Why does God allow such suffering?


Grenfell Tower Fire

Too much suffering has been witnessed by too many people recently for anyone to feel able to speak  of God’s love with much confidence. After many acts of inhuman terrorism, we recently witnessed the scenes of people being burned alive, in a tower that they had known as their homes, crying with terror from windows, or leaving heart-rending messages to loved ones. This black tower of dead families now stands as a fearful monument in the heart of London, a witness of dreadful judgement against the negligence of public authorities to accept responsibility for the health and safety of their poorer tenants, for whom they seem to have shown no real care or compassion.

But the deeper and darker problem in many good Christian hearts is how a truly loving God could even allow such a terrible event to happen. We may be reminded of Euripides’ bitter play Troas, in which the captive women of Troy weep as they watch ancient Troy burning and await  their own voyage to abject slavery in Greece. They cry to their gods, mourning their lost freedom, families, homeland, and slaughtered husbands: 

Zeus, God, farewell! Now with your going goes
the music of prayer, sweet music, sweet singing, mystic nights
of darkness, and of visions, the beloved forms
of the golden gods we knew, the Trojan Twelve, the full-moon festal rites,
Therefore we ask, Ruler of all that lives,
Firm on your heavenly throne while the destroying Fury gives
Our homes to ashes and our flesh to worms –
We ask, and ask: ‘What does this mean to You?

Does God care? What is the meaning of what seems to us to be so much senseless suffering? The same question has been asked throughout human history.

The Book of Job is a parable of the injustices experienced even by the good, asking the same question of God. But God’s answer to Job simply flings the challenge back at the questioner: who are you, that you that you have such
hubris to judge the mysteries of God’s creation? There is of course a certain truth in the answer. We really know so little about the nature of our human existence, ‘the immortality of the soul’ or what our participation in the life of God really means. Our concepts of justice can only apply to life as we have known and experienced it on earth, so how can apply them with any sort of relevance to eternal life?

But can Job’s question merely be dismissed as human arrogance? Or are we being presented with a face of God that looks too hard and proud to convince us of his love?

But suffering is self-evidently a significant part of God’s creation as we experience it in human life. While we should respect the possible extent of suffering experienced by other species by avoiding any harmful or cruel treatment, we cannot legitimately equate their suffering with human suffering, because most of human suffering involves a high degree of our own cognitive understanding and identification with its evils. Because we experience suffering as a significant part of our shared understanding of our own mortality, we probably experience suffering more acutely than other living things. On the other hand we do need to recognise that a major part of our own response to suffering may just as irrational and instinctive as that of the creatures from which our humanity has evolved. We do need therefore to accept that our own instinctive reactions to suffering may not be the best guide of its true spiritual significance.

“God is there. That is where he is.”

There is a story of an event in a concentration camp during the Nazi holocaust which may offer a different insight into the ultimate meaning of human suffering. A hungry young Jewish boy was caught and publicly hanged for stealing food. Seeing the child hanging there led someone to cry out in despair, “Where is God in all this?” And another softly answered, pointing to the dead boy hanging: “God is there. That is where he is.”

This is an answer that may be understood in more than one way. A Christian could nod in sad understanding at this answer, recognising Christ’s identification with the young child. It is not so far from Christ’s own cry: from the cross told in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Although it may not provide us with a complete answer, Christ’s suffering on the cross may offer us as Christians the most helpful indication of where the real answer can be found, which lies in the very nature of what we recognise as our redemption from evil.
The scene of the crucifixion, especially his terrible and lonely cry, is a moment that shows Jesus at his most human as well as in his most vulnerable suffering. It is the moment too of God’s acceptance both of the whole extent of human evil being inflicted by mankind, and of God’s own identification with all suffering. It is the moment of redemption itself. This is why Matthew shows darkness covering the whole face of the earth. We have as Christians to superimpose this dreadful scene on every experience of suffering either ourselves or perhaps more importantly of others, especially of those we love.

Could Christian love really exist at all without suffering?

But why? To answer this question we start with another question. Could Christian love really exist at all without suffering? Is not Christian love born in compassion – the experience of ‘suffering-with’ another whom we come to love, perhaps even because of the degree of his or her vulnerability in suffering. And the further question would then be: could human life ever be worthwhile at all without love? What could be the point of being human at all if it is not in one way or another to learn how to love? This point is illustrated by the public response not only to the burning Grenfell tower block, but perhaps even more poignantly by the public response to the earlier outrage in Manchester when happy young children were murdered and traumatised by a deliberate act of evil terrorism as they left a pop concert. The outpouring of compassionate love by people of every race, creed, nationality and social background was remarkable and a wonderful testament to Mancunian public spirit, solidarity, and compassion.

What constitutes our Christian teaching on the redemption of Christ is often defined in terms that are too abstract for most people to grasp. But the responses to these incidents of suffering should present us with at least some part of its Christian meaning.

Compassion brings healing, but it is always a pity if this becomes drowned in  subsequent public hatred, anger and desire for revenge, rather than a simple assessment of the need for real justice. Evil too often breeds evil. Evidence suggests that the origin of terrorism is almost invariably some previous grave social injustice, and that most terrorists have themselves endured personal miseries. We are so influenced by cries of outrage in the media, that we are unable to discern the whole picture, and justly identify the real origins of evil.