The Answer to: 'How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?' (Favorite Sermon Notes - Part 3)

This is part 3 of a series called "Favorite Sermon Notes" that shares notes from my favorite sermons or writings. This article draws from the writings and sermons of Timothy Keller, the pastor who founded the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. He is also the author of The New York Times bestselling books "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism," "The Prodigal God," and "Prayer."

Timothy Keller begins his chapter about suffering by recounting an argument from a skeptic of Christianity, as follows:

“I just don’t believe the God of Christianity exists,” said Hillary, an undergrad English major. “God allows terrible suffering in the world. So he might be either all-powerful but not good enough to end evil and suffering, or else he might be all-good but not powerful enough to end evil and suffering. Either way the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible couldn’t exist.”

“This isn’t a philosophical issue to me,” added Rob, Hillary’s boyfriend. “This is personal. I won’t believe in a God who allows suffering, even if he, she, or it exists. Maybe God exists. Maybe not. But if he does, he can’t be trusted.”*

This argument can be refuted in two ways:

1. The skeptic's view assumes that if evil and suffering appear to us to be pointless, then it obviously must be pointless.

As Keller writes:

Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless...This reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.

...Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order...This argument against God doesn’t hold up, not only to logic but also to experience.

Keller gives two examples of what he means by "experience."

Example A:

 As a pastor, I’ve often preached on the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph was an arrogant young man who was hated by his brothers. In their anger at him, they imprisoned him in a pit and then sold him into a life of slavery and misery in Egypt. Doubtless Joseph prayed to God to help him escape, but no help was forthcoming, and into slavery he went. Though he experienced years of bondage and misery, Joseph’s character was refined and strengthened by his trials. Eventually he rose up to become a prime minister of Egypt who saved thousands of lives and even his own family from starvation. If God had not allowed Joseph’s years of suffering, he never would have been such a powerful agent for social justice and spiritual healing.

Example B:

I knew a man in my first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal gone bad. He told me that he had been an extremely selfish and cruel person, but he had always blamed his constant legal and relational problems on others. The loss of his sight had devastated him, but it had also profoundly humbled him. “As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened, as it were. I finally saw how I’d been treating people. I changed, and now for the first time in my life I have friends, real friends. It was a terrible price to pay, and yet I must say it was worth it. I finally have what makes life worthwhile.”

On p. 23 of "Reason for God," Keller powerfully sums up the argument:

Though none of these people [from the examples above] are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything. With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?

This final sentence below is especially powerful. But before I quote it, let's recall and paraphrase the skeptic's argument. The skeptic basically turns to the Christian and says, "Hey, you can't have it both ways. If this so-called loving God really is all-powerful as the Bible describes, then why hasn't He stopped all evil and suffering in the world? What a terrible God! That's not a God to worship, that's a God to be mad at! You can't have it both ways."

Remember that Keller began by exposing the skeptic's hidden premise: if it appears to us that all suffering and evil is pointless, then it must be pointless. Keller replies to the skeptic with this:

If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways.

Now on to the second reason why the skeptic's argument against God (using suffering) doesn't really accomplish what the skeptic thinks it accomplishes:

2. The fact that you admit that there is terrible wickedness in the world actually provides a better argument for God’s existence than one against it.

All of this debate language doesn't reduce or dismiss the agony that we endure, nor does it necessarily stop people, even Christians, from being angry at God. You can believe 100% in Keller's argument and be a passionate Christian who strongly believes in the Bible but still be angry at God because you experienced something awful. We'll touch on that in a moment. But first let's cover this second point that Keller makes.

This is what Keller writes:

Horrendous, inexplicable suffering, though it cannot disprove God, is nonetheless a problem for the believer in the Bible. However, it is perhaps an even greater problem for nonbelievers. C. S. Lewis described how he had originally rejected the idea of God because of the cruelty of life. Then he came to realize that evil was even more problematic for his new atheism. In the end, he realized that suffering provided a better argument for God’s existence than one against it.

You might be wondering, "How on earth do Timothy Keller and C.S. Lewis come to that conclusion?"

Keller then quotes C.S. Lewis, as follows:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and "unjust”?… What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too— for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies…. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.

What Lewis and Keller are getting at is this: in order to make the "God can't be both all-good and all-powerful" argument, you must base it on an extra-natural sense of justice -- a sense that things ought to be fair. As Keller explains:

...People, we believe, ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak — these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust? The nonbeliever in God doesn’t have a good basis for being outraged at injustice, which, as Lewis points out, was the reason for objecting to God in the first place. If you are sure that this natural world is unjust and filled with evil, you are assuming the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgment.

Keller then quotes philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who wrote this:

Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don’t see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live…. A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort… and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (… and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful… argument for the reality of God. In short, the problem of tragedy, suffering, and injustice is a problem for everyone. It is at least as big a problem for nonbelief in God as for belief. It is therefore a mistake, though an understandable one, to think that if you abandon belief in God it somehow makes the problem of evil easier to handle.

But What About When We're Just Plain Angry with God Because of Something That Happened, Even If We Agree With All of the Above?

In his book, Keller then describes an incident when a woman in his church confronted him about his sermon illustrations that demonstrate how God can use evil and suffering for good and give them meaning and value. The woman had lost her husband in a tragic, seemingly pointless act of violence during a robbery. She also had many other sufferings in her life that appeared to be pointless.

According to Keller, the woman said something like this: "...for every one story in which evil turns out for good there are one hundred in which there is no conceivable silver lining...So what if suffering and evil doesn’t logically disprove God? I’m still angry. All this philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering!”

Look at what Keller wrote in response to this dilemma:

...the philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. In Jesus Christ, God experienced the greatest depths of pain. Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.

...To understand Jesus’ suffering at the end of the gospels, we must remember how he is introduced at their beginning...The Son of God was not created but took part in creation and has lived throughout all eternity “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1: 18)— that is, in a relationship of absolute intimacy and love. But at the end of his life he was cut off from the Father.

There may be no greater inner agony than the loss of a relationship we desperately want. If a mild acquaintance turns on you, condemns and criticizes you, and says she never wants to see you again, it is painful. If someone you’re dating does the same thing, it is qualitatively more painful. But if your spouse does this to you, or if one of your parents does this to you when you’re still a child, the psychological damage is infinitely worse.

The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment...Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken.

Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.

Keller then quotes Albert Camus, who wrote:

[Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the “Lama sabachthani” and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony.

So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel— God with us— even in our worst sufferings.

What the Bible Actually Teaches About Heaven

This is an important point for me personally because when I lost my mom unexpectedly to a sudden medical tragedy, it was the nearness and awareness of Heaven -- as the Bible describes it (not as our pop culture depicts it) -- that brought joy in the midst of sorry. Even many Christians see Heaven as an "immaterial paradise" -- sort of an ethereal formless, undefined blur of light high above where lovely crystalline ghosts -- our loved ones, apparently -- who float around Heaven's ether like see-through jellyfish, somehow enjoying the Presence of God even though they have somehow completely lost the shape of their personality and human presence.

This is what Keller says about this flawed view of Heaven:

For the one who suffers, the Christian faith provides as a resource not just its teaching on the Cross but also the fact of the resurrection. The Bible teaches that the future is not an immaterial “paradise” but a new heaven and a new earth. In Revelation 21, we do not see human beings being taken out of this world into heaven, but rather heaven coming down and cleansing, renewing, and perfecting this material world. The secular view of things, of course, sees no future restoration after death or history. And Eastern religions believe we lose our individuality and return to the great All-soul, so our material lives in this world are gone forever. Even religions that believe in a heavenly paradise consider it a consolation for the losses and pain of this life and all the joys that might have been. [But] the Biblical view of things is resurrection— not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, through one of his characters, it means all the wickedness and suffering will someday become "untrue."

I am so thankful to Christ for all of His promises. He is indeed the Good Shepherd. (And I'm thankful for God using Timothy Keller to write about this topic with such thorough logic and power. My post really only covers a moderate portion of every point he makes in that chapter of the book. "Reason for God" is a must-read. I urge you to pick it up at Amazon here.)

*Keller, Timothy (2008-02-14). The Reason for God (pp. 20-32). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.