This week’s subject matter is a huge one and I cannot possibly promise to answer all the questions surrounding this most difficult of issues. Suffice it to say, it is the most common objection to the Christian faith. Many times have people said to me "I would like to believe in God but I cannot because of all the suffering in the world."

Philosophers like Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell, to name just two, have often argued as follows. "If God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and totally good in nature, how is it that he allows suffering? Surely, he should step in and stop it immediately?"

Bertrand Russell

In order to defend Christianity, what I propose to do is to put forward some arguments, none of which answer this question in its entirety, but all of which at least help us understand why a Christian has confidence to believe in God even though there is such obvious suffering and evil in the world.

I, for one, would be suspicious of any Christian who thought he had all the answers on this most testing subject.
As the book of Job clearly states, none of us who believe in God can fully understand his ways. At the same time, I do believe we can confidently believe in God, despite the suffering we see in our world.

I have to say that these notes are very long but they do not even begin to touch on some of the subject matters in any depth. Whole volumes could be written about single paragraphs. I cannot attempt to do justice to the subject matter – I can just begin to scratch the surface.


In order to do this we need to discover a “theodicy” – which in the poet John Milton’s words were “an attempt to justify the ways of God to man”.

Let us start with the concept of "Freedom", or in other words, the boundaries of choice that God has given to his creation.


Alvin Platinga, writing in The Philosophy of Religion, published by Oxford in 1971, writes this
“A world containing creatures who are significantly free….is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all…To create creatures capable of moral good…God must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”

What Platinga is saying here is that evil has to be allowed as an option, for good to be also an option. In other words, if we were all programmed only to do good, and there was no option to rebel, or sin, we would be like robots, and life would lose all meaning.

But hang on, you may say. Why could God not have allowed us freewill, with lots of choices, but made it so that rebellion and inflicting suffering on others was not one of those choices?

And what about the victims of this so-called freewill, you might also argue?

Such an emphasis on freewill, so the argument goes, takes no account of the victims of that freewill. John Humphrys, the Radio 4 journalist, rightly pointed out that those who are subjected to suffering and even murder, like the children of Beslan, had their freedom taken away from them when they were the recipients of the "freedom" exhibited by their murderers. What freewill did the victims of Auschwitz have when they were marched into the gas chambers?

A good point, Mr Humphrys! In Platinga’s favour is the point that if we believe in God as creator, who are we to question the boundaries and limits to which he chooses to ascribe human freedom? Certainly, we might never be able to recognise true goodness if we had nothing to compare it with.

To conclude, Platinga's argument is that good and evil are inevitable choices. However, as we have seen, this raises difficult questions. We need to go further....

We may often ask ourselves the question,
"Why does God not intervene when he sees something bad about to happen?"

This question was in Thomas Aquinas’ thinking when he wrote:
“All confess that God is omnipotent; but it is difficult to explain in what His omnipotence precisely consists. For there may be a doubt as to the precise meaning of “All” when we say God can do all things” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica)

What Aquinas is saying is this. When we look at the concept “All-Powerful” or “Omnipotent” we have to realise that God cannot be “All Things”. In other words, God has to keep faithful to the sort of God he is.

Christianity clearly believes that there is a “narrative” or story running through History involving “the Fall”. This leads to the state where humanity has been given boundaries to choose between good and evil. It is consistent with God’s character in allowing human free will that he does not intervene.
Therefore, although we would like God to intervene more often, his holiness and commitment to his creation to be non-interventionist means he cannot go against his character. He would quickly turn into a tyrant, ruling creation rather than giving humanity freedom to rule over it.
CS Lewis writes this: “Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” “Screwtape Letters”

A weakness with this argument is that God does clearly intervene in Biblical history on numerous occasions – the Exodus, the taking of the Promised land and the Return from Exile being just three examples. Nonetheless, the attraction of this argument is, for me, that it is plainly true that were God to be much more involved in intervention, the whole fabric and balance of human existence would change markedly. Human beings, conscious of an interventionist God, would be much more fearful of him, and therefore any obedience to his ways would stem from fear of displeasing him, because of a much more marked awareness of his involvement.

Just think what having an interventionist God would be like! Servanthood would quickly turn into slavery, as those who had seen God intervening might not feel they had any other option but to follow. A God who becomes frequently involved in his creation in an interventionist way would change the whole way people who believe in him would relate to him. Instead of adults developing into mature Christians, we would remain in a "baby to parent" relationship all our lives. Those who did not believe in him and chose to be agnostic or atheist would find it pretty hard to maintain their unbelief in the face of frequent "signs and wonders". In effect, the whole of creation would be forced into a position of belief, rather than left with the choice to follow or not.
Isn’t the whole point of the Christian faith one in which we are given enough evidence to choose to follow God, but we are not forced into believing him in a way that would lead to slavery?THE IMPORTANCE OF FREEDOM AND ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH MORAL DEVELOPMENT

So we begin to see that an interventionist God may not be the blessing that we may have originally thought it might be.

Williams argues that freewill is a vital element in our understanding of how human beings relate to God. If there is no option to rebel or even hate God, or at the very least disbelieve in him, then there is also no option to truly turn to him out of our own free will, without pressure or fear of being bullied.


By "human" condition, I am meaning our human weakness and imperfection. Of course, we all wish we were perfect in a way, but what would life really be like if we were? What would human relationships be like if we were totally perfect, not have any needs, never showing any weaknesses? It is difficult to contemplate.
What Williams does at this point in his book is to say that the fact that we start off as "imperfect" is not quite such a bad thing as it may appear.

Williams writes (page 67) “
God created us for a perfect and eternal relationship of freely chosen love with Him, with ourselves and with our fellow God-loved God lovers. Freedom to choose to love God (and so to love ourselves and others as God loves us), requires the existence of some moral evil. Unless we are able to reject God we cannot genuinely accept Him; and unless we are initially less than perfect, it would be impossible for us to reject Him. Morally perfect beings cannot do morally imperfect things. Rejecting God, the source and standard of all good, is as morally an imperfect act as can be imagined. Since we can do such a thing, we cannot be morally perfect beings. We must initially be morally imperfect beings.”

In other words, in order to have a relationship with God, we need to start from a position of being out of relationship with God. To make it a personal choice, for it to be real to us, we need to decide to follow God, to embrace his love.

Think about it. If we were already perfect...if we did not have the potential to sin...then we could not voluntarily choose to follow Him as the option to rebel and sin would not be there either. If we cannot choose to rebel, we cannot truly choose to follow. Freewill becomes obsolete if the only choice we have is to follow. We would cease to be independent creatures who willingly choose to follow.

John Hick backs up what Peter Williams is saying:
“If the end state which God is seeking to bring about is one in which finite persons have come in their own freedom to know and love God, this requires creating them initially in a state which is not that of their already knowing and loving God. For it is logically impossible to create beings already in a state of having come into that state by their own free choices.”John Hick, Soul Making Theology in Michael Peterson’s Philosophy of Religion – Selected Readings

John Hick

In other words, if faith is to be an act of freewill whereby humanity turns and embraces its creator, it must start from a position of alienation in the first place, where sin and rebellion are all possibilities, or even descriptions of the non-believer's status.

Therefore, if we are already fully in relationship with God, before we turn to him, then our need for forgiveness and cleansing becomes meaningless, and our decision to follow him no longer becomes a personal choice but is something inherent in our make-up as people. The whole question of developing a personal relationship with God, central to the Christian faith, goes out of the window.

In case that wasn't clear let me explain again. What Hick is saying is that if God created us without the potential to sin and rebel, without inherent sinfulness, then there could be no personal decision to move towards God in love, repentance, and willingness to serve. The fact that the results of the "Fall" are with us from birth means that we start our journey towards God from our own volition, rather than having "arrived" already in a state where our freedom to follow was never a possibility.

I must add at this point that I believe God's love for all creation is perfect and powerful, eternal and consistent. It's not that we awaken God's love by choosing to move towards him in love and repentance. It's that our decision to believe and turn to him makes us aware of the love that had always been shining on us from the very first moment we were conceived. That love was always there, but we need to make the decision to move towards it in order to discover it. As many great Christians have written down the centuries, God wants a relationship with us most of all - one that is entered into voluntarily and which continues also in a voluntary way.

Now we go one stage further.

Freewill is a very important concept.
However, we may now ask whether the "Fall" was ever the intention of God in the first place?

Before I start talking about "Satan", "Adam and Eve" and "the apple", can I just say this. If you find such language problematic, don't worry. Hold with me and I will try and come to terms with your questions in time. The importance thing to hold on to when we look at the first chapters of Genesis are the underlying concepts that it communicates to us. If you see it is metaphor that is fine as far as I am concerned as it can still teach us lessons.

So let me ask this question. Did God allow Satan, (historically or metaphorically it does not matter) to tempt Adam so that this dynamic of "choosing to follow or rebel" could be set up? Did God know all along that Adam and Eve would rebel? Was it part of his original intention? Was the Fall all part of God's plan?

The writer of Paradise Lost, John Milton, certainly thought so.

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree,
whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man Restore us,
and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav'nly Muse
That to the heighth of this great Argument I may assert
th' Eternal Providence, And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Some reading this may agree with Milton that "the Fall" as always part of God's intention.
I, for one, believe that God never wanted Adam and Eve to rebel. Instead, I take the traditional line that even in the Garden of Eden, the place of moral perfection, the ability to rebel and turn away from that love had to exist. If there had been no "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", no potential to rebel, then Adam and Eve's would have had no opportunity to rebel and therefore no opportunity to show fidelity and love.

Therefore....even in the pre-Fall world, the choice between good and evil existed. Even in the pre-Fall world, God was a risk taker, taking risks with the humanity he so deeply loves. Even in the pre-Fall world, the basis for his relationship with Adam and Eve was one in which the freedom to rebel "perfected" that love dynamic.
Even in the pre-Fall world there was no "robotic" love, but a love based on the freedom to be faithful or not to be faithful.
The same is true on the even deeper question of the provenance of evil in the first place. If you believe that Satan is a fallen angel of God - something I strongly believe myself - the question as to why God allows Satan's freedom is an important one, and must be bound up with the same argument that we have explored. Love, to be perfect, must also entail moral choices, must also allow the freedom to reject that love. Satan clearly chose to reject that love, and still does to this day, according to traditional Christian doctrine, and according to my own spiritual experience of good and evil too. According to this view of freedom, the ability to follow or rebel were present at the beginning of the angelic order, as well as the human order.

So let us go back to the question we were contemplating earlier on.....

Let us remind ourselves of the question
"Could not God have given us a choice between following him and remaining neutral, or better still, following him in two equally good but equally diverse ways, rather than allowing the existence of evil as a choice and actually contrary to the will of God (things like murder, rape, greed and so on)? "

Put bluntly "Why has evil been allowed in by God as a possible choice?"

These are difficult waters. I would like to come up with a more sophisticated argument, but I fear that the one I have given - about choice and the Fall - is the best one. This is, namely, that something has happened in the beginning of humanity which has allowed in evil and even satanic forces. These forces are now in the universe, and are contrary to God's will, and do, to a certain extent, have some power in this world even today.

It seems that even with his angels, a realm I do believe in, God had to allow the freedom to rebel. It was a risk that God took with his subjects which, in effect, went disastrously wrong but I am not criticising God here! Far from it! What I am saying is that even at the beginning of time God allowed freewill to his angelic order.

This is typical of a God of love who rules not as a tyrant or despot, but as a God who wants communion and relationship with all his created order, human and angelic. It is typical of a God whose aim is relationship and friendship, expressed most forcefully in the intimate bonding of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is typical of a humility that is expressed in God the Son, who through his ministry, death and resurrection, revealed the true nature of God - humble, gentle of heart, patient, yearning for all to come into relationship with his heavenly Father, but never forcing it. It is typical of a God who in the person of Christ allows the rich young man to walk away, or who allows Judas to betray him, or Simon Peter to deny him.

Much that many supposed intellectuals would baulk at this conclusion, I believe that the "Fall" therefore is a vital element in our thinking on this subject matter. Without such a concept, which traditionally explains that the world is "out of synch" with how it was originally created it is hard to even begin to come to terms with events such as tsunamis, famines, and earthquakes. Only when we see the world as running awry, contrary to its original intention, can we begin to place suffering in its proper context.

Having explored some of the basis behind traditional Christian understanding of suffering, let us see what else we can discover as we think about this important matter.

C S Lewis wrote
“God whispers in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C S Lewis The Problem of Pain

Alister McGrath has written on this topic in a similar vein
.“Suffering, though tragic, is not pointless. It is the pin which bursts the balloon of our delusions, and opens the way to an urgent wrestling with the reality of death and the question of what lies beyond.” Alister McGrath Suffering 1992

Pain and suffering, therefore, can bring us to faith, or if we have faith already, can make our faith that much stronger. As a Christian writer, David Watson, wrote shortly before his death from cancer, it is often those who experience most of God’s love who have also endured most suffering:
“An agnostic Professor of Philosophy at Princetown University became a Christian when he studied carefully the lives of some of the great saints of God throughout the history of the Church…Often they suffered intensely, far more than most other people, yet through all their agony their spirits shone forth a glorious lustre that defied extinction. This philosopher became convinced that some power was at work within them, and this discovery eventually brought him to Christ.” David Watson, Fear no Evil, Hodder and Stoughton

Of course, critics will say –
could God not have invented another way of bringing his created beings into relationship with him in a less painful manner?

My argument would be that God has allowed us to be born as reasonably headstrong, proud and autonomous individuals and that our desire, naturally, to become followers or believers in God, is often quite limited, if present at all. It therefore often takes some sort of illness or calamity to bring people to faith.

This does not mean that God causes that calamity or illness, but that these calamities and illnesses can bring blessings in disguise. I think of all those people I have met in my ministry whose spiritualities have been immeasurably enriched by walking down the road of suffering.

Contrary to this is the “spirit of Augustus Gloop” (a term I have invented) which to a certain extent is present in our society (from Charlie in the Chocolate Factory). Augustus Gloop wanted his own desires satiated, and from what I gather fell into a chocolate river. I am not sure if he disappeared for ever – I wouldn’t have minded it for a few minutes!
The point I am making is that suffering can enrich and ennoble and bring us closer to God, whereas if we have all our own desires satiated it can turn us into very self-centred individuals who can even create a hell of our own making.
The idea that suffering and pain brings us closer to God may not fully answer all our questions. However, the fact that we see it happening quite often certainly gives us great peace in middle of the turmoil that often rages around us when we discuss this topic "Why should a good God allow suffering?"

Now we come to the classic territory that can help us even further with this subject matter.
God shows us therefore that life is worthwhile despite the pain of suffering, but he goes a step further. He enters into the world of suffering through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus.
I agree with those who say our whole understanding of God must be seen from the vantage point of the cross, where God carries our sins into himself to free us from their weight and to let us go free of guilt or condemnation.

Dorothy L Sayers writes “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subjected to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation He has kept his own rules and played fair…He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and felt it worthwhile.”Dorothy L Sayers “The Man born to be King”

The point here is the famous argument that many Christians use, namely that God has become involved in our suffering by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we see theology through the eyes of the cross we no longer see God as a distant and immovable God of classical Greek or Roman theology, but a God who has fully immersed himself in the world of suffering in order to redeem it.

I certainly believe this to be most important. To see Jesus Christ merely as a prophet or great teacher misses the point. Central to orthodox Christian doctrine is the belief that Jesus was and is God, the second person of the Trinity, and that on the cross, God himself is crucified. On the cross, therefore,
God becomes fully acquainted with the suffering of creation.
Again, though not fully answering all our questions, I find this very helpful. I believe in a God who understands what it is like when I lie in bed with a fever, cut myself by mistake with a breadknife, fall off my bicycle, experience hostility without any apparent reason, and so on. My suffering is miniscule compared to the suffering of Christ.
I know that God is with me when I suffer because he has been down the road of suffering himself, and still suffers with me by the power of his Holy Spirit when I suffer. I also know that the suffering will not be forever....

Right at the heart of Christian faith is the belief that suffering is temporary and that there awaits us an eternity of joy and peace and love.

This is not meant to be a “psychological sop”. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I would argue, Christians going through immense suffering have had that suffering transformed by the belief that they have an eternity to look forward to where there will no more suffering or pain.

In order to dismiss the Christian theodicy of pain, we also have to dismiss this foundational aspect too. An atheist can easily say, “Ah, but you cannot prove this at all”. Quite right. We walk by faith not by sight – we are not forced into belief – we make the free choice.

Indeed, foundational to this course is the argument that I cannot prove God's existence in the mathematical way that I can prove that 2 plus 2 = 4. Were I to do so, none of us could be free or willing servants or friends of God. We would instead be forced to believe and follow God, which is never God's intention. God, in my view, deliberately gives us enough of himself to allow us to choose, but not so much that we are forced along his way. Those who have called out to him have discovered that he does exist, but this came a response to their seeking.

Hence, the atheist argument "you cannot prove God" loses some of its force as Christian faith is not about that sort of proof. If it were mathematical proof, we would no longer be people who choose to believe, who are free subjects - we would be forced to follow, which as we have seen introduces an entirely different dynamic.

The Christian focus is on the kingdom that is to come - a focus based not on mathematical proof but on a relationship held aloft by faith, entered into freely with no compulsion. Williams writes (page 76)
“Out of the present world, God will make a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21.1).In that new creation, God’s higher logic will enter a new phase. St Paul ( a man not unaccustomed with hardship) wrote “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed” (Romans 8.18). And Jesus, using an analogy that could be applied to God’s suffering as much as to our own said“A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no-one will take away your joy” (John 16.21-22) "

My prayer is that you will know that joy that comes from knowing you have an eternity of peace and joy and love with God and the saints.

Disputes about earthquakes, diseases, Tsunamis and so on are difficult ones to debate as the whole area of human responsibility is less of an issue.

We know that St Paul clearly felt that the world had been subjected to a massive disturbance which had unbalanced it. As I have mentioned several times before, this is traditionally understood in terms of "the Fall" and the power of "the devil" in the world:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it (ie God) in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves…groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption…the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8.19-24)

There are huge variety of opinions on the concept of the Fall and of the power of the devil in this world. I do believe in the devil, and have had dramatic experiences of the demonic on one or two occasions, and so I believe there is no doubt that a lot of the suffering in the world is due to the existence of demonic power. However, I cannot truly understand how the devil’s apparent power in this world relates to God’s authority, although I have argued why the ability to rebel was given to Satan. I know that God has authority over the devil, but why the devil is given so much power is a mystery. It seems to be tied up with the whole concept of the Fall – that there was a moment which allowed evil and suffering into the world to cause such havoc.
Ultimately, we do not know the answers this side of heaven, but we shall know at some point in the future, when we are with Christ. This is a difficult subject matter which you may like to respond by email at
tillotsons@googlemail.com or by posting on the blog, or at the evening itself.

To conclude, we also do not contain all the knowledge of good and evil. We would like to grab the apple from the tree and discover all of the universe's secrets, but I believe we can never do this till we meet with God in eternity. We are, after all, speaking of God, and most people would agree that any concept of relating to God has to allow for the fact that he knows a lot more than we do, should they believe he exists!