Suffering and the Plan of God

Peril in ParadiseSuffering is an undeniable part of life on this planet. Accident, natural disaster, predators, and old age. If the earth is 4.5 billion years old all of these are part of God’s creation independent of any sin of Adam and Eve. If evolution is responsible for the diversity of life we see around us disease, cancers, and defects can be added to the mix.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson reflected on this is a famous stanza of his (long) poem In Memorium A.H.H. (Canto 56)

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

If God is love as John attests, and good and powerful, how could, or why would, He create a world with ages of suffering before mankind even came on the scene?

Mark S. Whorton reflects on this question in Chapter 10 of his book Peril in Paradise. The problem of suffering and the bigger problem of evil (intentional moral acts that cause pain and suffering) lead some to reject Christian faith altogether. Others find the only acceptable solution to be found in the young earth perfect paradise paradigm. All pain and suffering, death and decay is the direct results of Adam’s sin and its consequences in the curse for creation. Whorton doesn’t accept evolution, preferring an old earth progressive creation model. Thus he doesn’t need to deal with the question of pain and suffering as an intentional means of producing a diversity of life including humans. But an old earth, whatever God’s method in producing the diversity of life, still requires many generations of existence. Animals were born, lived, and died. Some were trapped in tar pits, remaining for us to find and study and marvel over today . Others were consumed for food. Death was not always a peaceful process.

The Perfect Paradise Paradigm provides a compelling answer to the problem of evil and suffering. Young earth creationism flatly rejects the idea that suffering was part of God’s original “very good” creation. The Creator bears no responsibility for the origin of suffering in the Perfect Paradise theodicy. Evil and suffering were brought about strictly by the rebellion of the creatures. (p. 142)

Whorton quotes Henry Morris

“One of the hardest things to understand is how anyone who claims to believe in a God of love can also believe in the geological ages, with their supposed record of billions of years of suffering and death before sin came into the world. This seems clearly to make God a God of waste and cruelty rather than a God of wisdom and power and love.”

Herein lies the fundamental difference between the two creation paradigms. If God created the world over billions of years and permitted hunger, asteroid bombardment, volcanoes, and extinctions before man was created, it means He was willing to permit suffering in His original creation. Old earth creationists must explain why God would permit suffering in His original creation if he were able to prevent it. (p. 144)

It is, indeed, incumbent on the old earth creationist (whether evolutionary creation or progressive creation) to wrestle with the generations of life and death before the sin of morally responsible agents tainted the world. Frankly, however, I have never understood how a young earth paradigm lets God off the hook. The world he created carried the potential (even inevitability) of evil and suffering from the very beginning … unless we are willing to defend the idea that humans are capable of derailing God’s plans.

Whorton first points out that “the Bible clearly teaches that not all suffering is pointless.” (p. 144) The Perfect Purpose Paradigm assumes that at some level everything that constitutes the shape of the world we see is there for some reason in God’s perfect purpose. We do not have the perspective to completely understand this purpose. Nonetheless there are some useful directions for inquiry. Following Norman Geisler he suggests that “The Creator had four options when it came to formulating a plan for creation. He could:

  1. Create no world at all,
  2. Create a world without free moral creatures,
  3. Create a world with free moral creatures that do not sin,
  4. Create a world with free moral creatures that do sin.

Whorton suggests that the only option that fulfilled God’s perfect purpose was number 4. The only way that free moral creatures could fail to sin would be through the intervention of God, but this would mean that the creatures were not actually free. Thus 2 and 3 in practice lead to the same result. Only in option 4 would God create a world with creatures capable of a loving relationship with their creator. We can assume from Scripture that God’s perfect purpose involves a loving relationship with his creation and creatures. Why he desired such a creation is not clear. Whorton falls back on his standby: “His ultimate purpose is not for man to blissfully dwell in a pristine paradise – His end is His glory. The original creation was very good because it is an element of the best way to that end.” (p. 148) I find this unsatisfactory because an end that is “His glory” is an undefined (and perhaps undefinable) purpose. I don’t have a replacement, but I do have a suggestion. God’s perfect purpose, for his glory, involves moral creatures who freely rely and depend on Him. Although this is imperfect in this world, it is the shape of the age to come. Whorton leans this way in his discussion at times, but always returns to God’s glory. “Not only does this world enable God to have a freely reciprocated love relationship with his image-bearers; but more importantly, it brings glory to the Creator. (p. 148)” Perhaps there is no way for creation to bring glory to God except through a freely reciprocated love relationship. To include the qualifier “but more importantly” is a meaningless distraction.

This doesn’t really answer the primary question – why 4.5 billion years on earth? – but it does eliminate some major objections to an old earth. God’s perfect purpose involves freedom rather than perfection in a garden paradise. God’s perfect purpose also involves freedom rather than meticulous providence. Rather than looking backward to some past perfect paradise and longing to return, we should be looking forward to the future. As Paul says in Romans 8:18 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (The NIV has “in us.”) Like creation, we long for the future glory … and perhaps “in us” is a better translation. The next sections of Whorton’s book may dig more deeply into the why of an old earth.

Is it possible that freedom – including the potential for evil – is an important part of God’s perfect purpose?

Does a perfect paradise paradigm really solve the problem?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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1 Response to Suffering and the Plan of God

  1. Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:

    I thank RJS for some clear thinking. Good points.

    I go farther. Suffering can obviously have good effects sometimes. Regardless, suffering of itself is not bad. It is not evil.

    If I cause suffering, I am evil, but the sufferer is not evil. The suffering is not evil. It is unpleasant. It is undesirable, but it is not evil.

    If one insists on blaming God for suffering, well, that makes a problem, but I don’t think it is God’s problem, because I don’t blame God for suffering, except that is where the “buck stops.” Sure, in the ultimate sense, God is the cause, the only ultimate cause for all.

    However, I think we err when we look at it that way.

    It is all bigger than we can think. We cannot comprehend the universe. It is vast beyond hope of comprehending. Time is beyond our full comprehension, but a few billion years past, and perhaps that much future, maybe even several times over, is something we feel we can comprehend because we know what billions means when we consider things like the human population. We know we cannot have any sort of omniscience about it, but we can hold perspective with regard to time, even with our very short lives. The natural universe is not so. It is bigger than imagining.


    God’s purpose is obviously even beyond that.

    There is only one truly important question. Why?

    Why is the ultimate question, and the one we are beginning to realize that we probably cannot answer, not ever, especially not in this life, probably not even in eternity.

    Farther up and further in, Reepicheep cried.

    That is all I know.

    Farther up and further in.

    There is so much more, and it just seems to me that the problem of evil is really just a misnomer, an artifact of just not really being able to figure any of it out in an ultimate sense.

    Nature simply moves to eliminate imbalance. Imbalances arise from all sorts of conditions. Imbalances cause problems for us humans, especially with regard to necessities and health. Phenomena emerge to increase the efficiency of alleviating imbalance, and nature cares not one whit how nor what comes about because of the alleviation. Emergent phenomena can become quite complex. You and I are good examples. Nature doesn’t mind taking the long road. We are obviously rather inefficient in some regards, and we cause imbalance in so many regards, but overall, we fill a niche in nature that hastens the ultimate balancing. It is only a slight simplification to give the inevitable balancing a name, Time. In time, all will balance, or be uniform. Either it will fly apart to nothingness, or it will coast apart to a near-zero cold death, or perhaps some other possibility physics and cosmology suppose, or will supose. We shall see.

    In the meantime, we have time. Make more of it than arguing about the age of the earth and supposed problems with God, evil, and creation.

    You were made for more. Endeavour to fulfill your role in making nature better, especially try to make the lives of your fellow man better. Good triumphs over evil. Do your part to make it so.

    Live justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

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