With the recent violence and natural disasters, it is fitting to address the question of why God allows the innocent to suffer. As St. John Paul II points out in his 1984 apostolic exhortation On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, God does not reject this question as impious, but in fact invites it, as particularly expressed in the Book of Job. In that book, a just man experiences the destruction of his estate, the deaths of his children, and terrible disease within himself. We know that his suffering is part of a great contest between God and Satan about whether his justice will endure in difficult times; but Job and his philosopher friends do not have this knowledge. Job’s friends try one answer after another, but cannot help him understand or accept the situation. Then God appears in majesty and glory, not to explain away suffering, but rather to present creation as a great mystery. Job accepts this mystery as beyond his understanding; and then God restores to him more than he lost and increases the power of his prayer for his friends.
One lesson from that book is that worldly answers are insufficient. Philosophers certainly can present many explanations for innocent suffering. For example, in The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis points out that, if society means anything, it must mean the ability to affect each other, for good or ill. And because we have different perspectives and interests, we must make sacrifices if we care about another person’s interests. This need for sacrifices is not a bad thing; for it enables our good works to be more charitable and generous. But, if we are to be free, we must be able to choose between good and evil. Thus, people (human and angelic) can choose to insist on their own interests to the harm of others, which in turn causes suffering even to the innocent who share this world together.
As St. Pope John Paul II points out, such philosophical explanations are helpful, but not enough. The final answer God gives is not an argument, but a person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God who joins with human suffering and thus consecrates all people who suffer with Him as prophetic witnesses of His kingdom, in heroic faith, and in providing us the ability to serve Christ through those in need. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, when the innocent person suffers with faith, they bring Christ’s salvation into the world. See Col. 1:24-26.