Who is God to let us suffer?

Who is God to let us suffer - Graham Ford - Jesus Christ for Muslims

The moment we think about the possibility that what happens in this universe is not blind chance, that we are not caught up in some meaningless accident which happened to result in this marvellous, astonishing but ultimately obviously pointless thing we call life, we are instantly confronted with a seemingly infinite paradox, which goes something like this:

“How could a Being of such awesome intelligence necessary to create this universe and all that is in it, so that we can be asking this question, have made it such that in the midst of such wonderful abundant life there is also such suffering, disaster and death?  Was it not possible to do better?’

‘Therefore, either God is flawed and incompetent and in critical areas powerless or, while pretending to be good he is, in fact evil.  Whichever of these two alternatives it is, why should I have any respect for such a Being.  He either needs to have done better, or be better, but it’s too late now.  He has failed.  And if he has failed, he isn’t really God, and so I don’t have to believe in him.’

There are in the end only four possible responses to this question.

The first option is to reject the very idea of God, for this reason, and consequently see anyone who believes in him as deluded, possibly dangerously so, and therefore their beliefs should be quite rightly suppressed.  A national government who pursues precisely this approach is the Chinese Communist Party, who are waging a war of control against the Church, as well as pursuing an energetic strategy of global domination.  In accordance with this viewpoint, all Scripture must be seen as fictional, delusional and dangerous, and anyone who accepts Scripture as in anyway true must also be equally delusional and dangerous.  Worthy of suppression, even being wiped out.  Never mind all of the archaeological evidence confirming the historical accuracy of the Bible, that can be safely ignored – there simply cannot be a God, or else the universe would not look like it does. Or so this argument runs.  Those governments who have pursued policies based upon this thesis have uniformly been a disaster for their people: oppressive, belligerent, operating outside the law and in the end destructive of their own environments, leaving their people culturally sterile and hopeless.

The second option is to understand God as a being who simply wants what he wants, does not have to explain himself or be accountable to anyone, and if he pursues unjust, unfair and frankly evil policies but decides to call them good, then that’s up to him and who are we to question him.  We are like the henchmen working for a criminal overload: questioning the boss’s decisions is bad for our health and wellbeing, so we go along with whatever is the plan of the day and pursue it with a submissive vigour.  This is the philosophical position of Islam in its Medinan form and can be plainly seen in the messages and actions of many Islamic terror groups, such as Isis.   It justifies all misery as the will of Allah, avoids any need to wrestle with the ‘problem of evil’, and conveniently justifies evil and violence in every sphere of life: home, street or nation, to the extent that in the end evil is the only product, while calling it good and justifying the claim at the point of the sword. 

The third way of dealing with the question is to avoid it by obscuring reality behind a world of imaginary myths and legends, invented gods by the million for every eventuality, confusion heaped upon confusion, while requiring blind loyalty to these traditional of myths and legends that have served the society through millennia of ignorance.  This is paganism and its highest form is Hinduism.  A near relative is Buddhism, where the panoply of gods is replaced with a panoply of reincarnated lives, each one supposing to approach towards perfection but to what purpose is never understood, other than the final extinction of the soul, which is not much of a glorious end.

The last way, and the only way that makes sense to me, is to wrestle honestly with the paradox, starting with a working assumption, to be duly tested as all propositions purporting to contain truth and knowledge need to be, this assumption being that the current state of affairs was in fact intended by the God who put them in place.  If that is the case, then we need to arrive at an understanding of why that is the case.  Only then can we look at events like this COVID-19 epidemic and begin to understand it in the context of a wider purpose for which the Creator established all things.

At this point it may be tempting to cheat and say that because God is a God of love, although things seems bad, He won’t allow them to get really bad, will He?  That won’t do, as it slides away from the question.  We should remind ourselves of what happened in 1918 and 1919 when the Spanish flu virus mutated during a first epidemic just as it was fading and this second epidemic got much worse, killing possibly 100 million.  Were the same level of epidemic outcome to happen this time, since the world’s population is five times greater, we would in this scenario be looking at 500 million dead.  In the first bubonic plague to afflict Europe (largely Christian by this time) in 541 AD, half the population was wiped out, as it was again when the Bubonic plague swept Europe in the 14th century.  When European migrants encountered American natives, 90% of the native population succumbed to smallpox, typhoid and the like.  In return, Central American natives gave Europe syphilis.   We have to look at the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, if we are going to arrive at a workable understanding of this pressing mystery.

With our assumption in hand, let us hear what God has to say for himself.  The prophet Isaiah in Chapter 45:6-12 tells us this:

“From the rising of the sun to the place of its setting, people may know there is none besides me. 

I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.”

“You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the Lord, have created it.”

 “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’? Woe to the one who says to a father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to a mother, ‘What have you brought to birth?  This is what the Lord says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?”

“It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshalled their starry hosts.”

Let us now look more carefully at what God has told us. (By the way, it is worth stating the obvious, that the Christian claim is that God has spoken to all humanity, and by means of the Bible all humanity can know what God has said.  It seems we all, at least, should give Him a fair hearing.)

Back to the passage:

  • God asserts He is the Creator of space (part of the concept of the Biblical phrase ‘the heavens’) and all that is in them, the stars and galaxies, neutrinos etc. – everything,
  • God asserts He is the Maker of the Earth, in all its glory and tragedy, with its seas, mountains, lakes, rivers and all that is in them, and all the little stuff too, presumably, like viruses, and the processes that go on in the Earth, like mutations,
  • God asserts He is the Creator of mankind, in all its glory and perplexity, wisdom and folly.

So, God claims He is the Creator, and frankly, I know of no scientific knowledge that has in any way compellingly refuted this assertion.  On the contrary, all scientific claims that ‘God is not necessary’ have themselves shown to be fundamentally wanting.

  • “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” We cannot go blaming everything on the Devil, or demons, or the jinn, God claims that fundamentally, He is in charge, and what happens He is the boss of. God does not get let of the hook because someone sneaked in when He wasn’t looking.  He knows what’s going on and nothing surprises Him.
  • “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the Lord, do all these things.”

    Now we really touch the heart of the matter.   God is claiming that He is the one who has shaped light and created dark, and not just in a physics sense, either.  This world is a mixture: light and dark, prosperity and disaster.  COVID-19 is a disaster, let’s face it.  So, does God claim to create disaster?    God also claims to create prosperity: health, wealth and happiness.  Without God’s creative activity, we would not have sun, rain, soil and seed; we would not have metal ore, wood or coal; we would not have minerals and rocks.  Yes, God has created prosperity, but equally God has created disaster.  God, it seems, is indeed in the thick of it, more so, because He is in charge of it and is Lord of it all.  So, the questions that then hang in the air is: ‘Why?’ and also, ‘How is this morally justifiable?’  This last question is the harder one. (Just ask a mother whose baby just died, painfully).

  • “You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the Lord, have created it.”

Let us avoid some silly atheist nonsense about trying to make out that Bible states that righteousness comes from rain.  This is a metaphor, obviously.  Just as life grows when rains fall on dry ground and the seeds can germinate, in the same manner God is asserting that moral righteousness can grow principally by responding to the resources that God has sent down to earth from Himself, that is what He has communicated, culminating in the ultimate communication of God to man, Jesus the Messiah, who is ‘the visible image of the invisible God’.  Without God, mankind is frankly hopeless at ethics and morality, and that fundamental lack is the major driver of all of our major challenges: injustice, family breakdown, sexuality breakdown, war, famine, inequity, institutionalised murder (domestic and honour killings, abortion and euthanasia), rebellion, oppression and persecution – the list seems endless.  But if humanity takes heed of the Word of God, then we can be saved from our own wickedness, we can know God and receive His help in implementing His Word in our lives and our societies, so that righteousness becomes the norm, not the thing that surprises us.  This also God has created.

This, then, is the heart of the matter.  For God to reveal His way of being, i.e. love, to his Creation, His creation must first be in a condition of not understanding His way of being, or else it would not be in any need of this revelation.  But, because His message is one of love and mercy, it cannot be forced, it has to be freely accepted, or else it is not love, it is a form of imprisonment.  For God to bring transform man from Homo Sapiens (Wise man) into Homo Iujust (Righteous man) the man (or woman!) must hear and obey God, and be free to do so, and that is what we are so unbelievably bad at.  This is a great struggle, and only some find salvation, although it is offered to all.

But back to the Question.  The world must be the way it is in order that us, created beings, can be elevated to have something of the divine about us – goodness.  It is our calling to overcome evil and do good, and God has provided the critical resource, His own self, to accomplish this task, and in so doing be reconciled with Him, so that he is our God and we are His people.

The next Universe, God promises, will have a New Earth in which there is no crying and suffering and death, but the necessary qualification for that future life is to overcome evil in this one, and to achieve that, we as individuals need God: both His Word and His Spirit – His indwelling presence communicating with us and we with Him.

As St. Paul summarised it: ‘God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.’ [Romans 11: 32].

So, this is the answer to the ‘Why?’ question.  But what about the second one: is it morally justifiable?  When is it morally justifiable for a doctor to inflict pain?  When the outcome has a reasonable chance of being much better than the illness.  In the same way, the glory of the final outcome makes the suffering of the present age worth it.  Without the Eternal Covenant of God, what passes ‘under the sun’ [Book of Ecclesiastes] seems pointless – ‘Vanity’ – but with it, the result is glory.  But still, isn’t it cruel and heartless, like some cosmic experiment by some distant Great Scientist in the sky?  The thing that makes it not so is that God Himself came and has lived, suffered and died among us.  He has shared our pain and our sorrows.  He got into the same trench as we, in with the muck and the bullets.  He did not flinch from sharing in the trouble, and so is rightly able to lead us in the glory to come.

Disaster reminds us we are not God, and instead we are in need of God and His mercy.  But if we are to receive His mercy, then surely it is required of us that we should pay attention to all that He has spoken to us.  This, it seems, is the true lesson of COVID-19, and all such events.  If we reject His message and therefore reject Him, and carry on in wickedness, then why should we be at all surprised when disaster comes upon disaster?  God is in charge.  He is calling us to leave our folly and turn and be saved.  He is reminding us of the ultimate spiritual law:

‘Look, all souls are Mine.
As the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son.
They are Mine.
The soul that is sinning – it dies.’
[Ezekiel 18:4]

This is reality – we can now accept it, or reject it, and accept the consequences of our decision.  This the reality of a Creator God who is love.  Being love, He is also righteous, for He cannot be one without the other.  That is His limitation.

The Lord bless you and I pray He will keep you safe in the hollow of His hand,

Graham Ford

President – Jesus Christ for Muslims