What do Christians say when confronted by the questions of family, friends and colleagues about suffering, pain and death?
The logic of the accusation often levelled at Christians typically runs:
“If God is good and all-powerful, then why is there suffering in the world? Either God is not good and so maliciously inflicts pain on humans … or God is not powerful enough to put an end to human distress. Therefore because there is evil and suffering there cannot be a good and all-powerful God.”
The recent Pike River disaster has raised this issue not just for a few people around us, but for the whole nation. What answer were they given? What response was set before the country?
The remembrance service broadcast live to the nation from Greymouth tried to answer the question about why this tragedy:
“… the truth of the matter is that they weren’t taken. Not by God, fate or anything else. Their deaths were tragically the result of an accident, a terrible devastating accident, but still only an accident. There was no divine fate at work to snatch their lives away. It wasn’t their time or anything like that. The fact is, we live in a physical world, a world governed by natural laws, laws that are consistent and predictable … Sometimes things just happen. And tragically for all involved, that’s what happened for our miners last week.”
For me this seems to translate to God not being powerful enough to actually control this world. A terrible accident has happened but God’s hands were tied – either he couldn’t or he wouldn’t intervene to save these miners.
Theodicy (defending God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil) is a huge area and bigger than I can tackle in a blog post. But I would put forward the idea here that the reality of suffering is not incompatible with the existence of a good and all powerful God – if there is a good purpose being accomplished through suffering and pain. By way of a small analogy: the pain inflicted by the dentist or the doctor who is aiming at the good health of their patient.
What good purpose(s) might God be working towards through this tragedy? I would not presume to know even a tiny percentage of his purposes – but one observation I can make is how quickly people started referring to God, praying to God, turning to God. When rescue efforts seemed to be stalemated on the surface, God soon entered our public discourse.
Jesus was challenged by a couple of tragedies in his day: some murdered countrymen and eighteen people killed by a collapsing tower (Luke 13:1-5). He didn’t make any pronouncements about the victims, but he did challenge those still alive to get right with God.
When confronted by the mystery and disappointment of pain and suffering we don’t need to doubt God’s goodness or power. We won’t be able to explain God’s detailed purposes, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t powerfully at work for good.