In one of the first conversations I had on this topic, my aunt Regina told me how difficult it was to see her son Charles—my cousin—struggle with a mental illness. In response, I shared some of my abstract, philosophical ideas about why God might allow suffering.(1) After listening very graciously, Aunt Regina turned to me and said, "But Vince, that doesn't speak to me as a mother."
Suffering is very real and very personal, and since that conversation with my aunt I am always hesitant to address it briefly. Here I hope to suggest only that the question is more complicated than it first appears.
It's typical to think of the problem of suffering like this: We picture ourselves in this world of suffering; then we picture ourselves in a world with far less suffering. And then we wonder, "Shouldn't God have created us in the other world—the world with far less suffering?" That's a reasonable thought.
But it may be a thought that relies on a philosophical mistake. It relies on the assumption that it would still be you and me who would exist in that other world. And that is highly controversial. Let me explain.
There was a pivotal moment early on in my parents' relationship. They were on their second date. They were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the picturesque New York City skyline, and my dad noticed a ring on my mom's finger. So he asked about it, and she said, "Oh, that's just some ring one of my old boyfriends gave me. I just wear it 'cause I think it looks nice."
"Oh, yeah, it is nice," my dad responded. "Let me see it."
So my mom took it off and handed it to him, and my dad hurled it off the bridge and watched it sink to the bottom of the East River! "You're with me now," he said; "you won't be needing that anymore."
And my mom loved it!
Now it was a pretty risky move my dad made hurling my mom's ring off the Brooklyn Bridge. She loved it, but what if she hadn't? What if she had concluded that my dad had lost it and then run off with her old boyfriend instead? What would that have meant for me?
I might be tempted to think that if Mom had wound up with her old boyfriend, I could have been better off. I might have been taller. I might have been better looking. Maybe the other guy was royalty. That would have been cool! I could've lived in a castle!
But actually, that's not right. There's a problem with wishing my mom wound up with the other guy, and the problem is this: "I" never would have existed.
Maybe some other child would have existed. And maybe he would have been taller and better looking and lived in a castle. But part of what makes me who I am—the individual that I am—is my beginning: the parents I have, the sperm and egg I came from, the combination of genes that's true of me.
Asking "Why didn't God create me in a world with far less suffering?" is similar to saying, "I wish my mom had married the other guy." I'm sure my mom and her old boyfriend would have had some very nice kids, but "I" would not have been one of them.
Oftentimes we wish we could take suffering out of our world while keeping everything else the same. But it doesn't work that way.
Why didn't God create a very different world? When this world fell into ruin, why didn't God give up on it and start over? Well, it depends on what God was after. It depends on what God values. And what if one of the things God values, values greatly, is you, and the people you love, and each person you see walking down the street?
Sometimes we wish God had made a different sort of world, but in doing so we unwittingly wish ourselves out of existence. And so the problem of suffering is reframed in the form of a question:
Could God have wronged us by creating a world in which we came to exist and are offered eternal life, rather than creating a different world in which we never would have lived? I don't think this makes God's decision to create and sustain this world easy, just as it is not an easy decision for human parents to bring a child into this world. But if human procreation can be an act of love so long as the parents are committed to making sacrifices for their children and to seeing their children through suffering to the best of their ability, then perhaps divine creation too could be an act of love, if a divine parent was willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice for those He created and is committed to seeing them through suffering to a time when "He will wipe every tear from their eyes," when there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4).
Regional Director for the Americas and Director of the Zacharias Institute, Dr. Vince Vitale is a speaker and author who journeyed from skeptic to evangelist while studying at Princeton and Oxford.
(1) This article is adapted from the Vince's book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense, co-authored with Ravi Zacharias.