One of the great mysteries to believer and non-believer alike is that of evil and suffering. If there is a God who is omnipotent and omniscient, how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when things like shootings (e.g., in the U.S., Paris, and Kenya), church bombings (e.g., in Nigeria), and beheadings (e.g., in Egypt and Iraq) occur? Where is God when a woman or young girl is raped, or when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and allow them to be born?

The problem of evil cannot be answered simply. It is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says, all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes (Romans 8:28). But in many circumstances it is difficult for us to see how this is so.

Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or who has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask, why? And the answers aren’t all that satisfying, for suffering is ultimately mysterious in many ways.

I have some respect for those who struggle to believe in the wake of tragedy. I do not share their struggle, but I understand and respect its depths and the dignity of their questioning. At the end of the trail of questions, often asked in anguish, is a God who has chosen not to supply simple answers. And perhaps even if He did, our simple minds could not comprehend them anyway. We are left to decide, often in the face of great evil and suffering, whether God exists or not.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers, but little is forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability even to ask the right questions. He doesn't provide an answer to the problem of evil and suffering. If He were to explain, it seems that all we would hear would be thunder anyway. In the end, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us; we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America, we suffer little in comparison to those in many other parts of the world. And even within the U.S., some seem to skate through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed, while others endure suffering, disease, inexplicable and sudden losses, financial setbacks, and other burdens.

While it is true that much of our suffering comes from poor choices, substance abuse, and lack of self-control, some seems completely unrelated to any of these.

The most difficult suffering to accept is that imposed on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no penalty: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, corrupt governments, unscrupulous businesses, schemers who exploit others (especially the poor), and crazed killers.

Suffering is hard to explain simply or to accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. And when discussing the existence of evil with an atheist, sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility may go further than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery), and they are humble because they acknowledge their own limits.

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Though we only get a brief glimpse of it, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it.
  2. But even in the Garden of Eden, the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise, the mystery of evil lurked.
  3. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there because we were made to love; love requires freedom and freedom requires choices. The 'yes' of love must permit the 'no' of sin. In our rebellious 'no' both we and the world unraveled, and death and chaos entered in. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth—the vast majority of it, by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin: Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation of paradise rather than to serve in the real paradise.
  4. This link of evil and suffering to human freedom also explains God’s typical lack of intervention in evil matters. Were God to intercede routinely, it would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But here, too, there is mystery: the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. In it, God showed an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and set a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit that Job’s faith be tested and strengthened. But in the end, Job was restored and reestablished with even greater blessings in a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also has an explanation of suffering: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more need more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that a greater glory is waiting for them. For the Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering, it should be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal, in which the last shall be first (Mat 20:16), the mighty will be cast down while the lowly are exalted, and the rich will go away empty while the poor are filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich, well-fed, and unaccustomed to any suffering. In the great reversal, the first will be last. The only chance that the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this end, is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
  9. Finally, as to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering that we chose by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.
To these points I am sure you will add, but be careful with the problem of evil and suffering. It has mysterious dimensions that must be respected. Simple answers may not help those who struggle with it. Understanding and an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with this may be the best way. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but it also appeals to reason, and calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a small part. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would pat answers, which may tend to alienate him or her.