How Can God Allow Suffering?
Why do bad things happen to good people? This question has vexed humans for millennia. Peter Bertocci lists four typical Christian responses to the problem of evil. First, God did not will evil but allowed it to give true freedom to humankind. Second, suffering is part of God’s ultimate plan for achieving some overall greater good. Third, natural evil (that is, nonhuman evil caused by nature) is God’s tool to achieve the best possible world. Finally, suffering prepares humankind for a joyous eternity with God, a disciplinary tool for human preparation for eternal life.1
All four of these Christian responses may well overlap and interact with one another. Certainly, it appears that all four can be found to some degree in Ellen G. White’s writings. She ascribes freedom of choice to being part of God’s master plan to permit true freedom for created moral agents. “For the good of the entire universe through ceaseless ages Satan must more fully develop his [Satan’s] principles, that his charges against the divine government might be seen in their true light by all created beings, that the justice and mercy of God and the immutability of His law might forever be placed beyond all question.”2 Again, she asserts, “God might have created man without the power to transgress His law; He might have withheld the hand of Adam from touching the forbidden fruit; but in that case man would have been, not a free moral agent, but a mere automaton. Without freedom of choice, his obedience would not have been voluntary, but forced. There could have been no development of character. Such a course would have been contrary to God’s plan in dealing with the inhabitants of other worlds. It would have been unworthy of man as an intelligent being, and would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule.”3
Thus, Ellen G. White would seem to be partly aligned with the freedom theory, and partly in the genre of work that explains natural evil in terms of being permitted for a greater long-term good. This mixture of the freedom and greater-good arguments seems to suggest the conclusion that her Great Controversy model is a form of the best-possible-world genre theodicy. In her view, to get the best possible world, God allows for freedom and character development, risking a temporary season of natural evil to achieve that goal.
Certainly, the Great Controversy helps to explain the presence of evil and can give a suffering individual a sense of personal significance as a participant in a grand cosmic cause. But the Great Controversy still leaves the question of why God chose to permit this kind of freedom, with the ensuing consequences, especially when He has the power to terminate the problem. Participation in a cosmic cause may bring some meaning but, like Job’s three friends, may not be the most effective comfort in encounters with evil.
I shall offer a personal, perhaps unique, perspective on the problem. It comes from my wrestling, sola Scriptura, during the process of my mother’s untimely death due to cancer, with the problem of why good people suffer.
This quest begins in Genesis 1 to 3. God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden and exercised His right to create with specific intentions, boundaries, limitations, and purposes. Thus, for Adam and Eve, the fruit of one tree was off limits. Furthermore, lest their labors so absorb them that they would forget who they were in relation to God, the Sabbath rest was instituted. They were finite creatures under the sovereignty of an infinite God. These two aspects of the creation order seem especially designed to help Adam and Eve recognize their places as creatures under the sovereignty of a Creator—creatures with the inherent limitations that characterize finite, created beings.
The temptation scene at the forbidden tree highlights the issue of recognizing one’s own limitations as a creature. The serpent is introduced as the craftiest creature God made (Gen. 3:2). Serpents are not known for possessing powers of human language and reason. How then did the serpent suddenly acquire the ability to talk and reason? By all appearances, the serpent had transcended his divinely determined design limitation by eating the forbidden fruit. This inference is clearly asserted by Ellen G. White.4 The serpent’s fundamental temptation, then, was that just as he had transcended his God-given limits by eating the forbidden fruit, Eve could do so as well. She thought to become a co-deity in a collegial divine relationship instead of remaining a creature under divine sovereignty.
The apparent success of the serpent in transcending his creation limits would seem to be a highly compelling and formidable temptation. The forcefulness of this temptation was further multiplied by the fact that when Eve assessed the tree, it looked “pleasing to the eye” and appeared to be “good for food” (Gen. 2:9, NIV).
By contrast, God had said that the tree was dangerous—you eat, you die—but the tree looked anything but dangerous. The tree thus appeared to be a way to transcend her finite limits and become elevated to a parity with God. It seems, then, that the fall of Eve was precisely rooted in a rejection of God’s design parameters, with their accompanying limitations, and a desire to transcend them and cast them off. Adam’s eating of the fruit signified his choice to join Eve in the same quest. Humankind’s fall came through a failure to accept their God-given limitations and acknowledge who they were as perfect but limited creatures under the sovereign authority of their Creator.
How can a good God address this problem? He first conducted an investigative judgment to call Adam and Eve to accountability for their use of their free will. If God had merely winked at the situation, He would have make Himself a liar, having threatened consequences—dying that day. Such a move would undermine His sovereignty, for His word would not be reliable. But humanity was deceived. Could humans be corrected to acknowledge again their proper position under a Creator? How then did God go about correcting humans who had refused to acknowledge their limitations and His sovereignty?
The answer is simple. The judgments pronounced in Genesis 3—painful childbirth, subservience of wife to husband, thorns, thistles, cursed ground, sweaty brows, and finally death—share one common denominator: they all express an increase of finite limitations on Adam and Eve. The intensity of the limitation is increased in an effort to get Adam and Eve, along with us, to properly acknowledge our place under God’s sovereignty. Death became the ultimate limitation, a barrier we are unable to transcend.
A final limitation of human beings is that they not only lost their sovereignty over the earth, but also found themselves under the sovereignty of a hostile power—sin. Satan became the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4, NRSV), and the dual powers of sin and death reigned supreme (Rom. 5:12–21), Adam and Eve could not bequeath to their children what they no longer possessed. As subjects of sin and death, their children were born subject to the same powers, in need of a Deliverer. All humans are under sin as a reigning power (Rom. 3:9).
Slaves give birth to slaves, not to freemen, and every individual is “sold into slavery under sin” (7:14, NKJV). In Romans 7, the slave of sin can see and appreciate what is good, but is not free to do it. Even the will is limited. Enslavement to sin is the ultimate demonstration of our limits as creatures under God, demonstrating our need of a Deliverer to tame that power for us (vss. 24, 25). Evil thus ultimately shows us whose power we and the world are under, and calls us to acknowledge our limits and depend on a God who is wiser than we are and sovereign over us. What then, does it mean to acknowledge our limits before God?
The first part of acknowledging our limits as creatures is to acknowledge mystery. We do not have the cosmic contextual data or the capacity of wisdom to understand why God permits many things. As rational thinking creatures, we do not like to admit there are mysteries we cannot decipher.
Job provides a classic case study of this confrontation with mystery beyond human comprehension. Job is never informed about the cosmic argument between God and Satan that led to his suffering, and thus he had no frame of reference to understand adequately his situation. Instead, he had to acknowledge his limitations by submitting to the mystery and continuing to trust and serve God faithfully.
Part of the problem of evil is our stubborn refusal to acknowledge our limited perspective and wisdom. Modern humans are highly educated and have accomplished much in transcending some of the limits of the curse of sin through technological accomplishment. Hence, due to our great accomplishments in fighting against our limits, we become overly optimistic in our abilities to decipher and understand everything. Thus, genuine mysteries, such as the problem of evil, vex us when we cannot satisfactorily explain them.
The problem of evil should help us acknowledge our limitations and accept that there are mysteries beyond our capacities to understand and interpret, and that God may well be accomplishing a greater good than we can understand. These limitations are a call to us to renounce our rejection of God’s designs and purposes for us as His creatures, and reveal our need of His sustenance and governance. Natural evil should thus be seen as a tool to help teach us our limits and our need of God, partly imposed by God and partly caused by Satan’s usurping of dominion over this world and wreaking havoc as he tries to transcend his own God-given limits.
A final limitation imposed on us is that God has delivered humans over to the consequences of their choices (Rom. 1:18–28) to help us bottom out and call on Him. To shield us from this confrontation with the results of our choices would enable our soul-destroying revolt against God’s design limits, harming our eternal destiny without challenge. Such a protection from our choices would thus be patently unloving. “‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent’” (Rev. 3:19, NIV). We, however, have a difficult time seeing this approach as loving, precisely due to our limitations, especially death. How then, can we believe it is loving for God to permit undeserved death such as in an earthquake, flood, or even at the hands of humanity?
We must remember that God is not limited by death as we are. We feel great pressure to solve issues in our lifetimes. Resurrection allows issues to be addressed and solved in ways not available when limited by death. Natural evil is problematic to us, in part because of our mortality. Undeserved death, whether by natural disaster or the agency of evil persons, makes us reckon with the problems of eternity, confronts us with our lack of godlike power to sustain our own safety, and thus helps us to acknowledge who we are as limited creatures in need of God.
The use of suffering and adversity as a disciplinary tool raises the question, Does God use immoral means to accomplish moral ends? Since the apostle Paul rejected doing evil to produce good results (Rom. 3:8), it would seem problematic for God to practice what He inspired Paul to condemn. It is precisely God’s lack of limitation in reference to our dying that frees Him from such accusations.
As a certified flight Instructor, I would sometimes allow student pilots to exceed their limitations to learn important lessons, but I would not allow the situation to get so out of control that it endangered the students’ welfare (or my own). Some things I could not allow, as I would have no power to resolve the situation. By contrast, while God will not let a situation endanger our eternal welfare against our will, He may allow suffering and even death to confront us and push us toward corrections compatible with eternal life, for He has the power to redeem us from all of that and more. If He did not have those powers, then, and only then, could we charge Him with using immoral means to accomplish moral ends. Rather, He makes use of the imposition of greater limits and Satan’s volitional activity as disciplinary tools to help us bottom out so we will look up to Him and be saved eternally.
I was forcibly made to wrestle with these concepts during the process of my mother’s death. As she slowly passed away, I was thoroughly confronted with my limitations as a creature in a sinful world. I felt powerless, wishing I could save my mother and not being able to do so. Philosophical nuances seem irrelevant at such times, too easily leading to greater questioning of God than deeper trust in Him. But the hope of resurrection allowed me to see her death as confronting her family, friends, and acquaintances with their limitations, their need of Someone bigger and wiser than themselves, and enabled me to accept my limitations. God may have allowed my mother, myself, and my family to suffer for a greater good that we cannot now understand.
The fundamental message of the fledgling church was very simple: Jesus Christ has the solution to death. Humankind has tried and continues to try to solve the riddle of death through better technology. We have had some success in forestalling death, but cannot conquer it. In the end, death forces us to admit that we are limited creatures in need of a Life Giver who can conquer the powers of sin and death. When we acknowledge who God is, and receive by faith the deliverance secured for us by Christ, then natural evil will have achieved the purpose God designs for it, the surrender necessary for our eternal salvation.
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