No one can know all the answers as to why God allows so much suffering in the world, (this article of course presumes he exists, and also that what the Bible says about him and about the afterlife is true. Articles on how likely it is that a good God can exist when there is so much suffering in the world can be found elsewhere on the Internet). But there are some possible explanations that go some way to helping people understand some of the reasons why God could allow suffering.
If your life is being blighted by a problem like depression, worry, phobias, panic or OCD, an addiction, a marriage problem, dealing with past abuse, raising difficult teenagers, coping with verbal bullies, self-harm or anorexia, living with cancer or caring for someone with dementia, looking after someone with schizophrenia, or grieving for someone, and what you'd really prefer to know is how to cope with your problems better rather than why God's allowing them, visit our Free self-help series.
This isn't an in-depth article, but it provides a few things to ponder on. I began to write it in response to a question I was asked, as to why people can't just turn pain down, and why God allows so much other suffering in the world. It doesn't address in detail some aspects such as the question of suffering in wartime.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of the idea that an all-knowing and all-powerful God could nevertheless allow world-class mismanagement and evil actions to happen resulting in the deaths of millions, along with the suffering of individuals on a daily basis for other reasons, is to think of life as a journey, a comparatively very short transitional period leading to eternity, and to think of our time here as a period of training, and a time where the quality of our character is displayed and assessed for the amount of compassion we show to others, in order that we be judged fairly on judgment day. That's one way of looking at it, accurate or not.
It isn't only the quality of the character of the person suffering that's perhaps being tested, but the quality of those around them. Every incidence of suffering is an opportunity for those around the person suffering to show compassion and to help them overcome their problems to the best of their abilities. The quality of compassion in a person's character shows up much more clearly when some of those around them are suffering so it has cause to be displayed.
Of course, suffering can lead to a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed and other emotional pain on the part of some of those who witness it. Yet it may be an opportunity for compassion on the part of others with better training and resources who are witnessing the same suffering, or an inspiration for others to develop the means of helping such people.
Suffering can also be a means of developing compassion in people that makes for less selfish and more caring individuals than a perfect world would, although maybe some personality types are more likely to be inspired to greater compassion by suffering than others, and maybe some types of suffering are more likely to inspire compassion than others, since it can often cause the opposite reaction - bitterness, anger, and debilitating depression, among other things.
It could be that failing to take opportunities to try to help others in the face of clear need when it's in a person's power to do so, as well as deliberately causing harm, will be judged, according to the degree of negligence or evil committed.
But suffering is also an opportunity for acts of personal heroism and compassion, and it may be that people will be eternally rewarded according to how much they show, in proportion to the opportunities they had to show it, and their capability to do so in the circumstances, who knows.
To illustrate the point that suffering and imperfection allow others to display a compassion which is maybe what God's looking for when he allows misfortune, here's a heart-warming story of an event that led a father to a conclusion about why God had allowed his child to be mentally retarded: Where is God's Perfection?
To quote a clip from it:
"I believe," the father answered, "that when God brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child."
For perhaps thousands of years, some people have thought that natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes were punishment from God for sins. The Old Testament talks a lot about punishment for sin, but doesn't say natural disasters are punishment. And in fact, scientists not only say natural disasters are just part of the way the earth operates, but that earthquakes and volcanoes are even necessary for life to exist on earth! That might sound horrifying when they kill so many people. But some people believe God couldn't have designed the planet any other way if we were to live on it. I don't know how true that is. But you can read some scientific views on how earthquakes are necessary in an article from 2005 called Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet:
They approach the topic gingerly, wary of sounding callous, aware that the geology they admire has just caused a staggering loss of life. Even so, scientists argue that in the very long view, the global process behind great earthquakes is quite advantageous for life on earth - especially human life. Powerful jolts like the one that sent killer waves racing across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26  are inevitable side effects of the constant recycling of planetary crust, which produces a lush, habitable planet. Some experts refer to the regular blows - hundreds a day - as the planet's heartbeat. ...
"It's hard to find something uplifting about 150,000 lives being lost," said Dr. Donald J. DePaolo, a geochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. "But the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn't occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet." ...
The main benefits of plate tectonics accumulate slowly and globally over the ages. In contrast, its local upheavals can produce regional catastrophes, as the recent Indian Ocean quake made clear.
Even so, scientists say, the Dec. 26 tsunamis may prove to be an ecological boon over the decades for coastal areas hardest hit by the giant waves.
Dr. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University who grew up in Indonesia and has studied the archipelago, says historical evidence from earlier tsunamis suggests that the huge waves can distribute rich sediments from river systems across coastal plains, making the soil richer.
"It brings fertile soils into the lowlands," he said. "In time, a more fertile jungle will develop."
Dr. de Boer, author of recent books on earthquakes and volcanoes in human history, added that great suffering from tectonic violence was usually followed by great benefits as well. "Nature is reborn with these kinds of terrible events," he said. "There are a lot of positive aspects even when we don't see them." ...
It seems that the impact of the 2004 Tsunami that article speaks of was unwittingly made worse for humans, though, by some things humans did beforehand. This article speaks of one: Mangrove forests 'can reduce impact of tsunamis':
[NEW DELHI] Dense mangrove forests growing along the coasts of tropical and sub-tropical countries can help reduce the devastating impact of tsunamis and coastal storms by absorbing some of the waves' energy, say scientists.
When the tsunami struck India's southern state of Tamil Nadu on 26 December, for example, areas in Pichavaram and Muthupet with dense mangroves suffered fewer human casualties and less damage to property compared to areas without mangroves.
But the scientists also warn that the unique coastal tropical forests are among the most threatened habitats in the world. This is due to population growth and unsustainable economic development including deliberate land reclamation for urban and industrial development, widespread shrimp farming, and chemical pollution. ...
McNeely told the Agence France Press news agency that over the past several decades, many mangroves have been cleared to grow shrimp ponds by, among others, outsiders granted concessions from governments to set up shrimp farms, who lacked the long-term knowledge of why the forests should have been saved. ...
As well as acting as a barrier against tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes, mangrove forests provide society with a range of other 'ecological services'. These include preventing coastal erosion, protecting coral reefs from silting up, and providing a source of timber, food and traditional medicines.
Here's another example of how natural disasters can kill a lot more people than necessary and humans can stop them killing so many people or make them worse. From a news article written in 2001 called Can money stop an earthquake?
No international relief teams are on their way to Seattle in the wake of Wednesday's earthquake.
The toll from the quake currently stands at one dead, 100 injuries, and relatively minor structural damage - though the cost in lost revenue to a major business centre will of course be considerable. ...
Contrast this with the recent earthquake centred on the Indian state of Gujarat, where deaths and injuries were numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
It is true that the Seattle earthquake measured 6.8 on the Richter scale as opposed to the 7.9 of the Gujarat quake.
But the relatively mild effects of the Seattle quake have as much to do with preparedness as with the magnitude of the tremor - and preparedness depends in turn on prosperity. ...
"We feel fairly confident that we can build buildings that can resist earthquakes," said Phillip Gould, a civil engineering professor at Washington University in St Louis.
In developing countries, building regulations frequently take second place to the demands for cheap, quickly built housing to meet the needs of rapid urbanisation.
In the El Salvador earthquakes earlier this year, the huge loss of life in the San Salvador suburb of Santa Tecla was blamed in part on the location of buildings on an unstable slope which turned into a mudslide as soon as the quake struck.
Some of the most haunting images of the earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999 are of concrete slabs lying collapsed like card houses - while adjacent buildings were barely damaged.
Too late, the Turkish authorities announced legal action against builders - and Indian officials promised a tougher enforcement of building rules in future.
"We are beginning to relearn the lessons that were reiterated following El Salvador - that governments are not prepared," a Bombay engineer said after the Gujarat disaster.
"They directly or indirectly contribute to the death by permitting poor construction quality."
Dr John Twigg, a researcher at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre of University College, London, says most governments invest in post-disaster response and very little in making people secure. ...
Here's a snippet or two from a short article about natural explanations for suffering: Why do tragedies happen at all? Questions people ask; logical answers:
... Deaths from tainted water: Hundreds of people face death in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada due to a municipal water supply tainted mainly by E. Coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter jejuni bacteria. Seven eventually die. Millions ask why? ...
... A former conservative Ontario government decimated their civil service in order to reduce their labor costs and the public's income taxes. Monitoring of the safety of the water supply and other environmental factors were adversely affected. Municipalities no longer were required to report contamination. Deaths from tainted water were inevitable; only the location was determined by chance.
Basically, in all the talk of why God allows suffering, we mustn't forget the natural reasons it happens, and that Christians, like everyone else, should take an active role in combating it where possible.
It would be wrong to blame God for suffering where humans had quite a bit to do with it and there are human solutions.
It's a fact, sometimes unpleasant, that people need pain to survive. It can help us avoid serious injury. That might not be any consolation to people in serious pain that won't go away. More on that a bit later. But if someone has a broken arm, for instance, they need to take special care of it, and if they didn't feel any pain, they would just use it as normal and damage it some more.
I heard about a leprosy doctor, Paul Brand, who came to understand how valuable pain can be. His patients couldn't feel any pain because the disease had damaged their nerve endings, and they could do things like take freshly-cooked potatoes out of the fire with their bare hands or walk on broken glass with bare feet without stopping to think that they were doing themselves any damage. With some people, if they think they can do something quickly enough that it won't hurt them much, it can be very tempting to do it without taking any precautions. And it must be more tempting to do that kind of thing if one doesn't really think about the consequences because one doesn't feel any pain at all. And then, a person can hurt themselves more than they ever imagined they would.
Sometimes, however, leprosy sufferers hurt themselves without even realising they're doing anything that might damage them. Leprosy patients are often pictured as having mere stumps for hands and other deformities. But according to Paul Brand, these aren't caused by the disease itself. They can be caused by the careless or unwittingly dangerous acts of the people who have it, putting their hands on hot stoves for example, not realising they're hot, and then getting serious burns which become infected and eventually cause the hand to be so diseased that it has to be amputated, or just gets so badly burned in the first place that it ends up deformed. One of Paul Brand's patients was digging all day and only at the end of the day realised that the shovel he was using had a nail sticking out of it.
Brand also tells of a baby who was born without the ability to feel pain, and one day her mother went into the room where she was, and she had chewed the tip of one of her fingers off and was amusing herself by drawing lines and circles with the interesting new substance that was coming out of her finger - blood.
Paul Brand and a team tried to invent a substitute for pain to let his leprosy patients know they were in danger. He tried giving them a hearing aid with a system where a buzzer would go off when they were doing something that might damage them, but they just ignored it. He tried a system of flashing lights, but they ignored those too. He tried a system which would give them electric shocks on a part of their body that was still sensitive like the armpit, but they would turn the system off when they wanted to do something that might set the shock signal off, and switch it back on afterwards. So he realised that the control would have to be out of the person's reach for the system to be effective. He came to greatly appreciate the value of the warning system of pain.
Long-lasting pain can clearly be far more of a problem for people. Some people suffer for years with conditions that cause them pain every day, and there aren't any easy answers as to why God would allow that. There are some terrible diseases that are genetic, or that are caused by things totally beyond a person's control.
Severe injuries might also lead to chronic pain for years, and those suffering might ask why God allowed them. But to prevent every serious injury, God would have to continually suspend the laws of the universe or intervene in other sometimes drastic ways. For instance, if someone driving a car was speeding and there was ice on the road ahead, God would have to miraculously melt it to prevent them skidding and hitting something - possibly another car, or else miraculously slow their car down or stop the person speeding in the first place. And miracles would have to be repeated possibly thousands of times a day throughout the world, reversing or preventing people's actions, or changing surroundings to make the consequences of their actions harmless.
Though it's certanly not always the case, a lot of chronic pain is preventable, with a healthy diet and other such things. Much chronic pain is a consequence of bad lifestyle choices, such as over-exercise leading to injury, or disease due to unhealthy living. Some cancers and heart disease are related to bad diet, for example. Here are a couple of articles on foods and other natural ways of reducing the risk of cancer and other diseases:
If longer-lasting pain was very easily switched off, people might have similar problems to those experienced by leprosy patients. People probably wouldn't bother to go and see their doctors a lot of the time when the pain was warning them that something serious was the matter because they had cancer or heart disease if they could just turn it down and forget about it, unless they perhaps had severe breathing problems or other serious symptoms. They might not worry about what was wrong, or they might turn the pain down because it was easier than going to see a doctor, until they unexpectedly died, and when they were near to doing that they'd realise too late that they should have done something about their situation before.
People who needed to rest for the good of their health might just turn the pain down and get up, and give themselves a worse injury. People with chronic back pain might just turn the pain down and carry on doing the things that caused their pain in the first place, until their back was perhaps so badly injured that they were unable to move. There would be much less incentive for care homes, for example, to introduce hoists for lifting patients so care workers didn't incur the strain of doing it by hand, or to train people to lift heavy things and people properly so they didn't damage their backs, if there didn't seem to be any serious short-term consequences of making people lift others by themselves. Thus, people would have had far less motivation to improve safety standards at work. People would resort to suing companies for serious injury they'd accumulated over the years, but many people's quality of life might have been permanently ruined by then. Companies often only think in the short term.
However, there were always things around that could alleviate pain. Alcohol and herbal remedies, for example. Thus, it could be argued that God has provided help to some extent for pain sufferers. Relaxation exercises can make chronic pain seem more bearable, and so can doing something that distracts one from the pain, although the more severe the pain is, the harder it is to become distracted from it.
And it has been noted that soldiers would carry severely injured fellow-soldiers to safety in the second world war even when they had been wounded themselves, as if they didn't notice the pain; but when they were in hospital later, some of them cried when the nurse gave them an injection, when they had less urgent things to do and more time to think about it. (Injections were more painful in those days. The substances were more acidic, and so they stung.)
Footballers sometimes carry on playing even though they've picked up an injury, and the pain only really hits them when they stop. It's probably the power of adrenaline.
Thus, if stimulating things can be found for people in pain to do or watch/listen to, they are likely not to feel it quite so much.
That's not to trivialise severe pain, however, - the worse pain is, the more difficult it can be to take one's mind off it.
Some painful conditions can be alleviated by changes in lifestyle. For instance, changes in diet can sometimes reduce the pain of arthritis. Much back pain can apparently be alleviated by spending some time doing gentle exercise, or things that relax tension, since much back pain is apparently caused by muscle tension.
Clearly, when pain becomes chronic, and though it's obvious something's wrong, there doesn't seem to be a solution to it, it no longer has any benefit as a warning signal. Thus, it should be minimised as far as possible.
As for emotional pain, Depression and other emotional problems can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but a person's life experiences can often dictate what kind of chemical imbalance they will have in their brain. Sometimes the cause is purely physical, but often they can be helped a lot by therapy which teaches them to think positively about things, as well as by airing their grievances and building positive strategies for dealing with any of them that they can, becoming more assertive.
Once people have been through emotional pain, they can often end up more caring.
I was reading some literature by the Christian counsellor Celwyn Hughes about what he believed to be the benefits of suffering once, which said that someone had told him that since his wife died, he seemed to have developed a sensitivity towards others that he hadn't had before.
A very important thing to state, however, is that people should never be allowed to continue to suffer in the hope that it will do them more good, if something can be done for them. That would be like experimenting on them, because that could do them more harm than good.
But suffering can sometimes motivate people to do great acts of caring that have long-lasting benefits.
I heard about a woman in the 19th century called Josephine Butler who came home one day after she'd been away for a while and her little daughter rushed to greet her and fell over the stair banister onto the hard floor below and died. Josephine was very upset, but she decided to ease her pain by channelling it into something positive by finding people worse off than she was to help. She opened a home for young women who had been forced to become prostitutes out of necessity, and helped to change oppressive laws that were harming prostitutes and potentially other women, thus causing improvements in the lives of many.
I once read a message that someone had written to a group which was set up to discuss ways of improving the criminal justice system, which was written in response to someone's request for advice and support. The writer of the message said she'd been abducted, robbed and raped several years previously, and although she still wasn't over it, she wanted to put the experience to good use by helping others who'd been criminally harmed and thought she'd be more qualified to do so since she'd had such an experience. She said that although the memory of the experience often upset her, people often forgot the positive aspects of having had experiences like that.
Of course, that isn't to say that people who inflict such harm on others should be treated any less harshly by the justice system or looked on any less unfavourably by people, or that when anyone suffers, the pain of their suffering should be brushed aside, or that they shouldn't be helped to get over it as much as possible, or that it should be assumed that there will always be some positive effects of it - there might well often not be. No one should minimise the harm that such experiences cause. Often, the negative effects of such things may be far worse than any long-term positive ones. So wherever it's humanly possible to eliminate suffering altogether, it should be done.
But it seems it's a common experience for those who have suffered to go on to want to make the lessons they have learned from the pain worthwhile by dedicating part of their lives to helping others.
We are led to believe in the Bible that God's ideal for us is that we are compassionate. While abuse can sometimes turn people into psychopaths, if we lived in a world free from anything harmful at all, people might not develop any empathy and compassion for others.
People have said that life's experiences consist only partly of what happens to them; the more important aspects are how they respond to them.
Of course, Christians, and in fact anyone, ought to give suffering people all the support they can, which is, after all, part of what the Bible is asking when it instructs Christians to be compassionate!
A few words from a nurse explain the importance that even just listening to people with problems they want to air can have:
Here's a story about how someone believes that suffering has actually resulted in positive things happening in her own life. It can cause people to reassess their values and dedicate their lives to the things that they feel really matter to them, since they become more aware of how life shouldn't be taken for granted:
Suffering can sometimes be like a discipline, purifying a person. For instance, a gossip who spreads a false rumour or a confidential peace of information and is subsequently ostracized by former friends for it may learn to be more respectful of others' feelings and gossip less. Someone who habitually makes fun of disabled or less gifted people may change their ways after they become disabled, perhaps only temporarily, themselves. See the example of this inspirational poem:
The Bible says that God can actually cause painful events to happen in people's lives sometimes in order to purify them. (See, for instance, Hebrews 12).
Sometimes, however, it's best not to look for explanations for suffering. They won't necessarily be found easily. Sometimes, any positive effects it may have may not become apparent till years later, if ever.
One reason for this is that suffering can not only have positive effects on the characters of those who have lived through it, but witnessing other people's hardships can also change people for the better and make them more compassionate, sometimes while the suffering person never knows it's happened. It won't always make people more compassionate. Witnessing serious suffering and not being able to do anything about it might simply traumatise some people or make them feel helpless, whereas it might desensitise others to it. But seeing people less fortunate can give people a desire to dedicate their lives to helping others, or simply to change their attitude. I read a story in the book of short inspirational stories Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, about a man who spent years feeling miserable and self-pitying. One evening, he was driving home in the rain when his car broke down. A tyre needed changing. He knocked on someone's door and a little boy answered who said he and his grandfather could help. The man sat in his car while the two of them jacked up the car and worked in the rain to change the tyre. It seemed to be taking a long time and he became annoyed and impatient. When they'd finished, they came to tell him, and he held out some money to the man to say thank you, but he just ignored it. The boy said he couldn't see it. Then the man realised that the grandfather must be blind, and yet he'd spent time laboriously feeling for everything he needed and changing the tyre in the rain, even though it had taken so long.
He was amazed, and ashamed of himself for having been so impatient, and from that time on, he stopped focusing his thoughts on himself and his misery and became thankful for what he had and thus much happier, and more concerned about others.
It may be that the blind man had influenced others in a similar way at other times in his life, and that other disabled people sometimes do.
Of course, this isn't to say that all suffering has a positive outcome; and people ought to be motivated to try to alleviate it whenever they can, since the effects can sometimes obviously be highly damaging.
Leaving aside the beneficial effects that suffering can sometimes have on people's characters, there is another possible reason why God allows it which is perhaps more significant. Since much or even most suffering is caused by man's inhumanity/negligence towards others, if God eliminated suffering, he'd have to do it partly by preventing us from having free will. As it is, we have the responsibility to use our will in a moral way. The fact that so many people don't is a major cause of suffering in the world, especially when people with power and influence use it in a destructive or corrupt way.
If we didn't have free will, it would mean that God would have to more-or-less control every one of us. So we'd either be like robots who didn't mind being controlled, or like people whose emotions were switched off beyond a certain point of provocation or under temptation to do something immoral, so we couldn't do any serious damage to anyone; or we'd be like people who couldn't really think for ourselves but resented God for it. It wouldn't be good enough just to make everyone so nice that they'd never want to do anyone any harm, because a lot of suffering results from actions committed by people who just didn't think of the possible consequences of them. Everyone would have to be made willing by God to obey a set of rules, like the commands for Christians in the Bible.
For instance, teenagers might just be negligent of the potential consequences of having sex, which can lead to the fear and unwanted responsibility caused by teenage pregnancy. People would all have to be programmed to want to obey a moral code like the Christian one.
Maybe part of the reason God hasn't programmed everyone like that is because of the maturity of character, compassion, empathy and concern for others that suffering can sometimes produce in people.
It may be, however, that on some occasions, God does override a person's free will, controlling their actions to ensure a favourable outcome to a problem. Indeed, if he didn't, there wouldn't be any point in praying a lot of the time, which the Bible encourages us to do.
In fact, I've heard of things altering when people prayed. For example, I read a book about a Welsh missionary, David Davies, who went to China in the 1930's and was captured and tortured by the Japanese who thought he might be spying for the Chinese. The book told of an incident he'd said had taken place before his capture, when a group of women were panicking because Japanese men had intruded into their quarters, and he went in and shouted at the women to pray. They did, and for whatever reason, the men left. Of course, there's no guarantee that that would happen every time. (And after all, he doesn't comment on whether he thinks praying might have reduced his torture.)
Many other people have testified to what they believe to be the power of prayer, which is said to be stronger when combined with commitment to God, which partially means commitment to following the commands believed to be the expressed will of Christ laid down in the New Testament. Here are some links to stories about what the authors believe to have been answered prayer, and an article about some reasons for unanswered prayer:
The Bible says that God is passionately concerned about justice and that people should lead moral lives and care enough about the well-being of others not to harm them. It makes it clear that societies have been given the responsibility to discipline unruly members and to treat everybody fairly. (See, for example, Isaiah 58).
Much of the suffering in the world would be eliminated if people followed biblical instructions. That would include the suffering caused by greed/profiteering, domestic violence, unwanted pre-marital pregnancy, incest, murder, other crime and excessive alcohol use, as well as the suffering caused by sexually transmitted diseases and many of the other diseases that have plagued humanity.
Medical advances have helped alleviate a lot of suffering, but very important solutions to some problems have often been improvements in living conditions. Following the principles laid down for sanitation, hygiene and protecting food from contamination by insects laid down in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy could have meant that conditions didn't get so bad in the first place. In previous centuries, sewage and refuse was piled up in the streets and became a breeding ground for disease. But the Bible encourages people to bury excrement. In the 19th century, one of the main killers of babies was what they called "Summer diarrhoea", caused by infection carried by flies. Flies got into food and milk in large numbers. Not only would disposing of refuse and the horse manure that flies were so attracted to have subdued the fly population, but following other Bible commands would have meant people made more effort to keep food covered up so no insects would fall in it.
I heard that in the Middle Ages, the Jews, inspired by the Bible's commands on sanitation, were blamed for a plague in Europe because they burned all the rubbish in the streets when the plague came, thus denying the rats that carried the fleas that harboured the bacteria that caused the plague a significant breeding ground, or just plain killing them. So they didn't suffer from the plague much. It's unfortunate that residents in other areas didn't do the same at the beginning.
The Bible also instructs that people with certain diseases be quarantined for a while. I heard that when authorities in a few parts of Europe in the Middle Ages, desperate for a way of tackling the Black Death, decided to try using the commands as an example of what to do about other disease and started isolating plague victims outside cities, that began to reduce the incidence of it. Apparently, Milan avoided a major outbreak of it, possibly by having strict isolation policies.
Overcrowding, partly caused by the profiteering schemes of unscrupulous employers and landlords who built very cramped houses close together, meant that disease spread fast in poor areas in the 19th century in some industrialised towns/cities. Malnutrition was often caused by poor diet which could be a consequence of the low wages paid by businessmen who reaped huge profits. Safety standards at work were frequently extremely poor, and the government had to introduce regulations to rectify bad practices because compassion for the well-being of workers wasn't a high priority among many employers. The Bible insists that people should care about the needs of the poor and employees and treat them fairly.
The building of sewers to transport waste away from populated areas eliminated cholera epidemics in London in the 19th century. Using the Bible as a guide for hygiene practices and ethics could have eliminated much suffering long before.
Many people were killed by infection spread by doctors who didn't wash their hands in previous centuries. Doctors tended not to wash their clothing since they thought it was only going to get bloody again, and they could even treat people straight after touching dead bodies. The importance of cleanliness was not well understood for centuries. But the Bible contains instructions on strict hygienic measures which, if people had taken inspiration from them, would have saved many lives and prevented much suffering.
For more information on living conditions in the 19th century, see:
Suffering can sometimes make people want to search for God, and from a Christian perspective, if that inspires them to follow him and they end up in heaven because of it, then ultimately, it worked out for good.
To read a story about a man who says he encountered God in suffering, visit:
To quote briefly from it:
"What’s it like to be only twenty-four and dying?"
"Well, it could be worse."
"Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real ‘biggies’ in life."
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under "S" where I had filed Tommy as strange. (It seems as though everybody I try to reject by classification God sends back into my life to educate me.)
"But what I really came to see you about," Tom said, "is something you said to me on the last day of class." (He remembered!) He continued, "I asked you if you thought I would ever find God and you said, ‘No!’ which surprised me. Then you said, ‘But he will find you.’ I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was hardly intense at that time. ... But when the doctors removed a lump from my groin and told me that it was malignant, then I got serious about locating God.
This doesn't necessarily apply to the person in that story, but a bout of suffering, or a scare that makes people think of how easily they could die, can make them think of their behaviour and its consequences more soberly, particularly if they have some awareness of God and it makes them temporarily afraid of offending him because they realise how soon they could meet him. It can cause people to change their behaviour for the better, resulting in the good of their families and communities, and also, according to Christian teaching, more likely to enjoy a blissful eternity. Of course, such a behaviour change will be by no means universal.
But as the apostle Paul wrote, encouraging Christians going through suffering, suffering on earth will appear momentary in the light of eternity. (See 2 Corinthians 4, 16-17).
The Bible teaches that the suffering Christians go through can make us more worthy of eternity and better people, when it functions as a discipline, and as an inspiration to make us more compassionate towards others, and when it brings us closer to God because we have to rely on him more.
The Old Testament records many incidences and prophecies of how it says God caused/would cause whole nations to suffer severe hardship like disease, and even famine and war, in order to punish them for the pervasive harm their people were causing, and to motivate them to give up their wrongdoing and turn to him.
The impact of suffering for Christians going through severe illness will often be softened, because fear can make it much worse, and they have eternity to look forward to, so they won't be troubled by the fear of death or oblivion.
There are hints in the Bible that young children who die will go to heaven since they aren't old enough to be accountable for their actions. If so, it would explain why God allows young children to die. It may also be that he foreknows that many will suffer more if left on earth; although it may be that his ideal is that they live and lead a life of godly influence on others, doing good in their communities, which the Bible instructs Christians to do.
Suffering may also cause us to enjoy heaven more because of the contrast, supposing Christian teaching is right and heaven exists.
Similarly, on earth, someone who's experienced deprivation is likely to appreciate the things they get more than someone who has always taken them for granted. Someone who's suffered may be more greatful for good times. Someone who's had a scare with death may think of life as more precious and so take more delight in it than someone who's always taken it for granted. Thus, suffering can cause joy to be intensified. A man told me that several years ago, one of his grandchildren died at the age of three. He said he was very griefstricken for a while, but now, he has a deeper joy in and appreciation for his other grandchildren, so he doesn't regret the pain he suffered at the loss. In fact, he says that other suffering has made him ultimately more joyful at the good things in life, so he wouldn't trade in any of it.
Again, that doesn't mean anyone's suffering should be minimised, as if it's less harmful than it really is.
The Bible tells us that Christians should do good as a matter of course. Here are some brief stories of Christians who have spent much time working for the good of others:
The Bible has much to say on how Christians should live a life of goodness, including:
1 John chapter 3 (NLT)
16 We know what real love is because Christ gave up his life for us. And so we also ought to give up our lives for our Christian brothers and sisters. 17 But if anyone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help - how can God's love be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions. 19 It is by our actions that we know we are living in the truth.
This article doesn't extensively cover the possible reasons why God allows people to suffer in large-scale atrocities, and it's unlikely that anyone on earth could ever have all the answers. Obviously the terrible tragedies war has caused over the centuries are deeply deplorable and regrettable.
But here are some links to stories, two of which are about how groups of people in dire wartime situations rose above them and turned to God, with a resultant growth in happiness and a change for the better in their behaviour:
It seems apparent that God won't always take people out of their suffering when they ask him to. It may be that he can, but that he sometimes chooses to change the sufferer instead so they can cope with it better. See the story of a woman who says she was healed from a terminal illness, but the greatest healing she says she received was psychological, which happened several years before her physical healing when she became more accepting of her circumstances:
The Bible promises that all things will work together for good in a Christian's life. (See Romans 8 28) Christians can place their security in Jesus. As stated previously, it will often be that in our own lives or the lives of others, at some future time, our suffering will have a positive effect.
And when Christians see their suffering from the point of view of eternity, it can seem less significant. The apostle Paul wrote:
Romans chapter 8 (TEV)
16 God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God's children.
17 Since we are his children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him; for if we share Christ's suffering, we will also share his glory. 18 I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.
The main Bible pages on this site:
|Bible Part 1: Bible Quotations, The Holy Spirit, People And Their Stories|
|Bible Part 2: The Lives and Suffering of the Ancient Israelites|
|Bible Part 3: The Bible, Articles About Alleged Inaccuracies in it, And Stories of People who Became Christians.|
|Or go to the next in the series: The Suffering of God's People as a Purifier, a Test of Faith and a Developer of Empathy.|
The selections of Bible quotations have been put together by Diana Holbourn.
Throughout this series, wherever the initials TEV appear, they stand for Today's English Version (The Good News Bible).Other initials:
Don't be afraid to question the truth of what a religious authority figure tells you, or even the Bible or other holy books themselves, or certain people's interpretation of them. Nothing to do with religion or the supernatural is so well established in fact it shouldn't be questioned. To find out why caution is a good idea, visit:
Are you up to trying the challenges of the New Testament's moral guidelines, and would you like to know more of what it says about the love of Jesus? Here are some links to Bible quotes about the beautiful ideals the New Testament encourages Christians to try to live up to:
There are a lot of pages on this website with quotations from the Old Testament on them. Many of these are unfortunately rather gruesome, since the main theme of the Old Testament is warnings and stories about how it says societies were punished for mass lawless and hurtful behaviour, even to the extent of having war brought on them by God, that seem to have been designed to scare societies where crime and violence were rampant into behaving more ethically. In case there is any misunderstanding, it should be understood that this website does not endorse war as anything other than a last resort. The position of the website owner can be gleaned from the articles:
Fancy some light relief or laughter therapy? Then go to the first of our jokes pages:
If you have a problem affecting your mental health or well-being, like depression, a difficulty with life-damaging worry, panic attacks, phobias or OCD, marriage problems, an addiction, an eating disorder, recovering from the trauma of sexual abuse or domestic violence, coping with bullies in the workplace, or bullying and teasing at school, trying to lose weight, raising difficult teenagers, caring for someone with a disease like Alzheimer's, wanting to recover from anorexia or self-harm, or grieving for someone you were close to or feeling lonely, and you'd like some ideas on coping or getting past it, visit our Self-help series.
If this is the first page you have visited on this site, this is part of Broadcaster.org.uk, a website about social and psychological issues, what the Bible says about social problems and other topics, and how they affect people's lives today.
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