Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Problem of Suffering...

...runs like this: God is omnipotent (can do anything) and omniscient (knows everything). He is also perfectly good. But there is suffering in the world. Either God cannot do anything about this suffering (not omnipotent and/or omniscient) or he chooses not to, in which case he is not perfectly good.

In summary, for suffering to exist in the world God must either be powerless over it, or be a real big jerk.

This question of whether suffering is compatible with belief in God (I mean the God of Abraham and Paul, the great unchangeable I AM) perplexes and discourages many Christians. It is often a stumbling block for those seeking God. And it has been a powerful argument for atheism for thousands of years.

I am a Christian, so I will approach the problem from a Christian point of view. I will be making certain assumptions that I feel no need to defend. I do not have to defend all of my faith every time I defend part of my faith.

What's the problem? 
The problem of suffering is even bigger than you think. Every terrible thing that happens on this planet happens, in one sense, because God does not prevent it. Every death. Every rape. Every mugging, mutilation, assault, arson, war crime, and act of littering happens because he does not prevent it. I believe he does not cause these things to happen, he does not actively will them, but nonetheless he certainly allows them to happen.

But let me restate the question of "what is the problem?" in a slightly different way. How do you identify this problem? When you say that the world should not be this way, should not contain suffering, against what are you comparing it? No human has ever experienced a world without suffering. Yet suffering is not only not hardwired into our expectations of the world, we actually expect or hope for a world without suffering.

This could be called imagination. I call it an awareness of what we are supposed to be and have. What we all silently expect is a perfect world. Most people try to create it for themselves while knowing it is impossible, but that is their desire: a perfect world. I believe perfection is not just a concept.

Perfection exists, and its name is God.

Perfection exists, and the state of humanity experiencing perfection is called perfect relationship with God. Heaven. The new creation.

So the problem, phrased differently, is: why am I not in heaven already?

Why not straight to heaven? 
If God is so good and loves us so much, why didn't he create the world and put us all straight into heaven?

Well, he sort of did that.

God created humanity and put them in a garden. He told them to take care of the garden. He visited regularly. The only negative instruction he gave them was don't eat from that tree there, because if you do you will die. Humanity was created to obey God and reflect his glory, to see and revel in his total amazing perfection. Adam and Eve (yes, both of them) chose to disobey God's instructions and make their own rules. They wanted to run their own lives.

God doesn't kill them. He could have wiped away the world and started again. Instead, he boots them out of the garden and they have to work for a living. But he promises them that one day Eve's descendants will triumph over the serpent - that is, the creature that tempted them into disobeying God.

What does all this have to do with you? Well, if you were put in Adam or Eve's place you would make the same decision. That's what makes you a human - all humans are disobedient now. You can't overcome what you are. Ever since the first two humans disobeyed God we have all been unable to obey God. We are all sinners.

It is this sin which messed the world up. God created the world as good, harmonious, fruitful. Human sin made it chaotic, painful, riddled with suffering.

It is humanity that is responsible for suffering. I don't mean that you yourself directly cause your own suffering, but the choices of Adam and Eve - the same choices you yourself would make - have broken the world. We choose to disobey God every day. Can we really get pissed at him when we suffer as a result of past disobedience?

Can't God fix it? 

Yes he can. He's omnipotent.

But consider this. Your sin is mixed up with the suffering in the world. Your sinful desires don't cause the suffering, but they come from the same source: the original sin of humanity. God can sweep in and take away the suffering. In fact, he is going to.

But when he does he will deal with the problem at the source. He will judge sin, and everything that is not perfect will be swept away by his anger. This includes people. Have you ever sinned? Have you ever done one thing that would not make God proud of you as his child? Then you're going to be swept away by his wrath as well.

God has provided a way out of this problem. He sent his son Jesus to pay for everyone's sins. Everyone who trusts in Jesus is shielded from wrath because God sees Jesus' perfection instead of human sin (Jesus being God, and therefore perfect).

The only reason God holds back the end to suffering, the re-creation of the world, the terrible flood of his righteous and judging anger, is so that as many people as possible will be saved by trusting in Jesus. Suffering will end. Judgement will come. 

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