Just the other night my 1.5 year old daughter must have suffered the worst teething pains imaginable. She was completely inconsolable, kicking and screaming if anything so much as touched her. And this is just my story. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 crushed or burned to death roughly 50,000 people. All across human history, people have suffered and died from debilitating diseases, natural disasters, and at the hands of other people. A natural question arises: if God exists, why is there so much suffering? Most of it seems pointless.
God is traditionally defined as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But if God is all-powerful, then surely He has the power to prevent pointless suffering. If God is all-knowing, He knows, infallibly, when suffering will occur. And if God is all-good, He will protect His children from pain and suffering (as any loving parent does). So, why is there so much suffering?
God’s Ways > Our Ways
Theists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) have been wrestling with the question for millennia. A very popular response  to this question is to say that perhaps God has a reason for permitting the suffering in the world, but this reason is beyond our comprehension. Isaiah 55:9 says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God is unlimited in knowledge, but we humans are finite beings, limited in time and space, knowledge and intelligence. It’s not implausible to suppose that the reason God has for permitting the evil in the world lies just beyond our ability to see.
Some atheists try to turn this question into an argument against God’s existence. They say that since we can’t imagine a reason God has for permitting the Holocaust, God therefore probably has no reason (and therefore probably doesn’t exist). But notice, our inability to think of a reason God has for allowing the suffering in the world, doesn’t mean there is no reason. Again, maybe that reason is beyond what we can see or comprehend. Making an inference about what God knows from what we know is not very wise. So instead of concluding that God has no reason, we should say, “I don’t know why God allows all the suffering in world.”
Admitting one’s ignorance is not exactly a bad thing. It’s a sign of intellectual humility.
Suffering Builds Character
Maybe you’re not satisfied with this response. It seems too much like a cop-out. Sure, God’s ways are higher than our ways, but like Job, we still want to see a reason. Fair enough. Theists have been offering theodicies, reasons God has for permitting the suffering in the world, for a very long time. In what follows I will briefly lay out one such theodicy (theologians call this the “Soul-Building Theodicy” though there are many others ).
The basic idea in this theodicy is that suffering is necessary to achieve the greatest goods. And since we’ve already granted that God is all-knowing, He is going to know that which is best. So what are the best goods? Here it will help to consider some examples. Consider the case of Saint Damien of Moloka’i. He spent 16 years in the Hawaiian islands serving lepers before succumbing to the disease himself. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Next, consider Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe. He was eventually taken to Auschwitz by the Germans for sheltering thousands of Jews. While in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take the place of a man being lead to his death in a pit through starvation . Look these men up if you have never heard of them, incredibly inspiring.
The goods represented in these examples are love-manifesting virtues. The participation of suffering in their lives was integral to the production of virtues like self-sacrifice, courage, empathy, and so on. They did not wish away their suffering, they embraced it. In this way, their suffering was defeated. We often say things like, “The past made me what I am today.” Suffering builds character; it makes us who we are.
But what about those that die prematurely and aren’t able to recognize the value of suffering? Remember that the Christian worldview includes an afterlife. It is in the afterlife that most come to recognize what the men in the examples above recognized. One shouldn’t wish away trials, for they build character. They make us more like Christ. But if the problem of suffering can be defeated in the afterlife, we’ve reached the complete defeat of evil and suffering and the problem disappears.
There is obviously much more to say on the subject. However, I hope this has at least opened the aperture of your mind. Even if we can’t think of a reason God might have for permitting the suffering in the world, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Moreover, suffering builds character. Courage, compassion, empathy, perseverance, forgiveness, etc., cannot be produced in the absence of significant trials.
For those interested, I’ve recently debated atheist Justin Schieber where I defend these ideas much more rigorously.