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The Problem of Pain

ABC TV's Compass program tonight (15th April 2007)

"No God But God", Part 2 of "The Story of God" by Lord Robert Winston (a venerated world expert in human fertility research, and an orthodox Jew).

He goes in search of the answer to the centuries old question: "If God created humanity, why does God allow humanity to suffer?"

The objection as commonly put:-

If God exists and is good, He would NOT want anyone to suffer.
If God exists and is strong, He could stop all suffering.
Suffering exists, therefore God is either bad, or weak, or does not exist.

How are we to attempt an answer to this?

Glib answers will not do in a world of such great suffering. E.g. the Holocaust of the Jews during the time of Hitler and the Nazis in WW2. 6 million Jews died (and 20 million Russians too). This is evil almost beyond comprehension.

We must attempt an answer with great humility, and with real compassion for present sufferers.

  1. Pain is not evil in its essence, not intrinsically bad
    • a nail must be hard and sharp to do its proper job; don't blame the nail if it hurts you.
    • the WHY? is vital; if a torturer sticks needles in you it is gross cruelty; if a doctor sticks needles in you it is compassionate healing. If you get a thorn in your foot, the pain is your friend - just ask a leper, who can lose a foot from the unheeded infection.
  2. Pain is the result of Human Wickedness - PARADISE LOST. God is not the author of needless pain
    • directly - vast suffering is caused by the deliberate action of wicked people. By the cruel strong men of the earth. By the "little" lies and jeers and jealousies of the ordinary people of the earth. Adam is cursed, and a curse to others (the first child Cain murders his younger brother Abel, while mankind is still young). Genesis 3 and 4, and all that follows on.
    • indirectly - for Adam's sake (he was the king) all creation was cursed. Famine, flood, fire, tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, disease, decay, toil. Genesis 3:17-19, Ps 90:10.
    • what if God were to stop all this - stop the bullet in mid-flight, stop the air from carrying the vibrations of abusive words? Stop the nail from hurting? Would the world not become an unreal place, where men were just helpless pawns, a world of evil hearts without any evil actions? It would still be an evil world. "God looks upon the heart" 1 Samuel 16:7. "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" Mk 7:21-22 NIV
  3. Pain is not God's ultimate intention
    • We see this vividly in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a poem in the Bible written to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, with its carnage and misery, chapter 3 verse 33 "for he (God) does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men." Their own rebellious nature and greed and cruelty has brought God's judgment upon them by the instrument of the Babylonian armies (but Babylon is responsible for its own cruelties and pride, and will be justly judged itself - see Isaiah 47).
    • We see this in the suffering of Job, where God allows Satan, the prince of evil, to cruelly afflict Job. Why?
      • To shame Satan, who claimed no one would love God "merely" for Himself, just because He is God. Job 1:9-12
      • To shame Job's friends, who gave glib answers to his suffering ("you must be a great sinner"), and were utterly wrong in their judgment of Job and of God Himself. Don't you become a "Job's comforter". Job 42:7-9
      • To teach Job more about his Redeemer God. Job 42:1-6
      • To bless Job in the end - Job 42:10-17
    • We see this in the apostle Peter's letter, 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
    • "For our good" - Hebrews 12:7-11, "It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."
  4. Pain was embraced by God - Jesus is the Ultimate Sufferer
    • The prophet Isaiah foretold this - Isaiah ch. 53
    • Jesus wept over Jerusalem, weeping for the suffering that was to come upon them under the Romans. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" Luke 13:34
    • Jesus suffered infinitely, to death in a real body which still bears the scars, and the agony of being abandoned by His Father, in His real soul. Mark's Gospel 15:34 "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
    • We can only really comprehend suffering by looking to Jesus "For God, who said 'let light shine out of darkness', has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". 2 Corinthians 4:6. "Phillip said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Phillip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'" John's Gospel 14:8,9
    • Tim Keller said "If we ask again the question 'Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?' and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. _However, we now know what the answer isn't._ It can't be that he does not love us. It can't be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he is willing to take it on himself." (p30-31, "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism")
    • In Jesus, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (and nowhere else!) - Psalm 85:10 (indeed, all of the psalm)

  5. Pain will Cease - PARADISE RESTORED

The New Heaven and the New Earth Revelation 21:1 (ESV) "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."


  1. You will not make any sense of pain and suffering until you embrace by faith Jesus (the Jesus of the Bible), the Lord Christ. He is both the answer and the cure.
  2. The pain is real. so no glib answers - "weep with those who weep" Romans 12:15, as Jesus did at Lazarus' grave (John 11:33-39)
  3. "What about those who have never heard of Jesus?"
    • for those dead and gone any answer will not help us (we have heard!) nor them. We can only trust and leave them with God, whom the Bible declares is merciful and good and just, and who demonstrated this in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
    • for those living? God's answer is plain. Go and tell them! "And he said to them, 'Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.'" Mark 16:15. ("You in your small corner and I in mine" - in the ordinary circumstances of life; that kindness to a neighbour, that word of comfort in grief, that sacrificial support of those who go to spread the Gospel.)

The various major faiths

of the world have different sorts of answers. Here is a brief summary.

Faith Why? What do you do?
Atheism It's a dog-eat-dog world, then you die Just get used to it
Hinduism Suffering is caused by the accumulated bad actions of our past lives (the principle of "karma") Avoid bad actions, do good ones
Buddhism Suffering is caused by desire - desire nothing (even to love and be loved) and you will not suffer Learn to live without desires, and strive to shed self and be merged into Nirvana, as one drop in the ocean
Islam Suffering is the result of our sins, or a test from God Confess your sins, trust in God
Judaism Suffering is the result of our sins, or a test from God Confess your sins, trust in God
"Health, Wealth and Prosperity Gospel" Suffering is caused by the Devil Cast out the demon of pain, or depression, etc. and claim the good things
The Bible Suffering is the result of Adam's fall, permitted by God for good in the end Confess any real (not imaginary) sins, trust in God, Who loves you, and has entered fully into suffering for you

Books I have found helpful in the past (and have probably influenced my thinking, though I did not have time for more than a quick browse when preparing these notes)

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