by Aaron Callahan
The question of God’s goodness usually arises when someone (believer or non-believer) begins to observe the state of our world. An honest appraisal tends to return a predictable conclusion: our world is a mess. Although Christian tradition maintains that God is good, situations like cancer, war, famine, pestilence, and pain have led people throughout the ages to ask, “Where is this good God?”
Basically (the argument goes), if God is supposed to be all good, then only good things should be happening in the world. Since we don’t have a world like this—free from suffering—there must not be a God. Or, if there is a God, He certainly isn’t “good.”
One of the first things that needs to be addressed regarding these types of statements is the difference between what we call “good,” from a finite human perspective, and what actual goodness is.
Let’s start small: Is there a difference between what is considered good for humans and what is considered good for animals? From diet to blood pressure, there are some pretty clear differences between what’s good for you and, say, your dog. Depending on the animal (a house pet vs. a wild animal), the differences could be even greater. If there is a quick and noticeable difference between what is “good” for animals and humans, then might there be a greater difference between an omnipotent being and ourselves?
Now, I am not suggesting that God desires to treat us like animals. But I am suggesting that in order to discuss God’s goodness, we must recognize that our current view of things may not be all that there is to see or understand.
To claim that God is not good because of suffering, you must first prove that suffering and God are incompatible. So, is there compelling evidence that pain is evil and, therefore, incompatible with a good God?
“…the unique thing about suffering is that it always has the potential for good.”
Even in day-to-day life we know pain is not always an evil. In sports, for instance, coaches push us to test the limits of our bodies despite the pain it causes. Doctors and dentists perform all kinds of “painful” procedures to bring about our good. Parents discipline their children with what seems to the child outright pain or suffering for their ultimate good. In none of these circumstances would we call the coach, doctor, or parent “evil” or “not good.”
The argument that a “good” God cannot exist because of all the evil, pain, and suffering in the world succeeds only if you can show that these have never produced anything good. This is not the case. Good virtues like courage would be impossible in a world without pain. Paul the apostle attested over and over to the refining quality of suffering, reinforcing that suffering might not be bad in all senses.
In fact, you could say that the unique thing about suffering is that it always has the potential for good. Granted, not everybody actualizes that good; not everybody learns. But even people without an awareness of God can bring good out of suffering. How much more when a good God enters the picture?
“God conquers not only in spite of evil and suffering, but often through it.”
I like what the Scottish theologian James S. Stewart said about the topic: “To look at pain and suffering as an observer is the wrong way to address the issue, to really understand pain and suffering you must enter it. It is the spectators, the people who are outside, looking at the tragedy, from whose ranks the skeptic come; it is not those who are actually in the arena and who know suffering from the inside. Indeed, the fact is that it is the world’s greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith.”
So, suffering and a good God are not inherently incompatible. But some would still maintain that if God is “good,” then he should want to destroy all suffering, pain, and evil. This claim is absolutely correct; however, just because evil is not defeated now, in a final sense, it does not follow that it never will be.
Take for example this argument:
- God is all good and desires to defeat evil and suffering.
- God is all-powerful and is able to defeat all evil and suffering.
- Evil and suffering are not yet defeated.
- Therefore, they will one day be defeated. (See Revelation 21:4.)
If you’re a Christian struggling to reconcile God’s goodness and your suffering, consider the cross. When we view the cross, it seems to be the most abhorrent form of suffering and evil imaginable, and in one sense it is. Yet, through Christ on the cross, through the suffering, evil, and apparent injustice of that situation, God brought about the salvation of the world. God conquers not only in spite of evil and suffering, but often through it.
“The answer [to suffering] is not an answer at all, it’s the Answerer. It’s Jesus Himself. It’s not a bunch of words, it’s the Word.”
God’s answer to “Is He good?” is not an answer at all; it is the presentation of Himself to us in the midst of suffering, conquering not in spite of it, but through it.
Author Peter Kreeft puts it this way: “The answer [to suffering] is not an answer at all, it’s the Answerer. It’s Jesus Himself. It’s not a bunch of words, it’s the Word. It’s not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it’s a person. The Person. The answer to suffering cannot just be an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal one. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involves someone—God where are you?”
The Word tells us that He is Immanuel, God with us, and that one day, every tear will be wiped away and all pain will be stopped. As the Because our God is good, evil will be defeated one day with finality. So let us rest until that time in the knowledge that God is good even in our pain, and that often it’s His goodness that allows our suffering to produce more of His goodness in us.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.Revelation 21:4
For further reading
Suffering and God’s goodness are huge topics. We’ve done our best to address the main issues, but there are many questions that could not be answered here. If you’re interested in wrestling with this issue more, please see the following list of resources for good places to begin.
And, as always, feel free to contact us if you would like to meet with a pastor about any topic by e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling our office at (541) 385-3100.
Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey
Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller
When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada