Why does God allow suffering?

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“A new wave of antisemitism threatens to rock an already unstable world”: A conversation about God, faith, and innocent suffering

November 9, 2023 -

Pro-Palestinian protesters burn a photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the Israeli embassy, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Pro-Palestinian protesters burn a photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the Israeli embassy, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Pro-Palestinian protesters burn a photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the Israeli embassy, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Antisemitism around the world has risen to constitute an “existential threat” in the thirty-four days since Hamas slaughtered 1,300 Israeli civilians and wounded more than 3,300. Antisemitism in the US had already escalated last year to the highest recorded level. Now CNN reports that a “new wave of antisemitism threatens to rock an already unstable world.”

At the same time, we must not forget the Palestinian civilians who are suffering in Gaza: at this writing, the Hamas-controlled health ministry reports more than 10,569 Palestinians have been killed since the invasion, including 4,324 children. The New York Times reports this morning that tens of thousands are fleeing the northern Gaza Strip. And we must remember the more than 242 soldiers and civilians who are being held hostage.

I’ve been responding nearly every day since October 7 to this unfolding tragedy and consider it one of the hinge points of recent history. Today, I want to take a step back to ask a hard question: Why does God allow such innocent suffering?

Why does God allow suffering? Five logical steps

This is how I have reasoned my way through this dilemma over the years:

One: God created us to love our Lord and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39). However, love requires a choice. No one can force us to love someone.

Two: Thus, God gave us freedom of will. He knew that we would misuse this freedom before he gave it, but he considered our freedom to love him and each other worth the death of his Son (Revelation 13:8; John 3:16).

Three: When we misuse our free will, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours. When I was a seminary philosophy professor, my students sometimes complained that my tests were too difficult. However, those who studied diligently made an A on the tests and in my class. When students chose not to study, by contrast, the consequences were not my fault.

Four: If God prevents the consequences of misused freedom, we are not truly free. If I am on a diet but choose to order a pizza and the delivery person brings me celery sticks, my freedom was apparent but not real. If chess players can retract every move they make that turns out to be disadvantageous to them, the game cannot be played.

Five: If God intervenes occasionally to prevent such consequences, we will ask why he does not do so every time. If we insist that he must prevent all terrorism, we will next want him to prevent all murder. Then all crime. Then all deceit, then all adultery, then all lust, and so on.

So far, so good. I understand logically why God must allow horrific atrocities as the price of our free will without which we cannot fulfill our created purpose.

But there’s a very large but . . .

We’re back to our problem

The problem with my reasoning is that God does sometimes prevent the consequences of misused freedom. He allowed Herod to execute James (Acts 12:1–2), but he sent his angel to keep Herod from executing Peter (vv. 3–11). If Peter, why not James?

He allowed Egyptian pharaohs to enslave the Jews for four hundred years, but then he sent Moses to lead them through the Red Sea to freedom. If then, why not four centuries earlier?

So, we’re back to our problem. Since God is omnipotent, he could have prevented Hamas from slaughtering Jews. Since he is omniscient, he knew about their plot before it unfolded. Since he is omnibenevolent, he must want only their best, which would obviously preclude beheading babies, massacring families, and taking hundreds of people hostage. Since he sometimes intervenes to protect the innocent from the sins of the guilty, he could have done so on October 7.

And yet, he did not.

We can substitute any other group of innocent victims in today’s discussion. The Palestinians in Gaza being used by Hamas as human shields are an obvious example. The Uyghurs being brutally repressed by China are another. The 1,403 teens and children killed in gun violence so far this year in the US are yet another.

You undoubtedly have examples in your own life of times you have been victimized by the sins of others. I have my own as well.

“When darkness seems to hide his face”

Today’s conversation leaves us with two choices.

One: We can refuse to trust God because we do not understand why he sometimes protects innocent victims but sometimes does not. We can characterize him as arbitrary and thus unworthy of our faith and devotion.

Where would this leave us? We will miss the wisdom he grants to those who follow his omniscient guidance, the power he bestows to those who seek his omnipotent care, and the “abundant” life Jesus died to give us (John 10:10). By boycotting his providential provision, we grieve our Father but we also impoverish ourselves and everyone we influence.

Two: We can choose to trust in God though we do not understand the ways he sometimes responds to innocent suffering. We can place our Father in the same category as others we trust though they sometimes disappoint us (which is everyone we trust).

God assures us that one day we will understand what we do not understand today (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the meantime, the more painful our suffering and thus the less we understand why God allows it, the more we need to trust it to his compassionate care.

The British pastor and hymnwriter Edward Mote testified:

When darkness seems to hide his face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the vale.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Upon what “ground” are you standing today?

NOTE: The Gift of Immanuel is our new 2023 Advent devotional by my wife Janet Denison. As is her hallmark in teaching the Bible, she brings a depth of understanding yet presents it in an accessible way such that you can’t help but draw closer to the Father. Act today to ensure you receive your copy of The Gift of Immanuel in time to begin its short but empowering daily readings on Dec. 1.

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