Why Does God Allow Suffering?
“Human beings are unique in being able to be wicked, because they are unique in being conscious of what they are doing and in making deliberate choices.”—Arnold Toynbee, historian, Mankind and Mother Earth.
ALL of us make deliberate choices. We do it every day. Most of our decisions have to do with the trivia of daily life—what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, where to go. But some decisions have graver consequences that can affect us for the rest of our lives—or can even shorten our lives.
When a doctor recommends an operation, the need to make a choice immediately arises. Is it worth the risk? How experienced and reliable is the surgeon? Will it extend or shorten my life? A serious decision has to be made.
Away back in history, deliberate choices were made that have affected mankind ever since. And those decisions have a direct bearing on our question, Why does God allow suffering?
Man—‘Unique in Being Wicked’?
The Biblical account of early history indicates that man was not the first intelligent creation with free will and the ability to choose. Nor was he, in fact, either first or “unique in being able to be wicked.” A higher form of life already existed—“godlike ones,” spirit creatures, also called angels.—Psalm 8:5.
One of these “godlike ones,” of whom there are millions, saw his opportunity to become a real god-ruler for the first man and woman, instead of Jehovah their Creator. Using his free will, he deliberately lied to the woman to induce her and, through her, her husband to be disobedient to God. He implied that God was a liar and a deceiver. He told her that independent thinking and acting would not lead to death, as God had stated, but asserted: “You are bound to be like God, knowing good and bad.”—Genesis 3:1-5.
By his course of action, this godlike one started a rebellion against God’s rulership—a rebellion witnessed by millions of angels. In this way the exercise of rightful sovereignty became a universal issue. That opposing angel became God’s adversary, which from Hebrew is translated “Satan.” By putting in doubt God’s truthfulness, Satan also became the first slanderer, which from Greek is translated “Devil.” This initial rebellion triggered the chain of events that has led to mankind’s sufferings. ‘How so?’ you may ask.
“The Defect Is Their Own”
The first man and woman had before them the prospect of perfect endless life in a paradise setting that they, with their children, would eventually spread to all corners of the earth. But that prospect hinged on their loyalty to God. Disobedience would introduce into the picture a new genetic element—imperfection and death—that would be passed on to future generations. What happened?—Genesis 2:15-17.
The apostle Paul explains the situation very simply, saying that “through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] many were constituted sinners” and “death ruled as king through that one.” (Romans 5:17-19) By rejecting God’s sovereignty, Adam and Eve started humankind down the road to suffering, sickness, and death. Even as Moses said regarding Israel, so it can be said of mankind in general: “They have acted ruinously on their own part; they are not his children, the defect is their own. A generation crooked and twisted!”—Deuteronomy 32:5.
As a consequence, men have chosen independence from God and turned away from his rulership. But to what have they turned? Knowingly or otherwise, they have submitted to the sovereignty of “the god of this system of things [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) They have become pawns in the hands of the Devil, “the father of the lie.” (John 8:44) This they have done by choosing man-made political and religious rulerships that have led to hatred, disaster, and suffering. Little wonder that the Bible says that Satan the Devil “is misleading [deceiving, Living Bible] the entire inhabited earth.”—Revelation 12:9.
Why Has Suffering Been Allowed?
Why didn’t Jehovah nip the rebellion in the bud by destroying Satan back there in Eden? As the Almighty, he certainly had the power to do it. However, Satan had not challenged God’s power but, rather, his way of exercising it. By arguing against God’s stated law, Satan in effect claimed that God’s way of ruling is wrong and not really to the benefit of his creatures. He also argued that under test humans would not remain loyal to God. (Job, chapters 1 and 2) How could the challenge be met and settled once and for all?
Perhaps we can compare God’s way of dealing with wayward humankind to the prodigal, or wasteful, son in one of Jesus’ parables. Jesus told of a man with two sons, the younger of which demanded his share of the inheritance while his father was still alive. He wanted to be independent, to leave home and prove he could make it alone. The father could have taken swift action by refusing the son’s request and by locking him up in a room so that he could not escape. Would that have served any lasting purpose? No, because the son would then have stayed against his will. Furthermore, it would have denied him the exercise of his free will. So what did the father do?
Jesus explained: “The father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.” Things got so bad that this Jewish son had to hire himself out as a herder of swine. Even though there was food for the pigs, there was none for him. Jesus continued: “Then he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger!’” So, what did he do? He decided to go back home in repentance and throw himself on his father’s mercy.—Luke 15:11-32, The Jerusalem Bible.
Now, what had it taken for that young man to come to his senses? Time and experience. The father had not taken drastic action but had allowed time for the son to see the folly of his ways. True, the boy suffered during the experience, but it brought him to his senses.
A Precedent Has Been Set
Similar to the son in the parable, our first human parents chose the path of independence from God. Of course, unlike the prodigal son, Adam and Eve never returned to their Father, but due to their rebellious course, mankind was drawn into an issue that could only be settled in the eyes of intelligent creation, visible and invisible, by allowing time to pass. Now, after 6,000 years of independence from God and his rulership, what has been proved? As Jeremiah the prophet put it: “I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Man’s history has shown that “man has dominated man to his injury.” Like the prodigal son, many who have learned this are turning to their heavenly Father for direction, proving Satan to be a liar in his claim that he could turn everyone away from serving God.—Ecclesiastes 8:9.
Jehovah soon will act against unrepentant Satan and those who support his independent course, thus putting an end to the rebellion and all its consequences. Sufficient time has elapsed for a precedent to be established for all future ages. With this precedent it will never again be necessary for Jehovah to allow any future rebellion, whether in the visible realm or in the invisible realm. Time and experience have shown that neither Satan nor man, separated from God, can exercise rulership in a just manner.—Revelation 16:14-16; 20:1-3.
True, in the meantime mankind has had to endure immense suffering and often untimely death. But Jehovah has also promised to compensate for this. How so? As the apostle Paul stated: “I have hope toward God . . . that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) The resurrection of the dead to an opportunity of perfect life on earth will be a supreme act of mercy. Then each one will be able to show appreciation for the gift of true life.
Under the arrangement of the “new heavens and a new earth,” the former sufferings will gradually be forgotten, being replaced by the blessings of a fruitful, happy, and endless life. As the Bible says: “The former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.” (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4) But how can we be sure that this will be possible? What changes will make everlasting peace a reality?
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Man was not God’s first intelligent creation with free will and the ability to choose
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Disobedience would introduce a new element into the picture
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As time and experience caused the prodigal son to recognize his dependence on his father, so today many have come to recognize their need for God