter of opportunity.  Some people sitting in church pews are more judgmental than others, and prone to go by appearances.  Heck, even unbelievers can be judgmental and lack compassion, so I'm not saying Christians have a monopoly there.  But as a former pastor of my congregation used to say, "The room for improvement is the largest in the house."

Thanks, Michelle, for the comment.  You make some interesting points, like maybe we should just leave the deeper truths of the Bible to the philosophers and theologians.  Don’t you think a deep understanding of the Bible is beneficial for the everyday Christian?  Or are there some things we, as Christians,  just shouldn’t talk about, like evil or suffering.  We accuse some of the cults of harboring hidden knowledge, keeping it from the public eye.  Are you suggesting we do the same?  If you are to enter into a close relationship to someone, perhaps a marriage, do you want to know only the good things and not the bad about such a person?  Or do you want to know both good and bad and try to understand that person?

You say, “as to whether everybody can show compassion, I have my doubts.”  Why is that?  Do you think it could be the sinful fallen nature that God has given to everyone as an inheritance from Adam and Eve, that prevents us from showing compassion?  Is it our sinful inclination that causes even Christians to turn a blind eye toward evil and suffering in others?  I would hope, as image bearers of God, we are all capable of good and compassion, at least at times.  Thanks for the response.  Good to see the insights of others.

Hi Roger and Michele! Thank you for taking the time to reply to my brief thoughts on this thorny question! I'm enjoying the dialogue!

Roger, my main reaction to your two comments is that what's called "double predestination" is neither clearly taught by Scripture (even Romans 5, which you cite, does not demand the interpretation you offer) nor required in the Reformed tradition (I think it's fair to say that "double predestination" is the minority view in the Reformed tradition, historically). In fact, there's a great debate about whether Calvin himself even held to the idea (what he says on the subject is unclear or sometimes even contradictory to what he says elsewhere). The hurdle "double predestination" needs to clear, for many, is the picture of God it produces: capricious, uncaring, all-justice-but-no-love. So, I thank you for extending the conversation sparked by the article but I would be hesitant about being adamant on a question that is far from settled.

Michele, I'm wondering if that French Reformed author you're thinking of is Jacques Ellul - it sounds like it could be. Both he and Lewis do have thoughful contributions to make to this question. I agree with you that we each have different levels of ability when it comes to showing compassion to others caught in the grip of suffering and evil. That's actually the idea I had in my head when I wrote the article and decided to write it the way I did. It's so easy to treat a question like this in an academic, rational way that can too easily forget that for some people (or for all people at some point in their lives), the suffering in life can become almost unbearable. In a world that's hurting in so many ways, I actually think our growth in showing genuine Christ-like compassion to others is a great opportunity for evangelism. "They'll know we are Christians by our ..." So, thank you to you as well for engaging with me!

Lwet me be clear, I do think that a deep knowledge and understanding of the Bible is a good thing for the spiritual health of both individual believers and the church, but bringing up the notion of double election with non-Christians or seekers is not appropriate because they don't have the background to appreciate such concepts, and I have to acknowledge that when I read about that the first thought that came to mind was, if an outsider comes across that you may have lost them for a LOOONNNG time.  Many years ago I paticipated in a Bible study initiated by some friends of mine, who felt the best way to study the Bible with beginners was to do a line-by-line study, which meant that every time we came acroos a cross-reference, we'd look it up.  Many of the seekers dropped out in short order, and later I said to the husband of the couple that maybe another approach would have kept the beginners interested longer.  He replied that it was the best way to study the Bible.  At the time I couldn't think of a counter-argument, so I let the matter drop, but the truth is you don't feed filet mignon to newborn babies, even if it's a delicacy.  Nor should we start neophytes on the most complex spiritual food.

Thank you, Mike, for your response to Michele and my responses.  It’s nice to hear the author’s interaction, too.  Perhaps, you make a good response to the idea of double predestination or infra versus supralapsarian views of election.  The point is, it was taken seriously in the past and in the present by some, including John Calvin.  So following your suggestion, it may be best to pursue only the infralapsarian perspective of a single election unto salvation, the predominate view in CRC circles today. And forget an election unto damnation.  But of course, most evangelical Christians today hold to an Arminian view of salvation that would challenge our predominate Reformed view (favored by you, I asssume) of salvation.  Why would evangelicals and the majority in classical Christianity today challenge our view of election?  As you said of double election, most Christians would say the Reformed view “produces a picture of God as being capricious, uncaring, and all justice but having little love.”  A God who chooses only some sinners is seen by most Christians as a hard and uncaring God. What you say of double predestination, most Christians say of a single predestination unto salvation (the CRC view).

Whether you agree as to whether God credits all of humanity with Adam’s sin and sinful fallen nature, as an inheritance from Adam, I don’t think you can legitimately remove God’s involvement in every person coming into the world marred by sin and having a sinful nature?  Certainly all individuals did not ask for such a record of sin and sinful inclination before birth.  Should you deny God’s involvement, you would then begin to sound like the Arminians who deny God’s complete sovereignty altogether.  To most Arminians, God is a God who knows before hand what will happen and then carries it out (such as with salvation).

It all boils down to - what kind of God do we want to make God into?  How much do we want to let the Bible speak for itself?  Did God sovereignly plan the cross of Calvary or simply allow it?  Do we want a fully sovereign God or a God who simply allows things (including evil and suffering) to happen?  It’s been said, you can make the Bible say pretty much whatever you want it to say.  It simply depends on your interpretation of the Bible.  Between Arminians, Calvinists, and hyper Calvinists it pretty much depends on what kind of God do we want?  Interpretation of the Bible is the key. And after all, you can make the Bible say whatever you want.

As to what you tell a “seeker” about the Christian God, the question might be, who initiates salvation?  God or humans?  If you are afraid that a person may reject God because they know too much about him, you obviously believe that salvation comes about by human endeavor.  That’s an Arminian perspective (not Reformed).  You may not feed filet mignon to a baby, but you do to an adult.  So unless you are doing child evangelism, give them something to chew on and speak the truth with love.  I would imagine that what we know about God (knowledge of God) is very important in your mind, Mike, or you wouldn’t be doing the work that you do.

As to suffering in our experienced lives, I agree that human empathy and understanding is the best approach.  The secularist (who believes in evolution including human evolution) recognizes that survival and self preservation has contributed to human suffering.  But with the growth toward intelligence and reason in humans there has been a softening in humans and a look toward a mutual good and caring for each other that benefits oneself as well as others.  The secularist is less interested in a supernatural reality and more interested in an experiential livelihood.  But of course in the progression from an ultra supernatural (God directs every square inch of the world) to a smaller involvement or to no involvement for God, he becomes less important in the day to day activities of our lives.

It’s all pretty confusing among Christians.  We often say, pray as though it all depends on God but act as though it all depends on you.  What does that mean when we reach out to help the suffering?  It seems to be our actions that help the suffering, whether the one reaching out is a Christian or not. And so by all means reach out to help the suffering, and those who are victims of evil.  Thanks for the opportunity to dialogue.  I appreciate the variety of perspectives.

Roger, thanks for keeping the dialogue going. It’s a bit of a challenge for me to know how to respond to your most recent comment because I think we’re coming at the question from fairly different starting points of what, precisely, constitutes “the CRC position.” The CRC has its theological tradition which, in my mind, is like a fenced garden within which we can explore but outside of which we have deemed to be unsupported by our reading of Scripture. Inside the fenced garden, though, there is lots of room for us to explore. The finer points and nuances on various issues remain open questions rather than settled fact. Now let me attempt to reflect with you on some of the points you raise.

It seems to me that while there are plenty of Arminian evangelical Christians (I’m thinking of Roger Olson’s recent work on this question), they don’t actually represent the majority today, even in North America. At least they sure don’t seem to be the most vocal or prominent or influential. The Calvinist theological framework has experienced a significant resurgence lately through the work of a diverse group of pastors-theologians (and their affiliated denominations/organizations) like John Piper, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Ligon Duncan, Michael Horton, Tim Keller, and many others. Can you believe that US Baptists (the largest group of Christian denominations in the USA), with whom I engage regularly, are actually experiencing a Calvinist (even a Kuyperian!) awakening at the moment? It's true. This doesn’t even touch the high level work done to develop the Reformed tradition in academic theological circles by people like Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, and even our own Gordon Spykman.

What ties all these figures together is not their attempt to re-articulate the 16th century formulations of Calvin but to continue to develop the Reformed tradition in dialogue with further advancements in knowledge within other academic disciplines. This has meant, thankfully, that the central concepts of the Reformation have not passed their “best before date” but have continued to stay vibrant and relevant to our new contemporary context and its many uniquely new questions.

For example, your understanding that God consciously, actively, and intentionally brings people into the world and directly credits them with the guilt of Adam and also imputes to them a sinful nature in addition to their creational human nature has come under intense theological scrutiny in the last half century. New ways of understanding the central Biblical idea of sin have been advanced that keep theology in constructive dialogue with our deepening understanding of biology, quantum physics, neuropsychology, and history. And there are ways of understanding how sin has progressed through the generations that safeguards God’s sovereignty but keeps God out of the business of creating sinners – and, by extension – sin.

A similar response could be made to the question of how God’s sovereignty (you use the phrase “complete sovereignty” which raises a whole host of questions) relates to human freedom and responsibility. Many Reformed Christians today understand that there is a deeper tension here (a dialectic, to use the fancy theological term) than Calvin may have been able to perceive because of his location in history. The danger in overemphasizing God’s sovereignty is that it results in negating human responsibility. And the whole argument about how many will be saved (“some” or many or most, etc.) has already been shown by Jesus to be out of bounds (Luke 13:23). That is a question that we tend to ask but the answer is not for us to know with dogmatic certainty.

But NONE of this is to go down the path that you suggest: that by critically engaging our theological tradition we are caving into “secularists” or making God into our own image. Just the contrary, actually. To continue wrestling with our theological tradition is for the purpose of better understanding God’s self-revelation and communicating that to new audiences. It is not to create a more palatable God (or god) but to better know, love, and follow the one, true God revealed in Scripture and ultimately in Jesus. Let’s not be too quick to accuse others of simply having an “interpretation” because that’s all any of us have. This is why the posture of humility is so important in theological dialogue. Yours also is an interpretation, open to question, critique, and even modification if a better interpretation is offered.

And, speaking of Jesus, what we discover about God in his self-revelation in Jesus his Son is that academic, rational, cognitive inquiry into God’s ways can only take us so far. This is Paul’s clear teaching in many passages, Ephesians 3:14-21 as only one example. As creatures, we will never fully comprehend the Creator God’s inner life. Given this stark boundary between the Creator and the creature, we can only know what God has chosen to reveal to us and his revelation is for our salvation and not to satisfy our endless speculation. Instead, Jesus’ ministry guides us to the practice of showing compassionate love to those suffering in a broken world even when we don’t have a clear answer as to how the world became broken or how the brokenness of the world has shown up in a particular person’s life.

For the Christian suffering with their spouse’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I do not believe it is either pastorally helpful or theologically appropriate to lay the blame on their shoulders with talk of their sin nature imposed on them by God. When the disciples asked Jesus who sinned so that some guy's life was full of suffering (John 9:2), Jesus refused to enter that speculative theological hornet’s nest. Instead, the proper response is compassionate love. It’s too easy for us to use up all our time with these kinds of questions and then have nothing left to offer to the one suffering. Instead, my argument continues to be that there is a general theological framework that is helpful for everyday Christians to have in their minds but the true calling of the Christian is to respond to suffering with tangible deeds of compassionate and loving care.

Now forgive me for going on and on. I thank you again for keeping the conversation going!

Thanks again, Mike, for the continued dialogue.  I agree with you on some of the points you have made, especially when it boils down to the practical.  Apart from any theological or even Christian explanation for evil and suffering in the world, it is only as we are willing to make space in our lives for the pain that others experience, that we will contribute to healing or comfort in others.  That’s what we can take away from your article.  For that, thank you.

But your article is entitled, “Why does God Allow Suffering and Evil in the World?”  Then you attempted some answers to that question from a variety of Christian traditions.  You end at a point of suggesting, who can know?  Perhaps we never will know.  But that doesn’t stop inquiring Christians (especially theologians and philosophers) from wanting an answer to your article’s question.  And certainly the question of suffering and evil is a very important and fundamental question.  It is a question that deserves an answer, at least theologically.  It is too important to gloss over.  It may well be one that is at the heart of Christianity or even religion. 

You have suggested an answer in your article’s title, that God allows suffering and evil.  But then I might ask if the cross of Calvary, and all the wickedness and suffering that surrounded that event (all the way up to and including my sin) was simply allowed by God or was it the deliberate plan of God that brought the crucifixion to fruition, as Acts 2:23 would suggest.  “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” This is certainly more than the permissive will of God.  So how far does God’s deliberate plan extend?  Does it extend to evil and suffering?  Such a scenario of evil and suffering at God’s hand is seen on the pages of the Bible throughout.

But, yes, as you suggest, there is the whole question of human responsibility and human freedom.  So how can these two areas of Biblical teaching and testimony (divine sovereignty and human responsibility) logically or dialectically fit together? And yes, the CRC (a confessional church) is bound within a fenced garden.  Other Christians are not necessarily bound by such confessions or they ignore them.  But if all those in on this debate (of suffering and evil, or whatever) are Christian, then they are bound by the fenced garden of Scripture.  Christians believe that the Bible is the supernatural and special revelation of God.  So there are limits to the Christian’s exploration, even if other disciplines might want to contribute.  Christians are ultimately bound by the Bible.

Of course every other religion makes the same claim for their Scriptures, theirs alone is the inspired and infallible word of God.  It might seem that the secularist, whether the deist, agnostic, or atheist has a leg up on those who hold to a religion based on supernatural revelations (or are they man made revelations).  They can explore beyond the limits (fence) of so called supernatural revelations or Scriptures.  Thanks again, Mike, for the opportunity to dialogue.  It’s difficult to answer all the questions in such a format.  But I appreciate the opportunity of trying to answer and question some.  Blessings to you.

I think this dialogue has come to an end, so let me add a comment about divine sovereignty and human responsibility, a difficult issue.

As to the Bible’s teaching on human freedom in contrast to God’s sovereign will, that can be a thorny issue.  Both God’s sovereignty in all things (including evil) and human freedom are clearly taught in the Bible.  Historically, the problem is in trying to reconcile both ideas to each other, which doesn’t seem to work very well among most Christians.  So they (Christians) fall on one side or the other. 

As I understand the Bible, this issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom have to do with levels of causation.  God, in the Christian scheme (my understanding of the Bible), is the primary mover and human kind is secondary.  So if you are talking about God’s will and actions, they always supersede the human experience.  But you can still talk about the human experience of a lived out reality that we (as humans) experience every day.  As to our experience, we make choices daily.  We make choices as to what we may do in any given situation, who we may vote for in an election, who we will marry or not marry, whether we will make a large purchase, or whether we believe that Jesus is God or not.  In the arena of human experience, the Bible teaches that people have freedom and are responsible for their choices.  The Bible teaches human responsibility and freedom throughout.

But in the divine arena, which supersedes the human experiential arena, God is in complete control and directs everything.  Nothing is left out of God’s complete direction and authority.  This seems to be the Bible’s obvious teaching.  So at the level of primary causation, God controls and directs all.  The Bible clearly teaches this.  But at the level of secondary causation, humans have freedom to make choices and are responsible for those choices.  So the Bible speaks often of  human freedom and choice.  And humans are taught in the Bible to make wise choices.  At one level you can talk about God’s sovereign will and at another level, human freedom.  But remember, God is always the primary cause and humans are the secondary.  Primary causation and secondary causation.  The primary always supersedes the secondary.

But the whole issue of sovereignty and freedom gets confused by the Biblical teaching of how much freedom do humans really have, especially in the area of morality.  The Bible teaches that no one will qualify for God’s salvation (“none are righteous, no, not one” or “all have sinned and fall short...”).  And of course, all fall short of God’s standard because of the sin they are born with (Adam’s sin) and because of the natural tendency to sin (sinful nature) that all come into the world with.  There was never a chance or possibility for anyone to measure up to God’s standard of acceptance.  Although morally free, humans lack the ability or will to live up to God’s standard.  (Did God credit humans with Adam’s sin and fallen nature?)  Because humans do not have the ability to live up to God’s acceptable standard and are already marred by Adam’s sin, all (no exceptions) fail God’s standard of acceptability.  Humans, in the Christian scheme, cannot help but to fail.  All are doomed.  And it would seem that they are doomed by God’s hand.

So out of a sinful and fallen humanity, God’s chooses some sinners (the elect) for salvation and eternally damns the rest.  This choice by God is supposed to somehow satisfy both God’s justice and his mercy.  But does it really?