Why would a Loving God allow Suffering, Pain and Death?

Of the various reasons put forward denying the existence of an all-powerful and loving Creator this often tops the list.  The logic seems pretty straightforward.  If God is all-powerful and loving then He can control the world and would control it for our well-being. But the world is so full of suffering, pain and death that God must either not exist, not have all power, or perhaps not be loving.  Consider some thoughts from those who have argued this point. 

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”

Dawkins, Richard, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, vol. 273 (November 1995), pp. 80‑85.

The grim and inescapable reality is that all life is predicated on death.  Every carnivorous creature must kill and devour another creature … How could a loving God create such horrors? …Surely it would not be beyond the competence of an omniscient deity to create an animal world that could be sustained and perpetuated without suffering and death.

Charles Templeton, Farewell to God. 1996 p 197-199

Diving into this question, however, we will quickly find it more complex than might appear at first.  Removing the Creator crashes on a contradiction.  Understanding the complete Biblical answer to this question provides powerful hope in the face of suffering and death.

Building the Biblical WorldView

Let’s consider this question by carefully laying out the Biblical worldview.  The Bible starts with the premise that God exists and that He is indeed all-powerful, just, holy and loving.  Simply put, He always is.  His power and existence does not depend on anything else.  Our first diagram illustrates this.

The Biblical worldview begins with the premise of an all-powerful Creator

God, from his own will and power then created Nature out of nothing (ex nihilo).  We illustrate Nature in the second diagram as a rounded brown rectangle.  This rectangle includes and contains all the mass-energy of the universe as well as all the physical laws by which the universe runs.  In addition all the information required to create and sustain life is included herein.  Thus, the DNA which codes for the proteins which utilize the physical laws of chemistry and physics, is also included in Nature.  This box is huge, but crucially, it is not part of God.  Nature is distinct from Him, represented by the Nature box as separate from the cloud representing God.  God used his power and knowledge to create Nature, so we illustrate this with the arrow going from God into Nature.

God Creates Nature which encompasses the Mass-Energy of the Universe and its physical laws. Nature and God are distinct

Mankind created in the Image of God

Then God created man. Man is composed of matter-energy as well as the same biological DNA information construct as the rest of creation.  We show this by placing man inside the Nature box.  The right angle arrow illustrates that God constructed man out of the elements of Nature.  However, God also created non-material, spiritual dimensions to man.  The Bible terms this special feature of man as ‘made in the image of God’ (explored more here).  Thus God imparted spiritual capabilities, capacities and characteristics into man that go beyond matter-energy and physical laws.  We illustrate this with the second arrow coming from God and going directly into man (with label ‘Image of God’).

Sister Nature, not Mother Nature

Both Nature and man were created by God, with man materially composed of, and residing within, Nature.  We recognize this by changing the well-known adage about ‘Mother Nature’. Nature is not our Mother, but rather Nature is our sister. This is because, in the Biblical worldview, both Nature and Man are created by God.  This idea of ‘Sister Nature’ captures the idea that man and Nature bear similarities (as sisters do) but also that they both derive from the same source (again as sisters do).  Man does not come from Nature, but is composed of elements of Nature.

Nature is our ‘Sister’, not Mother Nature

Nature: Unjust and Amoral – Why God?

Now we observe that Nature is cruel and does not operate as if justice has any meaning.  We add this attribute to Nature in our diagram. Dawkins and Templeton artfully articulated this above. Following their cue, we reflect back to the Creator and ask how He could have created such an amoral Nature.  Driving this moral argument is our innate capacity for moral reasoning, so eloquently expressed by Richard Dawkins.

Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar …  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. p. 223

The Secular Worldview – Mother Nature

Not finding an answer to our liking many then dismiss the notion of a transcendent Creator who made both Nature and mankind.  So now our worldview has become secular and looks like this.

We have removed God as the cause who made us, and thus also we have removed man’s distinctiveness bearing ‘The image of God’.  This is the worldview Dawkins and Templeton promote, and which pervades western society today.  All that remains is Nature, the mass-energy and physical laws. So the narrative is changed to say that Nature created us.  In that narrative, a naturalistic evolutionary process brought forth man.  Nature, in this view, really is our Mother.  This is because everything about us, our capabilities, capacities and characteristics must come from Nature, since there is no other Cause.

The Moral Dilemma

But this brings us to our dilemma.  Humans still have that moral capacity, which Dawkins describes as a ‘moral grammar’.  But how does an amoral (not immoral as in bad morals, but amoral in that morality is simply not part of the makeup) Nature produce beings with a sophisticated moral grammar?  To put it another way, the moral argument against God presiding over an unjust world, presupposes that there really is justice and injustice.  But if we get rid of God because the world is ‘unjust’ then where do we get this notion of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ to begin with?  Nature herself shows no inkling of a moral dimension which includes justice.

Imagine a universe without time.  Can someone be ‘late’ in such a universe?  Can someone be ‘thick’ in a two dimensional universe?  Similarly, we decided that amoral Nature is our sole cause. So we find ourselves in an amoral universe complaining that it is immoral?  Where does that ability to discern and reason morally come from?

Simply discarding God from the equation does not solve the problem that Dawkins and Templeton so eloquently articulate above. 

The Biblical Explanation for Suffering, Pain and Death

The Biblical worldview answers the problem of pain but does so without creating the problem of explaining where our moral grammar comes from. The Bible does not simply affirm Theism, that a Creator God exists.  It also articulates a catastrophe that entered Nature.  Man rebelled against his Creator, says the Bible, and this is why there is suffering, pain and death.  Review the account here with ramifications spelled out here also.

Why did God allow entry of pain, suffering and death as a consequence of man’s rebellion?  Consider the crux of the temptation and thus man’s rebellion.

For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:5

The first human ancestors were tempted to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.  ‘Knowing’ here does not mean knowing as in the sense of learning facts or truths like we might know the capital cities in the world or know the multiplication tables.  God knows, not in the sense of learning, but in the sense of deciding.  When we decided to ‘know’ like God we took the mantle to decide what is good and what is evil.  We can then make the rules as we choose.

Since that fateful day mankind has carried this instinct and natural desire to be his own god, deciding for himself what will be good and what will be evil.  Up to that point The Creator God had made Nature as our friendly and well-serving sister.  But from this point on Nature would change.  God decreed a Curse:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3: 17-19

The Role of the Curse

In the Curse, God, so to speak, transformed Nature from our sister into our step-sister.  In the romantic stories step-sisters dominate and put down the heroine.  Similarly, our step-sister, Nature, now treats us harshly, dominating us with suffering and death.  In our foolishness we thought we could be God.  Nature, as our cruel step-sister, constantly brings us back to reality. It keeps reminding us that, though we might imagine otherwise, we are not gods. 

Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son illustrates this.  The foolish son wanted to depart from his father but he found that the life he pursued was hard, difficult and painful.  Because of that, Jesus said, the son ‘came to his senses.. ’.  In this parable we are the foolish son and Nature represents the hardships and hunger which plagued him. Nature as our step-sister allows us to shake off our foolish imaginations and come to our senses.

Mankind’s technological breakthroughs over the last 200 or so years has been largely to lighten the heavy hand of his step-sister upon him.  We have learned to harness energy so our toil is much less painful than in the past.  Medicine and technology have greatly contributed to lessening Nature’s hard grip on us.  Though we welcome this, a by-product of our advance has been that we have begun to reclaim our god delusions. We are deluded into imagining in some way that we are autonomous gods. 

Consider some statements from prominent thinkers, scientists and social influencers who sit atop man’s recent advances.  Ask yourself if these do not smack a little of a god complex.

Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.“

Jacques Monod

“In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural.  The earth was not created, it evolved.  So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body.  So did religion. …  Evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from his loneliness in the arms of a divinized father figure whom he has himself created…

Sir Julian Huxley. 1959. Remarks at the Darwin Centennial, University of Chicago. Grandson of Thomas Huxley, Sir Julian was also the first director general of UNESCO

‘I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.’

Huxley, Aldous., Ends and Means, pp. 270 ff.

We no longer feel ourselves to be guests in someone else’s home and therefore obliged to make our behavior conform with a set of pre-existing cosmic rules. It is our creation now. We make the rules. We establish the parameters of reality. We create the world, and because we do, we no longer feel beholden to outside forces. We no longer have to justify our behavior, for we are now the architects of the universe. We are responsible to nothing outside ourselves, for we are the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever.

Jeremy Rifkin, Algeny A New Word—A New World, p. 244 (Viking Press, New York), 1983.  Rifkin is an economist specializing on impact of science and biotechnology on society.

The Situation as it Stands Now – But with Hope

The Bible summarizes why suffering, pain and death characterizes this world.  Death came as a result of our rebellion.  Today we live in the consequences of that rebellion.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned

Romans 5:12

So today we live in frustration.  But the gospel story puts forth hope in that this will come to an end.  Liberation will come.

‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time

Romans 8:20-22

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the ‘firstfruits’ of this liberation.  This will be achieved when the Kingdom of God is fully established.  At that time:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away

Revelation 21:3-4

Hope Contrasted

Consider the difference in hope that Paul articulated, compared with Dr. William Provine and Woody Allen.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and too clearly life does become unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise. This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life – I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it… I do feel that it [life] is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”

Woody Allen – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8684809.stm

“Modern science implies … ´There are no purposive principles whatsoever. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable …  ´Second, … there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society.  ´Third, [a]… human becomes an ethical person by means of heredity and environmental influences. That is all there is.  ´Fourth …when we die, we die and that is the end of us.”

W. Provine. “Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics”, in MBL Science, Vol.3, (1987) No.1, pp.25-29. Dr. Provine was professor of History of Science at Cornell University

Which worldview would you prefer to build your life on?