Answering the Problem of Pain

The people of Israel were starving. Their land was rich, but their enemies devoured the produce (Judges 6:4). A young man named Gideon summed up the crisis: “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (6:13). That is the problem of evil. And it is one of the most obvious objections to the Christian faith: a world of evil cannot be governed by a good and powerful God, so the accusation goes.

That was the conclusion of one of Billy Graham’s early partners in ministry who became a professing atheist. What was the turning point in his de-conversion? He saw a picture of a North African woman holding her baby who had died of starvation due to drought. For him, it became impossible “to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain.”[1] The Bible says that the God of love “gives rain on the earth” (Job 5:10). God upholds and rules heaven and earth and everything in them.[2] And yet people in his world die of drought.

How do you defend your reason for hoping in a God who is good and powerful against what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain”?

The Bible Explains the Origin of Pain

Evil and suffering are not natural, but a corruption of the good world that God made. God made people in his own image (Gen. 1:27) but we rebelled against God’s will. We poisoned our own nature and triggered a curse against nature itself, just as God had warned.

Contrary to the spirit of the age, humans are not essentially good. Much of our trouble comes from our own personal deviation from God’s path of flourishing. All of our trouble comes from the deviation of humanity from God’s path of flourishing. Evil is our fault. We learn this from horrendous public crimes and from our own private sins. We know that people are sinners, capable of worse behavior than animals. But we don’t want to admit it about ourselves. I hate it when they cause pain, but look the other way when I cause pain. It is hard for a person to say, “I am part of the problem! I need God’s healing.”

The Bible’s account of the origin of pain raises important questions. Why assume that God is obligated to prevent the fallout of our own bad decisions? God warned his first creation stewards that sin—which they had the freedom to commit or resist—would spoil goodness. Is he now bound to clean up our mess? And why assume that God isn’t actually halting evil? Is our suffering as bad as it could be? From the first day that sin entered the world, God has been far kinder to rebels than we deserve. Instead of instant and absolute death, God allowed the human race to persist and has even given us gifts like sunshine and rain (Matt. 5:45). The mystery is not that people suffer, but that our suffering is not more extreme and enduring. And how can we even talk about evil if there is no authoritative standard of right and wrong? “The person who sees evil in the world and concludes that there is no God has got it backwards… our ability to recognize evil tells us that there is a God” who has made us with that ability.[3]

The Bible Interprets God’s Role in Our Pain

The problem of evil fails to consider the possibility of valid reasons for suffering. Can we be sure that God has no good reason for allowing and enduring evil? Can we know the mind of the Lord (Rom. 11:34)? And we forget that we do actually believe in the appropriateness of pain. Good parents do not alleviate all the suffering of their children. They discipline. They lovingly allow children to learn hard lessons. C.S. Lewis called pain “God’s megaphone” to disrupt a distracted world.[4] What Gideon may have forgotten when he poised the problem of evil is that “the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1). Because he hated them? No; because he loved them and wanted them to stop wasting their lives on sin. Under God’s care, trials produce maturity (James 1:4). He can use present pain to make for a brighter future (2 Cor. 4:17).

The problem of evil also fails to reckon with God’s involvement in our suffering. God may seem absent in our distress. But he cares about our tears (Ps. 56:8). More than that, he cries with us. The Son of God took on a human soul to feel our grief and pain. He took on human eyes so that they could sting with the same salty tears that we shed. Jesus wept (John 11:35). In Christ, God actively entered our suffering. As R.C. Sproul often said, bad things only happened to one good person: Jesus. One of the most basic realities of the incarnation is that God is not absent in our suffering. And God gives grace to everyone who asks for help facing the pain of this life. We want to know why God does what he does. But “It often seems that we are given a little courage rather than much knowledge.”[5] Tragically, atheists reject the only one who fully cares and can fully help.

The Bible Previews the Future of Pain

Peter Kreeft writes that blaming God for delaying justice and failing to make everything right “is like reading half a novel and criticizing the author for not resolving the plot.”[6] The story isn’t finished. We must consider heaven and hell (Luke 16:19–31).

Hell is God’s ultimate expression of justice. According to some, hell is proof that God is either cruel and imbalanced, or that he mustn’t exist because God and hell are incompatible. To be sure, hell is a sobering doctrine. Jesus warned that the worst thing that could happen to us in this life is nothing compared to hell (Matt. 10:28). Hell is a place of unending grief and loss for all those who die without being healed of their love of sinning. Hell is meant to be scary. The trouble is, “Most people find hell unimaginable because they measure themselves by a standard that they can already meet.[7]

And hell itself is riddled with misunderstanding. It is often judged unfair that some people in hell never even heard of Jesus. But “People don’t go to hell for ‘not believing in Jesus.’ They go to hell because they are rebellious sinners who have violated God’s law.”[8] Unbelievers make their choice for hell whether or not they ever heard about Jesus. They are without excuse. They know God but will not honor him (Rom. 1:20–21).

Hell is horrible. But hell is not a liability to the Christian faith; it is an asset. The unbelieving worldview cannot account for injustices that are not redressed in this age. What justice is there for a man like Hitler who murdered six million Jews and started a war that left fifty-five million dead? Is it fair for him to escape by putting a bullet in his head? And how can unbelievers have any concept of justice denying the existence of a just God and asserting that the universe is simply matter in motion? In truth, unbelievers know that there is a God from whom they have received a taste for justice.

Evil is short. And it will fail. Hell is the dungeon into which all evil not laid upon the Lord will languish forever.

By contrast, heaven is God’s ultimate expression of mercy. Neither evil, suffering, or hell, make sense without considering heaven. Reflecting on these but overlooking heaven “is leaving out almost the whole of one side of the account.”[9] “This light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:16–18). “Heaven, not hell, is the real mystery of Scripture.”[10] In his kindness, Jesus went to hell to free us from it and to bring us to a paradise we have completely forfeited.

People trip over the problems of pain in two main ways. First, some say that suffering proves that there is no God.[11] In truth, suffering might disprove the god imagined by critics. But it should be obvious that the logical syllogism of the problem of evil cannot eliminate the existence of God.

Second, they might say that they cannot believe in the God who permits suffering. But that is just as unwise. The God who permits suffering is also the God who judges sinners. Our objections related to suffering are evidence of our natural demand for autonomy.  We don’t want to submit. But only when we “bow our knee in humility before God in Christ, in the realization of [our] sinfulness and lost estate” will we be able to see that our trials fit into God’s larger plan for our salvation.[12] Many great suffers have also been great believers. Pain is not a reason to turn from God, but to turn to him as the only one who can carry our burdens.

Read the previous posts in this series here.

William Boekestein is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reforming Apologetics"

"Nature and Apologetics" by Arthur Hunt

"Covenantal Apologetics," review by Stephen Myers

"Reforming Apologetics," review by Ryan McGraw

Defending the Faith by Gabriel Fluhrer

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker 


[1] Cited in Strobel, The Case for Faith, 45.

[2] Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 26.

[3] Joe Coffey, Smooth Stones, 64.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 605.

[5] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Beyond Doubt: A Devotional Response to Questions of the Faith (Grand Rapid: Bible Way, 1980), 19.

[6] Cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, 45.

[7] Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 95.

[8] Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 102.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 638.

[10] Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 102

[11] This was C.S. Lewis’ argument as an atheist. But looking back he realized that “there was one question which I never dreamed of raising. … If the universe is so bad … how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?” The Problem of Pain, 552.

[12] J. H. Bavinck, Faith and Its Difficulties, 30.