Theologians tell us that God is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and that he (or she) is loving (or more so, that his nature is to love). If God had only one or two of these characteristics, Christianity would take on a very different character. For instance, if God was all powerful and loving but not all-knowing, he would do his best by us but would be inclined to make a lot of mistakes. If he was all-knowing and loving but not all powerful he would be consumed with despair. If he was all-knowing and all-powerful but not loving he would play with us, carry out experiments on us, even deliberately harm us. As it is, we are taught that God is all-knowing, all powerful and loving. He knows what we need, is able to give it to us, and wishes to do so.
This generates one of the biggest problems people of all backgrounds have with Christianity. If God is like this, why is the world so filled with pain and suffering? Surely God has either got it wrong (he is not really all-powerful) or he doesn’t really love us.
There are essentially two sources of suffering – nature, and other people. Most suffering involves a bit of both. For instance the recent cyclone in Burma, which has killed thousands and made hundreds of thousands homeless, is a natural event. Yet the suffering is made worse by the neglect and suspicion of the country’s military regime – a regime with more power than love. But let’s ignore that for the moment and pretend we can talk about them as separate types of suffering.
Of the two, human caused suffering is easier to explain (not easy, just easier). Why should we blame God for our own failings? The obvious answer is because he made us – so either he stuffed up, or he deliberately made us flawed. The answer to this problem is far from clear, but I think it lies in the nature of love. Love implies choice. Your computer doesn’t love you – it does what you tell it because it is programmed to do so. Nor does it hate you – it fails to do what you want because it is broken, or because you don’t know how to use it properly. In order to love or hate you must have a choice. Hence a loving God, one who wants to make creatures also capable of love, must give them a choice. If the choice does not include the possibility of making mistakes, or of deliberate rebellion, it is not a true choice and there can be no love.
This means that evil is not inevitable. If we can choose evil, we can also choose good. Because we are not all-knowing we can make mistakes, but we can learn from them and correct them. Yet because the choice is always there, people will sometimes chose evil, and will act in a calculatedly selfish or cruel way. God could prevent this, and his failure to do so seems unloving towards the victims. Yet at a more fundamental level, such intervention would be a violation of love because it would make real love impossible. So instead, God chooses to intervene by becoming one of us, sharing our powerlessness, and ultimately suffering at the hands of the evil which his own love has made possible. To the extent that such suffering is his fault, he takes responsibility by sharing the punishment, and in the process shows us in what direction love lies.
Naturally-caused suffering seems to be even more problematic. Where is the element of choice in being overrun by a cyclone or earthquake, or suffering from cancer? These seem to be evidence of a cruel, distant or indifferent God.
My first thought is that these sorts of events show that humans are not the centre of the universe. Without wishing to make light of people’s sufferings, they are only tragedies from a human viewpoint. From the point of view of the earth’s crust, an earthquake is just an ordinary occurrence, something that happens when parts of the earth’s crust come into contact with each other. From the point of view of bacteria, a raging illness is a triumph, a source of prosperity. For our part, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which took place in the distant past are matters of curiosity and sources of beauty, not causes of mourning for the people or animals who may have died or been made homeless. This seems to be the meaning of the final chapters of the book of Job – Job believes God is unjust only because he has insufficient knowledge of the world which God made and maintains.
Yet is this what we learn from this sort of suffering – that the universe truly is indifferent to us? That in God’s management of the earth we are sometimes expendable? This seems once again to show a limitation on God’s love or power. Isn’t he smart enough to organise a world where such suffering is unnecessary?
Another option is to refer this type of suffering back to sinfulness. Before the Fall, as I have heard it preached, this type of suffering was unnecessary, but our sinfulness also involves the earth and makes it hostile.
This point of view is one that can only be accepted by faith, as a mystical explanation. There is no logical connection between our sin and the clashing of tectonic plates. Plenty of other “natural” suffering can be sheeted home to people and hence to sin – the effects of climate change, the foolishness of building cities on flood plains, and so forth, but this is at best only partial.
So for me, it remains a mystery. Can anyone out there answer it for me? Why is it necessary for thousands to suffer in the Chinese earthquake, or hundreds of thousands in the face of the Asian tsunami? How can we say that God cares about us in the light of these things? I believe that God is loving, and wise, and powerful, but it’s not always easy to keep believing so.