Why do non-Christians suffer?

As a Christian, suffering can be awful. We cry out to God from the depths of our pain. Yet what if you had no God to cry out to? What if you weren’t sure that there was anyone listening to your pleas? What if you didn’t know for certain that there was someone out there with things under control? You may suspect that a higher being exists, but they seem to be either too weak or too evil to stop the pain and suffering you see around you. What if you had no guarantee that in the end everything would be set right? This is how non-Christians have to endure suffering.

I wanted to think about non-Christian suffering because I wanted to be able to explain it to them as helpfully and clearly as I could. Non-Christians live “having no hope and without God” (Eph 2:12). In a world of suffering they are like blind children, stumbling in fear towards a cliff edge. As those who have been given sight, Christians need to compassionately bring light to their particular experience of the world in order to help them. This isn’t an article to give to non-Christian friends and family, it’s information for you to think through so that you can talk to them.

Because of justice

Non-Christians suffer because God is justly dealing with sin. Suffering entered the world when humans chose to sin. Because of our rebellion, God subjected humanity and the world to pain, suffering and death. God spells out some of this suffering in Genesis 3; women will suffer in childbirth, and men will struggle in work all the way to the grave. But suffering does not come only in the form of physical pain and battles with the natural world. Even human depravity is the just judgement of God on sin. In wrath, God has handed humans over to impurity, dishonourable passions and a debased mind (Rom 1:18-32). In this way, humans miss out on all the blessings of living life the way God has made it to work. They live a broken life. In a general sense, all suffering and death flows from sin and God’s judgement of it.

Sometimes, however, suffering is a specific act of God’s justice on a particular sin. Not always; Jesus specifically denies that a certain man was born blind because of anyone’s particular sin (John 9:3). At other times in the Bible, though, God clearly acts to punish particular crimes. For example, Herod is struck down because of his blasphemous pride (Acts 12:22-23). Edom is destroyed because of her wickedness towards Judah (Obad 1:1-11). We are also told in Romans that God punishes people through the earthly authorities he has established. An earthly authority “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). When a speeder is fined, or a murderer jailed or executed, their suffering is God’s condemnation on their sin. Although God will judge fully and finally when Christ returns, he is still active in the world in judgement right now.

Sometimes certain Bible passages are quoted in order to refute the idea that God punishes sinners through current events. One passage often quoted is Jesus speaking about people murdered by Pilate:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3)

Some have extrapolated from this verse the idea that God does not produce disasters to punish people. This is not what Jesus says, though. Rather, his point is that these people were not worse sinners than those he is speaking to. Jesus “implies that, in some sense, they deserved what they got”.1 Likewise, John 9:2-3 is quoted, where Jesus denies that a man was born blind because of anyone’s particular sin. In that case, however, Jesus is only discussing the one situation at hand, not making a general statement about how God acts in the world. We need to be careful to neither read more into passages than they allow, nor deny those showing clear examples of God acting in judgement before the last day.

A great difficulty lies in the fact that, without God revealing his purposes, it is impossible for humans to know exactly why a particular instance of suffering is occurring. For example, without the revelation in Amos, archaeologists would have no way of discerning that Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, the Ammonites and Moab were destroyed because of their sin (Amos 1:1-2:3). Similarly, Job’s friends could not see into the heavenly courtroom to discover that Job was actually suffering because he was a righteous man, not because he was a sinner. We should not tell our friend that they got cancer because of a particular sin, because they might not have. Likewise, we should not say, “God didn’t give you cancer because of any particular sin you did”, because he might have. We can’t say what God is doing if he doesn’t tell us.

Most people in the West find it too hard to swallow the idea that suffering has anything to do with justice. One author says that “attentiveness to the horror of suffering disabuses us of the incipient belief that people who suffer in some sense deserve their suffering”.2 In other words, suffering is such an awful thing that it’s ridiculous to say that people deserve it. This sort of argument, however, works on the assumption that humans are basically good and that sin isn’t really that bad. “It is because of our failure to be stirred … with zeal for the honour of God and of his holiness, that so many of our contemporaries are blind to the essential goodness of punishment”.3 When one considers the horror of sin, judgement becomes a reasonable prospect. This does not mean that God enjoys punishing people. On the contrary, he would much prefer that sinners repent and live (Ezek 18:23). Unrepentant sinners, though, should expect to suffer justly at the hands of a good, just God.

In summary, then, we can see that all suffering non-Christians face is a result of God’s general, just punishment on sin. Sometimes, though not always, they may suffer a specific punishment on a specific sin. But there’s more to the story.

Because of injustice

Non-Christians also suffer because of injustice. Injustice occurs when some­one suffers unfairly. Injustice often happens not because of one’s own sin but because of another’s; for example, when the strong take advantage of the weak (Eccl 4:1). In North Korea, many people are kept on the brink of starvation while the country’s leaders live in the lap of luxury at their expense. Injustice can also occur without any particular ill intent towards the victim: when an airline mechanic is too lazy to service a plane properly, causing it to crash and resulting in the deaths of many who played no part in the original crime. Unjust suffering rightly causes outrage, shock and grief.

Another form of unjust suffering cannot be linked to any person’s particular sin. Rather, it flows from the randomness of the world. A plane may crash simply because a bird flew through the windscreen. A tornado may destroy the houses on one side of the street while those on the other side are left standing. There is a certain futility in the world that causes unpredictable, random suffering, disconnected from the bonds of justice.

Ironically, this is a form of justice. It was God who subjected creation to futility and decay at the fall because of human sin (Gen 3:14-19; Rom 8:20-21). Here lies the foolishness of human sin. Because we rejected the God of justice, humanity now faces the horror of what we asked for: a world of injustice. It’s right and proper that the world cries out when an active paedophile is only jailed for two years. Yet what should people expect, when every day of their lives is lived in opposition to the only God who can bring true justice? As Christians, this realization should drive us to great compassion. Without the gracious intervention of God, our hearts would also be blind towards this obvious difficulty.

Because they’re deceived by Satan

Non-Christians cannot see that their own actions have led to this disastrous world, nor that God has provided a solution, because Satan blinds them: “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world”, whose heart is bent on destroying God and his works (Rev 12:9). As people follow the one they are deceived by in rebellion against God, they incur God’s wrath against them (Rev 14:9-10). Again, this is what humanity asked for when we chose to believe the serpent rather than God (Gen 3:1-6). Humans have given themselves over to one who hates them, and who blinds their eyes to the reality of their situation. Christians are only free from this deceiver because God has freed us (Eph 2:1-10).

Because of God’s mercy

It may seem odd given what’s already been said, but non-Christians also suffer because God is being merciful to them. Merciful suffering is any form of suffering which stops short of death. It gives people the opportunity to reflect on the cause of pain, which is ultimately humanity’s rejection of God, and to repent before it is too late. In both Amos and Revelation, God shows that the result of limited suffering should be repentance (Amos 4:6-13; Rev 9:20, 11:13). CS Lewis argues that when things are well people do not recognize that their lives are on the wrong track, but “every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt”.4 Lewis describes pain as God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.5 It flows from the love of God, who wants people to be saved; “Any suffering is worth it, if it succeeds in bringing us to Christ and the eternal life He offers”.6

Understanding a complex situation

To understand non-Christian suffering, we need to see that more than one thing can, and probably does, happen at once. Someone can die an unjust death, and yet their death itself is still the earned wages of sin. God sent Assyria to justly punish Israel, and yet Assyria destroyed Israel out of pride and a violent heart (Isa 10:5-19).7 This complexity gives one the right to decry the full horror and evil of a particular situation, while still recognizing that God is sovereignly working for good. Henri Blocher shows that the Bible thinks pain is bad, and death is an enemy, yet punishment from God is good. Also, while sin is always evil and God is not complicit in it, he can still turn it to his good purposes without being marred by it.8 At any one time non-Christians can be suffering justly (because they have rejected God), unjustly (because they did not act in such a way as to deserve that particular instance of suffering), because they have been deceived by Satan (who led them into sin), and because God is being merciful to them (by giving them a taste of what they deserve, so as to wake them up to the reality of their situation in time to repent).

Hope for non-Christians

In the midst of suffering, non-Christians have a hope that they can reach out and grasp. This hope is in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this event, God himself not only experiences suffering, but also overcomes it.

Consider Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death was the most unjust in history, for only he was truly innocent. Every other human is tainted with sin, and so when death comes it comes as earned wages, even if it occurs in unjust circumstances (Rom 6:23). Jesus, however, did not die because he had sinned, but because people sinned against him. God knows personally what it means to suffer unjustly.

Jesus’ death, however, was accepted by God as the most just in history. God had ‘passed over former sins’ in order to bring their due penalty to bear on Christ (Rom 3:25). Because Jesus took the just penalty for sin upon himself, those who trust in him have no need to suffer for their own sin.

This means that the cross is the ultimate act of suffering for the sake of mercy. Jesus was doing far more than sharing an experience of unjust suffering. He suffered for sinners so that sinners do not have to. People can be comforted in their suffering by the fact that not only is God moved by their suffering, he has mercifully provided an escape from it. “Christians have learned that when there seems to be no other evidence of God’s love, they cannot escape the cross”.9

Jesus’ death also defeated the devil. Jesus became a human “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). Satan is a deceiver, covering people’s eyes so that they will not turn to God. Jesus, unlike Adam, refused to listen to Satan, but instead led people to the truth. Satan is an accuser, bringing the long lists of people’s sins before God so that they will be punished. Yet people who believe the truth that Jesus suffered in their place have no sins for which God wishes to punish them. In the resurrection Satan’s plans are finally crushed. He tries to destroy God’s creation but, through Jesus, God makes people a new creation that will never die again. Through Jesus people are no longer enslaved to Satan.

In the resurrection Jesus heralds a new age free from all suffering for all those who trust him. His resurrection points to our resurrection. It will be a resurrection to a new life with no more death, mourn­ing, crying or pain (Rev 21:1-4). This is also good news for the created world, which currently groans because it is in ‘bondage to corruption’. When the bodies of Christians are redeemed at the final resurrection, creation itself will be set free from the pain that it now suffers (Rom 8:20-22). This will mean no more random tsunamis, volcano eruptions or earthquakes. Creation and Christians know our resurrection is coming, because Jesus our Lord has been raised.

Jesus’ resurrection also heralds the coming end of all injustice. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). When Jesus judges, suffering will no longer be disproportionate. The righteous (those in Christ) will never suffer again, and the wicked will suffer justly. Suffering will finally be given its good, proper place.

How do we help non-Christians in their suffering?

In the end, we’d love our non-Christian friends, neighbours and family to know the God who cares for them, and who has acted to end their suffering. We want them to make it to heaven, where they will be free from all suffering. So how can we help them get to that point? Let’s start with working out what not to do.

Two big mistakes

The first mistake we can make is to say too much too early. Even though we know the truth, we still need to speak that truth in love. For example, if your homosexual work colleague tells you his weekend was awful because he just broke up with his boyfriend, do not reply, “Good! God didn’t want you to be in that relationship anyway. That sort of lifestyle only leads to hell.” It may be true, but it lacks compassion. We’re ambassadors for a compassionate God, and so we need to reflect his character. We need to close our mouths and listen carefully to their particular heartache. That way we will know what they are personally going through, and they will know that we know their particular struggles. Then, when it’s our turn to speak, we won’t just be giving a standard answer for suffering, but rather a personalized answer just for them.

A second big mistake is to say nothing (strange, given what I just said!). Some­times we can be so overwhelmed by someone’s suffering that we feel embarrassed about bringing God into the conversation. We think it will be inappropriate. Yet, if one of the reasons why non-Christians suffer is so they see that the world is broken, it would be cruel for us to waste an opportunity of telling them why it’s broken, and God’s solution. Many people fail to learn the lessons of their suffering. We who know the truth need to compassionately speak into their situation, so that through their suffering they can meet the God who has overcome suffering. How quickly we come to speak about this will depend on a range of factors, such as the nature of the suffering, our relationship with the person, and the time period available (if someone has terminal cancer they don’t have much time to wait for us to feel comfortable!). But speak we must!

What do we talk about?

Jesus, of course. As we discuss Jesus, and particularly his death and resurrection, we will deal with everything a suffering non-Christian needs to hear (actually, even if they’re not dealing with suffering it’s still the best way to go!).

Think about our homosexual work colleague. After listening to his story of how the awful weekend unfolded, you could say, “That sounds really hard. Broken relationships are awful. God hates broken relationships.”

“What do you mean?”

“God really hates broken relationships. He knows personally the pain they cause. He hates them so much he came up with a plan to fix relationships.”

“What did he do?”

“He sent his son Jesus to fix them up. The first relationship he had to fix up was our relationship with God. God knows that’s the first relationship we need to get right. Once that’s fixed, we can really start to understand how to have other relationships.” And so on.

In reality this may be six conversations, building on the previous discussion each time. After awhile you may say, “Hey, let’s sit down and read a Gospel together, and see in detail how Jesus can help you”. As you discuss the cross you’ll share that Jesus is dealing with sin, how bad sin is, and how much God cares for sinners. In the resurrection you’ll tell about the defeat of suffering and death, and the hope of a new life. Not everything will be easy for your friend to hear, but it will all be good for them to hear.

If you want a great example of bringing the gospel to bear on a situation of suffering, then read Simon Manchester’s little booklet At a Time Like This: Some answers for loss and grief.10 Simon compassionately considers where people are at in their struggle with grief, and carefully weaves the good news about Jesus into their situation. Once you’ve read it, keep a few on your shelf to give away. But keep this in mind: you are still the person with the relationship. A booklet or tract isn’t a replacement for a conversation, but rather a helpful tool for taking your conversations further. We need to be ready to speak compassionately and courageously to a suffering world that knows nothing of the sure and certain hope we have.

  1.  Rob Smith, ‘What Job and Jesus teach us about suffering’, Briefing #351, December 2007, p. 11, my emphasis.
  2.  Wendy Farley, ‘Natural Suffering, Tragedy, and the Compassion of God’, Second Opinion, Vol. 18, No. 2, October 1992, pp. 23-29.
  3.  Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, translated by David G. Preston, Apollos, Leicester, 1994, p. 87.
  4. CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Centenary Press, London, 1940, p. 80.
  5.  ibid., p. 81.
  6. Lee Strobel, ‘Handling Christianity’s Toughest Challenge’, Christian Research Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 17.
  7.  DA Carson, How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1990, p. 53.
  8.  Blocher, Evil, p. 87-88.
  9. Carson, How Long, p. 191.
  10.  Simon Manchester, At a Time Like This, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2006.

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