Why is there suffering in the world? (theodicy)

· author: Thomas · reading time: ca. 12 min.

Suffering arises from free will. Christian faith can help us to deal with it better. Through suffering we can understand others and recognize our mistakes. Overcoming suffering strengthens our faith. With eternity in mind, every suffering seems small.

A well-known story is about a man who goes to the hairdresser. The two have a lively conversation about life and about God, and the hairdresser insists that God does not exist.

“Look at all the suffering in the world”, the hairdresser says. “If there really is a God, why doesn’t he intervene?” The customer can’t think of a good answer to that at first.

Even after he pays, the conversation won’t let him go. As he leaves the hair salon, he sees a homeless man with disheveled hair sitting across the street. That’s when he gets an idea.

The man walks back into the hair salon and tells the hairdresser straightaway, “There are no hairdressers!” The hairdresser is outraged and replies, “What are you saying? I am standing here in front of you.”

To which the man replies, “If there are people out there who have such bad hair, then I don’t believe in a world where there are hairdressers.” – “But I do exist”, the hairdresser replies. “People have to come to me already so that I can cut their hair!”


The short story shows us a first clue why suffering is also possible in a world created by an almighty God. God can help, but he does not force anyone to join him in the “hair salon”. I will shed light on these and other perspectives on the topic of “suffering” in this article.

In technical language, the topic is also called theodicy. “Theo-dicy” is derived from Greek and literally means “God-defense.” It is about defending God against the argument that he does nothing or not enough about the suffering that exists in the world.

This article, however, is not so much about philosophy. Even though we will look at the origin of suffering from a theological perspective, it will mainly be about how we can deal with personal suffering from a Christian perspective.

Free will

As we have already seen from the hairdresser story, free will is the main cause of suffering in the world. “Free will” here means that man has, in principle, the possibility to decide for God or against God.

To do this, we must keep in mind that the Christian God is not a magical machine for fulfilling prayer requests, but a person who wants to relate to us humans as parents relate to their children. This relationship can be intact or broken.

But in order for a relationship to develop at all, there must be the possibility to decide for or against this relationship. For suppose we were to force a person to write a love letter to us – then the letter would be proof that she is obedient to us, but not that she actually loves us.

Adam and Eve

Free will can be illustrated very nicely by the so-called “Fall of Man” described at the beginning of the Bible: First, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden. There they had everything they needed to live a happy life.

In the Garden of Eden, fruits grew on the trees, so all they had to do was practically picking them from there. There was no need for hard work. If Eve had already had children there, she would even have been spared the pain of childbirth.

Nevertheless, Adam and Eve fell for the devil, who appeared to them there as a snake. Adam and Eve were not robots who would have been programmed to carry out all the rules that God had given them without compromise, but had free will.

Thus, they could live in an actual relationship with God, but they were also seducible. Although Adam and Eve had this relationship with God and everything else necessary for life, the devil made them believe that they could do even better, that they could be on a par with God, their Creator.

And so they decided to go against God’s instructions and go their own way. Since then, suffering has entered the world: People kill, steal and cheat each other, even though they are clearly disobeying God’s rules and bringing suffering upon themselves and others.

(Further reading: Genesis 3)

Job and the Devil

A person from the Bible who had to experience a lot of suffering was Job. He believed in God and was a wealthy man. But the Bible vividly describes how everything was nevertheless taken from him – his possessions, his children, his health, and even his wife no longer trusted him.

The devil himself presents himself before God and asks him to put Job’s faith to the test. Even though people are responsible for their own actions in the end, we see more clearly in Job – as already indicated with Adam and Eve – that there is another force behind the suffering.

But how can this view help us to understand suffering better? In relation to God, it may at first startle us that God allowed Job’s trial to happen at all. But it also means, conversely, that the devil can’t do anything that God hasn’t allowed beforehand.

God is always above the devil – good always above evil. In faith we can accept this as a consolation: God does not impose suffering on us that is too difficult for us. This does not always have to look like Job, who at the end of his suffering got back twice everything he had lost. But we know that God already knows the way out of situations in which we do not yet see Him ourselves.

In relation to other people, this way of thinking can also be useful to us: it helps us to distinguish between a person and their actions. At the same time, we must always remain aware that a person is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions before God.

However, if we are hurt by another person, for example, we can assume that the action was inspired by evil. At least for our own reaction, this can help us to still treat the person lovingly in themselves, regardless of what they have done to us.

In relation to ourselves, this view that God is above the devil can then help us to take a step back before acting impulsively. When we are aware that good and evil are two forces acting on us from outside, we can distance ourselves a bit from the thoughts that otherwise dominate us.

We are still responsible for our own decisions, but a certain freedom opens up to decide more consciously whether we want to be guided by God or the devil – both in major life decisions as well as in our everyday dealings with other people.

So as far as the subject of suffering is concerned, this perspective can already be of some help to us in taking the suffering that other people do to us a little less personally, feeling less attacked. At the same time, it can also help us to contain the suffering that we ourselves would otherwise reflexively bring into the world.

(Further reading: Book of Job; Romans 12:21; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Ephesians 6:16)

Light of the world

But if suffering does come into the world – that cannot be prevented in our world that has turned away from God – then we should be careful to offer other people any logical explanation for their suffering, just as Job’s friends had tried in vain. Those who suffer need consolation rather than an explanation.

As we have seen, all suffering is ultimately approved by God, but that need not automatically mean that the person receiving the suffering has made a mistake before God. When Jesus encountered a person who was blind from birth, his disciples asked him how this could be. After all, he himself could not have done anything wrong before he was born. Would his parents have disappointed God?

Jesus gave a surprising answer: No, the blind man had not made a mistake – but in him it should become visible what God is able to do. Then Jesus heals the blind man and he can see for the first time. This miracle shows the power that God has – but I believe that Jesus’ statement can also help us beyond that in situations where he does not heal spontaneously.

As Christians, we will feel grief or pain just like other people when we lose someone close, face existential financial hardship, or become seriously ill ourselves. But we have a hope in Jesus that is greater than these crises (we will take a closer look at this in the last section of this article).

In the concrete situation it may be difficult at first to recognize this possibility – but also and especially in difficult situations God can become noticeable for other people to a special degree through our behavior.

If we succeed in faith to radiate a light of hope even in these dark times, if we can still show joy and confidence in hopeless situations – then perhaps other people can recognize for the first time that our hope in God, and thus God himself, is real.

(Further reading: John 9)


What can help us to accept a difficult situation? Jesus himself also suffered, with the death penalty by crucifixion he went through one of the most agonizing ways of death. The night before his crucifixion, he prayed to God as Father and spoke the famous words:

Take this cup from me – but not what I want, but what you want [shall happen].

Therefore, we can be sure that Jesus, who is now resurrected in heaven, can understand suffering as such very well. He Himself can be our best example when it comes to bearing suffering, because with His crucifixion He took upon Himself the suffering of the whole world.

Jesus can still be with us in spirit in all circumstances, no matter how difficult or easy they are. The apostle Peter expressed it this way in a letter to Christians in Asia Minor who were suffering persecution because of their faith:

Be humble, then, under the mighty hand of God, that he may lift you up at the proper time; casting all your sorrows on him, for he cares for you.

So if we bring our whole life and suffering before God in prayer and honestly ask for comfort, He will also show us a way to deal with our situation and give us the assurance that He will stand by us.

Just as Jesus went through suffering, our own suffering in retrospect can also be a great help to us in understanding the suffering of others. Not everyone can stand by others equally well, because not every situation is well understood by outsiders.

Having survived a difficult situation ourselves, we are often in a better position to help other people overcome their problems as well, or at least to find a good way of dealing with them. In this way, suffering on our part can ultimately become something good for others.

(Further reading: Psalm 23; Mark 14:36; Matthew 28:20; 2. Corinthians 1:3-4; 1 Peter 5:6-7)


We have seen that suffering does not have to be directly related to our own wrongdoing. However, the Bible also speaks of God “educating” us – and this does not always make us happy at first – but can give us inner peace in the long term.

We should not take this as a reason to judge other people’s suffering either. After all, only God knows why something affects one person and spares another. But we can ask ourselves if there is something that God wants to tell us with our suffering – and we can ask him in prayer to give us an answer.

Possibly there is something in our life where we are on a path that is actually taking us away from God, and God wants to give us a warning to turn back to the right path. So suffering can also make us wake up when we do something that we actually know is not right. Suffering can then be a help to get back on a good path.

In a broader sense, something that at first seems unpleasant or painful to us can also be something positive – if we didn’t get a job but would have been bullied there, if the dream vacation falls through but we would have gotten sick there – so a small suffering may prevent a great suffering, even if we often don’t recognize it afterwards. Like Job, we sometimes have to realize that we can’t always understand God’s plans.

Some people turn to God through suffering in the first place. When life is going well, money and love are plentiful, and one has no health complaints worth mentioning, there is little reason to come before God (with gratitude). But good times would be an excellent starting point to prepare for hard times. But some people find God only in deep suffering. The meaning behind such suffering is only revealed afterwards.

(Further reading: Job 42:3; Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:4-11)


If you want to run a marathon, you have to train a lot. It’s exhausting: you sweat and gasp for air, the next day your legs are sore and all the simple movements are much harder than before. Actually nothing you would do to yourself voluntarily.

But after a bit of regeneration, something unexpected happens: the pain disappears and during the next running session you are even a bit faster than the last time. This training effect is what you go running for, not the soreness. Some well-trained runners even experience what is called a “runner’s high” while they run.

Those who believe in God can also have such an unexpected experience: If you have little experience with faith and then you also get into a difficult situation, you will also find it uncomfortable at first, just like one of your first runs if you have never trained before.

Of course, you don’t wish anyone to go through difficult times. But whoever then simply “keeps running” in such a situation and, like Job, continues to hold on to faith in God, will suddenly realize: Yes, this God carries me, even when everything else in life breaks away.

In the next situation, we can then already fall back on a certain experience. We have experienced how God accompanied us through a hardship, and we are confident that he will do it again this time. In this way, even suffering can strengthen our faith and increase the hope we have in Jesus.

(Further reading: Romans 5:3; James 1:2-18; James 5:7-11)


If all the suffering first came into the world with Adam and Eve, then something new began with Jesus. There is still suffering in the world, but as Christians we have the great hope of going to God in heaven after this life, where all suffering will come to an end.

This hope is much stronger than all earthly suffering that could happen to us. Mathematically speaking, infinity (eternal life in heaven) is still infinity, even if we subtract a small number from it (the relatively short life here on earth).

Let us imagine that a rich businessman invites us to a luxurious weekend at one of his vacation villas. The flight by private jet is included, there is the most delicious food, a private sauna and many other amenities.

As we hurriedly pack our suitcase for the weekend, we stub our little toe on the dresser. For the moment it hurts like hell, but then we think again of the beautiful weekend that awaits us. We know that the pain will have passed by then and we can enjoy the time.

It’s the same with faith: when we trust that God will give us eternal life in heaven, earthly worries suddenly seem very small. We always have a source of joy through Jesus, because we know that this life on earth is not the end, but only the beginning.

(Further reading: Romans 8:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Revelation 21:4)