Disasters, Disease, & Death — Why is there Natural Suffering?

QUESTION: If God is perfect and God created the heavens and the earth, shouldn’t then this world be perfect if it was created by God?  If God is perfect, why does he allow or cause so much pain and strife?  We could blame many things on humans because much of the strife is caused by humans such as starvation, murder, slavery and other horrific acts perpetuated by people, but what about things beyond our control?  Why do tens of thousands of people die in super storms?  Why are people born disabled? Why do children get sick and die? Why would God allow such things if he was a perfect and loving God?

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As you said, much of the suffering in the world could be avoided; it’s caused by human sin and evil because God gave humans freewill. Yet we’re still left with the question of what I’ll call natural suffering: suffering caused by natural disasters, disease, and even accidental suffering and death from things like car accidents, exposure to weather, or, say, someone slipping and falling to their death.

Hurricane from space

Let me start with a more “worldly” answer and move into what the Bible teaches: The most basic answer is to say that these are the natural consequences of living in our life-giving world.  Extreme weather, earthquakes, and tsunamis are going to happen on our planet, the only planet that we know of that can sustain life.

Someone might criticize God and say, “If he’s so powerful, why couldn’t he just create a world without those things?”  First, it’s easy to be an arm-chair creator of the universe and say we’d do things differently, but obviously we’re not in the position to know better.  Secondly, certain possible bad things are going to logically follow from things that are not just good but essential.  For instance, if we’re going to have gravity so we stay on our planet’s surface and don’t just float off into space, it’s going to logically follow that gravity may kill a person if they step off something high enough.

Furthermore, if God intervened in every situation that would cause us harm, can you imagine what life would be like?  It’d be like living into your 50’s and still having your mom hovering over your every move like when you first learned to walk.  Also, if this was the case, you can pretty much kiss freewill goodbye.

Someone might then ask why God can’t just intervene in particularly bad instances — perhaps “big” situations — like preventing a super storm.  But how can we know he doesn’t intervene sometimes – or even a lot of times?  Not long ago, my mom had a stroke, but she fully recovered quickly and the side effects, like partial loss of the one side of her body, were gone within days.  The doctors were perplexed, and we were all amazed.  My mom, who tends to be a “half-empty” type, was talking about the stroke and said to me something like: “Why would God allow this to happen to me?”  I responded, “How do you know God didn’t intervene and, in fact, protect you from the stroke?”

COMMON GRACE & THE CURSE

The Bible writers teach that in God’s providence, he does interact with the world.  Why he intervenes sometimes and not others, I can’t say for sure because I don’t have the mind of God.  But in Christian theology, there is a doctrine called “common grace.”  This is the idea that due to sin, the world should be much worse than it is, yet God shows mercy and allows us to still enjoy the good things of this earth he created.

Common grace means even nonbelievers benefit from God’s good creation and mercy, which can include everything from their innate sense of morals, to meaningful relationships, to the beauty of nature, to food, music, and sex.  The difference though between the believer and nonbeliever is that the believer recognizes these good things are from God and they worship the Creator instead of the creation.

So, this moves us right into what the Bible teaches about natural suffering.  In Genesis, after Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, a curse comes upon all of creation.  God says to Adam,

“…Cursed is the ground because of you;

In toil you will eat of it

All the days of your life.

Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;

And you will eat the plants of the field;

By the sweat of your face

You will eat bread,

Till you return to the ground,

Because from it you were taken;

For you are dust,

And to dust you shall return.”

What this is showing is that mankind will no longer have the privilege of living in God’s garden, a place were food comes easy, but will have to toil and sweat to produce food.  In Romans 8, Paul writes of all of creation being in “bondage to corruption” and “groaning,” waiting to be set free from the weight of sin.  Further, God clearly tells Adam before the Fall that death is the outcome of sin.  Thus, death is not a natural part of God’s good creation.

drought

GOD’S GOODNESS & WRATH

Now, a thoughtful person may ask where the curse came from and point out that God was the one who put the curse on the creation.  This is true; God is the sovereign Lord over all creation and only he has the power to do such a thing.  But I’d argue that he had no choice.  That might sound shocking to both nonbelievers and believers.  It’s God!  Of course he had a choice!  But God’s nature is wholly good, holy, and just.  Often, people like to focus on the goodness of God and they try to forget the just wrath of God, but God’s goodness and his wrath are connected and cannot be separated.

People with kids can understand this; a parent should love his or her children unconditionally and show them understanding and mercy, but a parent who never disciples his or her children is not just a poor example of a parent, but actually doing something unloving.  Can I claim to be good, and at the same time turn a blind eye to evil and injustice?  Because God in his very nature is good and just, sin must be punished.  To not punish sin would go against God’s very nature and that’s something God can’t do.

If God simply overlooks sin, then he is no longer good, and if he’s no longer good, then he’s no longer God.  Those who think God can simply overlook sin don’t have a high enough view of God or a low enough view of sin.

God can’t break the laws of logic (such as he can’t make a square circle) and he can’t do something contrary to his own nature.  Thus, God is not to be blamed for the curse, but Adam and Eve.  Notice God tells Adam the curse came “because of you.”  God is no more guilty of the curse than a police officer is guilty for arresting a person for committing a crime or a judge is guilty for sentencing the criminal to prison.

Further, God still shows mercy in this situation.  Adam and Eve were warned that the outcome of sin is death (both physically and spiritually), but God doesn’t kill them immediately, yet now death will become a normal part of life.  Moreover, even when God kicks them out of the garden, he shows the lovingness of a Father by making them clothes from animal skins (Genesis 3:21).

The Bible goes on to tell the story of the continuing corruption of God’s good creation by man’s sinfulness, yet throughout we see God showing mercy.  Even when he destroys most of mankind with the flood, he spares Noah and his family; even when he allows sinful Israel to be taken into captivity by Babylon, he preserves a remnant.  And then this brings us right back to common grace.  If God withdrew all of his blessings from us, the world would be a much more horrible place (whether because of human evil or natural catastrophe) or just a desolate, lifeless rock floating in space — or, most likely, nothing would exist at all.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF LUKE 13:1-5

Finally, God showed the ultimate act of mercy by becoming a man himself and suffering for the sins of the world, so we could be free from the curse of death.  Once you understand that, your view of the suffering in the world changes.  Once you understand that, you realize God has done all he needs to – actually, more than he needs to.

Jesus says something very interesting in Luke 13:1-5:

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Here, we have two events being discussed by Jesus and his audience: Roman governor Pontius Pilate seemingly unjustly killing several people (what I would consider suffering due to human sin on the part of Pilate) and a tower that has randomly collapsed onto 18 people, killing them (what I would place in the category of natural suffering).  The crowd that Jesus is speaking to seems to think these people were worse sinners than others and God punished them by bringing these horrible deaths upon them.

Notice Jesus’ response: he basically says that these people were no worse sinners than all of you (us), so you (we) all need to repent of your (our) sins and get right with God.

We can get important theological lessons from this, especially in connection to the curse on creation in Genesis 3.  We are all deserving of punishment, but when bad things happen to us, we can understand them in two ways:

(A) the direct result of sin and

(B) the indirect result of sin.

When a person’s sinful behavior brings about logical negative consequences, this is suffering (either their own or others’) due to the direct result of sin.  For example, a man cheats on his wife and his wife leaves him, tearing the family apart.  On the other hand, when a person suffers because of a random, natural occurrence or accident (such as cancer, natural disaster, or a tower falling on them), this is not the direct result of their sin (so we aren’t to assume they did something that brought God’s wrath directly upon them) but an indirect result of sin because we live in a fallen world cursed by Adam’s, Eve’s, and all of our sins.

Jerusalem_Tower

ONE LAST THING: THE ONLY SOLUTION

I have one last thing to add:

If I were consoling a person who had just experienced a great tragedy, I wouldn’t go into all of this.  The last thing that person needs at that moment is an exposition of biblical theology.  But I’d share what God tells us through the Bible: God loves us, and he is with us in our suffering.  When Joseph (in Genesis) and Paul (in Acts) are unjustly imprisoned, we’re told God is with them.

But most importantly, we don’t worship a God who sits far off in the heavens, judging us from a distance.  We worship a God who loved us so amazingly he became man and suffered and died the most humiliating and agonizing death just so we can know him.  Our God knows what it is to suffer.  He knows what it is to be hungry, to weep for dead loved ones, to be betrayed by friends, and to be tortured and die.  When God looks at the state of this world, he is heartbroken; he weeps and suffers with us.

The writers of the Bible teach that though God may not stop all suffering from happening, he will use all things, including suffering and evil, for a greater good.  The greatest example of this is Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross.  Evil had thought it had won a great victory, but God used that event to defeat evil, sin, and death and free us from the bondage of our sins.  The suffering we experience will lead us to greater things.  As Christians, we no longer fear death and we wait for Jesus Christ to return to put a final end to pain and suffering.

John writes of his vision of the new earth in Revelation 21, what I consider some of the most beautiful words written in the Bible:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’”

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***One of the reasons I started this blog is to address the questions of my friends, whether they be atheists, agnostics, Christians, or of other faiths.  I don’t propose to have all the answers, but by addressing these questions I hope it will benefit everyone involved, including myself and those who take the time to read this blog.***

  • This question was asked by my friend Ian J. Keeney, a former Satanist/atheist, and director of the documentary The Meaning.
  • Read my response to: Did God Make the Entire Universe for Humans?  *here* and Is the Bible anymore accurate than other religious texts? *here*
  • Read my interview with Ian & learn more about The Meaning: Part 1 & Part 2*cross-silhouette1
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One thought on “Disasters, Disease, & Death — Why is there Natural Suffering?

  1. Pingback: The Walking Dead, Common Grace & Hell: Why Aren’t Things Worse? | god from the machine

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