Why People Suffer (Part 3) by Dave Miller, Ph.D.



Why People Suffer (Part 3)

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Dr. Miller’s recently published book, Why People Suffer, available through Apologetics Press. Part I of this three-part series appeared in the January issue. Part II appeared in the February issue.  Part III follows below and continues, without introductory comments, where the second article ended.]

Satan is the Archenemy of god and man

While we are convinced that the age of miracles is over (see my discussion of the cessation of miracles in Miller, 2003), nevertheless, God continues to be very active in the world via non-miraculous, providential dealings. Similarly, so is Satan. The Bible repeatedly affirms and warns that Satan is the great adversary and deceiver who is constantly conniving to ensnare the righteous. Hence, he can use hardship and suffering as a tool to discourage a person and cause that person to blame God and abandon God’s will. The presence of Satan is yet another sub-cause of suffering in the world.

Consider a number of Bible pas­sages that pinpoint this feature of Satan’s activity on Earth. Paul instructed Timothy that in his ministerial activities, it would be necessary for him humbly to correct “those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25-26, emp. added). Satan sets snares for us! Like the trapper that places a trap to catch a bear, so Satan seeks to take us captive by redirecting our service from God to his own evil machinations. Every time a Christian departs from the way of life, gives in to worldliness, and abandons the church, that person (though not conscious of the fact) has been taken captive by Satan to do his bidding. And he does so of his own free will and cannot bemoan, “The devil made me do it.”

What Paul called a “snare” in his communication to Timothy, he labeled “wiles” and “fiery darts” in his letter to the Ephesians. Read this passage carefully:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Ephesians 6:11-16, emp. added).

So when you or I experience some catastrophic setback, heartache, or physical hardship that momentarily stuns us and causes us to question God and our decision to be a Christian, we may well simply be the recipient of a clever scheme or ploy floated by Satan himself! Old cowboy shows frequently depicted the settlers “circling the wagons” when under attack by Indians. One of the tactics employed by the attackers was shooting flaming arrows at the settlers’ wagons, setting them on fire, and reducing the cover provided by the wagon and its cloth covering. Have you considered the fact that when you face some hardship, it may well be nothing more than Satan shooting a flaming arrow at you? If that be the case, how will you react? Surrender? Give up? Walk away from the wagon train of fellow settlers who are on their way to the Promised Land of heaven? Ask yourself this critical question: will you give Satan the satisfaction of winning?

In addition to a “snare,” “wiles,” and “fiery darts,” Paul noted “devices” in his letter to the Corinthian Christians. He urged them to forgive the wayward brother and reaffirm love to him when he has repented. Failure to do so would be unChristlike and it would open us up to a possible danger: “lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11, emp. added). Observe that Satan has “devices,” or schemes, tricks, and ploys that he uses to try to take advantage of us, fool us, and capture us. No wonder Peter offered this pressing warning: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NASB).

It is interesting, even ironic, that the Holy Spirit chose Peter to record this admonition. It was he who allowed himself to give in to fear and succumb to the satanic temptation to betray Jesus. And what about that occasion when he conversed with Jesus about His impending passion?

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:21-23, emp. added).

Jesus referred to Peter as Satan? At first glance, such a remark seems callous and unbecoming the Son of God. But on further reflection, Jesus was providing Peter with tremendous encouragement to get his thinking straight and thus to prepare himself for Satan’s assault—rather than aiding and abetting Satan. When you or I encounter adversity in our lives, we are apt to “knee jerk” and react incorrectly, even destructively. No doubt Peter was merely concerned about his Lord and desired His protection. He did not want Jesus hurt by those who desired to do Him physical harm. Hence, Peter was reacting out of fear and his own premature assessment of the situation. He was responding to life’s potentialities the way we typically do every day—from our own narrow perspective. We are rather proud of our personal opinions and our own impressions of circumstances around us. We need a healthy dose of James 1:19—“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” We need to proceed cautiously and make certain that we are not allowing life’s threatening appearances to misassess what is happening. We must analyze life’s difficulties through spiritual lenses, not fleshly ones. We must learn to think spiritually. Doing so will help us to subdue the psychological and emotional fallout of suffering, and to frame that suffering in proper perspective. And it will aid us in avoiding becoming an “offense”—a stumbling block—to ourselves and others.

Our Nemesis

In writing to the Christians at Corinth, Paul described the impact of some unidentified physical ailment from which he suffered:

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, emp. added).

Observe carefully: Since Paul was blessed with the exalted role of being an inspired apostle of Christ, receiving direct revelations from God, it would have been easy for him to become prideful. Hence, God allowed Satan to afflict Paul (just as Satan had afflicted Job). Whatever this ailment may have been, it was of sufficient pain and torment that Paul repeatedly pleaded with God to remove it from his life. But God allowed it to remain because of the spiritual benefit Paul received as a result. Are we willing to endure suffering in order to receive spiritual improvement? What a tragedy it would have been if Paul had renounced God due to this “messenger of Satan.”

Please remember that all these depictions of Satan’s activity in human affairs are not mystical or supernatural. He operates through the ordinary circumstances of life. When a specific calamity comes our way, we will not be able to determine whether the occasion was generated by Satan, or if the occurrence is due to another explanation. Even Job did not know that Satan was the source of his suffering. We are given that insight, but so far as we know from the text, he was not informed that Satan was the instigator of his sufferings. God did not see fit to divulge the fact to him. Indeed, He did not need to do so—even as He need not step in and inform us. We simply need to be aware that the Bible teaches that Satan is one possible explanation for our sufferings—and then react accordingly.

We’re Being Sifted

Throughout Bible times, farmers grew wild cereal grains (such as rice, barley, oats, and wheat) in which the ripe seed is tightly enclosed by thin, dry, scaly “bracts” forming a dry husk (or hull) around the grain. Before the grain can be used, these seed casings must be removed, first through the process of threshing—which loosens and removes from the grain the casing, known at this point as chaff. This removal phase was traditionally achieved through pounding or milling the seed. Next, the loose chaff would have to be separated from the grain by means of winnowing. This phase was accomplished by tossing the grain upward into a light wind which would allow the heavier grain to fall back to the ground (usually into a wide collection basket) while blowing aside the lighter chaff which, in turn, was treated as a waste product by being ploughed into the soil or burned. The grain could be further purified by “sifting” through a sieve.

Sifting the chaff Rice Winnowing in Bali, Indonesia

This interesting agricultural process is used in Scripture metaphorically to refer to the elimination of wickedness from the Earth and from one’s own life. John the Baptizer warned that Jesus would soon arrive on the scene, and that “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). He would eliminate the wicked in eternity. The psalmist stated that the wicked “are like chaff that the wind blows away” (1:4). Those striving to live righteously must be ever vigilant to remove the chaff from one’s life, even viewing suffering as a means to do so. Jesus forewarned Peter: “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). Satan apparently made the same request to God regarding Peter that he made concerning Job. He wanted to be allowed to test Peter to see whether he could handle the test. Sadly, he did not. Although, upon realization of his failure, he “got his act together” and became a great apostle in the church of Christ. We, too, can overcome life’s bitter challenges, even when we stumble on occasion, rising to reaffirm our commitment to remaining faithful even in the face of suffering and tribulation.

It’s a fact. Some of the suffering that comes our way in this life is generated by Satan, who seeks to deter us from serving God. He seeks to “hinder us” (1 Thessalonians 2:18). He is waging war against “those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). We ought to be emboldened on the occasion of tragedy to look Satan in the face (so to speak) and defiantly react: “Is that the best you can do?” Sadly, when Christians who are traumatized by some catastrophic event in their life “throw in the towel,” leave the church, and abandon their religious convictions, they are accommodating Satan! They are doing precisely what he sought to get them to do. The next time you face adversity, be sure to ask yourself: Will I give Satan the satisfaction of knowing he’s whipped me into submission and that he can count me in his camp?

vindication of god

Another fundamental explanation the Bible gives for the existence of suffering, especially among Christians, is amply illustrated in the book of Job. You remember the occasion when Satan was allowed to present himself before God, and God asked him if he had noticed the righteous, spiritual condition of Job. Satan’s response was to insist that Job’s righteousness was due to God’s having blessed Job abundantly and protected Job from harm, and that if God were to recall those blessings, stripping Job of his prosperity and well-being, Job would “surely curse” God. Consequently, God gave Satan permission to have power over Job’s circumstances without harming his person (1:6-12). Satan left the presence of God, returned to Earth, and commenced to wreak havoc in Job’s life—to no avail. A second challenge of God by Satan resulted in God allowing Satan to physically harm Job’s person without taking his life.

Consider carefully what was going on in these encounters. Satan was claiming that humans choose to obey God purely out of self-interest—what they get out of it. God, on the other hand, contended that Job was following God out of disinterested love of deity. Ostensibly, God’s view was that even if Job was stripped of his material prosperity, his relatives, his friends, and even his health, he would still worship and serve God. Why? Because God is worthy of worship apart from the blessings and benefits He bestows on His creatures!

That’s not to deny that many people are religious because of some selfishly perceived benefit, whether physical, emotion, or psychological. Being a Christian and going to church may give one person a fertile field for business or sales prospects. It might give another the satisfaction that he/she is following in the footsteps of ancestors. It might provide a setting in which to enjoy social relations. More than one young man has admitted: “It’s a great place to meet good Christian girls and find a mate.” Humans are infected with a variety of motives and hidden angles in many phases of life—including religion. However, it does not follow that every person who is religious does so out of purely selfish motives. God noted that Job maintained his integrity, and that he remained a follower of God, even though he experienced tremendous heartache, exceptional physical catastrophe, and a diseased body.

So you see, God is worthy of our worship and devotion whether or not we receive any particular benefit. God is God! He is the great I AM! He is “worthy…to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11) because He is the infinite, eternal Creator! He is the only worthy object of worship (Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 4:10). All human beings should “Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know that the LORD, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:2-3).

For the LORD is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. For He is our God (Psalm 95:3-7).

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:17). He is the majestic Ruler of the Universe who defies human comprehension. When we bump up against bad things in life, instead of pining, “Why? Why me?,” in light of the infinitude and the magnitude of God, we ought to take a step back, bow our heads, and say, “Why not? Why not me? Do I really deserve anything less?” When we seriously reflect on the grandeur of God, our suffering seems trivial and paltry (Romans 8:18).

It was not uncommon to hear aged folk from the World War II generation speak of the frequent spankings they received in childhood from their parents in the words, “I got less than I deserved.” That humility—that mature appraisal of reality—is indispensable to facing the suffering of life and viewing God from the proper perspective. I repeat: the Bible teaches us that God is worthy of our worship because He is God, even if we receive nothing from Him—no physical blessings, no spiritual blessings, nothing—even if we were to be reduced to poverty and destitution, in the midst of our misery, we should still praise, honor, and glorify God for Who He is. Indeed, when we endure suffering, we vindicate God’s point to Satan: that He is worthy of honor and worship no matter what.

verification of faithfulness

Another explanation given in Scripture for why some people, specifically Christians, suffer in this world is to demonstrate spiritual genuineness. This powerful concept is seen in Job in the third cycle of speeches when Job responds to the charge of his friends, specifically Eliphaz, concerning Job’s doubtful spiritual condition. Please read his rebuttal carefully:

Even today my complaint is bitter; my hand is listless because of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat! I would present my case before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which He would answer me, and understand what He would say to me. Would He contend with me in His great power? No! But He would take note of me. There the upright could reason with Him, and I would be delivered forever from my Judge. Look, I go forward, but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him; When He works on the left hand, I cannot behold Him; when He turns to the right hand, I cannot see Him. But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His steps; I have kept His way and not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:2-12).

This tortured soul pours out his heart in this passage, and does so quite respectfully without indicting or blaming God. Out of great anguish and pain, he yearns for an opportunity to be in God’s presence in order to receive answers that would enable him to make sense of his devastated condition. He feels (naively) that perhaps he could present his case before God in view of the fact that he feels God seems to have some bone to pick with him. He is confident that God would not overwhelm him with His great power—but would give him due attention, listen to his concerns, and provide answers. The lack of direct contact with God—the thunderous silence that Job endured in the midst of his suffering—made him feel alone and unable to decipher his predicament.

Touchstone set

Wikimedia Commons (jcw) 2014 license CC-BY-SA-3.0

Job then makes a stirring statement: “But He knows the way that I take.” Job felt certain that despite the silence and his inability to secure an audience with God, nevertheless, God was surely aware of Job’s spiritual condition and how he had been living his life. Hence he asserted: “When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.” At first glance, one might think that Job was alluding to the metaphor of the furnace of affliction we discussed earlier. With that understanding, Job would have been saying that his sufferings serve the purpose of refining and purifying him. However, that is not the idea here. He is alluding to a “touchstone.” Prior to the more sophisticated chemical techniques used in modern metallurgical processes, the ancients used touchstones to ascertain the quality of raw ore. A touchstone was a finely grained, small tablet of dark stone used for assaying precious metal alloys. When soft metals (like gold or silver) are rubbed against it, a visible streak is left on the stone. Because different alloys of gold have different colors, one sample can be compared to samples of known purity in order to ascertain the quality of the gold.

Job’s point? He believed that his hardships and suffering were manifestations of God “rubbing” him against stone, i.e., afflicting him with tribulation. However, he was confident that when that process of testing his spiritual status was complete, he would be demonstrated to be pure gold. In other words, some of the suffering that comes to the Christian has as its purpose to showcase theism and Christianity by calling attention to the righteousness of the sufferer.

While Job did not boastfully believe he was sinless, he nevertheless was unconscious of any glaring deficiencies in his efforts to serve God—certainly none that would account for the intense agony he was enduring. In the climax of his rebuttals to his friends, he reflected on his adult behavior to see if he was deserving of his accusers’ allegations. His checklist of spirituality bodes well: he avoided illicit sexual desire; he treated fellow workers justly and kindly; he reached out to the poor, widows, orphans, and the needy; he refrained from covetousness; he avoided false religious allegiance; he loved his enemies; he was hospitable; and he confessed personal sin without fear of appearances (31:1-34). The conclusion of the book, as well as additional scriptural corroboration (Ezekiel 14:14,20; James 5:11), suggest that Job’s surmising was accurate. God was using Job to prove to Satan that some people are righteous and retain their righteousness regardless of their suffering.

God Likes Me!

Paul is a parallel example to Job on this very point. Recall, once again, Paul’s remarks concerning his “thorn in the flesh”:

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, emp. added).

Key in on the words “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s use of the word “grace” refers to the favor that God showed to Paul by appointing him an apostle and using him in the promotion of Christianity. Essentially, God was telling Paul that it was unnecessary for Him to remove the “thorn” of suffering in his life, since he had God’s approval and acceptance. Question: are you willing to endure whatever suffering is thrown at you—whatever hardship, trial, setback, sickness, heartache, or pain—as long as you know that God loves you, accepts you, and considers you a faithful child? Sure you are! That is precisely why Job could exclaim: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).

Here is another rich, encouraging passage on this point:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).

Of all people on the Earth, Christians are those who have been the recipients of the mercy of God, a living hope, and an incorruptible inheritance. This spiritual assurance surpasses anything physical that may afflict us for now. If we remain faithful, focused on living a spiritual existence in harmony with God’s Word, yes, we will be “grieved by various trials,” but it will be only “for a little while.” And the pain and suffering that we endure will demonstrate the genuineness of our faith. Our faith, i.e., our obedient submission to Jesus Christ, is more precious than gold. Gold is physical and perishes; but our faith is spiritual and will carry us into eternity in triumph (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:10). Yes, our spiritual commitment may well be “tested by fire,” but hanging firm and staying faithful will result in praise, honor, and glory when Jesus returns. Pray tell, what else on this entire planet, in all of human history, even begins to compare with such a life? I repeat: only New Testament Christianity provides the proper perspective for facing suffering in this world. So the next time you find yourself afflicted, consider this: how do you know the distress you are experiencing is not simply one of those times when God is spotlighting your devotion to Him? His confidence in your spiritual stamina is such that He considers you capable of enduring the hardship and remaining faithful to Him!


No matter what happens to the Christian in this world, that circumstance is temporary and only for the moment. Hardship is always accompanied by blessings, comfort, and encouragement that makes the tribulation bearable (cf. Job’s acquisition of more children). Our goal is to leave this land of the dying to go to the land of the living. To borrow the words of the old hymn, this world is not our home; we’re just passing through. The skeptic, atheist, and materialist have only this life with nothing to look forward to beyond the grave. No wonder the secular environmentalists and animal rights activists are trying to convince everyone to “save the planet.” To them, that is all there is to life. Hence, suffering is dysteleological—purposeless. But to the Christian, all of life’s events on Earth are mere “stepping stones”—the intermediate pathway from here to there.

Many years ago, popular radio commentator Paul Harvey expressed well the biblical view of what is happening to everyone in this life:

We are all under the sentence of death. Most rational persons learn to live with that certain uncertainty and enjoy a reasonably full life in spite of it. The mother never lived who did not wish she could, as Christ said He would, fold her children under her wing and protect them from harm. Even He couldn’t. For it is appointed to each of us, “once to die.” First our children must be brought face-to-face with the irrefutable finality of that judgment. Once they understand that Paradise is elsewhere, that we have to prove here that we deserve to be there, then your youngster will understand why it isn’t going to be easy. It isn’t supposed to be. This is the shakedown cruise. This earthly while separates the men from the boys. Don’t fear to confront your child with that fact. Youngsters want a challenge more than they want “peace and security.” They will go out of their way to manufacture danger. The present war scare will subside, but there will be other uncertainties to take its place. These are best faced by persons who, however scared, struggle forward through the dark toward the light (1962, 4-A, emp. added).

For the atheist and the skeptic, there is no light toward which one is pressing. Their “paradise” is purely physical—a dismal existence. But for the Christian, even the negative realities of life make perfect sense; at least we are in a position to put suffering in its place and assimilate the blows.

To recap, very real, very legitimate reasons are available to make sense of the existence of suffering in the world. Why do people suffer? Because…

  1. This world—with all its positive and negative elements—was designed to serve the singular purpose of providing humans with the ideal environment in which to decide where to spend eternity.
  2. All people sin and harm themselves and others.
  3. We can be improved, matured, strengthened, perfected, and made fit for time and eternity.
  4. Satan seeks to take as many people with him to hell as possible.
  5. God is vindicated by those who choose to love and obey Him apart from any benefits He may bestow upon them.
  6. Those who are faithful to God are verified in their spiritual genuineness through suffering.

These six realities provide ample explanation for the existence of suffering in the world. The God of the Bible exists and the one true religion is New Testament Christianity.

[NOTE: For additional information on this vital subject, see Dr. Miller’s book Why People Suffer and other materials available from Apologetics Press.]


Harvey, Paul (1962), “Letter From A Mother,” Evening Independent, 4A, January 10, http://goo.gl/vBUlIW.

Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation—EXTENDEDVERSION,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1399.

Why People Suffer (Part 2) by Dave Miller, Ph.D.



Why People Suffer (Part 2)

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Dr. Miller’s recently published book, Why People Suffer, available through Apologetics Press. Part I of this three-part series appeared in the January issue. Part II follows below and continues, without introductory comments, where the first article ended.]

The Decisions We Make—and Their Consequences

Once we understand the foundational meaning and purpose of life on Earth, we have the necessary vantage point from which to identify within this divinely orchestrated environment several specific subcauses of suffering that are subsumed under the broader, “umbrella” purpose of  “soul making.” Among these, perhaps the #1 cause of human suffering is sin. This term is used in many different senses in current culture, but the Bible gives a very narrow, precise definition: violation of God’s law (1 John 3:4). Nothing else is sin.  For mankind, sin occurs only in terms of human action in relation to the will of God. Only the Bible can inform humans as to what sin is. [NOTE: The New Testament is the portion of the Bible that is specifically applicable to human behavior today. However, though originally addressed to the Israelites, much may certainly be learned from the Old Testament (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13); see Warren, 1974, pp. 41-43].

For example, burning the toast is not sin, but lying about it is (Colossians 3:9). Though not intended to be exhaustive, consider the listing of sins on the next page taken from the New Testament that aids in conceptualizing sin properly (Romans 1:29-31; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:5-8; Revelation 21:8).

[NOTE: One must examine Scripture and consult Greek authorities
to arrive at accurate definitions of these terms.]

A great deal of suffering, misery, heartache, pain, and unpleasantness is generated by human sin. In fact, like the first human pair (Genesis 3), we bring much, perhaps most, of our suffering on ourselves. Sin is the direct result of free moral agents making choices that violate God’s will (Romans 5:12; 1 John 3:4). Sin brought death into the world (Genesis 2:17; 3:16-19; Romans 8:18-23; 1 Corinthians 15:26). Prisons are full of individuals who are there due to their own decisions and their own actions. Likewise, much physical illness and disease is the result of humans making unwise, even detrimental, decisions regarding the use of our bodies (e.g., drugs, alcohol, tobacco, illicit sex, etc.).

Our Own Sin

Suffering from sin comes through two sources. First, we can suffer due to our own sin. When Peter wrote, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters…” (1 Peter 4:15), he acknowledged that many people, in fact, bring suffering and hardship upon themselves because they murder, steal, commit evil, and interfere in the lives of others. The police may very well shoot and kill or painfully wound a fleeing felon—instant suffering for sin. A person may smoke crack cocaine, receiving instant physical pleasure, but eventually resulting in horrible physical effects and even death. We can “sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). We can choose to “sow to the flesh” and thus “reap corruption” (Galatians 6:8). No doubt about it: much suffering in human history has been self-inflicted.

The Sin of Others

The other source of suffering from sin is that which comes due to the sin of others. The drunk driver that careens into a car occupied by a family of dad, mom, and their two small children, killing some of the occupants and maiming the others, not only suffers from his own sin; he also causes the innocent to suffer due to his sin. Indeed, the consequences of a person’s own sins can wreak havoc on succeeding generations (Exodus 20:5). God explained to the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt that because of their sin—their unwillingness to trust and obey God by entering the Promised Land—they would have to meander aimlessly in the desert for 40 years. As a result, their children would have to “bear the brunt of your infidelity” (Numbers 14:33). The kids had to suffer for the sins of the parents. So it continues. Think of the drunken fathers across our land and the world who cause their battered wives and children to suffer.

Sin is far-reaching and extremely pervasive. Consider the decisions made by Arabian slave traders centuries ago to engage in what the Bible calls “manstealing” (1 Timothy 1:10—KJV), or kidnapping, by capturing individuals in Africa, crowding them into ships, and transporting them to America to be sold as slaves. Those decisions were made by people who you and I do not personally know. We had nothing to do with their decisions or their actions. Yet, those decisions, that inflicted immediate suffering on their victims, eventually led to civil war and thousands of additional deaths, and many years after the fact Americans are still suffering the consequences of those decisions. You and I can suffer for the sins of those who literally lived centuries before us. Such is the destructive, devastating, deadly effect of human sin.

Not Fair!

How are such circumstances fair? They are not. However, they do not reflect negatively on the justice of God or make Him blameworthy. In order to create the suitable environment for soul-making, free moral agency is inherently mandatory. And when humans are free to make their own decisions, they may well make wrong decisions. Blame, therefore, rests with the perpetrator—in the above instances, the drunk and the slave trader. Why blame God because persons, of their own free will, chose to drink alcohol and drive, or enslave their fellowman?

The very purpose of the created order would be thwarted if God intervened miraculously to prevent consequences every time humans chose to do wrong. God has literally done everything possible to discourage people from making wrong choices—short of interfering with their free will. He has provided evidence of Himself in nature (Psalm 19:1ff.; Romans 1:20). He has provided written communication (the Bible) that is self-evidently inspired, to define sin and inform people regarding the need to refrain from sinning. Given the nature of man (a thinking being with volition) and the nature of God (a perfect, infinite Being), this world must of necessity include the possibility that people will choose to sin and, in so doing, hurt themselves and others.

To suggest that this vale of soul-making could have been adjusted by God to eliminate pain and suffering while still allowing humans free choice is to suggest the possibility of a round square or a 90-year-old teenager. The very idea is nonsensical and self-contradictory. The atheist or agnostic who insists that God does not exist because of suffering in the world—for if He existed, He would have arranged for pain and suffering not to occur—has taken a nonsensical and self-contradictory viewpoint. As Warren cogently explained:

God is infinite in power, but power meaningfully relates only to what can be done, to what is possible of accomplishment—not to what is impossible! It is absurd to speak of any power (even infinite power) being able (having the power) to do what simply cannot be done…. Rather than saying that God cannot do such (with the implication that he is deficient in power, so that if only he had more power he could do it), one should say that such simply cannot be done—that such is not subject to power, not even to infinite power! (1972, p. 28, italics in orig.).

While God allows humans to exercise their own free will and commit sin, He is grieved by such choices. He desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God asked this rhetorical question in the hearing of Ezekiel: “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die…and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). So we cannot indict God. We must admit: much of the pain, hardship, and suffering that we experience and see around us is the result of human sin.

We’re Being Persecuted

Some suffering is due to righteous living that evokes hatred and opposition from those who have chosen to live in sin. Why did Cain kill Abel—when Abel had done nothing personally to Cain? Answer:

And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God (John 3:19-21).

Cain had ample opportunity to get his attitude straight and bring his actions into harmony with God’s directives. God even gave him a pep talk: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). So why would Cain reject God’s words and kill his brother? He despised the light and did not want the light of his brother’s obedience to expose his own disobedience. As John further noted: “not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12, emp. added).

Much suffering has been levied in human history by the unrighteous against the righteous (cf. Hebrews 11:24). Nero lined the roads leading to Rome with crucified Christians and even provided nighttime illumination by setting them on fire (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44). Christians are neither surprised nor bewildered by such treatment. Jesus, in fact, warned the faithful to expect it:

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also (John 15:18-20).

They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service…. These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:2,33).

Peter even stated that Christians ought to expect and anticipate hardship and suffering, and not be bewildered by it when it arrives—

Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified (1 Peter 4:12-14).

The three Hebrew youths, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, were ordered to worship the idolatrous image King Nebuchadnezzar had erected or be burned alive in a furnace of fire. When they refused, they were brought before the king to offer an explanation. What they said on that occasion ought to be the attitude of every faithful follower of the God of heaven in the face of persecution:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18).

These three men were sufficiently convicted of the reality of God that they recognized that it might not be His will to intervene and deliver them from the persecution of the king. They might have to die. Nevertheless, they still refused to deny spiritual reality and behave as if God does not exist. Their suffering was an insufficient pretext for denying God.

We ought to be like the farmer’s mule that fell into a pit. The farmer did not have the physical means to extract the mule, which would surely die a slow, agonizing death. So the farmer commenced to bury the mule by shoveling dirt into the pit. However, the stubborn mule refused to be buried. He shook each shovel full of dirt from his back and packed the dirt beneath him by stomping it with his hooves. Eventually, sufficient dirt accumulated under the mule’s hooves that he was able to simply step out of the pit. The mule refused to give up and be buried. We ought to have the same determination as we face the hardships of life. Shake ‘em off!

Self-Improvement: I Can Be a Better Person!

But there are other subcauses of suffering. Consider the old blacksmith who was a collector of iron. On a typical day, he would select a piece suitable to his purpose and begin his work by holding the metal among flames until it turned white from the intense heat. Placing it in this super-heated condition on an anvil, he would strike the piece of iron with his hammer. This initial treatment of the iron was a test—a test to see if the metal would “take temper” and thus be capable of being fashioned into a useful object. If the initial test was unsuccessful, the hunk of worthless metal would be tossed onto the scrap heap. If the initial test was successful, the piece of iron would next be plunged into water, and then once again subjected to the flames. Now the smithy could begin his work, repeating the cycle over and over again—heating, striking, and cooling. With time, patience, and hard work, the formless hunk of metal gradually emerges from the arduous, seemingly endless process as a meaningful, valuable article for use.

Isn’t life like that? It’s painful, prolonged, and painstaking. Life can feel hot, life can feel cold, and life can feel like we are being beaten down. But those very aspects of life can result in value, meaning, and capability that cannot be secured in any other way. The hardships of life can improve and perfect uspreparing us for eternity—if we will allow them to. We ought to beg God to enable us to take temper, endure the difficult process of molding and shaping, and not to throw us on the scrap heap as useless and incorrigible.

Furnace of Affliction

A common metaphor used in the Bible to describe life’s adversities is that of the smelting process of “extractive metallurgy.” When raw ore is mined from the ground, it must be refined and the impurities removed. Historically, the process by which this objective is achieved entails tremendous heat, although now chemical reducing agents are also used to decompose the ore, separating it from the silver, iron, copper, and other base metals. Reducing the ore to a liquid state in a furnace of fire allows the pure metal to separate from the dross or impurities.

God frequently alluded to the necessity of subjecting the ancient nation of Israel to this process, figuratively speaking. They had a history of defiance and rebellious rejection of God’s will for them. Israelite prophets forewarned their people of the impending disaster, insisting that the coming captivity was deserved. The foreign aggressor would be God’s rod of chastisement. But this calamity would also serve a useful purpose, figuratively represented by the smelting process.

Referring to the wickedness of Judah and the capital city of Jerusalem, Isaiah conveyed God’s intentions: “Therefore the Lord says…I will turn My hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy” (Isaiah 1:24-25). “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10; cf. Jeremiah 9:7). Zechariah announced: “I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested” (13:9). Malachi asked:

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness (Malachi 3:2-3).

The psalmist summarized the principle by describing the process from beginning to end:

Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard, Who keeps our soul among the living, and does not allow our feet to be moved. For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined. You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. You have caused men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water; but You brought us out to rich fulfillment (Psalm 66:8-12, emp. added).

The references to “the net,” “affliction on our backs,” men riding “over our heads,” and going through “fire and water” are likely figurative allusions to the very real threat of Assyrian conquest during the days of Hezekiah, which placed the nation in extreme danger and duress (2 Kings 18-19). All these references liken life’s difficulties and hardship to a furnace in which the recipients are subjected to intense heat. Pain? Yes. Torment? Yes. Anguish? Yes. But surviving and coming through the adversity results in renewal, reassurance, and fortitude for the future. Our spiritual defects are purged that we may be made fit for life and divine service.

The Great Physician

Another metaphor for suffering is taken from the field of medicine. Though Job’s friends fell short of their friendship responsibilities, they sometimes stumbled upon valuable nuggets of truth. Eliphaz was correct when he insisted that God can use adversity the same way a surgeon uses a scalpel: “Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole” (Job 5:17-18, emp. added). When you think about it, what surgeons do is rather violent and  seemingly barbaric—cutting the human body open, pounding, sawing, scraping—inflicting orchestrated, organized trauma upon a human being. The cardiologist that slices the chest and pries back the rib cage of the heart patient is inflicting considerable shock and distress that, without anesthesia, would be unbearable. Yet his actions are wholly calculated to save life and make well. Can we not see God in the same light?

Many Bible passages reinforce this reality. Paul, who endured many difficulties in life, was able to “glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts” (Romans 5:3-5). James said something very similar: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (1:2-4). So hardships and suffering in life literally alter us in good ways! We become more patient, more able to endure, more able to cope. Our character is shaped and improved. We grow stronger and mature—so much so that Paul actually gloried in tribulations, and James said we could consider suffering a joyous event. And this ongoing process is monitored and sustained by “the love of God poured out in our hearts.”

The Great Parent

Yet another metaphor comes from the family. Parental discipline operates on this same principle. If parents are fulfilling their role properly, they dispense two forms of discipline regularly to their children, delineated by Solomon: “The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15, emp. added). Verbal admonition and instruction as well as corporal punishment are both indispensable to a well-rounded upbringing (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15,17). Likewise our cosmic parent—the “father of our spirits” (Hebrews 12:9)—is deeply interested in bringing us to spiritual adulthood. Again, as Solomon encouraged: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor detest His correction; for whom the LORD loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12).

Expounding on this very passage, the author of Hebrews explained:

If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (12:7-11, emp. added).

Sound reasoning! The person who whines or complains about chastening in life is like the prideful, resentful child that resists and rejects parental love and training. If we will submit ourselves to be trained by it, the unpleasant, even painful, suffering of life engenders “the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” This fact highlights again the purpose of the created order being a vale of soul-making. The ranting atheist who rails against God is the picture of childish arrogance and stubborn pride—the opposite of thoughtful humility. God can speak through the suffering that people receive—but will they listen? Are they looking in the right places for answers? Or, sadly, do they “refuse to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28)?

The fact is that God wants us to survive life’s hardships: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, emp. added). He does not test us in order to cause us to fall (James 1:13). That is Satan’s desire and intention—not God’s (Matthew 4:1-11). The words translated “temptation” and “tempt” in these verses mean to “put to the proof” and “to test.” They do not carry any idea of trying to trip someone up or cause them to fall. A person may well fail a test—but neither the test nor the one who presents the test is blameworthy.

I Choose Pain?

But the fact is that we humans do not see any form of pain or suffering as desirable. As American civilization deteriorates morally and spiritually, the population has cultivated a voracious appetite for entertainment, amusement, pleasure, and physical stimulation. Hence, an avoidance syndrome characterizes many people in which they fill their lives with “fun and games” in order to distance themselves from anything that is deemed difficult, harsh, arduous, or unpleasant. Drugs and alcohol often become the “buffer” that many choose to shield themselves from psychological, emotional, and even physical suffering. But this evasion is destructive.

If given the choice to go to a funeral or to go to a party or ballgame, who would choose the funeral? Yet, wise Solomon set the record straight when he asserted:

Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4).

Who can believe it? The Puritans were correct in discouraging too much leisure time (Miller, 1939). These three verses express profound truth and meaning regarding life. Mourning and sorrow—more specifically, the circumstances and occurrences that cause mourning and sorrow—are of tremendous value in living life in preparation for the end of life on Earth. Yet these are the very things that so many people use as their justification for dismissing God and rejecting Bible religion!

Paul articulated the same concept in a discussion of his own hardships and sufferings: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Strength, i.e., moral and spiritual courage so necessary to living life peacefully, with confidence and contentment, comes through physical weakness and trauma? Absolutely. Paul insisted: “then I am strong.” Indeed. You don’t get diamonds without tremendous pressure. We are strongest and most valuable to God when we are subjected to hardship that brings us to our knees before the Supreme Ruler of the Universe—when we are “weak” from a human perspective.

Proving Grounds

As a child, during the summer months, I would accompany my father on his Borden milk route which took us west from Phoenix, Arizona to rural grocery stores and restaurants in need of dairy products. On one occasion, I observed that the purple mountains in the distance had what appeared to be white streaks or gashes on them. My father informed me that the land was part of International Harvester’s 4,000 acre Phoenix Proving Grounds to test their trucks and earth-moving equipment built by the Harvester’s industrial power division (operational from 1947 to 1983). The massive earthmovers would gouge the earth, turning over the soil to expose the limestone rocks and dirt beneath—hence, the white streaks.

International Harvester 27-75 earthmover being demonstrated in front of a grandstand at International Harvester’s Phoenix Proving Ground in 1953 (Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society. Image ID 39941)

Why would Harvester go to the trouble and expense of purchasing thousands of acres of land in a hot, rugged desert to create a “proving grounds”? Well, it’s one thing to conceive of and build a truck or tractor; it’s quite another to build one that is top quality and durable. Harvester sought to test their trucks and construction equipment under harsh desert conditions, putting their vehicles through torturous, rugged, merciless contact with rocks, boulders, cacti, and dry, hard ground. If their earthmovers could withstand that kind of torture, they would prove themselves as worthy to be sold to customers who would return again and again to purchase such quality, long-lasting, well-tested products. Indeed, the worth of the vehicles was evaluated by just how well they withstood the jarring, jagged, rock-strewn, abusive terrain to which they were subjected.

That’s a portrait of human life! That’s what you and I are enduring right now! This life is our proving ground. We are being tested, tried, and proved. We are undergoing harsh, rugged conditions—the hard knocks, jagged rocks, and searing heat of life’s trials and obstacles. We must face many hindrances and impediments, a host of stumbling blocks and barriers, and a multitude of snags and straits.

Consider for a moment what Paul faced as an apostle of Christ:

Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

Have you and I experienced such hardship? Will we ever? Yet observe Paul’s attitude about it all: “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, emp. added). Yes, some seem to be beset with more tribulations. We cannot know all the “whys and wherefores” in such cases. But we can know that everyone faces hardship and suffering. It is part of life, part of being human. And the point is that we can make it! We can allow life’s adversities to propel us to our intended destiny. And be reminded of Paul’s earlier observation: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able.” You and I will not go through any adversity that others have not already gone through. Adversity is “common to man”—everyone faces it and people have been facing it for the entirety of human history. But God is trustworthy; we can count on Him to see us through the testing. “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18, emp. added).

Farmers Get It!

Suggested Resource

Farmers understand these principles. They literally live their lives in limbo. For most of American history, the average citizen lived on the farm. Hence, the average American understood firsthand the principle of endurance in the face of hardship. The farmer must sweat, toil, and work hard. But he has no guarantee that the fruit of his labors will be forthcoming. Many variables potentially threaten the outcome (weather, pestilence, etc.). For months, the farmer (and his family) must hope and pray that their arduous efforts will be rewarded. Their uncertainty and anticipation are forms of suffering. No wonder James used the farmer’s plight as an appropriate example of what life entails:

Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5:7-8).

So as we go through life, being tossed about by the unpleasant circumstances that come our way, we must ever be reminded that this is our proving grounds. We are being shaped for eternity. The old adage, “Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people” is accurate. We are being prepared—if we will yield ourselves to the disciplinary processes that facilitate that preparation.

[to be continued]


Miller, Perry (1939), The New England Mind: The 17th Century, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Warren, Thomas (1972), Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press).

Warren, Thomas (1974), When is An “Example” Binding? (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press).

Why People Suffer (Part 1) by Dave Miller, Ph.D.



Why People Suffer (Part 1)

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is the first of a three-part series excerpted from Dr. Miller’s recently published book Why People Suffer available through Apologetics Press.]

When Calamity Strikes

No doubt about it: the amount of suffering in the world throughout human history has been staggering and unfathomable. Contemplate the following:

Natural disasters

The natural disasters that have happened in human history are innumerable. Here are a few just from the last five centuries that resulted in catastrophic loss of human life. On January 23, 1556, some 830,000 people died when the Shaanxi earthquake hit China. On April 10, 1815, the volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia killed 92,000. Throughout China’s history, extensive flooding has occurred countless times as a result of the mighty 3,000-mile-long Hwang Ho River. Several of the most terrible floods, with their ensuing famines, have been responsible for the deaths of more than a million people at a time. The southern levee of the river failed in Hunan Province in 1887, affecting a 50,000 square mile area. More than two million people died from drowning, starvation, or the epidemics that followed (“Huang He...,” 2004).

One of the deadliest epidemics in history was the global flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people worldwide (Vergano, 2014; Taubenberger and Morens, 2006). In 1931, one to four million people died from flooding in China. Half a million people died when the Bhola cyclone struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on November 13, 1970. Between 650,000 and 779,000 died on July 28, 1976 as a result of the Tangshan earthquake in China. On April 26, 1989, 1,300 were killed when the Daulatpur-Salturia tornado struck Manikganj, Bangladesh. In 1999, over 15,000 died from torrential rains and mudslides in Venezuela. In 2003, 70,000 died from the European heat wave. The Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Indonesia on December 26, 2004 killed 230,000.

These incidents do not even begin to convey the countless comparable occurrences of nature’s destruction throughout human history. In reality, such events have occurred repetitiously throughout the history of the world, and continue to do so—constantly: hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, tornados, floods, tsunamis, droughts, and volcanic eruptions. In fact, natural disasters kill one million people around the world each decade, and leave millions more homeless, according to the United Nation’s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (“Disasters...,” 1997). Natural disasters have snuffed out the lives of untold billions.

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

wikimedia.org(David Bjorgen) 2015 license CC-by-sa2.5

The Echelle or Rack

Humans have unquestionably inflicted more suffering on each other than natural sources. Indeed, there is no end to the twisted machinations by which humans have imposed misery on each other. Consider but a tiny fraction from history. During the Middle Ages, tortures included the “chevalet,” in which an accused witch sat on a pointed metal horse with weights strung from her feet. Sexual humiliation torture included forced sitting on red-hot stools. “Gresillons” were designed to crush the tips of fingers and toes in a vice-like device. Excruciating pain was inflicted on victims by the Spanish Boot, used mostly in Germany and Scotland—a steel boot placed over the leg of the accused and tightened until the shin bone shattered. The “echelle” (more commonly known as the “rack”) consisted of the accused lying on a long table to be stretched violently. On many occasions, the victim’s limbs were pulled from their sockets and sometimes even torn from the body entirely. Sometimes a “tortillon” was used in conjunction with the rack which would severely squeeze and mutilate the genitals at the same time as the stretching. The “lift” also stretched the limbs of the accused, with the victim’s feet strapped to the ground and the arms tied behind the back while another rope tied to the hands pulled upwards, causing the arms to break even before the horrific portion of the stretching began. Drawing and quartering (chopped into four pieces), and even flaying alive, were also common in Medieval Europe (“Medieval Torture”).

Gladiatorial combat during the Roman Empire (circa 264 B.C. to A.D. 435) resulted in the death of some 3.5 million, while according to Josephus (vi.ix.3), the Jewish Revolt of 68-73 B.C. ended in 1.2 million Jews killed in Jerusalem by the Romans. Muhammad Shah, Sultan of Kulbarga, fought Bukka I, Raya of Vijayanagar in 1366 and massacred 500,000 Hindus.

Gladiatorial Combat
wikimedia.org (Jean-Léon Gérôme) in public domain

Zulu punishments in Africa in the early 19th century included a particularly barbaric form of impalement, called ukujoja, in which the victim was seated atop a sharply pointed stick elevated into the air. The weight of the victim’s body would bear down as the stick burrowed its way upward through body organs until finally reaching the heart and lungs to bring the release of death. Sometimes, a branched stick was used that would split once inserted (Berglund, 1976, p.195, note 89; Bourquin, 1979; cf. “Impalement,” n.d.).

During the 20th century, Stalin’s regime in Russia (1924-53) resulted in 20 to 30 million deaths of his own countrymen. In the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong’s regime (1949-1975) resulted in 40 million deaths. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975-1978) killed some 1.6 million people. Tyrants and dictators have extinguished from the Earth literally billions of human beings over the course of history.

The total number of casualties in World War I, both military and civilian, was about 37 million: 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded. Over 56 million deaths occurred in World War II (counting both military and civilian deaths). Over half a million died in the American Civil War. Some 1.2 million died in the Korean War. Estimates range from one to three million deaths from the Vietnam War.

More recently, tortures employed by terrorist groups include the forcible extraction of all 10 fingernails, all 10 toenails, and all 32 teeth—before executing the victim by such barbaric techniques as slow decapitation via a butcher knife. The 2001 terrorist attack by Muslim terrorists resulted in commandeered aircraft careening into buildings and killing over 2,500 unsuspecting innocent people. Imagine the unimaginable horror of mafia style thugs inserting a dental fixture into the mouth of their victim, forcing his mouth to remain open, while they release a venomous viper into his mouth which slithers down the esophagus and commences to perforate the stomach lining with fangs that inject venom, initiating an excruciating death. [See also “Common Methods of Torture…,” n.d.; “The 15 Most Brutal…,” n.d.]

Consider the unspeakable suffering inflicted on children by depraved adults. Like the UK rock star that admitted to attempting to rape an 11-month-old baby boy and also conspiring to rape a baby girl (Sieczkowski, 2013). Some 45% of rapes reported to the police in South Africa are child rapes, and 50% of South Africa’s children will be abused before the age of 18 (Krever, 2014). Consider the man in Louisiana who raped his eight-year-old stepdaughter, inflicting what the court styled “hurt and horror” on his victim (Miller, 2009). Large numbers of innocent children have been tortured, sexually abused, and discarded to endure a lifetime of unresolved torment and anguish. What’s more, the lives of over 50 million unborn children have been extinguished (in America alone—400 million in China [Morse, 2013]), without ever seeing the light of day, by the grizzly techniques of abortion doctors.

All such atrocities do not even include the host of circumstances that create untold suffering in the lives of millions: betrayal, divorce, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, financial disaster (such as the loss of one’s job and house), and crime. For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. (“Teen Suicide…,” n.d.).

Seemingly Causeless Suffering

And what of the unprovoked and apparently undeserved host of heart-wrenching hardships to which the world of humanity is regularly subjected? Widespread and pervasive illness, sickness, and resulting death occur without any apparent connection to an individual’s own actions. In many cases, we inherit the genetic foibles of our ancestors that make us susceptible to heart disease, cancer, diabetes—and the list goes on and on. The average individual must endure the heart-breaking trauma of the death of loved ones—a spouse, parent, child, or dear friend—who die from unwarranted and undeserved physical ailments. Innocent children are born with debilitating birth defects through no fault of their own.

Think of the people in history who were forced to live in leper colonies—like the cinematic depiction of Judah Ben Hur’s mother and sister—quarantined from society to live in caves and squalor. What about the countries and societies throughout history whose populations have endured mass starvation from famine and drought?

Human error and freak accidents have claimed many lives. Automobile accidents kill and maim thousands. Many innocent people have died from plane crashes due to mechanical difficulties or pilot error. Many lives have been lost on ships at sea (like the Titantic). Accidental shootings, where guns discharge unexpectedly and unintentionally, cause death and suffering. Where’s the sense in the accidental drowning of children? Every day, about 10 people die from unintentional drowning—two of which are children under age 15. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says 390 children die annually in pool and spa drownings (“New CPSC Data…,” 2012). In fact, drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States (“Unintentional…”).

Need I go on? The world is literally drenched in heartache, misery, and agony. Life is saturated with horrific suffering. Multiplied billions of people have been the recipients of untold distress and misery throughout the millennia. Why? How can this be? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God? Does He really exist? How can He stand idly by while the teeming masses of humanity writhe in anguish and affliction? Or for that matter, why would He create a world in the first place—and then introduce humans into an environment where such circumstances prevail? Is He a sadistic monster that created humans so He could satiate a perverted desire to see others squirm in agony? “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).

The Beginning Point

No one has all the answers regarding the matter of suffering. However, that does not mean that we do not have logical, satisfactory explanations that are wholly sufficient to make sense of suffering. In fact, only the Christian worldview and the explanations provided by the Bible can enable a person to fit all the puzzle pieces together to make sense of suffering. Only the Bible provides a cohesive, sensible, satisfying whole.

Unsatisfactory Approaches

If the atheists and evolutionists are correct, the physical realm, with its human inhabitants, has no purpose but, rather, is a monumental “cosmic accident” (Gould, 1989, p. 44). Hence, suffering is meaningless and serves no ultimate purpose. It is simply a chance phenomenon in a nonsensical Universe. As Cornell University professor and atheist, Dr. Will Provine, maintained:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear—and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either (Provine and Johnson, 1994, 16[1], emp. added).

Atheists and skeptics maintain that if an infinite Being existed, He would exercise His perfect compassion and His omnipotence to prevent human suffering (e.g., Lowder, 2004; cf. Jackson, 2001). Even for many people who do not embrace formal atheism, the fact that God seems willing to allow misery and suffering to run rampant in the world, elicits a gamut of reactions—from perplexity and puzzlement to anger and resentment.

If the astrologer, the psychic, and the fatalist are correct, suffering is simply “fate.” “It’s written in the stars.” It has all been pre-programmed into the fabric of the Universe. Therefore, the only way to cope is to gain insight into the future by tapping into the psychic forces and cosmic patterns in hopes of anticipating what lies ahead. (Apparently, just knowing what lies ahead is advantageous, though little can be changed). If the Buddhist, Hindu, and the New Ager are correct, existence is cyclical and suffering is the result of passing repeatedly through multiple lives in an effort to “get it right” (whatever “right” is). Since we have no real recollection of mistakes we’ve made in past lives, the suffering now experienced is meaningless and ineffectual in helping us to correct our future lives. If Islam is correct, pain and suffering are the result of failing to submit to Allah, whose harsh, cruel response is to torment His creatures (see Miller, 2005, pp. 206-209).

The Approach that Satisfies

But there is a sensible alternative to these unsatisfactory approaches—one that soothes the natural longings of the human spirit and interfaces with our deepest yearnings: the Christian worldview. Consider: if the God of the Bible exists, He is the Creator responsible for the material Universe. So we simply must first ask: “Why did He create the Universe, specifically the Earth, and then create humans to inhabit the Earth?”

To set the stage for making sense of suffering, consider the following foundational truths that supply a consistent framework—a stable platform—from which one is able to approach life with certainty and confidence in the face of suffering:

  1. I can know that the God of the Bible exists.
  2. I can know that the Bible is His inerrant, inspired Word (and therefore I can know that it contains sufficient explanations to make sense of suffering).

These two “planks” each possess abundant evidence by which they may be substantiated. A consideration of that evidence is beyond the purview of this article. [NOTE: For the evidence that God exists and the Bible is His inspired Word, visit www.apologeticspress.org for a multitude of books and articles that supply that evidence.] Having established the existence of the God of the Bible and the divine inspiration of the Bible, a third plank follows that prepares the way for pinpointing specific reasons why suffering occurs.

3. The Bible teaches that our life on Earth is temporary and will end at death. When a person dies, his or her body goes into the grave, while the conscious spirit enters the hadean realm to await the final Judgment (see Luke 16:19-31). At some unknown point in the future, God will call a halt to human existence on Earth (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). The Second Coming of Christ will be accompanied by all spirits coming forth from hades to be resurrected in immortal bodies (John 5:28-29; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). All will then face God in judgment, receive the pronouncement of eternal sentencing, and then be consigned to heaven or hell for eternity (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15). That being the case, the doctrine of reincarnation (a person experiencing multiple lives on Earth) is untrue, and every person gets only “one shot” at this life. Life will not be repeated and every person must live life with a vivid recognition that existence must be taken seriously in view of its inevitable end.

Since the Bible is the inspired Word of God (cf. Butt, 2007), it is the only document on the planet that was superintended by God when it was produced. The Bible, therefore, is the only reliable guide for ascertaining the meaning of life and human existence. Only the Bible can make sense of the circumstances that attend life on Earth. And, indeed, it provides the perfect explanations for the occurrence of suffering. Its handling of the subject is logical, sufficient, and definitive.

With these fundamental concepts in mind, one may turn to the biblical text in order to ferret out the basic purpose and central meaning of human existence as it relates to suffering. We begin by asking the logically prior question: What is the purpose of the created order?

The Purpose of the Universe: What Life is all About

When God created the Earth, He intended to provide a realm—a suitable environment—in which human beings could live and prepare for eternity. Hence, the purpose of the created order is to give every person an opportunity to decide where to spend eternity. In creating this “realm of spirit preparation,” God put into play every variable necessary to achieve this purpose. Humans must have access to all the necessary features, constituent elements, and characteristics of an environment that enables them to be truly free to make their own choice with respect to their eternal destiny. Humans must have free willand an environment in which to exercise their volition—their personal decision-making powers.

When God created beings in His own image (Genesis 1:26) as the objects of His infinite love (Psalm 33:5; Numbers 14:18; 1 John 4:7-16), those human beings had to be created with certain attributes that would enable them to decide their own eternal destiny. These essential attributes of humanness include: (1) free moral agency; (2) immortality and ongoing existence beyond the physical realm; (3) culpability for one’s own actions; (4) physical life that is spent in a physical realm as the one and only probationary period; and (5) recognition that a person’s eternal fate is determined by his/her response to God in this life (see Warren, 1972, p. 19).

Observe further, that these essential attributes of a human being are designed to go hand in hand with the essential characteristics of a Spirit-preparing world. In other words, God tailored the Earth to be conducive to the accomplishment of the central purpose of human beings making preparations for eternity. This earthly environment was designed to: (1) supply humans with their basic physical needs; (2) allow free moral agency; (3) allow humans to be challenged; and (4) allow humans to learn the things they most need to learn (see Warren, p. 47), including spiritual development.

The “Vale of Soul-Making”

With these variables in mind, we can make sense of the role of suffering in the world. The world was created by God for the central purpose of serving as—what English poet John Keats (1795-1821) designated—“the vale of soul-making”:

Call the world if you please “The vale of Soul-making.” Then you will find out the use of the world…. [H]ow then are Souls to be made?...How, but by the medium of a world like this?... Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! (1895, pp. 326-327, emp. added).

Here is the most fundamental feature of human existence which functions as the context for enacting the prime directive for all of humanity. We humans are on this planet for a singular reason that trumps all other purposes, functions, and intentions of life. We are in the midst of our “probationary period.”

The Wisest Man’s Assessment

While this concept permeates the Bible, Solomon’s treatise, Ecclesiastes, provides a succinct expression of the principle. Solomon was declared to be unsurpassed in wisdom and insight into the meaning of life. Ecclesiastes is somewhat of an autobiography that reflects the details of Solomon’s life reported in the early chapters of 1 Kings. Being king and wielding great power and influence, he was in a position to immerse himself in the vicissitudes of life with all the typical endeavors to which humans have devoted themselves throughout time. Consider briefly his earthly pursuits and attainments.

  1. He devoted himself to great feats of labor, toil, and hard work. He involved himself in monumental construction projects—including a beautiful palace of cedar (that took 13 years to build) and a great religious temple (1 Kings 6-7). He built an extensive irrigation system to accommodate the gardens, orchards, groves, and vineyards that he developed (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). He also constructed a fleet of ships (1 Kings 9:26).
  2. He sought to acquire knowledge, super intelligence, wisdom and insight, and to educate and enhance his intellect (1:13,16-17; 2:12ff.,21,26; 7:11-12,19,23-25). His intellectual prowess was such that he became an author, poet, composer, and lyricist, generating an unexcelled literary legacy that included authoring thousands of proverbs and over a thousand musical compositions (complete with singers and musical instruments of all kinds—Ecclesiastes 2:8). His vast research and acquired knowledge qualified him to be a botanist, zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist, and ichthyologist (1 Kings 4:29-34). People from all over the world visited him just to hear his unparalleled wisdom and insight (1 Kings 10:24).
  3. He amassed great wealth and possessions. He had countless servants, herds, and flocks. He acquired “silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces” (Ecclesiastes 2:8). In fact, he accumulated tons upon tons of gold (1 Kings 9:28; 10:14-15). He regularly received gifts of gold, as well as great quantities of spices and precious stones (1 Kings 10:10,14). The drinking vessels in his palace were gold as well (1 Kings 10:21). His throne was made of ivory, overlaid with pure gold. Two lions stood beside the armrests. Six steps lead up to the throne with 12 lions, one on each side of the six steps (1 Kings 10:18-20). Every three years merchant ships arrived bringing more gold, silver, ivory, and exotic animals (vs. 22). The inspired writer gives this summary of King Solomon’s wealth: he “surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom” (vs. 23).
  4. He wielded great military capability. He owned and operated thousands of horses, chariots, and horsemen (1 Kings 4:26-28). He gathered 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen; he stationed these forces in several storage cities that he built to accommodate the chariots and cavalry (1 Kings 9:17-19; 10:26). He raised a significant labor force using the survivors of conquered countries (1 Kings 9:20-21).
  5. He secured significant political power, fame, and honor. He ruled over a considerable geographical area and received tribute and services from vassal kings (Ecclesiastes 8:4; 1 Kings 4:21-25; 5:1; 10:1).
  6. He had unprecedented access to fleshly, sexual pleasure—“the pleasures of men—many concubines” (Ecclesiastes 2:8—NASB; 7:26). It seems surreal that one man would have carnal access to literally hundreds of women, but such was the case with Solomon (1 Kings 11:1ff.; cf. Song of Solomon).
  7. It seems he also gave attention to assessing and resisting the aging process in order to retain youthfulness (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; 12:1-6). American culture most certainly identifies with this concern with its emphasis on creams, gels, hair coloring, clothing, health clubs, and surgical procedures to prolong at least the illusion of youthfulness. [NOTE: Physical exercise, in moderation, does yield healthful benefits (1 Timothy 4:8).]
  8. He also gave attention to the pursuit of pleasure and physical stimulation (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). He sought to stimulate his body and gratify his flesh with alcohol. He focused on mirth, laughter, and entertainment. Indeed, he fully indulged his fleshly appetites, declaring: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:10).

In essence, Solomon claimed: “I’ve had it all, I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all! I have immersed myself in all the pleasures and pursuits that earthly life has to offer.” Yet, he was forced to pronounce all these pursuits as “vanity” and a “chasing after the wind” when they are approached “under the Sun”—by which he meant apart from God. While many human endeavors are noble, pure, and worthwhile in themselves, no human endeavor is of any ultimate value unless undertaken in view of God and His will for human beings. Hence, Solomon brought his matchless treatise on the meaning of human existence to a grand conclusion by announcing the central premise of life—the defining principle that gives life meaning and makes existence justifiable: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Here, indeed, is man’s raison d’etre—reason for existing. Every single feature of life—money and possessions, fame and power, intelligence/wisdom/knowledge, sex, youthfulness, pleasure, toil/work, advancement, etc.—is meaningless if not approached in view of God and His will. Life was literally designed by the Creator and intended to be centered on rendering obedience to Him. The only way to make sense of life—with its incessant suffering—is to assimilate this fundamental principle of existence into one’s being. Rather than merely living “under the Sun,” we must live life “under the Son.”

Logically, Suffering Makes Perfect Sense

We humans have been provided with the ideal environment in which we may freely accept or reject God’s will for our lives. As Christian philosopher Thomas Warren so eloquently explained, the one essential purpose which God had for creating the world was

the creation of a being (who would have descendants like himself) who would be capable of entering into fellowship with him, who would be capable of becoming a son of God, who (thus) would have to be capable of deciding freely to believe him, to love him with all of his heart, to submit to him in obedience, and whom God could love and eventually glorify (p. 44).

God created the ideal environment in which to achieve this purpose. Hence, He allows human beings to be subjected to unpleasant, tragic events—from nature’s destructive forces like earthquakes, floods, tornados, and hurricanes to sickness, pain, and death. Why? These are the result of specific conditions (to be discussed in Parts II and III of this series of articles) that are necessary to God’s providing humanity with this ideal environment. And they are “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

You see, when natural disasters occur, ravaging human life, no one can legitimately point the finger at God and pronounce Him blameworthy for having created such a world. Why? Because He had a morally justifiable reason for having done so. Human existence on Earth was not intended to be permanent. Rather, the Creator intended life on Earth to serve as a temporary interval of time for the development of one’s spirit. Life on Earth is a probationary period in which people are given the opportunity to attend to their spiritual condition as it relates to God’s will for living. Suffering due to natural disasters and the like provide people with conclusive evidence that life on Earth is brief and uncertain (see Warren, p. 58; Thompson, 1997). They help us to distinguish the temporary from the permanent. In the face of physical calamities, and the host of other features of the created order that can cause suffering, we humans would do well to contemplate our own fragility and finitude, and be driven to look beyond ourselves, and beyond the here and now, to a higher Power Who can inform us as to the meaning and purpose of life. Life is precarious—tomorrow may be too late.

Suggested Resource

Christians understand that no matter how catastrophic, tragic, or disastrous an event may be, it fits into the overall framework of soul-making—preparation for one’s departure from life into eternity. Likewise, the Christian knows that although the great pain and suffering one may experience may be unpleasant, and may test one’s mettle, nevertheless, such suffering is not intrinsically evil. Nor is it a reflection on the existence of an omnibenevolent God. The only intrinsic evil is violation of God’s will. What is required of all accountable persons is obedience to God’s revealed Word (given in the Bible)—even amidst pain, suffering, sickness, disease, death, and natural disasters.

[to be continued]


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