The applause went on—maybe 6, 7, or even 10 minutes! Only after 11 minutes of a sustained standing ovation did the first person cease and sit down in his seat. Did this come about because of genuine admiration and appreciation?
After all, the person they were applauding was credited with having created a “worker’s paradise,” a man named Joseph Jughashvili at birth but who became better known to history as “the man of steel.”
By the time of this incident, in 1938, Joseph had spent much of his life in the effort to produce a perfect state, an egalitarian society in which everyone contributed according to their ability and received according to their needs. But people, being people, didn’t all agree with that idea. If such a society is to be a reality, human selfishness must be put aside. And if people don’t put it aside voluntarily, then, Joseph reasoned, the state must force them to put it aside, even if that makes them unhappy. And Joseph became known as Stalin, “the man of steel,” precisely because he was very thorough in dealing with those he thought opposed his pursuit of an ideal state.
For example, a state agency called the NKVD was watching those applauding that day to see who might secretly be opposing Joseph and his ideal society. The first ones to cease applauding and sit down were identified as independent thinkers, a danger to the state. Many went to prison, some were executed. All in the name of a perfect society that would eliminate pain and suffering.
It may seem strange that this comes to my mind whenever I hear the question “Why does a good God allow pain and suffering?” After all, why wouldn’t a good God want to make life as pleasant and comfortable as possible for everyone? Unfortunately, history demonstrates that any time we attempt to eliminate pain and suffering by preventing it, those efforts invariably end up in tyranny.
It’s relatively easy to imagine a utopian society where there’s no prejudice and no selfishness, where everyone works together to eliminate disease. But efforts to create such a society always come up against human nature.
It isn’t just that human beings are selfish—though we certainly are; and it isn’t just that we die—though we do. Virtually all pain and suffering arise because of these two realities: that we are selfish and that we die.
But even if we could eliminate disease and death, that would not eliminate pain and suffering. We experience emotional pain and suffering even when we’re in perfect health physically. People we love fail to love us back, people we trust betray our trust, we miss opportunities and experience disappointment. And when these things happen, we experience pain, we suffer.
However noble the attempt, our efforts to reduce pain and suffering through government action often simply change the recipients of injustice rather than reducing it. And, as the record of Communism demonstrates, well-meaning attempts to produce a utopian society by coercion inevitably end in tyranny.
Of course, many use the existence of pain and suffering as evidence that there is no God. They believe that the mindless force of nature, most magnificently portrayed in the workings of evolution, provides the real drivers in human nature and human society. Evolution not only tolerates pain, suffering, and death but requires them.
Evolution and death
In a real sense, death is the god of evolution. How can I say that?
According to the theory of evolution, natural selection provides the mechanism that drives the continual improvement of species. But natural selection is simply another name for death. For the evolutionist, life is chaotic, undisciplined, and continually mutating and changing. By far the majority of these mutations and changes would not be advances; in evolutionary terms they are “dead ends,” changes that lead nowhere. But how do we know they lead nowhere? What cosmic enforcer eliminates these dead ends and thereby channels the energies of life in other directions? Why death, of course. Nonadaptive organisms die out.
In evolution, death does all the heavy lifting. When a mutation makes an organism less competitive, death eliminates it. When a new species, a more competitive species, comes to occupy an evolutionary niche, death eliminates the old one. Let us not forget that, according to evolution, dinosaurs, giant reptiles, ruled the earth for millions of years, many times longer than the human race has existed.
Fortunately for us, scientists believe a giant meteor struck earth, killing off the dinosaurs. Death cleared the way for our so-called forebears, the relatively tiny mammals, to evolve.
So where does that leave us? All man-made attempts to eliminate pain and suffering founder on the rocks of human selfishness and mortality. Selfishness causes us to hurt others, and mortality means that we will die and grieve others. Evolution not only holds no promise to end pain and suffering but actually requires death in order to work. What we have to grapple with is that pain and suffering exist.
How suffering began
The Bible tells us that pain and suffering exist because of choices made by free moral agents, both angelic and human. Revelation tells us that all this began as a war in heaven
(Revelation 12:7). Before that, there had been no pain and no suffering, but once begun, the problem became how to deal with it.
God recognized that simply destroying Satan and the rebellious angels could only result in a form of tyranny. Every thinking being would have obeyed Him out of fear. Like the fear-induced applause for Joseph Stalin, the residents of heaven would have praised God on the outside, but inside they would still have felt doubt and anxiety—both very painful emotions.
Instead of eliminating rebellion and the pain it brought, destroying the rebels would eventually have spread the pain to every creature on earth and made it permanent.
Another factor we may lose sight of is that God Himself experienced pain from the moment the rebellion began. He experienced the pain of seeing the creatures He made joyous turn against Him and sow doubt and unhappiness throughout creation. But had He destroyed the rebels, He would have grieved their loss—and lost the trust of the rest of creation in the process.
Lucifer is the one who introduced pain and suffering, and as soon as he did so, God experienced it, for, as Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God experiences the pain and suffering of every one of His creatures.
God experienced suffering
This means God knows more about pain and suffering than any human being ever can. He experienced it before the first human did, and He experiences all the pain and suffering that we do. And only God can remedy the twin causes of pain and suffering: human selfishness and human mortality. Because we are so familiar with the story of the Bible, we sometimes lose sight of the breathtaking audacity of God’s remedy to the problems of human selfishness and human mortality.
God recognized the scope of the problem, for the psalmist tells us, “The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2, 3). Selfishness infected every human heart, and death awaited everyone. The only solution—the only possible solution—was for God to take human selfishness and death onto Himself. To deal with death and selfishness, God had to take them on at their source—He had to take on humanity.
And that’s just what He did. Prophets and seers, poets and preachers, have pondered the Incarnation for 2,000 years—20 centuries—and still we cannot comprehend fully who Christ is and what He has done. But God, by becoming human in Christ, by coming and sharing our pain and suffering, by bearing our guilt, all of it—and finally by dying—took human selfishness and human mortality into His infinite self and conquered it forever.
And He offers to share that victory with us. The only place in all the universe where we can find refuge from pain and suffering is in Christ. When He returns to this world, He will put an end to suffering and death. But we can find relief even now. As He told the grieving Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb, “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all” (John 11:25, The Message).*
Stalin’s Communism and other man-made attempts to become God and eliminate the possibility of suffering have shown us repeatedly that all attempts to prevent suffering result only in tyranny and more suffering. A truly good God, then, had to allow freedom. When His creatures misused that freedom and thus caused suffering and death, that supremely good God took that suffering and death upon Himself, and in so doing He provided a way for every human being to escape pain, suffering, and death. But He won’t force us to accept His way out. The beauty of God’s solution to the problem of suffering is that we are free to accept or reject it.
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