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?
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.