Evangelical Questions: The Problem of Suffering
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the role of suffering. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Our jumping-off point today is Romans 8:17:
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
And we’re going to talk about how suffering is viewed differently by Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. Let me give you an overview of the Evangelical view, some of the history of how they got there and what it means for them on the practical level. At the end we’ll briefly compare it to the Latter-day Saint view.
Before I do that though – we’re in Romans. There is so much here in these chapters, and we’re going through it so fast. If you’re not confident in your ability to really follow Paul’s argument through this book please take advantage of the Come Follow Me resources that are available to you. My favorite to really break it down for you are the Scripture Central shows (previously Book of Mormon central.) They’ve got 3 or 4 different shows and they will talk you through it. We’re doing something quite different here and it’s not intended to teach you the content of the book of Romans, or any book really. But the books we will go through from now until the end of the year in the New Testament really deserve your careful consideration. Moving on.
As always, there is not one singular Evangelical point of view. I’ll try to give you the version of it that is pretty much right down the middle. A really good example of this view is heard in what one popular Bible teacher recently said, “In answer to the question of why God allows suffering, I don’t know. My ‘I don’t know’ answer to the question of why God allows suffering may not feel very theological. However, it does point to a truth that we sometimes forget. God’s ways and purposes are higher than ours, and we won’t always figure them out.”
And according to a Pew Research study in 2021 over 80% of Evangelicals say that the main reason suffering happens is random, “sometimes bad things happen.” When pressed for a reason beyond that 75% say that suffering is mostly because that person made bad choices and is suffering the consequences of their own actions. What I want you to get a sense of is that overall, for them, suffering is a glitch in God’s plan. Not a feature of that plan. In the same Pew study slightly over half of them see suffering as a punishment from God and almost 70% say that suffering comes directly from Satan and is opposed to God’s plan. Suffering is a glitch, not a feature.
Let me give you an example by talking through their view on the Garden of Eden.
When they hear the Eden story they focus on the idea that God created this perfect garden, and gave clear rules for living there that he expected them to follow. He gave them free will to disobey, but it was never in his plan for them to do so. Staying in the garden was Plan A and when Eve messed it up, God had to figure out how to fix the problem she caused.
If you remember back to our episode on atonement theories, you can really see how this plays out. The two most popular theories for Evangelicals are Substitutionary Atonement and Christus Victor. Sub Atonement uses a courtroom metaphor where God is the judge who condemns humanity, but Jesus offers to take the place of God’s wrath instead. And Christus Victor is a battle metaphor where Eve’s sin unleashes Satan into the world, and Christ has to fight him in order to save humanity. I think you can see, both of those are reactionary. God had a perfect plan (the garden) that he intended to keep going forever. Side-note: Evangelicals don’t read “and they discovered their nakedness” the same way we do. Latter-day Saints read that and understand that prior to this moment Adam and Eve were not able to procreate. Evangelicals read that differently and believe that life could have gone on forever and in theory, you and I could be living in the Garden today if only Eve hadn’t messed everything up. So, God creates this perfect Garden and wants humanity to live in it forever. And somehow, unexpectedly, Eve ruins the plan, and God must figure out how to solve the problem she has created. God must react to Eve’s choice.
What does this have to do with suffering? In the Evangelical view, suffering is a problem that must be solved. The only role it has in God’s plan is either, “Well, sometimes bad things happen,” or “That person is experiencing the consequences of their own dumb choice.” So in the Garden, Eve’s actions were not motivated to obey all of Heavenly Father’s commands, they were motivated solely by her wanting to be rebellious. Now, both Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints agree that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden because of their own actions. The difference is that Latter-day Saints believe they had a bigger motive than just rebellion in the mix.
In the Evangelical view, Adam and Eve needed to suffer through living in the lone and dreary world because they had been bad, and this was their consequence. But the consequences were still not enough, and Jesus had to cover the cost for them in a reactionary way because of their mistake.
So you can see that underneath the question of, “Why is there suffering in the world?” is something like, “Is suffering a problem God had to unexpectedly react to?” Or was Jesus the plan from the beginning? Before the creation of the world did God already know he would send Jesus for our sins? Latter-day Saint friends I know you’re at home thinking, “Yes, of course, Jesus was the plan from the beginning!” But Evangelicals don’t see it that way. For them, there was no forethought of God saying, “We will provide for them a savior.” It was a crisis that had to be solved.
I’m going to pivot a tiny bit and talk about another aspect of suffering which is sometimes called The Problem of Evil. It goes something like this: If we are God’s children, and he actually loves us, how could he let ____ happen? How could he let my child die? How could he allow my friend to die of cancer? How could there be all these children suffering from abuse? And these are fair questions that deserve answers. Evangelicals answer the problem of evil very differently than Latter-day Saints do, at least at the theological level. Let me say, in the Evangelical world, they are very comfortable making a distinction between the theological answer to something, and the pastoral answer to something. Theological answers are allowed to sound cold and sometimes harsh, which pastoral answers are given in such a way that allows the one suffering to find some comfort. I’ll give you an example. My dad died when I was 12. The church I attended vigorously taught that anyone who didn’t make a profession of faith in the way they defined it would go straight to Hell. I had been taught this since childhood and even at 12 I knew what the theological answer was. But when I was actually in a situation where something terrible happened, I heard much softer answers, much more pastoral answers. Things like, “You don’t know what he actually felt in his heart.” Or, “Maybe he placed his trust in Christ at the very last second.” There’s not tons of comfort in those, but they’re better than outright saying, “Well, your father is being tortured in Hell right now.” But the theological answer to the problem of evil comes in a few different forms. I’ll briefly talk through 3 of them.
One, Evangelicals will sometimes say that suffering is God’s judgment against evil-doers. They will cite various scriptures, often from the Old Testament, to say that God uses bad circumstances to punish his children. Fair enough. But not a very satisfying answer if you’re 12 and just lost your dad. Second, this theory is sometimes called the, “soul-building” solution which says that God lets evil happen so that he can bring about better character in his children. Also, fair enough, and they can certainly provide scriptures to base that on. But – and not to make this all about me, but it’s just a good example – tell that to a 12-year-old who just lost her dad. That doesn’t get you very far. The third version is sometimes called, “God’s megaphone.” In this version pain and suffering are a way for God to loudly get our attention and focus back on him. Okay. But tell that to a child with cancer. It’s nonsensical.
The thing that all these theories have in common is that the premise is that God could go against the laws of nature if he wanted to. Again, not untrue, but these theories create another problem because the idea is that suffering should be considered unexpected and that God’s job is to help us avoid suffering whenever possible. It’s asking God to step outside of the very laws of nature, that he set up, and act in a way opposed to his own laws.
Latter-day Saints solve this problem slightly differently, and to me, this should be obvious by now, in a more satisfying way. Evangelicals are asking the question, “Why didn’t God transcend nature to help me avoid pain?” While Latter-day Saints are asking, “How is God operating within the bounds of nature in this situation?” God is using the natural world – including the parts of that world that make us suffer – to help us understand for ourselves what is good and what is not. In the Latter-day Saint view God is not the author or evil, but he’s also not going to prevent suffering or evil as it exists in the natural world. Elder Maxwell once said that trying to understand suffering without seeing the whole plan of salvation is like trying to understand a 3-act play by only watching the 2nd act. If you don’t know what came before, and what is going to happen at the end, the middle is a confusing mess. Latter-day Saints believe that we came from God, and will return to him. The whole point of coming to Earth is to learn and grow. We could have stayed in Heaven with God, and probably been quite happy – but we had to leave Heaven (had to leave Eden) to come to learn some things for ourselves. Evangelicals believe that humans only come into existence when they’re born, and not before. They miss the information given in Act 1 of the play. In Act 2, here on this Earth, we experience many terrible things. I do, and you do too. But the reason we’re here is to see if we will choose to hold true to what we knew before we got here. For Evangelicals Act 2 can be a time when they’re really confused and mad that God is not acting in ways outside of the world that he set up for us. They don’t understand why the play is set up the way it is – so they want the author of the play to change the story. But if they knew about Act 1, they’d know why the story is playing out the way it is. And when you miss Act 1, and misunderstand why God is not acting in certain ways in Act 2, it’s really hard to understand why Act 3 (eternity) is set up the way we believe it is.
Now, I will tell you, Evangelicals – many of them, most of them – are trying to stay faithful to what they know to be true, in the midst of lots of suffering, and doing the best they can. But the frustration of the problem of evil, or the problem of suffering is closer to the surface for them, and more frustrating for them than it might be for Latter-day Saints.
Well, that was a lot. Suffering is a huge topic and we’ll actually come back to this in a future episode, but I hope this gives you enough to start to see the differences in how we think about these things, and maybe gives you some ideas about how to talk about our hope based on the knowledge we have. Come back next week, we’re going to do one of the most common Evangelical questions: How are Jesus and Satan brothers? It will be fun. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.