Is God the direct cause of all suffering?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I see God as the direct causal agent in natural disasters... whether he sends them "arbitrarily" or whether or not he ultimately uses them for good. My issue is, if he is the direct causal agent, then it would be difficult to argue that he is not the one who brings the suffering — and is therein culpable for sin on some level... and yes, I understand that suffering is not equivalent to sin.

In fact, suffering can happen outside of sin... and I’m thinking of Jesus here. But Jesus was the exception; he suffered unjustly. But the question stands, who brought that upon him?

I see two options: his suffering was a result of a broken world full of sinful people, or his suffering was a result of God bringing it upon him. Please note that I'm not questioning God's morality. I’m trying to figure out whether God is the immediate causal agent of suffering.

Answer: God is not the immediate causal agent of suffering. He is the creator of suffering, the first cause of suffering, the Prime Mover of all things including suffering, the sustainer of physical systems that are often the immediate causal agents of suffering, and he is the ruler of all things including suffering... but he is — virtually never — the immediate causal agent.

Unless God personally “pulled the trigger” as he did with Korah in Numbers 16, he is not the direct cause of suffering. I’ll agree that in all cases, he is the first cause of suffering... being the Prime Mover. I also agree that as the first cause, he is a necessary link in the chain of all suffering — and that if his link were gone, then no suffering would occur!

However, the direct cause (what some philosophers call the “efficient” cause) is the gun-shooter, not the gun-seller... manufacturer, investor, designer, boss-of-all-gunness, etc. An efficient cause requires a physical presence to act... and God is a spirit-being (John 4:24), not a physical being. He is never physically present on the earth to act because he is never physical.

Even in Korah’s rebellion, God could have used plate tectonics to get the job done... so even there, it’s no slam-dunk that he was the direct cause. But the timing — the way the earth opened up “on cue” — indicates a miracle. This is why I label him the Direct Causer in that case... even if his hands did not physically split the earth. But miracles are, by definition, rare... and God acting as the direct agent of suffering would be just as rare.

God set up the physical and moral universe to redeem us — and redemption is painful! (Just ask Christ.). But this means that suffering will occur on the Earth — and that therefore, he is the One who “brings” the suffering. But whether we humans engage with suffering is contingent upon our actions and/or the actions of other efficient (direct) causers... and that, barring miracles, these are never God.

I’m a Molinist, so I subscribe to an omniscient God who uses what philosophers and theologians call his “Middle Knowledge” to assesses the counterfactuals of human behavior. The idea that’s different in Molinism is that we believe an omniscient and omnitemporal God would know every possible iteration of every person’s freely lived life. In God’s eyes, it’s like we lived every possible life... but while no time has passed.

God’s capabilities are such that he can process the nearly infinite numbers of counterfactuals involved with all the “possible” lives of every person throughout time and know instantly which of those freely lived lives would best serve his kingdom. He then actuates those particular lives... and you are living yours right now! When God was running my counterfactuals, he probably discovered that I would not have had the courage to follow Jesus in his day. So he plunked me here... and here I am, writing to you.

So sure, God set the initial conditions of our lives... like our time and place of birth, but he does not run around “causing” things like you suspect he might be doing. Causally speaking, we live quite mundane lives. Things just play out naturally. The life we experience is like our omnipresent God — the God who is immanent in creation — isn’t even here. That’s how gentle his touch is. God does not “cause” anything directly... any more than the designers and builders of a baseball field “cause” a player to twist his ankle when he makes a bad slide.

I agree with you that suffering can happen outside of sin — and that Jesus is the exemplar here! (Hebrews 4:15). But I do not agree that suffering exists outside of sin’s aegis. Sin came into the world with Adam (Romans 5:12) — and sin reigns today. Furthermore, everything is tainted by sin — even in the Age of Grace! Furthermore, sin will continue to affect everything negatively until Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:27). This means that on the macro level, sin and suffering never were — and never will — be separated... not until sin is finally dispatched in the future age (Revelation 20:13-21:1).

When we talk about Jesus, the story is a little different. God was the effective causal agent of his suffering. But I have to qualify this: he was the effective agent morally, not physically... so it depends on what you are trying to communicate. God was not the one who conspired to have him killed... or the one who betrayed him... or the one who tried him... or the one who crucified him. Even so, Jesus let all these people off the hook with his teaching.

“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life... No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again....” (John 10:17–18, NIV)

“Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” (Luke 23:34, NIV)

According to John 10:17, Jesus was the direct cause of his own suffering, not the Father. But since Jesus also said that Father was the One who “gave” him to the world (John 3:16) — and since Jesus was always also part of the Godhead (John 10:30) — they were co-conspirators in his suffering. But note this well: Jesus was the only theanthropic person to ever exist... and his experience was not representative of ours.

But let’s turn back to God the Father now. Since God created evil (Isaiah 45:7), he is indeed the “cause” of all suffering. But because our holy God is the actor here, this seminal act of “causing” suffering cannot be sin... this, by definition. I would also argue that when a parent disciplines a child righteously that he is bringing suffering to the child... but that he is not sinning in doing so. If anything, not doing it would be the sin!

I believe that God does the same thing to us... disciplining us through both overt and hidden suffering. As such he is always the moral cause of our suffering, but he is never the direct cause. He treats us much like he treated Israel... using outside agents to both punish and discipline us.

Who is wise enough to understand all this? Who has been instructed by the Lord and can explain it to others? Why has the land been so ruined that no one dares to travel through it?

The Lord replies, “This has happened because my people have abandoned my instructions; they have refused to obey what I said. Instead, they have stubbornly followed their own desires and worshiped the images of Baal, as their ancestors taught them. So now, this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: Look! I will feed them with bitterness and give them poison to drink. I will scatter them around the world, in places they and their ancestors never heard of, and even there I will chase them with the sword until I have destroyed them completely.” (Jeremiah 9:12-16)

In the above passages, God plainly states that he is the one sending these evils upon his people. Since he could either perform these actions or withhold them, he is the author of those evils. As such, he is their “primary moral and efficient cause” ... the entity without whom, these evils would not happen.

But — and as critical as his role is — God is not the “direct cause” of Israel’s suffering. The pagan armies had that honor. And he is not the “direct moral cause” in any text above. The nation Israel is the direct moral offender in these crime-and-punishment dramas. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says these are warnings for Christians, too... lest we think we are above all that.

“Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:6–13, NIV)

Once in a while, God overtly punishes people... like when he sent fire and brimstone to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24). But except in extraordinarily rare moments like those, God is never the direct cause of suffering. Our suffering is always at the hand of the physical systems that God set up or the people we live with.

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