Why is there so much suffering in this world? If God really exists, why do bad things happen to good people? This is one of the most significant questions asked by both atheists and believers. This single question has caused millions to deny the existence of God or ultimately reject the God in which they once believed.
It is important to answer this question because Christianity teaches that God is totally sovereign. Everything that happens is either caused by God or allowed by God. How then, can evil even exist, let alone be so common?
Some have sought to answer this question by showing how trials and suffering can benefit us by teaching us to rely more on God, or helping us to empathize with others, or teaching us humility, etc. Biblically, these are all true. However, they don’t ultimately answer the question. Instead, these illustrations show how God can bring a good outcome from a bad experience, but don’t show why the bad thing happened in the first place.
To really answer this question, we need to start with two basic truths. The first truth is that God gave humankind free will. God could easily have created humankind to love and follow Him blindly. He could have made us with no capacity to reject Him. However, that would have made us mere automatons, flesh and blood “robots” whose love for—and obedience to—God would be artificial and, ultimately unfulfilling for us or for God.
Instead, God gave us free will. He gave us the ability to choose our own way. We can choose to love and follow Him…or not. When any person chooses to love God, it is incredibly meaningful to Him and a source of joy. When a person chooses to turn away from Him, it pains Him greatly because God loves each and every one of us.
The second truth is that humans exercised that free will early on, and decided to go their own way. This brought sin into the world. When any person chooses to do things that he or she knows are wrong and against God’s will, this creates a separation from God. It is a separation brought about by the person’s own choices, not by God’s choices.
When sin was originally brought into the world by humans, it caused a degree of separation between God and the world. At the point that humans decided to go out “on their own,” God allowed them. That meant that from that point, God would allow the world to “run” without always providing his direct control and protection. Humans would have to deal with the possibility of suffering and bad things happening, either by pure bad luck, foul play, or whatever.
Now, before we sit back and criticize those who first decided to sin, cursing them because their actions resulted in a fallen world for us to inherit, we need to remember one thing: We are all sinners.
The Bible is clear in its teaching that all people are sinners, and our experience confirms it. Everyone reading this post (including the author) has told lies, disobeyed their parents, and stolen things, among many other sins. Even young children learn to lie or be selfish without being taught and often despite our best efforts to teach them otherwise. Sin is in our very nature. So we contribute sin to our already fallen world each day. The existence of sin and the resultant separation from God is the root cause of suffering in the world: Mankind freely chooses to do evil things.
Now, here is a critically important point: None of this means that people affected by natural disasters did something wrong and were “asking for it.” Nor does it mean that a person stricken with cancer must have gotten sick because of some sin she committed. That’s not what all of this means at all. The fallen nature of our world, which is the result of sin and separation from God, is what enables bad things to happen at all. In short, we live in an imperfect world and, to (sort of) quote the bumper sticker, “Stuff Happens.”
Everyone is subject to these effects because we have all sinned, even “good” people and observant Christians. In fact, the Bible promises Christians will face suffering and hardship. Jesus experienced incredible suffering, so why would we be immune?
Ultimately, “why do bad things happen to good people” is the wrong question. But we are still His creation, and God loves us enough to provide a way out. Two thousand years ago, God came to earth in the form of a man named Jesus and paid the price required for our sin (there’s more on this—the critical core of Christian belief—in a separate post). He made it possible, through faith in Him, to escape the eternal penalty of sin. So the real question is “why did such a bad thing happen to our good God?” Fortunately, the answer is “because He loves us.”
Image Attribution: By Sander van der Wel from The Netherlands (Depressed, uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons