When considering the major questions raised in the context of apologetics, the question of suffering stands out in several ways.
It is, of course, a matter of judgement just what the 'major' questions consist of, but over the years I have found that the common questions tend to group around one of four major themes, each of which has one key question. The themes and key questions are:
Firstly, the question of suffering is the only one which imposes itself upon the lives of ordinary people on a regular basis.
Everyone suffers and knows other people who suffer. Anyone who believes in God, or who wonders about God, is faced by the problem, however it is phrased. When people ask, "Why did God allow this to happen?" or "Couldn't God have prevented this?", the "this" almost always refers to suffering.
By way of contrast, most people do not encounter other faiths as a problem within their own personal experience on a regular basis; indeed, I regularly speak with people who have never faced this as an issue.
Similarly, people are not torn between science and religion on a daily basis: in our society, we do not have faith healers seeking to persuade people to use their magic charms as an alternative to vaccination or mainstream medical treatment, or engineers insisting that people renounce their faith before they are allowed to drive a car or use any other product of modern science.
And complaints about inconsistencies in the Bible are usually only encountered in the context of evangelism, so it is entirely possible that most Christians never face them at all.
Secondly, only the question about suffering does not have a straightforward response. The following responses can be considered as representative of the possible answers which might be given.
No - if anything, it has established that religion is a normal and important aspect of human society, and hence must be taken seriously; in any case, most people are comfortable with the idea that science and religion ask different questions about the world - science asks about the 'what?' and religion asks about the 'why?'
Is there any evidence (beyond wishful thinking!) which would suggest that this is the cause? Religions disagree on many points, so they can't all be right. Nobody would suggest that all roads lead to London, so why would such an absurd idea make sense in the spiritual realm?
The details of the response must be shaped by your theology on the subject, but a perfectly acceptable response to most people is that the Bible does appear to contradict itself on a few minor and unimportant details, but on the big, important and relevant subjects it is remarkably consistent - amazingly consistent, given the period over which it was written and the number of human authors. So are there any specific examples where an apparent contradiction really troubles you?
There are several common questions about suffering, which I encounter in the context of apologetics and pastoral care. Several have been mentioned already:
These questions are quite different in tone from the related questions about suffering calling in to question the existence of God, or the possibility of belief in the Christian God. These can also be asked in several ways, such as:
These questions are clearly linked to the previous ones, but generally require a different approach. In my experience, they are encountered much less frequently than the first group of questions.
However, when I talk with Christians about the subject, they rarely feel they have even the beginnings of an answer to any of the questions about suffering, from either group. Some are very open about the problem this causes them, and say that fear of being asked about suffering is a significant reason why they do not talk about their faith.
In the testimony of those who have lost their faith in God, the problem of suffering is one of the common themes: they could not reconcile their belief in a good God with the suffering they saw, and letting go of belief in God was the only way they could see to be consistent.
Despite all the words which have been written on the subject, my own informal research suggests that most Christians do not feel they have a response to the problem of suffering. This damages their faith and their witness, and even leads some to reject the Christian faith altogether.
Charles Darwin is a familiar, if misunderstood, example of this: the evidence is that he lost his faith because of the problem of suffering, and not (as many people assume) as a result of the theory of evolution [Gunton, The Christian Faith, 2002, p. 26.].