When Suffering Strikes, Where Art Thou?


It seems that every week my wife needs to attend some wake or funeral, and very often the deceased had been struck down too soon, after suffering some disease or “high blood” leading to stroke or heart attack. Rare would be the Filipino family who wouldn’t say, “We prayed and prayed, and this happened anyway! Where are you, Lord?”

This is a major sign of suffering, which all mankind endures. In fact, one of the world’s great religions, Buddhism, has as its “First Noble Truth”, “All life is suffering.” (The cause of suffering is attachment, and the remedy is a disciplined 8-Fold Path of Renunciation, leading to Nirvana, a state of ego-less bliss.)

In Christianity, the cause of suffering is more than attachment; in some ways it is because of our fallen human nature, and in other ways it is just the way things are—“Nature red in tooth and claw,” some thinker said.

In fact, one might say that sin is a form of suffering, in that sin is a refusal or a failure to love, which = alienation, = suffering. Have you ever watched a crime movie or TV crime series and seen a happy criminal? I haven’t. In fact, they all look very unhappy (= suffering).

Sickness indeed is a serious form of suffering, and suffering sometimes leads to unbelief, even atheism, for instance in the works and proclamations of the former Christian and still New Testament professor, Bart Erhman. He writes books and gives lectures all over attacking the faith he once firmly believed, for example trying to show to everyone HOW JESUS BECAME GOD, a book superbly answered by another, biblical one, HOW GOD BECAME JESUS. (Both available on SCRIBD.COM). His biggest reason for rejecting Jesus as the Son of God is suffering.

Erhman argues the way David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued several centuries ago: God is supposed to know everything, and has all power. Whence then is evil (or suffering) if “God is love?”

Erhman, like Hume, makes several philosophical or theological mistakes. One, in presupposing that “omniscience” — (all knowing”) means God knows “everything”, even what will happen in the future. This is an error, because much of what will happen depends on the free choices of people, and therefore does not yet exist. Peoples’ choices bring all kinds of things into being, which obviously don’t yet exist, and therefore cannot be known until they do come into being. Therefore even God cannot “know” them—although since He knows all about people, He can predict fairly accurately what they might decide. I can imagine Him being like a man sitting on the bank of the river flowing through the Grand Canyon, watching the people on the rafts below. He knows what’s in their minds and hearts, and can predict quite well when and where they will land their rafts, or how well they’ll get through the rapids, but he doesn’t know this for sure, because the only way he’d know it, is if he controlled their thinking. But God respects free will, and continuously works His sovereign will around it.

Their second mistake is in assuming that “omnipotence” means literally “all powerful.” Erhman complains that God is obviously not in control of everything. (But even the Bible says this: see Hebrews 2: 6-8).

But if God has all the power, it would appear that man has no power, which is obviously untrue. The Process Philosophers, starting with Alfred North Whitehead, taught that God works upon the world fundamentally through persuasion, not force, or power. (But of course at times—from Bible times till now—He would not break, but suspend, laws of nature through miracles, from walking on water, multiplying food, healing the sick, even raising the dead.) (I have a suspicion that underneath Erhman’s skepticism is a failure to have a prayer answered, perhaps that a wife would not leave him.)

Erhman’s third mistake is that suffering in people proves God does not care, or even does not exist. As a biblical scholar, he should know better. The Bible is replete with evidence that God “feels your pain”. From listening to the groans of the Israelites slaving away in Egypt—and then delivering them—to Isaiah’s saying In all their afflictions He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them, and his prophecies on the suffering servant, (see ch. 53) to Jesus’ showing compassion to the countless people he healed, and even fed, to St. Paul’s assertion, Blessed be God, the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we might comfort others with the same comfort. . . again and again we are confronted with a God  who identifies with the sufferings of people. He does not just ‘feel your pain”, He suffers and dies because of it, the suffering, the sin, of us his people, because He loves us.

And He even promises that His followers would also suffer, in behalf of Christ–Philippians 1: 27.

But He also promises a “new heaven and a new earth” some day, when He “shall wipe away all tears.” In fact, Jesus’ many healings and other miracles are signs or pointers to that new reality, the Kingdom of Heaven.  Meantime, He calls the world to “take up the cross and follow me”—into the world to proclaim the Good News, that God is for us, not against us (Romans 8) and do one’s best to reduce suffering of all kinds, and love your neighbor as yourself (and so love God.)

Ehrman makes one more mistake: he includes natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis as causes of suffering, being evidences that God does not care, or does not exist. His reasoning is naïve. Such natural disasters are inevitable, the way the world has had to be structured. For instance, volcanoes and tsunamis are a result of plate tectonics, which are necessary for continents to exist. Erhman’s reasoning is like that of my late wife, who thought if an evil man came to the door demanding money and jewels, God should reach down and knock the gun out of the home invader’s hand!

We knew a Filipina whose pastor-husband was in the hospital, dying of cancer. Tearfully, as she drove there to be by his side, she cried out, “Why me, Lord?” God answered, “Why not, Ruth? Look what happened to my Son. . .” She went on to be a radiant, joyful minister of the gospel, a caring, compassionate servant of the Lord, showing how “God works for good in all things for those who love Him, and are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)

Those who’ve suffered a parental abandonment or a separation or divorce, myself included, have probably cried out, Where art thou, Lord?  If this is you, can you hear the words enabled by the Cross and Resurrection—Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world (Matt. 28: 20)?