The Problem of Suffering as it relates to theism is too cumbersome to unpack here, but I’d like to discuss a single idea connected to the issue: the notion that God has the right to inflict suffering on his creation on the basis of his having created it. The argument is that we owe our existence to God, so he’s entitled to cause or “allow” any harm whatever to befall us. It’s an easy argument to flower up, but like all theistic arguments, it doesn’t sound too impressive when you just come out and say it.
This idea fails miserably under any normal test. It certainly fails when you use it to draw any sort of analogy. It’s evident that a scientist who discovered a means to create life from scratch would in no way have earned the right to cause it suffering. God is elusive as always when put to these tests and subject to the argument which is the bane of every analogy: “That’s different!” We’re not talking about sin-fallen man, after all, but about God who, even if we can’t nail down his reasons, surely must have them.
As it happens, says the sophisticated theologian, God inflicts (or “allows”) suffering for very good reasons, the most important of which being that suffering enables us to have free will and empowers us to make decisions that matter.
There is something funny to be said for this argument, namely that I can assert with near certainty, “If that argument sounds persuasive to you, you are religious.” I don’t level this as a knock-down argument – it’s in fact no argument at all – but the fact that the primary justification for suffering is so utterly unpersuasive to the un-indoctrinated does not bode well for it.
For the last time, no, billions of innocent people and animals needn’t suffer from disease and famine so that I can freely choose to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and to suggest as much in any terms is patronizing at best. It is easy to imagine a world in which people are free to choose good and evil, to accept the correct religion and denomination and church, but in which the needless suffering of the innocent is not rampant. We don’t need natural disasters or droughts or famines or diseases to be free.
The god of the Bible might even agree with me. He never once visits suffering on people in the name of “free will.” In fact, he depends on suffering quite a bit to further other ends. Beholden to infinite power, his choice method of getting his followers’ attention was to send them famine and drought so they and their children had nothing to eat or drink. In other moods, he sent rival armies to slaughter them, rape their women, and enslave their children. The cosmos at his fingertips, he preferred to cause millions of creatures a great deal of agony when he was upset with them. What confuses and upsets me aren’t the stories – they are products of their time – but the need to state the obvious in modern times: there are better ways to motivate and inspire people than to inflict extreme suffering on them and their children, especially for a being of infinite means.
Returning to the topic at hand, his being all powerful doesn’t grant him the right to torture. To the contrary, it renders him all the more culpable. As humans, we can enjoy thought experiments about when it might or might not be permissible to harm the innocent to save humanity, but God knows no moral dilemmas because dilemmas occur when one is forced to cope with limited power or resources.
No argument yet put forward has succeeded in satisfying impartial, irreligious individuals on this issue, certainly not obtuse arguments from “free will” or “divine right.” It does not make sense that God, being all-powerful, would depend so thoroughly on obscene quantities of needless misery. The Problem of Suffering is still a problem because theistic attempts to defend the point range from silly to depraved.
Christians are busy even now answering for a God who will not answer for himself. In all their sophisticated explanations, they seem to forget that when the question “Why am I suffering?” was put to God, he didn’t wax philosophical on free will or Job’s personal moral growth. What he did was take the opportunity to intimidate and punish Job for asking.
But theologians will do what they must to improve on God’s answer, for the Problem of Suffering is in their hands now. For the non-religious, there is no puzzle, no paradox, and no tension. There is just a terrible thing called “suffering” whose existence is regrettable but perfectly congruent with a naturalistic understanding of the world. When we see it, we don’t hurry to justify but to end it, just like any good god would do.
Cole, I am really enjoying your blog. No sarcasm. At all. I re-read my own latest comment response to your other blog post and I laughed…. At the first sentence (which could be taken so wrongly if your impression of me is that I am a religious nut) :). Haha. I mean “if you hear me, you can be my friend”. You could take that as a threat, that’s the funny way, I didn’t see that when I wrote it…. I mean come’on , if you don’t know me anyway, I’m sure you don’t give a hoot whether I choose or refuse to be your friend. haha. 🙂 What I meant was when you hear of the answers to some of your questions that I love to share, it would make you love to be my friend, to hear more! Let me explain more….
a blessed question can lead to a blessed answer but an unblessed question can only lead to unblessed answers. Will you spar with me here?
To ask “why does God allow suffering?” Presupposes that he does allow it. Can you agree that the question that rightfully should proceed that one is, “does God allow suffering?”
Yes, I agree with you. I do not believe God allows suffering because I don’t think there is a God to allow it. “Why does God allow suffering?” assumes 1) there is a God, and 2) it has the power to end suffering and does not. I frame the question that way to argue on theistic grounds.
Why can a blessed question only lead to a blessed answer, and the other way around? I thought God was known for turning sorrow into gladness. Seems to me he can take an unblessed question and do whatever he wants with it. But this is also ignoring that a blessed or unblessed question doesn’t really have any definition or mean anything. Why call any question blessed or unblessed?
We can surmise that God allows suffering by the following (modified) Epicurean Paradox:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is not benevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then why is evil allowed?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
In other words, if God is able to stop something bad but chooses not do, then by definition, he allows the bad to happen. And if he allows bad to happen to someone while he is fully able to stop it, then he is certainly not good. Etc.
Oh hey. I just saw these responses now. I was expecting them to come by email but they did not. I guess I have to check the email me box with each interaction here. Anyway, let me explain the blessed/unblessed question thing like this. Someone asks you, WHY do you beat your wife?? You can’t answer yes or no, I do or don’t, rather the question is why do you do that. perhaps you don’t beat her though.
Same is true for God. Have you considered a God that does not allow evil?
What do you think of this quote??…”How can you be omnipotent, O God, if you cannot do all things? How can you do all
things if you cannot sin – – if you cannot lie, if you cannot make false what is true? If you
are unable to sin, you cannot claim to be able to do all things. Or is it that sin stems not from power, but from powerlessness? For those who commit sin have so little power
over their own natures that they actually harm themselves. They are at the mercy of
forces which they cannot oppose . . . .The more people have power to commit sin,the
more they are powerless. So, Lord God, you are in fact more truly omnipotent because
you cannot act through powerlessness.” Proslogion, Chapter 7.
No answer yet… Maybe you guys are thinking…..
I like philosophical thinking a lot…. So what if God was sooooo good that he didn’t use the forceful controlling means with us, that we use with one another? What if God doesn’t force, coerce, manipulate, or condemn? What if he doesn’t kill, or destroy? What if the Bible shows a progressive revelation of God?
For example, the old testament people claimed to know God….. But when Jesus came he said…. NO ONE knows or has known the Father…. In fact, to the most highly respected religious folks of the day, who self claimed to have the Father of Jacob, Abraham and Isaac, Jesus said… Actually your father is the devil (which means adversary). Read John chapter 8.
I can’t address all those hypotheticals. What if God is very different than portrayed in scripture? What if Jesus didn’t mean it when he talked about eternal hell fire? What if God only allowed humans to make it appear as though he sanctioned slavery and genocide? The real problem, Amy, is that you just can’t lose with these kind of arguments. Your position is infinitely elastic. The fact that your position can’t be disproven (or that your argument cannot be lost by definition) does not speak in its favor. You could use your method to validate any holy book on earth (or any THING for that matter).
What if all the laws of physics hold true, but there are also little angels in the moon which steer it in exactly the same manner gravity otherwise would? What if there really are gods who allow us to choose between them among the various religions so that we can choose which afterlife to enjoy? What if God is actually a benevolent teapot orbiting Mars? It’s not fair to ask for reasons NOT to address these questions. The question should always be: why SHOULD I believe this? What evidence stands in its favor?
You are cherry-picking through scripture to paint the picture you want to see. I’ve read the Bible many times, and the only way to build the sort of case you’re making is to be highly selective and irresponsibly generous.
Thank you so much for your response. I don’t mean any offense by my posts. I imagine you want engagement towards your blogs. Otherwise your views are just your questions in which you continue to search for better answers. I so appreciated in one of your posts about how you would or should treat believers with respect and compassion. 🙂 that’s awesome.
I just don’t think God allows evil at all but rather overcomes it. In God’s eyes, evil was never something to allow, but rather is a malignancy which must be overcome. “Be not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good”.
You are right about cherry picking. Anyone can justify ANYTHING. And I mean ANYTHING with scripture. You are dead on when you say what matters is HOW my view helps, not whether or not my dreamy hypotheticals would come to pass. “A benevolent teapot circling mars” haha! I love it! 🙂
I love your humor and the intelligence in your lines of thought. You are totally on the right track, in my view, by rejecting what you were taught growing up.
I will try to synopse what I believe for you. Once you ignite with it, it will engulf you and I mean this in the kindest of ways. It will enliven and not destroy.
But first, one more hypothetical. :P. How can a God who speaks only life communicate with a peoples that HEAR only death. If death is of God, if God gives and takes away, then Christianity is moot. Because we would be nothing but depressed Ecclesiasticals who fear death’s finality. If we were born to die, then why the heck are we born?? If I myself were an atheist, I would be deeply struggling with that question.
Death is not from God. Call me hypothetical or idealistic, but this is the foundation of true faith in Christ. All those who claim God gives and takes away are worshipping Satan, the adversary, and don’t know it. Jesus said that in John chapter 8.
Hebrews 2:14 says that God came to destroy him who held the power of death, which is SATAN. And to free them who were all their lives held in bondage by the fear of death.
There are verses saying death is an enemy of God and that death is the last enemy which will be defeated. There are verses saying that eventually all will be resurrected from the dead. Death and hell will “give up their dead”. There will be no more death, no more tears, no more sorrow, for the old manner of things has passed away. (Verses from Corinthians and revelations).
Jesus said he came to defeat and destroy Satan, hell, and death. to bind up the broken hearted and to set the captives free. Romans 8 says not even death nor demons can separate is from the love of God.
We cannot worship the letter of the law… the literal reading of which is death ( that’s also a passage in corinthians). The Bible itself claims that the law is the ministry of condemnation and death. But rather than go by the law, or the written things of Moses, we are to instead find the Spirit of Christ. 2 cor 3. And Romans verses say that the ministry of the law is Death.
We were brainwashed as kids to never see this stuff… Because we read with eyes of exclusion, when God is in fact rather only inclusive. but the inclusion is written everywhere in the bible… Seen in astonishing clarity with hindsight!! All Jesus spoke about was inclusion and the only thing he excluded was exclusion itself.
I dint want to overload you all at once… This is just a beginning. … gotta go for now.. 🙂
Thanks, Amy. Again, I just need evidence that what you’re saying is true. That’s all. If your support is scripture, then I need evidence to support that. Throwing scriptures back and forth will not solve this problem, especially given that one of us does not accept most of scripture as a historical or moral authority. It’s a bankrupt practice anyway, which is why your version of Christianity may vary wildly from the next person. It’s too easy to build biblical cases like the one you just constructed. I could build an equally valid but contradictory case in five minutes!
As it stands, I need some good evidence.
Wait, you said you needed evidense… If it’s scripture I based this on, then scriptures? But then that also you don’t accept the bible as authority.
Me too. I think people worship the Bible as God and this is wrong… Bibolitry. 🙂
Does the thing I posted a few minutes ago with the scriptures embedded in it help, or not, then?
You want spiritual proof, not literal, it sounds.
Jesus is the only God ever, no other religion teaches the use of good to overcome evil, even until death. This explains why evil appears to thrive while God patiently waits for mankind to realize that life, and bit death, comes from God. Jesus resurrection from death is the basis of the faith. He didn’t retailiate evil for evil even unto death. He rose from the grave, to show that death is not the end. He told parents of a dead girl that she was not dead, but sleeping. Etc..
Here is a pretyped thing with scriptures imbeded if you really want to search this out… Pretyped just saves time… cuz I gotta run…. But this could really bless you…
I see it a little differently. In the Old Testament the wrath of God is often confused with the destructions of Satan.
Nowhere is this dynamic revealed more clearly than in the following two Old Testament passages:
“And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 Sam. 24:1.
“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.: 1 Chr. 21:1.
The above passages describe the same event where David sinned by numbering Israel. Same event. Same David. Same sin. Same result: 70,000 dead Israelites, but a different cause of evil. The Samuel passage attributes it to “the anger of the Lord” while the Chronicles passage attributes it to “Satan.”
So, IF the Old Testament viewed the wrath of God as the exact same thing as the oppression of Satan, where does that leave us in the New Testament? Well, until and unless we renew our mind to the perfectly good will of God the Father, it leaves us in a perfect state of confusion, where both good and evil come from the God of love and wrath. The God who loves us today may kill or destroy us tomorrow. Though he slay us, we will serve him. Though he afflict us with cancer, we will praise Him. Though he allows our children to be kidnaped and killed, we will love Him.
This type of thinking may make us sound noble, but makes God into a monster. It was to these type of outrageous claims against God’s character that John Wesley famously responded, “Your God is my Satan.”
The New Testament starts to correct and cure these Old Testament distortions of God’s character. The Old Testament might equate the wrath of God with the oppressions of Satan. But the New Testament clearly reveals Satan’s oppressions as the enemy of Jesus who “came to destroy the works of Satan” and “heal all who are oppressed by the devil.” 1 Jn. 3:8; Acts 10:38. Jesus did this by solely using the power of “doing good.” God’s power doesn’t manipulate or coerce Satan into doing God’s wrathful will, but rather God’s power diminishes and displaces Satan’s oppressions with God’s good and perfect will.
Jesus, the Great Physician, came to diagnose and cure all this infected thinking described in Isaiah 5:20. He came to destroy the works of the devil. 1 Jn. 3:8. He came to reveal the character of the Father as only and always good. 1 Jn. 1:5. Jesus came to reveal the Father’s will as peace on Earth and good will toward man. Lu. 2:14. Jesus came to reveal Satan as the tempter rather than God. Matt. 4:3; Jas. 1:12-17. Jesus came to reveal that the perfection of God lies in His non-violent overcoming of evil with good. Matt. 5:38-48.
Jesus came to reveal that the character of Satan is to steal, kill and destroy while the character of His Father is to only give life and to give it abundantly. Jn. 10:10. Jesus came to reveal that Satan has the power of death, not God, and that death is an enemy of God. Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:26. Jesus came to reveal that there is an enemy of God who operates outside and apart from the will of God. Matt. 13:28; Jas. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8; 2 Tim. 2:26.
Jesus came to reveal Himself as the way, the truth and life who only does good and heals all who are oppressed of the devil. Jn. 14:6; Acts 10:38. Jesus came to absorb all our sin and Satanic wrath. Jn. 1:29, 36; Col. 2:13-15; 2 Cor. 5:21. Lastly, Jesus, as the full expression of the goodness of God, came to indwell us, empower us and protect us. Lk. 10:19; Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:20.
More pretyped ideas to consider…. From one philosophy enthusiast to a other. 🙂
“IS” GOD ALL-POWERFUL IN THE “WAY” WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT?
Here is the reason God will never commit evil to stop evil, commit violence to stop violence, commit coercion to stop coercion. God IS all-powerful, but only within the context of His character. There are certain qualities that are NOT in the divine nature, a nature which God won’t EVER violate. Men certainly violate these qualities, but not God, not Jesus.
For instance, Scripture says that it is impossible for God to lie. Titus 1:2. But, some would say, “Sure God can lie, He is all-powerful after all.” But, no, it is impossible for Him to act outside of His flawless nature of love, light, Spirit, truth and grace. He won’t lie because it is AGAINST His nature.
This is easy to see in the context of lying, but what about other qualities which are NOT to be found in the divine nature of God? What if violence, coercion, brutality, manipulation, coercion, and pettiness are NOT in His character? Well, there can be only one conclusion: God’s omnipotence must always be defined within the context of His character. He is all-powerfully good, all-powerfully forgiving, all-powerfully healing, all-powerfully truthful, all-powerfully patient, all-powerfully restorative, etc. But, He is NOT all-powerfully cruel, all-powerfully condemning, all-powerfully vindictive, all-powerfully violent, all-powerfully coercive, etc.
Thus, God wont lie to us, kill us, coerce us, manipulate us, brutalize us, abuse us, threaten us or terrorize us. God will protect us, bless us, correct us, teach us, convince us, strengthen us, encourage us and deliver us. Consider the following passage from Saint Anselm:
“How can you be omnipotent, O God, if you cannot do all things? How can you do all things if you cannot sin – – if you cannot lie, if you cannot make false what is true? If you are unable to sin, you cannot claim to be able to do all things. Or is it that sin stems not from power, but from powerlessness? For those who commit sin have so little power over their own natures that they actually harm themselves. They are at the mercy of forces which they cannot oppose . . . .The more people have power to commit sin,the more they are powerless. So, Lord God, you are in fact more truly omnipotent because you cannot act through powerlessness.” Proslogion, Chapter 7.
So, the next time somebody pulls out the worn out argument that if God is all-powerful, He would immediately zap to oblivion all evildoers with His Zeus-like lightning bolts, you know what to say. Jesus is God. God is all-powerful LOVE. Anything outside of LOVE is not in God’s nature. God does save us to the uttermost, but ONLY by His limitless virtue. He always overcomes evil one way and one way only, with goodness.