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Why Does God Allow Suffering?

By Richard Gunther


There is no easy answer to this question, because only some of the material we need to answer the question is available to us, but what we do know we will try to share. Only God Himself has the wisdom and understanding to know the whole answer, and He has never attempted to explain it all to us - perhaps because no human could ever fully grasp the enormous amount of information that would involve.

But the charge is often made that God is cruel, or vindictive, because He "allows bad things to happen." Some of these bad things include deaths, diseases, deformities and accidents.

Before we look at these charges, here are three little stories :

1. A child runs away from its parents and out on to the road. The mother runs after the child, grabs it by the arm, smacks, and angrily tells the child not to go that way. All the child knows is that its personal freedom has been violated, and that its bottom hurts. It begins to cry, while its mother tries to explain about cars, and injury, accidents and death, but the road was clear at the time, so the child thinks its parent is being cruel and vindictive.

2. A child climbs on to its father's bike and pushes away from the wall. The bike wobbles all over the drive and gathers speed, then it crashes into the letterbox and the child is hurt. It angrily kicks the bike and walks back to the house, crying. It thinks the bike is cruel and vindictive.

3. A child sneaks disobediently upstairs and defiantly turns the bath taps on. A flannel blocks the plug so the bath begins to fill. The child goes away, forgetting to turn the taps off . . . an hour later the water seeps through the floor and shorts out a wire, starting a fire, which burns the house down, killing the family dog and the child's mother.

The child now accuses its father of cruelty and vindictiveness for not forcing it to turn the taps off. "If you hadn't stopped me, Mum would still be alive!" shouts the child.

Now, in all three cases, was the child correct in its accusations? The answer is "no." In all three cases the child was working from within a position of ignorance.

1. In the road incident, the reprimand and smack were given in love, not cruelty, because the parent wanted to save the child from serious injury or death. It was the child's ignorance which distorted the reality.

2. In the case of the bike, the crash was the normal consequences of various natural laws operating - momentum, gravity, friction - and it was only the child's ignorance which caused these laws to work together in a hurtful way. If the child had been good at riding bikes, there would have been no crash.

Gravity and other natural laws are neutral. They never cause anything to happen; they just operate in predictable ways. One could not call gravity "cruel" or "vindictive", and we could not reasonably expect God to stop natural laws from operating whenever our personal safety was in question.

3. In the case of the overflowing bath, we have a situation where disobedience is combined with cause and effect. The child goes against its parent's instructions, and then forgets about the bath. The water causes the electrical fault and the fire destroys the house. The child is, primarily responsible for the destruction. In ignorance the child blames the fire, the water, the bath, the house, and anything else it can think of, but the real blame rest with the child because it was an act of disobedience which started the whole disaster.

We who are older and more enlightened can see very plainly that in all three of the above cases, the ignorance of the child is the main reason why it accuses various objects or people wrongly. Yet there are people who, when something adverse happens, quickly blame God for the misfortune - they do this because they are ignorant of several things :

1. The nature of God

2. The state of creation

3. The results of sin

Please bear with me as we touch briefly on these things.

1. The nature of God.

When I was a baby, I had no idea what my parents were like. From my bassinet I saw their heads come and go, and I associated their presence with such things as milk, warmth, and other simple things.

As I grew up I understood more. I realised that my parents were much more complex than I had first thought. I noticed that they had times of happiness and sadness. I discovered that they knew an awful lot more than me about life. They taught me the first things about how to speak, read, count, dress, play, eat, garden, make things, and write, until I went to school.

When I was at school I learned a lot more information, but I soon realised that that simple level of education was just the start - afterwards there was university, and even more training further down the line. I also learned about people like Einstein and Newton, and other geniuses, who made my understanding of the world quite primitive compared to their broad knowledge.

What I discovered was that my understanding of life was always relative to someone else's. It was the same in athletics. No matter how fast I ran, there was always someone who could run faster.

When we come to the nature of God, we must remember that, according to the Bible, He is a great deal wiser and more powerful than us. He created us, not we Him. We are His creatures, and as such we are almost infinitely smaller than Him.

In the same way, we ought to remember that God is the judge of people, and not the other way round. It seems to be a facet of human nature to forget this. People like to think that God is in the dock, on trial before men, there to explain His actions to the human race. The reality is the very reverse. God is the judge of the whole universe, and the human race is in the dock before Him. It is merely proud arrogance and sheer ignorance to think any differently.

So what is God really like?

Without launching into a huge number of Bible texts, let us make a summary of the God of the Bible :

1. God is good. This means that there is nothing bad in Him. Every thought and action God has is good, because His whole nature is an expression of love and goodness.

2. God is infinite. He has no beginning and no end. He has always existed, and He will always exist. He lives outside of what we call Time because He created it.

3. God is omniscient. This means He is all-knowing.

4. God is immanent. This means God is in all places by His Spirit.

5. God is omnipotent. This means that all power comes from Him.

6. God is sovereign. This means that He pays attention to every detail.

7. God is personal. This means that He has personality, He thinks, He acts, He responds to us.

8. God is holy. This means that God has a standard of right, against which anything which differs is called 'wrong'. God is the origin of all morals.

2. The state of Creation.

According to the Bible, when God first created this universe, it was perfect. At that time this earth was a beautiful place, with no storms or hurricanes, no earthquakes or floods. The weather was warm and mild, and every morning a mist came up to water the ground. There were no deserts, or mountains, no rains or powerful winds, and all life on earth was in harmony.

God created all life, and then added two humans, who were also perfect. At that time, according to the Bible, there were no carnivores - all the animals ate grass, leaves, fruit and herbs. For a short time, everything was the way God wanted it to be.

But the first humans had free will, and they chose to disobey a direct command of God. God had already warned them about the consequences of disobedience, but they went ahead anyway, and as a result, God brought in a punishment tempered by His love.

Creation was degraded. The weather became hostile and all life was altered to become what it is today - carnivorous and sometimes deadly.

The world we have been brought up in, and which we consider to be 'normal' is actually in an abnormal and temporary state. The time is coming when God will restore the world to its original perfection, but for now, we are still passing through the consequences of the first human's disobedience.

3. The results of sin.

Sin is disobedience. It is seen in simple things, such as the child who turns the taps on in the bath. It is seen in the child who refuses to obey its parents and runs on to the road. It is seen in people when they show arrogance, pride, stubborn rebellion and revenge. It is displayed on our screens every night - kidnapping, terrorism, murder, arson, war, spite, jealousy, and so on. As Jesus said : "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornication, thefts, false witness, blasphemies . . ." Matthew 15:19

Now what some people say is "If God knows the consequences, why doesn't He intervene and stop them happening?"

This is a very dangerous question, because it implies that God should be at our beck and call like some helpful cleaning service, doing nothing for us but fixing or preventing us from making a mess.

Imagine a couple of parents telling a child "Now junior, you play with those matches all you like, because we'll be with you, catching them when they drop, and putting out any fires you happen to start!"

What would the child learn?

Or imagine a mother saying "Junior, you may run onto the road as much as you like, because I have instructed every motorist in the city to drive like snails and to stop whenever you come near."

Would the child learn anything about road safety?

Yet what some people want God to do is allow them all the freedom but none of the responsibility. They want to be able to live life the way they want to live it, and if they do anything dangerous or injurious to themselves or others, God is supposed to step in and work a miracle to keep everything sailing along smoothly.

How utterly selfish and self-centred!

Let us apply this egotistical view to the three stories we started with :

1. A child runs away from its parents and out on to the road. The mother, thankfully, has previously arranged for all traffic on that road to be equipped with huge, soft pillows on the front bumpers, so the child is not injured. It then decides that roads are fun to run on to, so from then it makes a habit of running on to them. Soon all the children in the neighbourhood get the same idea, so they force the whole city to equip all its cars with soft pillows. Then the children decide to try all sorts of other stunts, such as jumping off bridges, or lying on railway tracks. In the end the entire city is covered by pillows, and the children are miserable because they cannot run or walk anywhere without continually falling into soft pillows.

Now the children accuse their parents of being 'too restrictive'.

2. A child climbs on to its father's bike and pushes away from the wall. The bike wobbles all over the drive and gathers speed, then it heads towards the letterbox - but the father quickly runs ahead and removes the letterbox. The child wobbles into the road, so the father diverts the traffic. The child wobbles across the park, so the father runs ahead, shifting seats, felling trees, draining and filling the pond, clearing the way right across the city . . .

3. A child sneaks disobediently upstairs and defiantly turns the bath taps on. A flannel blocks the plug so the bath begins to fill. But the bath has an automatic switch which automatically unblocks the plug hole. The child then decides to stuff paper into the electric heater, but the heater automatically switches off. The child then tries various other destructive ideas, but in every case an automatic defence overrules. The child becomes bored and miserable because it cannot 'have any fun'. In its heart it remains rebellious, but the world contains that rebellion, so the child never learns about consequences.

In all three cases we see that if a child does not learn about consequences or personal responsibility, it fails to grasp the real world, and secondly, if parents fail to teach a child correctly, the parents themselves become fools.

In the same way, God has equipped this world with a set of rules which we call 'the laws of Nature' - heat, cold, pain, gravity, friction - to teach us that every effect must have a cause. In the natural world we know that if we fall over, we will probably hurt ourselves. In the moral world, we know that if we sin we will probably feel the effects, either by hurting ourselves or someone else in some way.

"But" some people say, "Why should I be punished for something the first two humans did?" And the question seems quite reasonable. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and were punished - that is very fair. They heard God's warning, and they rebelled, so they got what they deserved, "But I'm not sinful like them! I never killed anyone, or robbed a bank! I'm a very nice person - quite a good person in fact - so why should I be punished?"

The question depends a great deal on what we mean by "good".

Let us imagine we are looking at a flock of sheep. They are big, white New Zealand sheep, standing on a dark green hillside. The sun shines on their fleeces and they are quite dazzling.

Now imagine the weather has changed. A thick blanket of snow has fallen, and there are the same sheep, standing on the white hillside. Suddenly you notice that their fleeces are actually quite grubby.

Compared to the snow, those sheep are not very white at all.

Now let us look at the question again. If I compare myself with other people, I may decide that I am quite a good person. Compared to a drug-smoking, booze-drinking, gang-member murderer on Death Row I'm quite a saint!

But compared to God? Well, that's a different story.

There are many people who think they are 'good'. They decide this by comparing themselves with other people. They compare their lives with the lives of people who commit all sorts of antisocial, or immoral acts. They raise themselves up by looking down on others, and then they decide that, because they are so much better than other people, God is also pleased with them.

Nothing could be further from the truth! God is holy and righteous. His moral standards are so pure and so perfect that not a single human who has ever lived would qualify to stand near to Him.

The Ten Commandments.

One way to understand our true state compared to God is by looking at the Ten Commandments. (Ex.20) If you hold a mirror up to your face, you see your own face as it appears to others. You see the spots and wrinkles and maybe you wish you had another, better face? But most people have no choice. They are stuck with the face they have.

When you hold the Ten Commandments up to your heart, you will, (hopefully) see your heart as it really is. Are you willing to do this?

1. The first commandment is to put God first in all our affections. This means that if we love anything more than we love God we are sinning. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all our hearts, minds and strength, so the greatest sin must be to fail to do this.

2. The second commandment is to not make or bow to any false image. Many people in non-Western countries do this, but most people in the West do not. However, in another way, people in the West do make for themselves a false image of God. Some people think of God (wrongly) as a Libertarian, so they imagine that God doesn't mind lust, or cursing, drunkenness or licentious behaviour. Other people think of God in other ways, so they think lying and cheating are OK. Almost all non-Christians have an idolatrous understanding of the nature of God.

3. The third commandment is to not take the Lord's name in vain. How many times have you said "God!" as a swear word? How many people do you know who use the name of Jesus as a curse?

4. The fourth commandment is to honour the sabbath. This day - every seventh - was set aside by God for Man to use to worship Him on. Most people don't. Sunday, for most people, is just a day for enjoying oneself, resting, going for a trip, watching the rugby . . .

5. The fifth commandment is to honour father and mother. Many people will say they have done this, but the question must be asked "Did you implicitly obey your parents in all things at all times?" Have you always had a good attitude towards them? Have you always done what pleased them?" Now the answer must be 'No" because no child ever honours its parents as perfectly as God requires.

6. The sixth commandment is to refrain from "killing" (which, in the Hebrew, means murdering.) Well, of course, most people are not murderers, but wait a minute - Jesus warned that if someone loses their temper and is angry with someone they are in danger of judgement as murderers. The Bible also says that if a Christian hates another Christian, they have murdered them in their heart. Have you ever been angry, or bitter against someone?

7. The seventh commandment is to refrain from adultery. We may not have committed the act, but Jesus said that "whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery already with her in his heart".

8. The eighth commandment is to not steal. It does not have to be a big thing - just a coin, or a book, a biscuit, a hair clip, a lolly, or a stamp. The moment you steal something you become a thief, and remember, God sees your whole life, right from the time when you were very young. Think back and ask yourself if you ever took something without permission . . . have you kept the eighth commandment?

9. The ninth commandment is to not bear false witness. This is about being honest. The world has a certain level of honesty which it is comfortable with - tax dodging, avoiding fines, lying to get out of things, twisting the truth to give a false impression, half-truths, 'white lies', deceit, exaggeration, misleading comments such as gossip, and so on - but God's standard is pure honesty. If you have told one lie, you are a thief.

10. The tenth commandment is to not covet - which means two things : to avoid wanting things which belong to others, and to avoid being greedy.

When we imagined the flock of sheep on the hillside, we were thinking about how we see ourselves compared to other people, We may have thought we were quite good, but now that the 'snow' of God's Law has descended, we see ourselves as God sees us. Compared to God's pure and perfect nature, we are all quite grubby. God sees us as sinners, and there is no difference between us and a mass-murderer or rapist. The same punishment comes to all who sin, irrespective of the quality or quantity of their offence - in the same was as a sheet of paper with even one black spot on it would be rejected by a Printer, just as readily as a sheet with a hundred black spots.

The penalty for breaking one or all of the Ten Commandments is exactly the same : death.

Now, before we move from this point, we have to go back to the first question we asked - Why does God allow suffering? The answer, as you can see now, is not as simple as you may have thought. There are several factors involved, and there are some things attached to the answer which we just don't know. God's wisdom is one of the unknowables, and another is how do all the events which began with creation, all work together to produce a result which is in harmony with God's sovereign rule? We see only one small area of life, and that imperfectly. We cannot see all the parts.

Many years ago there was a cave-in in a Welsh coal mine. The wives and family gathered at the top and waited, and prayed, for the men to be brought out alive, but, sadly, some were killed underground. A minister was called to speak, and he brought with him a tapestry. He held it up, showing the back of the cloth, with all the loose threads hanging down in total confusion.

"This is how things seem to us right now" he said, "We see only the confusion and pain, all the broken threads and twisted lines, and we do not understand what is happening . . ."

Then he turned the tapestry round and showed the people the face of Jesus, beautifully stitched.

He said "But this side is the one which God sees. To Him all of life makes sense. We must trust Him because, even though we do not understand, we know that God does."

It may sound offensive, but God allows suffering because He cannot be what He isn't. Like a parent who cannot intervene at every moment to prevent the laws of nature operating, God cannot force the world to cushion and protect us all the time. Suffering is an inevitable result of sin. Sin is the cause and we all share the consequences.

Let us take one more look at those three stories. In each case the child (Mankind) was using freewill and choice.

In the first case the child was acting in innocence and ignorance, so a little discipline was helpful because it might save the child's life in the future. The parent acted in a responsible way by smacking the child for running on to the road.

In the second case the child was wrong for blaming the bike for the accident, when it was natural laws and the child's own ignorance which were to blame.

In the third case it was the child's sin which brought about the death and destruction. These three stories throw a lot of light on the way people behave in this world, and also show us how God is always trying to help people - but most people refuse His help.

The penalty, we have seen, for sin is death. If we break just one of the Ten Commandments, we place ourselves in the dock and God, the Judge, has no option but to pronounce us "Guilty." But God has done something stupendous in order to make it possible to say "Not Guilty!"

God sent His Son Jesus, to take the whole punishment for breaking the Ten Commandments, on behalf of all sinners. Jesus did not break any of the Ten Commandments, as you will know if you read his life in the New Testament - recorded by eyewitnesses. Yet, at the end of his three year ministry, Jesus allowed cruel and sinful people to nail him to a cross, and there, on that cross, Jesus breathed out his last breath and died - for you and me.

How can you say that God does not care when you see Jesus on the cross? How can you accuse God of being cruel and vindictive, when you see Jesus taking your sins? There was no need for him to do this, nor any rule that said that sinful humans must be given a chance to avoid their rightful punishment. It was all because of God's great love that Jesus came, and nothing else.

The present problems which the world is constantly battling are the result of Adam and Eve's original sin. Their children were sinners too, and so were the children of the next generation - and so on right up to today. You are a sinner, just like Adam and Eve, and so am I, and so are all your friends and family. Sin is inherited, so you will have passed it on to your children (if you have any) and they will pass it on to theirs.

As you probably know, you don't need to teach a child how to be bad. They just naturally seem to know how to lie, cheat, steal, hit, bite, defy, refuse, scream, want their own way . . . most of a good parent's life is spent disciplining and training rebellious, self-willed children into obedience and compliance.

And any honest parent will admit that the very things they try to remove from their children's behaviour are inherent in their own human nature.

There are several different branches to the original sin which ought to be touched on here, because they sometimes seem to blur the picture.


There are many deformities, mutations and genetically-based problems in this world. Many diseases are caused by genetic faults, and other disorders have a genetic cause, such as dwarfism, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anaemia, haemophilia, and Down's syndrome.

In an ideal world there would be no genetic problems, and no sickness. In fact, we might as well extend this dream as far as ageing and abolish that too - but we know that this world is far from ideal. The Bible tells us the cause and the cure for these things, but it also tells us that, for a short space of time, all creation must suffer together.

* The thing we have to accept is that God cannot make it an ideal world for one person and a fallen world for the next. Imagine the situation. You are an obedient Christian so you get all the blessings, but your neighbour is not, so he suffers! One repercussion of this impractical situation would be a general rush to Christianity because that was where all the blessings were. Wrong motive for becoming a Christian.

* Nor can God take people away as soon as they become Christians - that too would violate the logic of the situation. Who would be left to preach the gospel to the lost? And how would the grace of God be seen if Christians were not around to demonstrate it by their faith?

* God cannot remove the effects of sin as long as there are people in the world who either say they are good when they are in fact breaking the Ten Commandment, or who are out and out rebels. This would be like the parent who puts soft pillows on everything, rather than changing the behaviour of the child.

* Nor can He force anyone to obey Him. Man has freewill, so Man chooses things. Adam and Eve chose to disobey, risking the consequences. You and I choose to obey God, or not to. There are literally billions of people in this world right now who are living in defiance and disobedience to God.

"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God.

For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who has subjected the same in hope,

Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now."

Romans 8:18-23

Please consider this passage carefully. What it is saying is that all creation ("the creature") is waiting for the end of this short space of time in which we are presently living. Why? Because God is about to bring to a close all the suffering, and groaning, and pain, and bring in everlasting life, joy, peace and health!

You see, God does not want any more suffering in this world. If it upsets people enough to speak out about it, how much more must it upset the One who made those people? If we ourselves are saddened by the crime and sin in the world, how much more is God, who cannot sin, upset by Man's continual rebellion?

Nature run wild.

Not a day passes without some disaster, be it Mount St. Helens or floods in North Africa, a tsunami in the Pacific Islands or an earthquake in China. Some people accuse God of fickleness. They say He causes these disasters because He is cruel, and even sadistic or uncaring.

But let us be a little more objective here. If you built your house on a riverbed, who might you blame when the flood came? Yourself. If you built under the lip of a snowy mountain and an avalanche destroyed your house, who might you blame? Yourself.

There are millions of people in the world right now who are risking their lives because they think the fault-line won't shift, or the earth won't slump, or the floods won't flow. They build with substandard materials and cry 'disaster' when their buildings fall, they perch their houses on cliffs, and cry 'unfair' when the cliff gives way, and they drive at breakneck speeds, and then blame God for the crash.

God gets the blame for ill health - when it is the person who has been eating junk for years. God gets the blame for the nervous breakdown - when it is the person who has been feeding his or her mind on Satanic music, or endless TV rubbish, or sick books. God gets the blame for the most terrible things, but usually this is because people don't like to own up and admit they are really the cause.

We live in a fallen world, but God has given us the ability to learn wisdom. If we are wise we will care for our bodies and minds, and we will make wise decisions about who we marry, how we drive, and where we live. Our governments will make wise decisions too. The Bible is full of perfect advice - as you would expect - for men, women and children. Just as every car comes with a Manual, God has provided a Manual for His creatures.

But when we are stupid or ignorant, God cannot remove the consequences - which is why there is so much needless suffering. Most suffering is preventable, but Man is a sinner, so Man chooses to turn his back on God and 'do his own thing' - which is another way of saying 'rebel against God'.

If Man obeyed God there would be no wars, no thefts, no adultery or any kind of sexual sin, no dishonesty, no greed, no murder, no hate, no violence of any kind, and no vengeance. All the people of the world would have plenty to eat, good clothes and nice houses, and wealth would be shared freely with all.

Do you see? God has done everything He can, within His own rules, and within the limits of His own nature, to make all people happy, but people have refused to take the lead, and so most of the suffering in the world is entirely their own fault.

The answer is, and always has been, in our hands.

The Great Flood.

The entire earth at present looks very different to how it used to look. When God first created this planet, he spread low hills with forests and plants all over it. There were no great oceans or mighty mountains. Then, after about a thousand years or so, God brought a tremendous global flood to destroy the world. This flood created the sedimentary rocks, of which about 80% of the earth's surface is comprised, and in which are embedded the billions of fossils - the remains of the plants and animals which were buried by the sediments.

After the great flood, the world was repopulated again, from Noah's family, and the nations presently in the world are direct descendants of this family.

Because the earth is now so different, the weather is also different. Instead of a warm, mild climate, we have extremes - tornados, hurricanes and the like, and the earth itself is still recovering - volcanos, floods, earthquakes and blizzards. We also have polar caps.

If we do not take into account the tremendous changes which this earth went through only some 4000 years ago, we cannot fully appreciate the reasons for some of the world's natural disasters.


The Bible is very clear about this. God created many angels, and chose one of them, called Lucifer, the 'shining one', as head, but Satan became proud and tried to usurp God's authority, so God sent Satan and the other rebellious angels to earth. These angels are also called demons. They may be invisible, but they are real. Their purpose in this world is to lie, to steal and to kill God's creation. Their main focus is the blinding and degradation of Mankind.

One of the ways in which Satan has been very effective is his propagation of Religion. Christianity, as based on the Lord Jesus Christ, is the true religion, because Jesus is the only Son of God. Jesus confirmed this by fulfilling hundreds of prophecies, by working miracles, and by living a perfect life - which no-one could fault. Jesus also conquered death by rising from the grave.

All the religions in the world - except Christianity, teach that the only way to get to heaven is by doing good works. Only Christianity has a risen Saviour, who gives everlasting life freely to all who come to Him. And only Christianity has the power to change lives by a "new birth". The evidence speaks for itself. Over the past 2000 years millions of people have started living new lives because of Jesus Christ working in and through them.

Why does God allow suffering? This is really the sort of question which Satan might ask, because as long as he can keep people holding grudges against God, the more likely it is that those people will not turn to God in repentance.


What we ought to remember is that God is our Judge, and not the other way round. God will never have to explain Himself to us, but we will have to explain to Him why we refused to accept the free pardon offered to us through His Son.

"For God so loved the world,

that he gave his only begotten Son,

that whoever believes in him should not perish,

but have everlasting life.

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;

but that the world through him might be saved."

John 3:16,17

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