The Problem of Pain Is a Problem for Everyone

By koa sinag

The Problem of Pain Is a Problem for Everyone

A Problem for Everyone

Over the many years I’ve listened to people share their struggles and questions about faith, the problem of pain is the objection most frequently raised. That makes a lot of sense. It’s a disturbing and ever-present problem. Sooner or later, regardless of how much we may try to avoid thinking about it, everyone will die. As a young child, I learned about the Holocaust—the systematic murder of six million of my people, two-thirds of the population of European Jews. While attending religious instruction at our local synagogue, I watched films of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Dachau, and the rest. I’ve personally struggled ever since with the question of why a good God allows so much suffering.

Often the problem of pain is raised as an accusation against people of faith. “How can you believe in God in a world with so much evil and suffering?” The implication seems to be that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other religions have an insurmountable incongruity between reverent faith and unavoidable pain. But pain is also a problem for atheists, agnostics, “nones,” and “dones”—those who once identified with a religion but now feel as if they’re “finished with that.” We all will (or should) attend funerals of people we care about, and, most pointedly, one day people will attend ours.

For several decades, I’ve had a delightful friendship with a philosophy professor who abandoned his family’s Christian faith in his early teens. He and I kick around issues of belief and nonbelief. I ask him questions about his atheism. He challenges my Christian convictions. We once attended a debate about the problem of evil that featured speakers from a variety of perspectives—Christian, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic. Afterward, I asked him what he thought of the evening, and he simply said, “I don’t think the Christian had a good explanation for the problem of evil.” I knew I couldn’t do any better than the brilliant speaker we’d just heard, so I asked him about the atheist explanation for the problem of evil. He hesitantly admitted, “Atheism doesn’t have a good answer either.” What followed was a respectful comparison of our two incomplete answers.

A Limited Number of Options

When addressing pain, suffering, and death, most people fall into one of five categories. Each approach is incomplete. No one of them, including the one I hold most tightly, totally satisfies me. But I do find that some are better than others and one is best of all. You might expect my five categories to be religious ones1 —the Christian view, the Jewish view, the Buddhist view, and so on—but I find a great deal of diversity even within those categories. Two people in the same religious tradition may hold dramatically divergent views about pain. And people’s experiences don’t often fit neatly with their creedal statements. I’ve heard Christians articulate views of suffering that fit more closely to a Buddhist perspective. I’ve met Jewish people whose views come from secular psychology, not the Old Testament or rabbinic writings. I’ve also been told that there’s no one agreed-upon perspective on suffering within religious traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. So here I offer five perspectives with more generic labels.2

The moralistic view. Suffering comes as a consequence of someone’s actions. It’s caused by people, and therefore it could have been avoided. This is a common view, and perhaps the oldest one. It’s the perspective offered by Job’s friends. Job must have committed some sin, they tell him, and that’s why his children died, his property was destroyed, and his body is afflicted with disease.3 In the Hindu tradition, current suffering may even be the result of (Karma for) a person’s actions in a previous life.

The reframing view. We must think about suffering and pain differently. When we do, this will alleviate our pain. The reframing view takes many forms, from very religious to completely secular. M. Scott Peck articulated a Buddhist version of the reframing perspective at the beginning of his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled:

Life is difficult.
      This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult.4

Not everyone who holds the reframing view identifies as a Buddhist. It finds its way into the thinking of many who claim no particular religious affiliation. For example, in the movie Collateral Beauty, a character who embodies the reality of death tells the main character, Howard, a grieving father who lost his young daughter to cancer, “Nothing’s ever really dead if you look at it right.”5

While this life may include great suffering, an eternal afterlife free from pain is offered for those who trust in God’s plan of salvation.

The healing view. We don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world (and it may not matter), but we can work to alleviate it. This view spends little energy on philosophical or theological discussions about why the world is broken. Advocates for the healing view want to spend their energies fixing what is broken. Many Jewish people pursue such efforts under the banner of “Tikkun Olam,” a Hebrew expression that can be translated “to heal the world.” People from many faith traditions (or none) seek to minimize suffering in the world through medical practice and research, relief efforts during emergencies, offering help to those in poverty, legal efforts to fight injustices like sex trafficking, and many other world-improving works.

The secular view. The reality of evil and suffering is one of the strongest arguments (if not the strongest argument) against a belief in God. Richard Dawkins clearly expresses the harsh evolutionary perspective on pain and suffering this way: “In a universe of blind forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”6

The redemptive view. The world is not as it’s supposed to be, and suffering is an outrage. But suffering can also be redemptive. It points to an afterlife, when pain and suffering will finally be defeated. This view is found in the Old and New Testaments, and it serves as part of the foundation of Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew Scriptures teach that a personal God created the world and pronounced all his creation (including people) “good.” He gave people the dignity of choice to obey his commands or reject them. The first people (and all people since then) chose, to some degree, disobedience and rebellion against God. And the world has been out of whack ever since. But the Bible also teaches that God has begun a work of redemption that can extend to individual people for all eternity. While this life may include great suffering, an eternal afterlife free from pain is offered for those who trust in God’s plan of salvation.

This is the view I hold, and I want you to consider (or reconsider) it carefully. In my opinion, it offers a better, more comprehensive answer to the why question than any other perspective. A good God created our good world with good gifts for us to enjoy. But we damaged the good world with our bad choices. While it may seem difficult to comprehend, human rebellion against God damages not only us but all creation. Thus, the reality we observe around us shows us the original creation’s goodness (delightful sunsets, beautiful flowers, and magnificent landscapes) and gives us painful reminders of a fallen, broken world (natural disasters, disease, death, and crime).

But the redemptive view isn’t without its difficulties. I find variances in suffering to be deeply troubling. Some people suffer their entire lives. Others never seem to experience a drop of pain. Some die young after battles against constant pain while others die peacefully in their sleep in their nineties. A tornado rips through a town, leveling houses and killing hundreds while, not far away, it leaves some houses and lives untouched. These inconsistencies disturb me greatly, and though I have a theology that tells me all creation suffers the consequences of sin, I still struggle with the ever-real, inadequately labeled problem of pain.

Despite these challenges in addressing the why question, it’s the redemptive view that offers the best resources for the how questions, because it’s founded on a historical event, not just a philosophical concept. Christians’ entire system of belief rests on Jesus’s resurrection. This establishes our hope in the afterlife on fact, not mere theory. If the resurrection is a fairy tale or lie, all of Christianity crumbles. But if it really happened, the Christian message points us to a world that will be recreated and a reality where pain and suffering will pass away. It provides joy and hope amid great suffering today and a certain future tomorrow.7

Questioning the Problem of Pain

Pain is a problem for everyone. We must find some way to deal with it—in both our thinking and our living. There are only a few ways to handle this issue, and all of them feel incomplete. So the question is this: Which incomplete answer will you embrace to help you with the problem of evil?

Is suffering always someone’s fault? An illusion we need to reframe? A problem we can eradicate? Do we live in a chaotic, purposeless, meaningless world without any design that, oddly, has outbreaks of beauty, splendor, and wonder? Or do we live in a good world created by a purposeful and personal God, with evidence of harm done to that world? One writer summed up the choice like this: “The alternative to disappointment with God seems to be disappointment without God.”8


  1. A very helpful resource on this topic is Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (Cincinnati, OH: Servant, 1986).
  2. I am indebted to Tim Keller’s approach to this topic in his very helpful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013). My categories do not align exactly with Keller’s, and I have assigned different labels.
  3. For example, one friend, Eliphaz, summarized the whole issue of suffering with these words: “Those who plow iniquity / and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8).
  4. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 15. In a footnote, Peck adds, “The first of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which Buddha taught was ‘Life is suffering.’”
  5. Collateral Beauty, written by Allan Loeb, directed by David Frankel, produced by Bard Dorros et al. (New Line Cinema, 2016).
  6. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 132–33.
  7. Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998) and the movie based on the book explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus far more than can be explored here.
  8. Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 311.

This article is adapted from Questioning Faith: Indirect Journeys of Belief through Terrains of Doubt by Randy Newman.

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