Those who are anti-Christian often claim that suffering and death are a real problem for Christianity as a worldview. While much has been written on the subject, it is difficult in a sound bite culture to answer a question such as “If a woman is brutally raped, or a child is dying of AIDS in Africa, and God has the power to stop it, why doesn’t he?”
The argument is convincing because it is emotional. The framing of the question often seeks to stir immediate outrage against a God that would allow such a thing.
To answer this question in brief, it is interesting to turn to what Jesus had to say on the subject. If any orator in history could say a lot with very few words, it was Christ. Here is a three-point argument that Jesus develops on the subject of suffering and death.
The book of Luke describes a situation where various people confronted Jesus with two sobering news items of the day. A recent tragedy occurred where the Roman Governor, Pilate, had a group of Jewish worshipers killed while they were in the temple offering sacrifices to God. In another contemporary catastrophe, a stone tower under construction toppled, killing eighteen people. These two stories effectively illustrate the two possible kinds of tragedy: that inflicted by other people, and that which is a natural occurrence. Jesus’ response was the same for both:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Here, Jesus attempts to shift his audience’s focus away from the suddenness and seemingly tragic nature of these deaths to point out that all death is tragic for the unredeemed.
Suffering points to the human need for God
Jesus was famous in his day for healing the sick and injured. Naturally, then, the sick and injured sought him out. In one such instance, a man who was paralyzed was brought to Jesus by his friends. The book of Matthew describes the scenario:
And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
The fact that this paralytic was healed was incidental to the story. Jesus’ act of healing did not grant this man immortality or invincibility. No doubt the man suffered illness and fragility after this, and he eventually died. The man’s suffering led him to Christ, and Christ met his real need first: he reconciled the man with God by forgiving him of sin.
The world is temporary and corrupt
In speaking to the issue of human need, Jesus made this observation:
“And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”
Here, Jesus highlights what has already been stated: Everyone dies. Jesus’ recommendation to this problem is this:
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust[e] destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Suffering and death are a very big problem indeed if this life is all there is. It is Jesus’ assertion that this particular life is a very brief experience that determines a person’s eternal state. If this is, indeed, the case, then any suffering that brings people to a realization of their need for God is beneficial to the sufferer.
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”