One of the most common arguments against God’s existence is the argument from suffering. If God is all powerful and all loving, argues the atheist, then why does he allow so many people to endure so much suffering? The atheist argues that many instances of suffering in the world seem pointless and unnecessary to us, we cannot think of any good reasons God might possibly have for allowing these specific examples of suffering. The atheist then concludes that because the suffering seems unnecessary, it therefore really is unnecessary. Through my study of The Bible, I have discovered 5 instances of suffering that God allowed and in each of these 5 cases, scripture later reveals why God didn’t intervene to stop them. I’ll list these biblical incidents in chronological order.
1: The Story Of Joseph
Genesis chapters 37-50 tell the story of Joseph. Joseph was the son of Jacob who was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham. Joseph was one of Jacob’s 12 sons. Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was Jacob’s favorite child and this was obvious from the fact that Jacob constantly showered Joseph with far more affection than his other children. One day Joseph’s brothers finally had enough, and they sold him into slavery.
As if being a slave weren’t bad in and of itself, Joseph suffered in his slavery as well. Pontiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to rape her (she did this out of spite because she came onto him and he refused to have sex with her). This resulted in Joseph being sent to prison. While Joseph was in prison, he was able to accurately interpret the dreams of two other prisoners who were there. One of those prisoners told the Pharaoh about Joseph’s amazing ability to accurately interpret dreams once they were released and Pharaoh was in need of having someone interpret his dreams. Pharaoh let Joseph out of prison and told him his dreams. Joseph told the Pharaoh that his two dreams meant that there would be 7 years of abundant food followed by 7 years of horrible famine, and that to prevent widespread starvation he should store up food during the 7 years of abundance so that they could compensate for the lack of food the next 7 years. Pharaoh elected Joseph as governor and put him in charge of food storage.
As bad as Joseph’s experience was, God had a good reason for allowing it all to happen; If God hadn’t let Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, Joseph would never have been able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and that would mean that Pharoah would not have known to save up food during the 7 years of abundance so that they would have food to eat during the 7 years of famine, and that would mean that thousands of people would have died of starvation. As Joseph was being carried off to Egypt, he was probably wondering why God didn’t intervene to stop his brothers from selling him into slavery. He might have been thinking “Why didn’t God stop my brothers from selling me into slavery? Now I’ll never see my father and younger brother Benjamin again!” But Joseph later realized God’s purpose for allowing his suffering (and Jacob’s suffering as well for that matter since Jacob was mourning because he believed a wild animal had killed Joseph). He himself said so when he saw his brothers again years later “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” – Genesis 50:20
2: The Blind Man Jesus Healed.
In John 9, Jesus saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples assumed that God had made the man blind as a punishment for either his sins or his parent’s sins (verses 1-2), Jesus responded “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (verse 3). Jesus then spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. Jesus then told the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man did what Jesus said and the man’s sight was restored to him. (verses 6-7)
We see that the reason why God allowed this man to be born blind was so that at that very moment, Jesus could heal him and bring about belief in Jesus in the hearts of the blind man himself as well as those who knew him. We know the formerly blind man came to believe Jesus’ claims about himself because he was dragged before the Pharisees and argued with them, defending Jesus against their accusations. At one point when he was arguing with the Pharisees, they said “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” To which the formerly blind man responded “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
God’s good reason for allowing this man to be born blind was so that he could be healed by Jesus, and so that the instance of the healing would be evidence to him that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God, and that he would therefore find salvation in Him. This also brought about belief in the people who had known the blind man prior to his healing.
I for one think this is an excellent justification for allowing this bad thing to happen to that man. The uniform testimony of scripture is that those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life (e.g John 3:16), but that those who do not believe will be condemned for their sins (e.g John 3:18, John 3:36, John 8:24). Jesus said that Hell was so bad that it would be better for a man to pluck out his eye and chop off his hand if it would keep him out of it (see Matthew 5:29-30). That’s how miserable Hell is! Surely if being blind for a short period of time results in having eternity in Heaven, in overwhelming joy and bliss, a place where it is better to spend a single day than a thousand anywhere else (Psalm 84:10) that outweighs the short term misery of blindness on Earth. It is better to suffer short term than to suffer long term. It seems intuitive to me that if the short term suffering prevents the long term suffering, then the allowance of the short term suffering was justified.
However, prior to this incident, people didn’t know why the man was born blind. If God is all powerful, and all loving, He could have allowed the man to have sight his entire life. We could imagine his parents or his friends thinking “There doesn’t appear to be a good reason for this suffering, so there probably isn’t. So therefore God either isn’t all loving, all powerful, or He doesn’t exist at all.” But there was a good reason for his suffering as I have explained above. If anyone used the man’s disability as a reason for disbelieving in God, they would have been badly mistaken, for the man’s blindness is what brought about his salvation as well as the salvation of those around him!
3: The Raising Of Lazarus
Let’s take the case of Lazarus’ death in John 11 as another instance of God having a good reason for allowing suffering. Lazarus was likely in the prime of his life. He was a morally upright human being, the beloved brother of Mary and Martha, and also a close friend of Jesus of Nazareth. Lazarus gets sick and subsequently kicks the bucket. The citizens of his village, Bethany, could see such a horrible thing and after three days of mourning come to the conclusion that there is no good reason why God would allow this to happen. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. Then Jesus comes to Bethany. Lazarus’ sisters fuss at Jesus for not arriving in Bethany sooner than He could have. As we read John 11, we see that unbeknownst to Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus had a morally sufficient reason for dilly dallying. Moreover, there were reasons why Lazarus was permitted to die in the prime of his life. When Jesus went up to the tomb of Lazarus, He prayed to the Father and then called Lazarus to come out of his tomb. “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I’m glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:14) “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the sake of the people standing here, that they may believe you sent me.” (John 11:42). The reason that Jesus gave for Lazarus’ death and for His delay was so that the people witnessing the event would have powerful evidence that Jesus really is from God and so that they would place their faith in Him and receive eternal life (avoiding misery in eternal conscious torment).
Some of the citizens might have thought they had a strong case against the existence of God the three days after Lazarus died, but subsequent events place the evil of Lazarus’ death in a different light. In light of the context, Lazarus’ death is seen to be part of a much greater good than anyone in Bethany could imagine. God was justified in permitting the death because it brought about belief in the people standing there. It prevented an eternity of torment in punishment for the sins they committed in this life.
4: The Crucifixion Of Jesus
The death of Jesus on the cross was the most important event in human history. At the time Jesus was being tortured viciously by the Romans, the disciples probably wondered why this was happening to Jesus. They probably wondered why He didn’t perform some miracle to save Himself, and probably wondered if He truly was the promised messiah after all. No good reason for allowing the torture of this innocent man could possibly be found at the time. I can only imagine how gratuitous it must have seemed from the disciples’ perspective. But 3 days later, Jesus rose from the dead, and the apostles were informed why Jesus died; Jesus was being punished for our sins, He was experiencing the punishment we were supposed to experience (Romans 4:25, 1 Corinthians 15:3) and He did this not only for a few people, but for the entire human race (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 2:4-6). Because of the suffering of Christ on the cross, any wicked person who forsakes his wicked ways and turns to Christ will be forgiven by Him (see Isaiah 55:7). He will “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
It was only after the resurrection that the apostles knew why Jesus suffered so horribly! What appeared to be pointless and unnecessary suffering turned out to be permitted by God for a much greater good; namely the salvation of millions of souls! In retrospect, we can see that God had a good reason for Jesus’ suffering, but at the time, no one could figure out a good reason. Imagine what would have happened if God did what we often think He should do whenever innocent suffering occurs. If He intervened when they were killing Jesus, we would have no atonement for ours sins. We could not be forgiven for our sins. The human population in Heaven would be 0. But no, God loves us and wants us to be with Him forever! That is why He became a man (John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-8) and took The Father’s wrath on our behalf (Romans 4:25, 1 Corinthians 15:3). Because Jesus was punished, we don’t have to be! Praise God!
5: The Crippled Man At The Gate Called Beautiful
Acts 3 tells of when Peter and John were walking to the temple shortly after Pentecost which was 10 days after Jesus ascended into Heaven after He was raised from the dead. They saw a man being carried to the gate which was called Beautiful. The Bible says that the man was crippled and has been since birth. It also says he was brought to the gate every day to beg from people. When Peter and John walked by, he begged them for money too. Peter told the crippled man “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Peter took him by the hand to help him up, and The Bible says that “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.” (Acts 3:7). Then The Bible says “He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. They recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what happened to him.” (Acts 3:8-10)
Peter then began to preach to the people in the area, telling them that the man was healed in Jesus’ name, and that salvation could only be found in Jesus Christ (verses 12-26). Then Acts 4:4 tells us that many of the people believed.
If God hadn’t let the man be crippled from birth, there would have been nothing for Him to hea, and if He hadn’t healed the man from some impairment or other, there would have been no miracle to serve as evidence that Jesus really is the Christ and that there is power in his name, and therefore, it’s unlikely the people would have been moved to become Christians that day. God’s good purpose for the man’s crippled state was to bring about the salvation of many of the Jews who were standing in the temple that day. The evidence of the miraculous healing combined with Peter’s preaching of the gospel was enough to move them to accept Christ as their Savior and Lord. Even if some people got saved through Peter’s preaching alone, it’s doubtful that the number would have been as large as it actually was without the evidence of the miraculous healing.
For the man’s entire life up until that moment, no one knew why he was crippled, why he wasn’t blessed with the ability to walk like most of the people around him. There appeared to be no purpose to this man’s hardship. If an atheist had been there, he would have argued that the man was born like this because there was no God in existence to make sure he was born with fully functional legs. After all, if the atheist can’t think of a good reason, there must not be one, right? But later we see that God did have a purpose in the man’s incapacitating condition after all.
In each of these biblical examples, we can see good reasons why God allowed people to endure suffering. We can see in these biblical narratives that God did not allow the suffering for no reason. God allowed Joseph, The Blind Man, Lazarus and his Family, Jesus, and the crippled man in Acts to suffer because He knew that if these bad things happened, greater goods would follow.
In light of these 5 instances though, we need to ask ourselves; If God had a good reason for allowing these instances of suffering, could He not also have good reasons for allowing other instances of suffering? Such as 9/11, the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, or perhaps whatever it is you’re going through right now? Maybe we should just trust in Him and not lean so heavily on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
“And we know that God works all things for the good of those who love Him…” – Romans 8:28