Does an all-powerful God cause the innocent to suffer?

January 30th, 2017

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: One of my lectures was on innocent suffering and how that can occur in a world “governed” by an omniscient, omnipresent and all-good God. I covered about 30 answers, none of which appeared to be satisfactory.

Your column last week brought up the point that in the Exodus story, the writer chose to place the blame for the suffering of the Egyptians, including “innocent” Egyptian babies, on God. When Pharaoh wanted to let the Hebrews leave, God “hardened his heart.” Result, all the people of Egypt suffered. Was this payback for how the Hebrews were treated?

Interestingly, you flipped the blame in your analogy related to modern leaders. You wrote, “But one leader, totally absorbed in him or herself and in need to hold onto perks of leadership and prestige can wreak havoc on the larger civilization.” Does God still pull the strings of leaders today and “hardens their hearts” when he wants them to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise do or not?

Where is free will in a leader’s decisions if God decides to “personally” intervene? Presumably, Pharaoh never knew he was being manipulated. Where is the accountability for a leader if God “made” him act in a specific way? How can we tell if God is “hardening our hearts” for reasons only he knows or we are doing the hardening ourselves? What does this say about the nature of God?

For people of faith, this letter opens up all kinds of troubling questions and moral quandaries. Can you expand on this topic?

The eternal question: “Is God all-knowing, all-powerful AND good?” The all-knowing, all-powerful God could certainly harden hearts at will and intervene in any situation. But if God, intervening at will, is truly good, what about the carnage visited upon so many and so often?

I don’t know.

How good is God?

I, too, have yet to see a satisfactory explanation. The Calvinist insistence that God predestines everything also suggests a nasty deity, one that merrily heaps torture, hurt, rape, famines and other devastations upon helpless humanity. Furthermore, only certain chosen ones escape an eternity of conscious torment.

The Arminian tradition, my theological underpinnings, insists that God has lovingly given freedom to humankind. That freedom includes the freedom to choose good or to choose evil. But then, what do we do with the biblical statements such you mentioned in the Egypt story: “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Where’s the freedom there? Does that not make Pharaoh God’s puppet?

Christy Thomas

I genuinely do not have an answer. How can we affirm God as sovereign with power over all and then look at the suffering of so much of humanity without being deeply troubled?

The easy answers like “It’ll all turn out OK in the end. If it is not OK, it’s not the end” nearly make me sick to my stomach.

What does that say to those who are suffering horrifically in this very moment?

What does it say to the millions of Jews who went to their torturous imprisonment and death under Adolf Hitler or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are starving today?

What does it say to those who undergo an ethnic cleansing?

What does it say to the women who have repeatedly been raped to demean and shame their husbands and provide babies to their captors?

Is, as you have suggested, God bringing about those horrors for some unknown purpose? Or is God helpless in the face of evil?

I don’t know.

But to reiterate what I often hear, “God is in control” seems to me to be the height of verbal cruelty when said to someone is suffering greatly. The phrase also assassinates the character of God by making God the responsible party in the suffering.

I genuinely wonder if any of us can find these truths using the Bible as the primary, if not only, resource.

The phrase, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me,” suggests that the Bible was written to and for 21st-century people who live in Westernized countries.

It wasn’t. Interpreting it that way shows no respect for the texts.

The Bible in the hands of the ignorant

Frankly, the Bible in the hands of ignorant people has come near to destroying many. I’ve just read the story of a father and son accused of enslaving a teenaged girl for three years while raping her repeatedly.

These two have insisted that the Bible only contains their defense. They might use the scenario in Judges 21 where God commands the Israelites without wives to kill all the men and married women in certain villages and then kidnap the remaining virgins for themselves.

Do we take this and say “well the Bible says it and God is in control it must be OK somehow?”

So, here’s my answer to your question: I do not know how to reconcile the ideas that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and genuinely good.

I wish I did.

Email questions to A version of this column appeared in the Friday January 27, 2017 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at Patheos.

comments powered by Disqus