"Why did God create man if He knew the result would be great pain and suffering?” One of my sons raised that deep question with us not long ago. So a couple of Sundays before Christmas, while having church as a family at home after we'd been blessed with a foot of beautiful snow, we went to work on finding an answer
Searching for insight, I came upon a short commentary where the author approached the subject by considering God's attributes. Since we are created in God’s image, I considered God's attributes through the lens of our attributes.
Why do we have children, when we know that many children go wayward and cause great pain and suffering? Why do we have relationships with other people, when often pain and suffering results? How many people marry with great hope, all to have that hope become the worst pain they ever experienced?
We take relationship risks to express our attribute of love and to fulfill our communal nature. Similarly, God created man (also at great risk) in order to have a responsive recipient for His love. Like a loving parent instructs a child, God instructs us about the positive and negative consequences to our choices.
People commonly view God’s instructions like rules to a board game, when they should be viewed like a car owner’s manual – a guide to maximize performance and life. They define realities, much like laws of nature.
God’s holy nature limits who can come into His presence. In the Old Testament, God instructed that only the high priest, after much purification, could enter the most holy area of the temple without dying. To be holy is to be pure, both in thought and deed, which our broken human state makes impossible.
Additionally, we share part of God’s eternal attribute. Death is a transformation, not an end. In great contrast to animals, we strive to make our broken world better, which bears witness to both our broken state and our eternal nature.
Jesus, through His sinless life, cruel death, and resurrection that overcame death, provides the only means possible to satisfy the unavoidable consequences of sin. Jesus did all that was needed and became the high priest for all humankind (Hebrews 7: 23-28). All we need to do is acknowledge our brokenness and accept His sacrifice for our sin.
God’s grace and mercy is such a contrast to our human works-based achievement thinking. Dying to save those who rejected you is the ultimate love act, and it answers another common question: “Why does God send people to hell for eternity?”
God doesn’t – He has done everything possible, including taking on the pain of our sin, to keep every person out of hell. Consider a son who rejects his parents’ loving guidance and commits a crime that lands him in prison. Did the parents send their child to prison? Of course not!
To blame God for the eternal state of those who reject the only solution possible is asking God to ignore our unholy condition. It also ignores God’s love for His creation, which motivated Him to provide the means for us to be holy. If God ignored our condition, there would be no solution. All humankind would be in as horrific a state as hell is described, and maybe in a sense that is hell – unholy people being closer to a holy God.
Perhaps death transfers us all closer to the presence of God. For those who accept God’s purifying gift, eternity is the ultimate liberty. But, for those who reject that gift, eternity is horrific (or hell) because they are not in a condition to be anywhere near God.
Admittedly, I am speculating some on life after death; nevertheless, passing through the window of death, without purification by Jesus, has eternal consequences. Ignoring reality does not remove reality. God’s laws are not to limit us, nor are they a maze for us to solve. They have been given in clear form to help us navigate realities we are sure to encounter, with the goal being the fullest life possible.
In our casual approach to God, where so often our desires define God and we separate His love from His holiness, we lose sight of aspects of God’s nature. But God’s holiness is as real as His love and they are both demonstrated through Jesus’ suffering for us.
If God could have created another way for us to be liberated from the curse of sin and united with our Creator, or even if he could have removed hell, then the death of Jesus would have been the largest act of cruelty, instead of what it actually was and is — the largest imaginable act of love.
Editor: Mark Shepard is a former Vermont state senator now living in rural Virginia. When asked which of his four boys, ages 14 to 21, had posed this weighty issue — over which thinkers have deliberated for millennia — he requested anonymity for the self-effacing teen. But (we pressed) did Dad’s answer as expanded here, settle the matter that snowy morning? Not quite. It seems the discussion is ongoing. Here’s to more American homes with the Shepard family’s mutual affection and spiritual seriousness. On such the future of the republic and of the faith depends.