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The Problem of Suffering

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 NIV)

This article is a little heady, but I was inspired by Mark’s sermon on loving God with our minds! So here’s an example of examining the logical flaws of a common point of view.

I recently heard an interview on the radio with a professor of New Testament Studies from the University of North Carolina. He was talking about his book The Triumph of Christianity, which gives a historical account of how Christianity “conquered” the Roman empire. What I found interesting is that the author said he personally could no longer believe in God because of all the suffering in the world. He said something along the lines of, “The people in Africa whose children are dying of starvation are praying to the same God I’m praying to. If he was there and loving, why would he help me and not them?”

At first that sounds like a legitimate argument. I hope we all struggle with the problem of suffering and how our loving God allows it. However, the argument that “if God existed he couldn’t allow suffering and injustice; therefore, he can’t exist” actually relies on circular logic and is self-defeating.

To begin unpacking that statement, I’ll start with an example. Our 5-year-old gets a children’s science magazine in the mail. One of the articles in the last issue was a fictional story about a little girl who finds a baby sea turtle trapped on a beach trying to crawl to the ocean. Her grandmother talks her through the right and wrong ways to help the turtle. For example, it’s fine to clear the beach of things that block the turtle’s path to the ocean, but it’s wrong to carry the turtle to the ocean; it needs to crawl by itself. At the end, the girl asks her grandma, “If I do all of those things, will the baby turtle be alright?” The grandma replies, “I don’t know. Life is hard for turtles. Birds and racoons eat baby turtles before they get to the ocean, and fish eat baby turtles swimming in the ocean.” The girl responds in horror “that’s awful!” to which the grandma simply replies, “That’s nature.” Predators aren’t mean, it’s just the way they work—they must eat meat to survive.

So why is it “nature” when a fish eats a turtle, or a lion kills a gazelle, but we have a strong sense that something is wrong and unjust when humans are dying of disease and lack of clean water in one part of the world while others elsewhere live in comfort? That all depends on the frame of reference.

If God does not exist, and everything evolved from a grand accident with no design, then human suffering would be “just nature.” The sense that suffering is wrong would be only a feeling. However, if humans are created in God’s image, then something is indeed wrong, because suffering is outside of God’s intended design for humanity.

To put it another way, there is an obvious design and purpose in the world that tells us intuitively that some things are contrary to the way they “should be.” However, there can only be a design and purpose to the world if God exists—if he created it with a design of what is right and wrong. To deny God’s existence based on human suffering means there must be a design that suffering violates, but a design requires a designer (i.e., God). Thus, the argument uses circular logic, meaning it’s not a logically sound reason to disbelieve God’s existence.

Thanks for bearing with me! The problem of suffering is still something that Christians need to think and talk about, but I hope this analysis helps you respond to the argument that suffering means there must not be a God.

Andrew can be reached by email here.

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