Conversations with a Skeptic: How Can You Believe in a Good God When There Is So Much Suffering in the World?

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Writing not long after Hurricane Katrina in his book, Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris explains why he cannot believe in God with these words: “An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl – even once in a million years – casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.  Examples of God’s failure to protect humanity are everywhere to be seen.  [Consider] the city of New Orleans [and Hurricane Katrina] for instance.”1

How can God be both all-powerful and good – and yet let good people suffer?  This is the major faith question of our times.  The skeptics argue: either God is not good, or God is powerless and of no use.  Or, God does not exist at all.  “Why don’t you just scrap this God business,” a friend of Nicholas Wolterstorff said to him after Wolterstorff lost his son in a tragic mountain climbing accident.  “It’s a rotten world,” the friend went on to say, “you and I have been shafted, and that’s that.”2

Indeed, in the face of tragedies and senseless suffering, it is not just the skeptics outside of the church who struggle with faith.  Even the most ardent of believers may find their faith shaken by a tragedy that seems to be evidence of an autonomous world with no god in sight.  Shortly after Mother Teresa’s death, there were published accounts of the previously untold story of the long-standing doubts that she had in the face of the tragedies she faced daily in India.  Remarkably, those doubts never kept her from doing God’s work.

How then do we respond – both to the skeptics outside the church and the skeptic in our own heart? How can we believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world?

First, we must clarify what we mean by the will of God.

Ron Greer is a pastoral counselor who lost his son, Eric, in an automobile accident when Eric was only 2.  The week after Eric died, Greer was standing with a pastor friend when a woman came up to offer support.  Greer writes, “[she] was struggling with what to say.  Finally, she spoke of Eric’s death being God’s will, though we may not understand it.  She then wished me well and excused herself.”

Greer continues: “My [pastor] friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Greer, if God killed your boy, I’m hanging up my robe.”3

Does everything that happens reflect God’s intentions for the world and for our lives?  Is God the great puppeteer, pulling all of the strings, directing every single action?  Or, is God just a well-intentioned spectator, kind but powerless to stop the fates?

The answers to all 3 of these questions are NO! NO! and NO!  God wills what is good, just, and loving for us.  But God created the world with neutral laws or principles – like gravity.  They are equally in force for the just and unjust.  Gravity is a good thing; life would be much harder without it.  But when someone climbing a mountain falls a great distance, gravity will kill him.  God intends, God wills, for gravity to operate – but that does not mean that God wants a young man who slips and falls to die.

In the same way, God did not create us to be puppets or automatons.  God created us with freedom – with the freedom to say “yes” to God or “no,” with the freedom to do the right thing or wrong thing.  Some tragedies, such as Sam Harris’ example of murder, stem from our willful rebellion against God.  And some tragedies, such as the car accident that took Greer’s son, are the result of human carelessness.

Not everything that happens reflects the way that God wants it to be.  Far from it.  We live in a world badly broken by sin.  Therefore, that tragedy happens does not mean that God does not exist, or that God is not good.

Second, “Why?” is not a question that we need to be ashamed of asking.  But it is not a question that we will ever get completely answered before we die.

Some suffering can be explained and justified – the consequences of human sin or carelessness or ignorance.  And some suffering can be understood as the operating of otherwise neutral principles like gravity.

But the bottom line is this: we cannot explain and justify all suffering.  Why are children born with grave defects?  Why do tsunamis take the lives of so many?  As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote in a journal he kept after his son’s tragic accident, “The meaning of the remainder is not told us.  It eludes us.  Our net of meaning is too small.”4

When that happens, we cannot help but cry out, “Why, O Lord?  Why has this happened?  Why have you permitted this to happen?”

We hear that question implicitly stated in the psalmist’s cries in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?…How long must I bear pain in my soul?”  We hear that question even on Jesus’ lips as he hung on the cross: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”

The Bible speaks truth – not just about God, but about the human condition.  Read the psalms and note the unflinching honesty and the questioning of God in them.  There are no glib answers or easily spoken platitudes there.  Like the psalmist, we need not hide, or hold back, our doubts and our questions.  God is big enough to handle even our anger at the apparent unfairness of life.

But we will have to wait for answers to all of our “why” questions.  Now, we see in a mirror dimly,” the apostle Paul reminds in 1 Corinthians.  Now we see dimly – “then, we will see face to face.”  Someday, we will know the answers to our “why” questions.  But that day is not today.  I don’t know about you – but when death comes, I will be carrying a lot of questions with me for God to answer – maybe not on the first day, but at least on the second day.

I know skeptics want certain answers to these hard questions now.  But sometimes all we can do is learn to live with the questions, just as the psalmist does, and trust in God to provide an answer someday.

Third, if we wonder where God is when tragedy strikes, we can look up – but we can also look sideways.

A minister whose wife had just received a diagnosis that her cancer had returned confided to his friend, “I think that without my belief in Jesus Christ, I would have a hard time believing in God.” (Repeat)

At first, I did not understand what he meant, but as I thought more about what he said, it made sense.  In the face of tragic suffering, God our Creator might seem too abstract and aloof.  But the Christian faith gives us a more complete picture of God.  In Jesus Christ, we see God in the flesh.  We see a God who has pitched his tent to live among us as one of us – and who knows what it is like to suffer.  My faith in a good God hinges on whom we see and know in Jesus Christ – not in some philosophical debate.

In John 20, Thomas wants to see the Lord.  But he wants more than to see Jesus.  He wants to touch him, to touch his wounds and scars.

Doesn’t Thomas represent us all?  Those scars remind us that Jesus has been through it all, through the injustice of a kangaroo court, through the despair of being abandoned by virtually everyone, through the suffering of the whip and the cross, through the loneliness of death.  In Jesus Christ, we see that God does not stand atop some mythic mountain far from the pains and struggles of human life.  In Jesus Christ, God has descended into the valley to dwell among us – even to suffer and die.

Jesus has been through it all.  His scars remind us that our “God is not only the God of the sufferers, but the God who suffers.”5

Of all of the sermons preached at the famous Riverside Church in New York City by all of the famous preachers, do you know what sermon is the most requested sermon?  The one preached by William Sloane Coffin the week after his son was killed in an automobile accident.  This is how he began that sermon:

“As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family, ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-od Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”  He later said, “My only consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”6

No matter what befalls us, no matter how far we fall, we need not look up when we are looking for God.  We can also look sideways.  Because the great God of the universe is near.  Jesus Christ was there before us, is there beside us, and will be there, ahead of us to show us the way.

So, How can you believe in a good God, when there is so much suffering in the world?

It is not a debate which you can win with a philosopher’s logic or a mathematician’s formula.  There is too much mystery, too many questions for which we believers admittedly have no answers.  Perhaps it does not make too much sense to the Sam Harrises of the world on the outside looking in that there is a good God despite the suffering in the world.  But it makes perfect sense from the inside of faith looking out.

Hear the testimony of those who have found God in the midst of tragedy.  Make no mistake about it.  It has not been an easy road for them.  There have been cries of pain and fear.  Some have been angry at God, even cursed God.  Some have doubted God’s existence or God’s love.  But they found that they were not abandoned.  They found, that even as they floundered in the stormy waters of suffering and grief, their feet ultimately found firm ground, a Rock on which they could stand.

Like Ronald Greer, the man who lost his two-year old son: “I never felt alone,” he writes.  “I was in the greatest pain I had ever known, not knowing what our lives would be like when the dust finally settled – but I always felt a certainty.  I felt anchored.  Anchored in the conviction that I was grounded by something greater than myself, something supportive and profoundly gracious.”7

Like the dear friend who became a widow at 31 after her husband’s sudden death by suicide.  She would later write: “part of God’s work of redemption is surrounding you with faith-filled obedient people who can remind you of His truths when you cannot see them for yourself…When my husband died one of the first thoughts to crystalize…was I am all alone now.”  On one level, this is true,” she writes.  “But it is also decidedly false…Now, looking back, I see how fully I was surrounded.  How even in those darkest moments, God was pulling me close.  Even then he was orchestrating a beautiful story of healing.  There is no dark that cannot be made bright when God is in it.”8

Like Lucy Atkinson Rose, preaching professor, wife, and mother of a seven year-old daughter, who lost her four-year battle with cancer in 1997, but who wrote shortly before her death, “the power that holds my life is God’s not mine;…by God’s grace I have not felt crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed…In terms of eternity, mine is a slight momentary affliction through which God’s grace is preparing me for coming into God’s eternal, loving presence.”9

These men and women discovered what Paul wrote to the Romans, what countless Christians have discovered over the past 20 centuries.  What is that?  That God exists indeed – and that God is love.  And there is nothing, no tragedy, no suffering, no sin, no power, no death, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.

Amen.


  1. Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 52. ↩︎
  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 76. ↩︎
  3. Ronald J. Greer, Markings on the Windowsill (Nashville: Dimensions for Living, 2006), 29. ↩︎
  4. Wolterstorff, 74. ↩︎
  5. Wolterstorff, 81. ↩︎
  6. http://www.pbs.org/now/society/eulogy.html ↩︎
  7. Greer, 33. ↩︎
  8. Sarah Pinard, “Ruth and Naomi,” unpublished, 9-10. ↩︎
  9. Lucy Atkinson Rose, Songs in the Night: A Witness to God’s Love in Life and in Death (Decatur: CTS Press, 1998), 110. ↩︎