The Problem of Pain

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Theology and Faith

People experience pain and suffering throughout their life.  Many professions and fields have each sought ways to understand and provide relief from this pervading problem.  It has long been a subject of debate among scholars, philosophers, and theologians.  The basic question arises: “How can a loving God allow pain and suffering.”  Could a good God allow such evil to exist?  How might we best understand the problem of pain and suffering?

Freud and Lewis

Disease, destruction, and death surround us on all sides.  Physical and emotional pain marks our journey constantly throughout our existence.  How can God, who is omnipotent, allow us to suffer such pain and agony?  Can He really be an all-loving God?  Or, is there even a God?  For Freud this fact illustrated that there could not be a God.  Rather, life was simply cruel reality and God was a way for people to find relief.  Freud believed that this viewpoint kept people from accepting the true nature of life.  He surmised that it was best to accept life’s lot and to suffer through, for one could not fight fate.  For Freud, pain was an unnecessary problem.  Yet, at times, one gets the feeling Freud believed in God’s existence but rather blamed Him for the pain experienced.

Yet, one thing lacks in Freud’s account of God.  Generally, throughout history, gods have been portrayed in the likeness of man.  That is to say, the mythological gods have been shown to be cruel, selfish, disinterested, and lustful.  However, there is something particularly unique about the Judeo-Christian God.  He is not made in the image of man.  Rather, man was made in the image of God, which has become twisted and defiled.  All of this goes to say, if God is a figment of mankind’s musings then it is not very realistic in view of the chaos in the world that surrounds us.  How might one account for this discrepancy?  Where early Jewish communities naïve?  Unlikely, consideringIsrael’s bitter history lived in enslavement and exile.  So, we must conclude two possibilities: early Jews were truly depraved or there is a God that exists, whose good creation has gone terribly wrong.

C. S. Lewis came to a very different viewpoint.  Despite having come to a similar confrontation with the reality of pain and death, Lewis eventually found comfort with God.  Granted, he wrestled with the same concepts as Freud.  However, Lewis came to see the problem of pain as the result of sinfulness and the fallen state of creation that resulted.  Moreover, he asked if pain was necessary.  Lewis likened God to a surgeon, saying, “The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting.  If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless” (Nicholi 202).  In fact, Lewis saw pain as a purifying process that causes us to rely on God more.  So, how might we understand the problem of pain?

C. S. Lewis wrote concerning pain, “Well, take your choice.  The tortures occur.  If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one.  If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary.  For not even a moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t” (202).  From a Judeo-Christian perspective, God is good and loving.  As such, how can we reconcile this seemingly contradictory reality?  Can pain exist and God really being a loving and good God?  Let us go to the Creation account found in Genesis for further discussion.

The Genesis Account

When God began creating the world, everything that was created was “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).  At the culmination of creation, God pronounces it all to be “very good” (v. 31).  So, what went terribly wrong to bring about such tortures that permeate our entire existence?  How did this “good” creation become so distorted from the original design of the Creator?

God created humans, Adam and Eve, to govern over the Garden of Eden.  There was only one stipulation in this paradise: do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam and Eve could eat from any tree save this one.  This one choice allowed for free choice from the humans.  They could choose to live in obedience or disregard God’s command.  Unfortunately, Adam and Eve both took of the fruit they had been told not to eat and consumed it.  The result was banishment from the Garden, the land was cursed, and pain and toil increase.

The Effects of Sin

It must be said that evil is not a thing but an improper arrangement of good things which are used in wrong relationship.  Understood this way, sin and evil are not invasion of an outside source but rather the corruption of God’s good design.  Sin is simply a violation of relationship.  Pride sets itself above God and His designs.  Chaos, violence, suffering, and death are the ultimate products of such a world.  We can see these mechanisms at work developing and perpetuating entropic patterns we find in our world.

Sin is not simply an individual issue.  It impacts everything, including Creation.  Genesis 3:17 states, “…cursed is the ground because of you.”  Sin does not only hold a spiritual repercussion but often is associated with physical outcomes.  Does that mean natural disaster is a part of this entropy?  Can disease be counted in this same category?  What about the disruption of relationships?  What about death itself?  Simply put, yes.  God does not cause natural disasters, disease, or death.  However, Creation, as a result of the sinful decisions, does not function as it properly should.  The result is chaos, for both the righteous and the unrighteous.  The impact of sin does not discriminate.

As Genesis progresses, one cannot help but notice the deteriorating state of humanity.  Murder, violence, and pain have increased exponentially.  God’s original plan in creation did not call for suffering and death.  Rather, it was a world marked by life in unequivocal measure.  When sin entered the world due to humanity’s decisions, creation became a broken semblance of its initial splendor and glory.  Chaos threatened the order once established.  The image and likeness of God that had previously been found in creation now lay shattered.  Creation had become bent on destruction rather than on the life sustaining purpose God had desired.

This sinfulness on the part of man reaches a crescendo.  Genesis 6:13 reads, “And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”  All of Creation is impacted by humanity’s sinfulness which has only increased in measure!  The result is chaos, nature collapsing in on itself in the form of rain.  The boundaries God had created to sustain life fall apart and result in death.  Yet, despite this turn, God extends mercy.  God saves Noah and his family because of Noah’s righteousness (Gen. 7:1).  Yet, even after the flood, humanity remains bent on evil (Gen. 8:21).  How does God respond?  God limits His own power by promising to never destroy the earth in the same way (Gen. 9:8).  God is dedicated to the restoration of His good Creation!

The Powers

Colossians 1:15-17 states, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For in him were created all things, those in heaven and those on earth, visible and invisible; whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all was created through him and by him.  And he is before all things, and all things subsist in him.”  When God created the heavens and the earth, He separated the various parts of creation.  In each of these spheres, powers were given governance over that part of creation.  These powers were designed to order, maintain, and structure creation so that it might give life and work within the boundaries of God’s design.  These powers were not given control for their own ends.  Their first purpose was a measure of stewardship in which they shepherded God’s good world.  However, the result of the sin entering the world twisted these powers.  Their telos, since sin entered the world, has not always conformed to God’s purposes.  These structures or governments often deceive and entrap humanity.  Death and destruction often ensue as people participate in these broken systems.

John Howard Yoder asserts:

If our lostness consists in our subjection to the rebellious powers of a fallen world, what then is the meaning of the work of Christ?  If then God is going to save his creatures in their humanity, the Powers cannot simply be destroyed or set aside or ignored.  Their sovereignty must be broken.  This is what Jesus did, concretely and historically, by living a genuinely free and human existence… Here we have for the first time to do with someone who is not the slave of any power, of any law or custom, community or institution, value or theory.  Not even to save his own life will he let himself be made a slave of these Powers… Thus it is his death that provides his victory (145).

Moreover, it is the resurrection of Christ that affirms his victory over sin and death.  As such, we are empowered by God through Jesus to live authentically free lives apart from the Powers.  What we had previously accepted as life we have come to see as death.  “The cross has disarmed them: wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place” (147).

The Question of God 

Augustine wrote, “…the nature of either the soul or the body, which God created: it is wholly good.  But we do say that our nature has been perverted by the human’s own will and cannot be made whole without the grace of God” (Bassett 172).  If God exists, pain is the outcome of our sinfulness.  If God does not exist, we are still left with the problem of pain.  If that is true, pain still results because of us and we have no real power to stop it.  It is our true nature if this presupposition holds.  Death is all that there is in life.  As such, there is no point and purpose to life.

Yet, who lives as if this premise were true?  Experience teaches us that we do not believe this, no matter how much we might argue its validity.  Our very natures point to something Outer and Other, which gives meaning and Life.  Moreover, one would not object to pain as being normal if we did not sense that life is not intended to be this way.  Where would such an idea originate (Nicholi 214-15)?



Bassett, Paul M., Holiness Teaching: New Testament Times to Wesley Vol. 1.Kansas City: Beacon Press Hill, 1997.

Harrelson, Walter J., Donald Senior, and Abraham Smith, eds. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha.New York: Abingdon P, 2005.

Nicholi, Jr., Armand M., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life.New York: Free Press, 2002.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus 2nd Ed.Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.


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