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.