Do suffering and pain only come from evil actions?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Who is at fault for our suffering and pain? Do suffering and pain only come after a sinful action? Arguably, one who never sinned also suffered, so I think a further distinction needs to be made. Yes, God is the cause, but sometimes he is also at "fault" for suffering (although, never sin). Can you clarify this? Example: If a natural disaster causes suffering and harm, wouldn't God be the most immediate causal agent?

Answer: Natural disasters are examples of God being the direct causal agent... but only sort of. You see, he does not “cause” these disasters directly in that he doesn’t “send” something like a hurricane arbitrarily. These huge weather and/or geological events are natural parts of a greater system. He designed our world such a way that potentially fatal events like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods and wildfires are critical to maintaining a biosphere where human civilization can flourish. That was (and is) his objective for us during our stay here on Earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1).

I realize that many “innocent” people are killed in what we have come to call “natural disasters.” But the pejorative attached to that name is shortsighted: the number of deaths is extraordinarily low compared to the benefit the planet receives from these events.

Hurricanes help cool the planet, earthquakes and volcanoes — the result of plate tectonics — is God’s way of recycling the Earth’s crust. Volcanoes and the erosion of mountains help create soil. All these processes are for our flourishing, not for our destruction. Nevertheless, people die in these events — but not disproportionately. Yet when they do, skeptics get all up in God’s face.

Here’s a philosophical nugget about causation: since none of us “asked” to be born — nor have any of us caused ourselves to be born — none of us are the causal agents of our own existences. Now, I note with sadness that thousands of babies will be born with birth defects this year. That’s a clear example of an evil happening to a child where it is not the child’s fault. And I also note with sadness that thousands of alcoholics will die from cirrhosis of the liver this year. That’s a clear example of an evil happening to a person where it is the person’s fault.

Now, both conditions are demonstrably true... but the fact that babies are born with birth defects is a common excuse for people rejecting God. That’s too high a price, they muse... no matter what else he might have in store. We believers have to separate the emotional response from the logical or moral responses to why “bad” things happen to “good” people... and part of that is admitting that God has his reasons... and that we don’t like how these play out either.

However, on some future day, sin, deformity and death will be no more (Revelation 20:11-21:1). All things will be new, and the old things won’t be remembered (Isaiah 65:17). For my sensibilities, this in itself vindicates God.

Here’s another issue: the universe itself is being redeemed (Romans 8:22). That’s what going on with things like birth defects. God created the physical universe that enforces the laws of thermodynamics, is racing towards entropy... yet along the way, encourages life. But every so often, a rock — while responding to gravity — falls and kills an “innocent” human. These events occur with some regularity. That’s life.

Now, I do not like it when things like that happen. But I don’t think I’m in a position to judge whether God is morally flawed based on my observations... especially when I consider God’s long-term plans.

The estimates are that 108 billion people have ever lived on the earth. Given the free will of humankind — and given the thermodynamic and entropic universe — I am prepared to argue that God has tuned things so he can redeem an optimum number of people. But “optimum” is not “maximum” … because a maximum number saved might not yield an optimum ratio of lives lost to lives saved. A legitimate “optimum” will always involve death and loss under God’s middle knowledge. But however he does it, the Bible tells us that “countless” people will be redeemed (Revelation 7:9).

I also see an “in-between” category of fault and effect where evil people will bring God’s wrath upon those they rule. Despotic dictators of small nations rule arbitrarily; they take bribes and prosper personally at the expense of their countrymen. Their citizens live every day in desperate poverty — and when an earthquake comes, people are overwhelmed; they have no buffer... and they perish.

Who is “at fault” here? God, whose wisdom created plate tectonics? The despotic ruler who is godless and evil? The people who (arguably) should have moved to assuage their poverty and peril? People like me in developed nations who were watching their plight on TV and not sending money... or who did not vote for preventive aid for people who so desperately needed it?

This should be no news flash: God wants people to square themselves away! However, he set things up so people will either respond positively to his revelation or ignore it. In this moral/spiritual economy, at what point are people’s bad choices no longer God’s fault? Scripture has the answer: when he officially tells them so.

The passage below tells of Israel’s plight. Ask yourself, who’s fault is the evil that befell them? (Hint: the answer is in verse 29.)

“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11, NIV)

“Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ (v17)

Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I have made the land a desolate waste because of all the detestable things they have done.’ (v29)

Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16) is another example of non-ambiguous — and ambiguous — punishment in the Bible: Korah rebelled against God by rebelling against Moses, and God punished him publicly. He caused the ground to open up and swallow Korah, his family — and his belongings! I’m sure Korah’s children — whom, make no mistake, God directly killed — were relative innocents. Yet, because of the sins of the father, they died. What I’ve found is society works much like this.

Korah’s is a type of rebellion that plays out on a larger scale (albeit less “in your face”). Collectively, we are being punished for the sins of our fathers. Look at the moral freefall of Western civilization after the Enlightenment. There is nothing wrong with being “woke” (enlightened). But there is something wrong with throwing away the Enlightener in the process.

The question becomes — in the philosophically atheistic culture which we’ve increasingly become — who’s fault is it when people routinely lie, steal and murder to get ahead? Is it God’s? Well... on some level… yes because he made us to be moral free-agents. But how about the child who is brought up in a godless every-man-for-himself society? Is he at fault… and if so, how much?…  10%? 50%? 100%?

These are certainly complex issues that deserve further exploration. But I feel that the blame should be weighted towards us; here’s why: God is not shy about revealing himself… and subsequently, his moral standards. Let me share seven of these revelations:

  1. We have written revelation in the Scripture (Psalm 119:105; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16).
  2. We have a salvific revelation in the Gospel (Mark 16:15; John 3:16; Acts 16:31).
  3. We have a living revelation in Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 4:13-14; 1 John 5:11-13).
  4. We have a spiritual revelation in the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 8:14; Revelation 2:7; 22:17).
  5. We have a general revelation in the created universe (Genesis 1:1; Romans 1:18-20; Hebrews 11:3).
  6. We have a philosophical revelation in human intelligence (Isaiah 1:18; Romans 1:20; James 1:5).
  7. We have a moral revelation in human morality (Jeremiah 31:33; Matthew 5:48; Romans 2:14-15).

Given God’s physical, emotional, moral and spiritual provisions for humankind, we should let him off the hook for building such a “perilous” world. Just look at his revelation: it’s not like he’s keeping secrets about navigating in this world! So it’s time to put on the big-boy-pants: we humans are culpable for our misery — so we should “own” it academically. But then, we should leave it there. The well-adjusted Christian is the one who takes action to live abundantly (John 10:10) — even among the lions (1 Corinthians 15:32; Hebrews 11:33).

I pray these perspectives helped you. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200706 Do suffering and pain only come from evil actions?).

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