How can a God who is all-loving and all-powerful allow suffering on earth? Can’t God step in and create a world where no suffering exists? Can’t He take away the pain?
This is a difficult question and also a very common one. In order to understand some of the big questions that surround this topic we have to look at God’s plan as a whole.
To start off with, God did create a world without suffering. This was heaven and earth before the fall. All the angels and everything that had been created lived in harmony with God. There was peace. Joy. Perfection. It was exactly as God wished it to be.
However, Satan, one of the angels, chose to go against this and make his own way. He exalted himself, imagining he could be equal to or better than God. This was the first sin, causing separation between God and Satan. Satan’s way was outside God’s blessing and therefore cursed.
God’s creation was perfect. Adam and Eve, the first people, received a free will, but they were pure and therefore had direct contact and fellowship with God. Satan was full of evil and wanted to destroy this harmony. It was his opinion that, given the choice, people would rather sin than obey God. God could just have shut him up, or even changed his mind forcibly, but He has too much respect for free will, even the free will of those who choose to disobey Him. So instead of forcing Satan back to the light God needed to prove that the way of sin would only lead to suffering.
The cause of suffering on earth
When God created the earth, His intention was that it would be an extension of the peace and harmony of heaven. Nevertheless, Satan was allowed access to the earth, and he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Satan offered Eve a choice of following God’s way or the way of sin, God had dearly hoped that she would choose His way. All God wanted was for people to be happy and He knew that the only way to that was for them to be obedient. Unfortunately, she chose to believe Satan’s way – the way of the curse, and she convinced Adam to do the same. Because of His immense respect for free will, God had to step back and let Adam and Eve reap the consequences of their actions.
All suffering, all pain, and every tear that has been shed on earth is either a direct or an indirect result of sin. Even natural disasters happen because the world was cursed. (See Romans 8:20-21) Sin tainted everything. And it became worse and worse as time went on. When a person sinned, he reaped suffering, those around him suffered, the earth itself suffered. The nature of the world itself became tainted with thorns and thistles. This wasn’t a spiteful God going overboard on the punishments. This was a natural result of the laws God had made long before He even created the earth. He knew that sinning brought suffering. That’s why He tries so hard to get us not to do it.
Why doesn’t God do anything to stop the suffering?
God could step in at any point and stop the suffering. He could hold out His hand and save us from the pain. He is almighty, after all. But if He did that, He would never be able to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Satan was wrong. Sinning causes suffering. God knows it. Now He wants to prove it to all of creation.
It grieves God to watch His creation suffer. He is longing for it to end; He is aching to reach out His hand and help us. God’s end goal is to stop all suffering for eternity. He wants all of creation to exist together in perfect harmony like it was at the beginning. But this time He needs to make sure that nobody can bring sin into the new creation. That’s why He needs to be able to show beyond any shadow of a doubt that it is sin alone that leads to misery and suffering. And in order to get that proof God has to play by the rules He Himself lay down.
God’s purpose with creation
God’s intention with us is not just to prove that sinning brings suffering. Even more important is to prove that living without sinning brings joy and peace and harmony.
“… this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ephesians 3:8-11.
This is the epitome of God’s plan with mankind, the final eradicating blow against Satan. By sending His own Son Jesus to earth as a man, He was able to prove once and for all that it was possible to overcome Satan and his trickery. As a human being, Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, but in every circumstance chose to do God’s will instead of His own, so He never committed sin. (Hebrews 4:15, Hebrews 5:7-9) When Jesus was crucified and cried out, “It is finished!” the victory was total. Satan had never been able to take control of Jesus’ spirit, which could return to God perfect and full of divine nature.
But it didn’t stop there. Jesus did this so that He could show the way for others. Now God is forming a bride for Jesus Christ who will show, by living a pure and holy life like He did, that victory over sin brings true, eternal joy and peace. This is the church, by whom God’s manifold wisdom will be revealed to all creation.
And this joy is not simply a reward we get in eternity. It begins now.
So even though God has to let the earth reap the wages of sin, He is actually far more interested in letting those who choose to serve Him reap the benefits of that.
“Suffering in the flesh”
Everyone suffers. And the suffering a person goes through on earth is not necessarily proportional to the amount of sin they have committed. However, the disciples of Jesus’ Christ, God’s number one servants, know to use this suffering to their advantage.
In 1 Peter 4:1 it says, “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Physical suffering in itself obviously does not bring an end to sin. On the contrary, when people experience pain and loss and tragedy, the sin inside themselves shows forth and they are tempted to feel angry, bitter, discouraged. But a disciple does what his Master, Jesus did: he takes these thoughts, denies them, and puts them to death. And that bit of sin that became apparent dies. This is called “suffering in the flesh,” because denying the flesh to carry out its desires is the same as denying your self-will, and that is painful. This is what Jesus did when He was on earth, and is the will of God for us. However, the result is that sin is overcome, and is replaced with virtue instead.
When enough people have consciously chosen to suffer in the flesh, rather than to sin and suffer the consequences of that, then God will finally be able to tell Satan, “See, your way doesn’t work. Sin only leads to suffering, but some people are choosing my way. They are choosing not to sin. It has been proven time and time again, you have no ground to stand on!”
And then there will be a reckoning.
You can imagine God’s wrath over Satan then, when after holding Himself back all these thousands of years, the time of judgment is finally at hand. After Satan forced God’s hand, God had to watch His creation suffer year after year, century after century. Waiting with longsuffering for people to turn to Him and be obedient to His will, so He could eradicate sin in the long run.
But finally the time for peace will come. After all is said and done, Satan will be cast into the sea of fire and all suffering, all pain, all misery will be gone forever.
If we are obedient to God’s will instead of our own will that is tainted by sin, we are on God’s side and instrumental in carrying out His plan. The more we choose to live in obedience to God here on earth, the faster the day of reckoning will come. The more people choose to suffer in the flesh (put to death their sin) and not obey the sinful lusts and desires within themselves, the sooner Jesus will come back and put an end to all suffering.
What can I do?
It is difficult to sit by and watch suffering spread over the world and not know what you can do. But those who are faithful to God have the power and the responsibility to ease suffering and make the world a slightly better place where they are.
We can be a blessing to those around us by denying the sin that so easily tempts us, and which causes strife and unhappiness. When we are inclined to answer back with harsh words, we can put that sin to death and reply mildly and kindly. When we are tempted to selfishness, we can practice generosity. When we see unrighteousness and cruelty, we can be champions for righteousness and compassion.
We can also pray. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” James 5:16. Prayer is a tremendous weapon against the darkness of this world. If we make sure that we are living in righteousness then our prayers have the power to help. We can pray for healing, pray for mercy, pray for the poor, pray for the needy, pray for world leaders and governments, pray for light and life and mercy to come into the world as much as possible. God hears those prayers.
And the more we live in righteousness, the more we put to death our sin, the more we fight against the darkness, then the faster the day of judgment will come when all sin and suffering is finished forever. “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” 2 Peter 3:11-12.
That day is coming soon – the day when Jesus will return, ready to fetch His bride, clean and spotless, having chosen God’s way through it all.
And then comes the grand finale. Satan will be bound and thrown into the lake of fire forever. (Revelation 20:10) Never again will he be able to tempt people to follow his way and cause misery and suffering. Then God will finally be able to create a new heaven and a new earth in perfect peace and joy and harmony for all eternity. No crying, no tears, no sorrow. No temptation, no sin, no strife, conflict, or disobedience. We will live together with God and Jesus and the saints. Not a shred of suffering will ever exist in the universe again.
Finally and forever, all will be well.