As I conclude teaching through the book of Job I have run into, and have long before run into, the age old argument; how can a God Who is supposed to love allow innocents to suffer? The problem begins with the question. This question begins with “XYZ” while failing to address “ABC”. Can we solve a problem, much less a theological conundrum by starting with the problem and working backwards? Well, the answer is yes, you can start with a solution and work backwards. Something like; there are 7 brownies on the tray, one hour ago there were 10, there are three raccoons in the room, but the door was shut for 45 minutes of that one hour, therefore, when does the train arrive at the station?
But can we do that with God? When we look around at the world we live in, with all of its records of what has transpired here, can we come to any conclusions about God? Or, what can we determine about God based on what we can observe? (Let’s include in that observation all recorded information, contemporary and ancient in whatever form it may appear, cave paintings, bones, artifacts, scrolls, books, etc.) My first suggestion is; we can conclude nothing. The reason I say this is because we can only reason from within a very small and extremely limited starting point and from there have nowhere to go. I had written earlier about God making our world “discoverable” and that we can discover only what He has made discoverable. Even if you take our starting point, one human in one town or city, in one state, in one country, in one hemisphere, on one planet, in one galaxy far, far away, we are severely limited by our starting, or “observation” point. We simply can’t see very far. So when we ask questions of such monumental importance, we also have to be prepared to get an answer we may not like. And maybe the answer we get is; “You don’t get it and you never will this side of Heaven.” Let’s return to our original question; if God is love, why does He allow suffering?
Two questions to answer for yourself here; one is what definition of love are you working with? And the other is what definition of suffering are you working with? To me the greater problem with this question is that we are working with definitions that we have created for ourselves based on what we have experienced, observed and emotionally responded to. This seems to me to be a problem. It’s like asking a fish to develop new strategies to prevent desertification. There is simply no context for a fish to even imagine anything like a desert, or a dessert. So when we work with definitions for “love” and “suffering” aren’t we trapped inside the very thing we are trying to objectively define? This is patently obvious because throughout history different cultures, peoples, philosophies and religions have defined those two words differently. So who’s definitions are we going to work with? What I call love someone else might call sentiment. What someone else calls daily life I might call suffering, hence the problem in answering the initial question.
That brings up my next thought… My second suggestion is that we can only conclude what God has concluded and then told us is a conclusion. The idea here is that anything truly objective must come from outside of us. While we as humans are quite capable of making judgments, determinations and discoveries, we are still inextricably trapped within our own definitions. We can argue forever on whether God has done this or not, or which god are we talking about. We can argue the relative merits and demerits of different religions, but let’s start with this. Can we agree that in order to be truly objective we need to work with definitions that come from outside our time/space continuum? Doesn’t that seem philosophically reasonable? Can the patient diagnose himself?
So, back to the original question, the mere asking of the question is presumptuous. It presumes that we are asking the right question using the right definitions to obtain a comprehensible answer. I would suggest that we are handicapped from the start, so handicapped in fact that asking the question, while not a fruitless exercise, can easily lead to more problems than it solves. Many have used the question as a rhetorical flourish to explain why they refuse to believe in God at all. But even that is intellectually dishonest. It is tantamount to saying that since I don’t understand how honey is made I refuse to believe in bees. Ah ha! You say, but we do know how honey is made so we can prove that bees do exist! Indeed, and I would argue that we do know why God allows suffering because He has explained it in His Word; an objective description working with definitive definitions of words, and all originating outside of our collective experience.
It was Sherlock Holmes in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” who said; “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” While I don’t claim to have eliminated “all which is impossible”, because that would be impossible, I have explored this subject extensively. I have my own biases since I do believe that God has revealed Himself through His Word and His Son, but what I ask from anyone, is the intellectual honesty to have the discussion recognizing the limitations of our starting point and context. God has explained why we suffer, and I’d be glad to have that discussion with anyone who wants to.