God and human suffering in the Watchtower and the Bible

by Luke Wayne

The Watchtower Literature on God and Suffering

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (commonly known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) teaches that God does not have a purpose or will at work in individual events of suffering or tragedy. They teach that when bad things happen, it is always the result of Satan and/or of human sin. God has nothing to do with it, and therefore one cannot find comfort in God’s will or purpose when painful things occur, for that would be to “blame” God. For example, they write:

“God is not responsible for bad things that happen to people; nor does he make them suffer,” (Watchtower July, 2014 “Bad things happen to good people – Why?”).

“Pastors, priests, and religious teachers often say that it is God’s will that people suffer. Some may say that everything that happens to a person, including tragedies, has already been decided by God and that we can never understand why. Others may even say that people, including little children, die so that they can be with God in heaven. But that isn’t true. Jehovah never causes bad things to happen,” (“What Can the Bible Teach us?” pg 117, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2015).

“Can you imagine a loving mother deliberately harming her child? A caring parent, on the contrary, would try to alleviate a child’s suffering. Likewise, God does not cause innocent people to suffer. Even so, innocent people are suffering,” (Watchtower Nov. 2012, “Question 3 – Why does God allow me to suffer”).

“God neither causes bad things to happen nor incites others to do what is bad,” (Watchtower July, 2014 “Bad things happen to good people – Why?”).

“Do you know why people make the mistake of blaming God for all the suffering in the world? In many cases, they blame God because they think He is the real ruler of this world…The real ruler of this world is Satan, the Devil,” (“What does the Bible Really Teach?”, pg 108 Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2005).

The 2001 pamphlet, “Does God Really Care About Us?” walks through in detail the Jehovah’s Witness belief that when Satan fell and tempted humanity into sin, God gave the world over to Satan and the governments of fallen men. God did this, so the pamphlet says, to allow fallen men and angels to freely cause all the suffering they desire so as to prove over the course of human history that they cannot run the world right without him. On this teaching, God has no purpose in any particular tragedy and does not bring any human suffering about, but rather has temporarily given up control of creation to Satan until the time of the final judgment so that God can prove once and for all that he has the right to rule his own creation. In the meantime, there is no purpose or meaning in any personal tragedy. They are the senseless acts of evil or the accidents of foolish blunder brought about by Satan’s control and humanity’s free will.

The Bible on God and Suffering

The Bible, however, paints a very different picture. Jehovah God declares:

“That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun, that there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these," (Isaiah 45:6-7).

God provides a powerful example of this in the book of Amos:

“'But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities And lack of bread in all your places, Yet you have not returned to Me,' declares the Lord. Furthermore, I withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest. Then I would send rain on one city And on another city I would not send rain; One part would be rained on, While the part not rained on would dry up. So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water, But would not be satisfied; Yet you have not returned to Me,' declares the Lord. 'I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; And the caterpillar was devouring Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; Yet you have not returned to Me,' declares the Lord. 'I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses, And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils; Yet you have not returned to Me,' declares the Lord. 'I overthrew you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, And you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze; Yet you have not returned to Me,' declares the Lord," (Amos 4:6-11).

God takes credit for hunger, thirst, corrosion, disease, and in verse ten God even takes credit for the violent actions of their enemies. When their young men and horses died by the sword, Amos says it was, in fact, God doing that to them. It simply cannot be said that God does not cause bad things to happen to people. He does, and He is just and righteous when He does so!

Only in Cases of Punishment?

Nor can we say that God only brings about suffering when He is punishing evil. John chapter 9 tells us of a time when Jesus and His disciples came upon a blind man begging in the streets. His disciples wanted to understand why this beggar had been born blind. Was the man himself being punished, or were his parents being punished with a blind son? The answer Jesus gave is both surprising and instructive:

“It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” (John 9:3).

We know from later in the story that this was a fully grown man. He had lived his whole life up to adulthood as a poor, lowly, blind beggar. Jesus does not say that Satan did this to him, or that it was a sad consequence of a fallen world, and He denies that it was a punishment for sin. Instead, He says that this man was born blind for a positive purpose. This man’s suffering was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Is that cruel of God? The man did not think so at all! He glorified God for the great miracle and longed to follow Jesus and be His disciple! Our Jehovah’s Witness friends miss that there is great comfort when our sufferings are not meaningless and senseless but have purpose and meaning in a God who is truly in control.

Suffering and the Gospel

The greatest example of all, of course, is the suffering of Jesus Himself. God the Father sent His Son for the explicit purpose of dying for the sins of all who repent and believe on Him. Before any of those men chose their evil course to murder the only truly innocent man who has ever lived, God had already planned it in advance to bring about the greatest good in all of human history!

“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur,” (Acts 4:27-28).

The very gospel centers on the fact that Jesus Christ was sent to die for unworthy sinners, but this means that the event of Jesus unjust death was also the plan and will of God for the glory of His name and the good of His people. If God has no will, no purpose, no plan in suffering and even in the evil acts of men, then there is no gospel! But we can take heart! There is a gospel. Christ did die for the unjust by the plan and purpose of God, and God has a plan and purpose in the sufferings of His people, for which we can take great comfort in the midst of adversity if our lives rest in Him (Romans 8:28)