The Problem of Evil: Responding to the Responses

How can an all-powerful, perfectly good god allow so much suffering? Those of us living a relatively comfortable life can easily forget how awful some people’s lives can be: the diseases that leave their victims to die in agony after a short life, the people who walk for miles each day just to get clean water, the people who live in constant fear because of war, the earthquakes that destroy lives. But we’ve all suffered: had losses, disappointments, and endured the trials and small cruelties of daily life. Surely an omnipotent, benevolent god would prevent this misery. If God can’t prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If he doesn’t care, he is not omnibenevolent. If he doesn’t know about our suffering or doesn’t know how to prevent it, he is not omniscient. This is an old argument, known as the problem of evil, and it has attracted plenty of responses from theists eager to defend the traditional view of God. In this post I am going to raise some objections to a way of responding to the problem.

Before that, I should clarify the limitations of the argument. If successful, the problem of evil doesn’t show that God does not exist. It only shows that God cannot be omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. A theist could easily get around the problem by saying that either God is not omnipotent, and so cannot stop all of the suffering in the world, or is not perfectly good, and so can be blamed for it. If you believe in a god who is less than perfect or not quite omnipotent, the problem of evil is not an issue for your kind of god. But if you do believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, it doesn’t make sense to think that God would allow suffering.

God, the good parent?

Here’s a way a religious apologist might respond to the problem. How do you know the suffering in the world is pointless? God is infinitely wiser and more knowledgeable than we are, so how can you presume to know that there isn’t a reason for suffering, that it isn’t serving a greater purpose that you don’t understand from your limited human perspective? Notice that a good parent takes their young child to be vaccinated. The child doesn’t understand why they have to go through the pain, but the parent, being wiser and more knowledgeable than the child, understands that the injection, painful as it is, prevents the child from getting diseases that would be much more painful. Perhaps God, like a good parent, puts us through suffering that prevents a greater evil, or brings about a greater good, in ways that we don’t understand.

There’s a major flaw with this analogy. As humans, we sometimes put ourselves and others through suffering for a greater good because we are limited. We cannot achieve the good without the suffering. If we sometimes have to go through painful medical treatments, it is because there is no other way of curing the disease. But even if we cannot obtain some greater good without some suffering, and even if the good outweighs the bad in the end, we should achieve our ends with the least amount of suffering possible. If there was another, less painful but equally effective way of being vaccinated, any good parent would use it. God is only acting like a good parent if he is achieving the least possible amount of suffering. Whatever God wants to achieve, he could do it without causing any suffering. If he can’t, he is not omnipotent.

As humans, we sometimes have to make tragic choices because of our limited resources. When there isn’t enough food or medicine to save everyone, all we can do is to decide who to save and who to let die. An omnipotent god has no such limitations.

God is not like the parent taking their child to be vaccinated, choosing the best, least painful option from a limited set. The parent didn’t make it so the injection would be painful. They are choosing the best option they can out of a limited set. God is not like this. If suffering is necessary, it’s only because that’s how God designed us. God, unlike the parent in the example, made the connections and consequences. If there is a connection between suffering and some desirable end; if, for example, suffering is the only way for us to build character, it’s only because God created the connection, i.e. designed humans in a way that makes suffering necessary.

But we can’t judge god

If you’re not convinced by the above, you might think I’m assuming too much. You might think we have no idea how probable it is that the evil in the world serves a greater purpose because we have no way of understanding God’s mind. We can’t judge God. From our human perspective, it might seem as though there’s no reason why God couldn’t prevent suffering, but our human perspective is not God’s perspective. If we knew everything that God knows, we would see that there really is a good reason for allowing suffering, however unreasonable or cruel that may seem with the knowledge we have now.

But if you accept that we really don’t know that God doesn’t have a good reason for allowing us to suffer, then you have no reason to conclude that God is good, because saying that God is good is judging God just as much as is saying that God should not allow suffering. If you accept the view that nothing can count as evidence that God is less than perfectly good, then none of the good things in the world, and none of God’s actions, can count as evidence of God’s goodness. There would be no grounds for thinking that God will keep any promises, because if God breaks a promise, there might be a reason for it that humans couldn’t possibly understand.

If, for all we know, allowing earthquakes and cancer might be good, then allowing loving relationships, or great music and literature, or any of the other pleasures of life, might be bad in some way we couldn’t possibly understand. We can have no grounds for praising God because, for all we know, the things God has done that we think are good might be unimaginably bad. I’m not saying that I think an evil god is very likely. Rather I’m asking the question: if it’s reasonable to say that there might be a good reason for suffering, why would it be any less reasonable to say that there’s an evil reason for goodness and pleasure? How would we know which is more likely?

Conclusion

If we can judge, then a loving god, who calls himself our father, would not allow his children to live in a world where so many of them have lives of utter despair. This world, where all of us know pain, cannot be the creation of a loving god. If we can’t judge, we cannot reasonably claim that God is good, because that itself is a judgement of God.

4 Replies to “The Problem of Evil: Responding to the Responses”

  1. Excellent article. I happen to be in the middle of reading a book on suffering. In this the author cites examples and quotes from dozens of philosophers with every type of world view. The author thought-provokingly and respectfully considers everyone’s opinion on ‘God or no God’ and ways of coming to terms with the many various evils and suffering which life presents us with.

    There’s one small section which I found particularly interesting and while this part isn’t exactly dealing with the ‘God or no God’ issue, I would like to throw it in anyway. The book debates that there seems to be a culture where people calling themselves believers see the biblical God as a being whose job it is to meet their needs and provide them with a comfortable life. He says:-

    “When we stand back to consider the premise – that God owes us a good life – it is clearly unwarranted. If there really is an infinitely glorious God, why should the universe revolve around us rather than around him? If we look at the biblical God’s standards for our behaviour – the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount – and then consider humanity’s record against those norms, it may occur to us that the real riddle of evil is not what we thought. Perhaps the real puzzle is this: Why, in light of our behaviour as a human race, does God allow so much happiness? The teaching of creation and fall removes the self-pity that afflicts people with the deistic view of life. It strengthens the soul, preparing it to be unsurprised when life is hard.” [Tim Keller, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering”] (kindle version 31%)

    In conclusion, while there is much un-caused suffering, we all have got it within us to find happiness if we are open, grateful and appreciative of the various pleasures at our disposal.

    1. If the premise that God owes us a good life is unwarranted, how about the premise that God owes us a minimally decent life? Does God, for instance, owe us clean drinking water? Does God owe us anything at all? If God doesn’t owe us anything, what does it mean to say that God is good? It can’t mean, for example, that God fulfils his obligations, adheres to a set of rules or respects the rights of other beings, since he has no obligations, isn’t bound by any rules, and we have no right to expect anything from him. Nor can it mean that God does whatever will produce the most happiness, since that would mean God owes us a good life. Perhaps it means that God has a good, virtuous character, but then I’d still expect God’s character to show up in his actions, e.g. the virtue of generosity would show up in generous actions. As a final alternative, if God is good by definition, if, in other words, whatever God does is good just because God did it, the phrase “God is good” is meaningless. My point is: if God owes us nothing, he is not being held to any moral standard, so how can it make sense to say that God is good?

      Moving on to the next part of the quote, why should God’s being “infinitely glorious” make him more important, and mean that the universe should revolve around him? What, exactly, makes God more important than humans? If you say that God’s goodness makes him more important, you risk arguing in a circle: God is good, so God is more important, so God isn’t bound by the same moral standards as everyone else, so God is good whatever he does. Is a good being one who thinks he’s the most important and that the universe revolves around him? If it’s God’s power that makes him more important, would you be willing to generalise that principle? Are more powerful beings generally more important?

      “Perhaps the real puzzle is this: Why, in light of our behaviour as a human race, does God allow so much happiness?” I take this to mean that we don’t deserve the happiness we get, but does anyone deserve to suffer? Sometimes criminals need to be punished, to deter them from doing the same again, or to keep them away from the people they might harm, but that is not the same as saying they deserve to suffer. The human race’s bad behaviour doesn’t justify our suffering.

      Finally, how do you know that “we all have got it within us to find happiness”? Perhaps you do, perhaps I do, but are you sure everyone does, when you consider the despair some people live with?

  2. I would ask if on thinking about it, much suffering is not inflicted or “encouraged” by humans themselves, by you and me. Eg I’m using an i-phone and a computer, knowing that so many of the elements that are used to fabricate these items are only produced by much suffering even to small children; same of leather, cotton etc. Are the coffee, tea I drink, the chocolate I enjoy the clothes I wear really payed for at it’s real value ? If not, I’m helping to contribute to poverty in many countries; and there must be a great number of much more such examples. The tragedy is that I am mostly doing it unvoluntarily and unknowingly.
    So this suffering is not God’s fault but greedy people’s who are exploiting other people who can’t defend themselves, and as we know, this is obviously against God’s expressed will.
    Not to mention wars, crimes and terrorism, and crimes against nature.
    If God interfeared He would do it against the principle of human free will. ( I think He will do ultimately but this is not for me to know )
    All this of course only seems a naïve attempt to “excuse” God. I’m sure he does not need this, but somehow I do !
    We had a great theologian friend who now directs a theological faculty. He used to say to us that he would gladly discuss any biblical and theological question, except the problem of evil. He said the problem of evil was the theologians “thorn in his reasoning” alluding of course to St.Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” ( 2 Corinthians 12 : 7 )
    Of course there is much more to say, we could discuss this theme all night, but I’ll leave it at that just now !

  3. Just a little addition to the subject of pain and suffering. It’s been taken from the book by Tim Keller. One of the many points he makes is this …..”Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials. Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard. It gives us a range of insights that are useful to many other people we meet………People who have not suffered much are often shallow, unacquainted with both their weaknesses and strengths, naive about human nature and life, and almost always fragile and unresilient. But we know that suffering does not deepen and enrich us automatically”……

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