Haley submitted this challenging question:
I have anxiety that worsened after the birth of my … children. Believing in God is something that is so important to me especially after having children but I seem to get stuck when I see stories of children enduring unthinkable things or stories of good people being murdered. I hear from Christians that God doesn’t bring the pain but allows it. I also hear other Christians argue that even children are not innocent which I’ll be honest, seems like a terrible point to argue when a child has been killed. I feel such unease that God’s plan could include something terrible for my children. This leads me to wonder if all the stories of a loving God are just make believe and the hopes of people who just want comfort. I feel so stuck, I want to trust and believe in God but all the conflicting information leaves me doubting. What should I do from here?
RESPONSE FROM DR. ZACH BREITENBACH:
I should say from the start that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or any other kind of health-care professional. My training is in theology and apologetics, so I am offering advice from that perspective. The loss of a child and fears about losing a child can be emotionally devastating, and there is much value in seeking out a good Christian counselor to help deal with such struggles.
You have raised good questions that relate to the so-called problem of evil. You are struggling with trusting in the love of God in a world where intense suffering occurs; in particular, you are concerned about what God may allow in the lives of your children. The death of children is one of the most heart-wrenching sufferings in human life, and it is surely one of the biggest fears that nearly every parent has. It seems so unjust and so contrary to the way things ought to be that it appears almost too horrible to be real when a child close to you dies. Among the deep human needs that we have are an intense desire for justice and a deep yearning to hold onto the love relationships in our lives. A person should not die before even having so much as an opportunity to savor the many joys experienced by those who advance through all of the stages of a full life. A parent should never have to bury a child. So when a child dies, something inside of us not only mourns the loss of a loved one but senses that an incredible injustice has occurred. Even though we are incredibly sad that many children die in this world every day, it becomes almost unbearable when it strikes us personally.
It is natural to ask why a perfectly good, loving, and powerful God (such as the Christian God) would allow suffering and even death to strike our children, and that is an important question. I will speak to that question in a moment. But it is also important to ask what the nature of death is according to theism and atheism and how the two compare, so let us first think about this for a moment. If Christian theism is true, then humans exist for an amazing purpose, our lives are invested with enormous value (since we are made in God’s image), and this life is not all there is. Not only is this life not all there is, but this life is only a temporary mist (James 4:14) before we depart and move on into eternity. When we compare this to the eternity that awaits us, we recognize that this life is merely the briefest blink of an eye even if we live to be over one hundred years old. So, if Christianity is true, then death is not the end of the road; rather, it is merely a transition into another life. But what would be the nature of death if atheism were true? If there were no God, then humans would be animals that have come to exist in a purposeless universe, and death would simply be the end of the road. As Will Provine, the late atheist professor at Cornell University, once said about our lives: “There’s no hope whatsoever of there being any deep meaning in human life. We live, we die, and we’re gone. We’re absolutely gone when we die” (from Ben Stein’s Expelled). Provine accurately describes what the nature of death would be if atheism were true. Because we would lose everything at the grave, it is hard to see how anyone’s life could have any ultimate meaning. We are headed for nonexistence—and soon. Whether it is three months or one hundred years, we are going to die and be gone forever.
So the existence of God is the only way that death can be merely a transition into eternity rather than the end of the road. This is extremely important to remember as we begin to consider your very legitimate concerns about why a good and loving God might allow children to suffer and die. It is enormously painful for any parent to experience the death of a child, but a Christian can at least find an incredible amount of comfort in knowing that the child has transitioned from this life into the arms of a loving God rather than being wiped out of existence. I think it is biblically justified to believe in the salvation of children who are too young to understand the concepts of sin, repentance, and the need for accepting Christ’s forgiveness. For example, David believed he would see his dead infant son again (2 Sam 12:22-23), and Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:14 is consistent with the salvation of infants who die. In addition, some Christian theologians have argued persuasively that children are born in a state of original grace until they reach a cognitive ability in which they have sufficient understanding to be responsible for their personal sins.
But even if God’s existence is the only hope we have for eternal life and even if the nature of death would be far more pessimistic if atheism were true, why might a good and loving God allow the sufferings and evils that He does (including the death of children)? Entire books have been written on this, but here are some brief considerations. First, if young children who die are saved as I have suggested (and the Bible certainly leaves plenty of room for optimism about this), then God’s plan for such children has not really done any ultimate harm to the children. While those who are left behind certainly miss the child, the child is truly in a better place. Likewise, those who are old enough to understand the Christian gospel and die after having accepted God’s grace through Christ experience no harm in dying. They are merely transitioned into a better place and will live forever with God.
Second, God wants to give us freedom to make choices in this life, and this may make suffering and death unavoidable in the present life. God surely wants us to have free will so that we are able to choose whether or not we will love Him and love others and so that we can choose whether we will be enslaved to sin or follow Him. But if we are free to choose, then God does not guarantee how we will act. Our choices are up to us, and God could only eliminate instances of humans harming each other if he also took away our freedom because some people will simply choose to harm (and even kill) others.
Third, God may allow natural sufferings, such as diseases and earthquakes and fires, for various reasons. Consider one possibility. Perhaps God knows that it is only in a world in which there are all kinds of natural sufferings that the maximum number of people will freely choose to accept God’s grace and be saved by the end of human history. Perhaps it is more important to God that more people are saved than it is that God minimizes the amount of suffering in this present life. It is not possible for us to know all of the good reasons that God may have for allowing so much suffering and death—especially when we accept that God’s primary goal for us is our repentance and our acceptance of His grace so that we can be saved from the consequences of our sin and experience eternal life with Him. It seems like a loving God would be more concerned about our eternal destinies than making our lives as long and as comfortable as possible in the present life.
These are just a few considerations, and much more could be said about why God would allow suffering and death. I hope and pray that this response at least provides some useful food for thought as you wrestle with this important subject.
Dr. Zach Breitenbach
P.S. From Dr. Rich Knopp. In addition to Zach’s responses, see some related articles for more. Why didn’t God answer our prayers for the cancer and the agony? and If God is loving, how could He condemn people to an eternity of suffering in hell?