The three chapters of Why Suffering? attempt to provide a gentle exploration of how we can respond to a complex issue that has baffled and bothered humanity throughout the ages: Why does a good, all-powerful, and loving God permit evil and suffering? The opening chapter examines the challenge in some depth, while the two additional chapters set forth a Christian response that is grounded in the disclosure of God in Christ on the cross.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There is a sense in which the problem of suffering is obvious. God, according to the Christian tradition, is perfect love and absolute power. On the human level, no loving parent wants to see children suffer, so on the divine level, a being of perfect love must want to eliminate suffering. Given that this being is absolute power, this being must be able to eliminate suffering. So we arrive at the problem of suffering. Why does a being of perfect love and absolute power allow suffering?
Although the problem on one level is obvious, let us explore some of the complexities, which can be grouped into two types. The first type is the range of forms that suffering can take, and the second type is why precisely suffering is a challenge to faith.
The forms of suffering
Theologians have been thinking about the problem of suffering for centuries, and the following list of types of suffering has emerged. These are:
1 Suffering as a result of moral evil.
2 Group suffering.
3 Suffering caused by nature.
4 Animal suffering.
5 Demonic and Satanic suffering.
Let us look at each in turn.
The first is suffering that is a result of moral evil. This is the suffering that humans inflict on each other through their decisions to be unkind and cruel. This can be everything from the relatively trivial moments of driving inconsiderately, all the way up to the Holocaust. The death of six million Jews (and other victims) by a ruthless use of a state's military machinery is a classic illustration of the human capacity to inflict cruelty upon each other.
Although the Holocaust has many unique features, it is just one of many illustrations of systematic human cruelty. From the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 to the Bosnian Genocide of 1995, humans repeatedly allow and participate in horrendous crimes against each other. But it is important to stress that suffering through moral evil includes the countless acts of selfishness that we all perform every single day. These include the decision to be extravagant instead of giving to a person in need, the act of gossip, or the hurtful comment that we hurl in the middle of an argument to a spouse. All of this is covered under the first (and very large) category of suffering that is a result of moral evil. So the question arises: why does God allow us to inflict so much pain on each other?
The second type of suffering is a subsection of the first. This is suffering endured by particular groups. It is important to recognize that some groups suffer more than others. It was the African American philosopher, William R. Jones, who in a highly influential and provocative essay asked the question, is God a white racist? In the essay, he offers a critique of various classical theodicies of why African Americans have had to endure such a racist history. He finds all the theodicies implausible. Jones invites us to really live with the question: why does God allow particular groups to suffer so much more than other groups? If God is in control of history, why is it that some groups (such as the Jews or the African Americans) seem to have had such a disproportionately hard time?
The third type is suffering caused by nature. Nature might be beautiful, but it isn't sentimental. There is a brutality in nature. The calm ocean can easily turn wild; when it does so, lives can be lost in a major storm. Rain is a precious gift when it waters crops, but it can become treacherous when it becomes a flood. The wind is a natural process that moves clouds across the sky, but a hurricane can devastate entire towns. Nature is indiscriminate; it takes out the innocent as well as the guilty. A young child is as likely to be killed as an aging man who has led a sinful life. When it comes to suffering caused by nature, it looks like God is the primary agent. Although there is a connection between human agency and the climate, most forms of weather-related disasters (an earthquake, for example) are not due to human actions. So the question arises: why does God allow a child to be killed by a flood?
The fourth type is animal suffering. Now this is a subsection of the third type. The food chain is pretty brutal. Smaller animals suffer as they are eaten by larger animals. The whole process of evolutionary history is parasitic on the emergence of countless species that then die out as they fail to adapt to the changing environment. If in some sense the goal of creation was the emergence of humanity, then the processes of evolution are a long, wasteful, and deeply painful route to the goal. Why does a God create natural structures that are so painful to so many sentient creatures?
The fifth and final type is the suffering caused by the devil and by demons. Now at this point, some Christians solve this problem by simply saying that such entities are implausible and unlikely to exist. However, demons are a major part of the Gospel narrative, which describes Jesus constantly "casting them out." So the obvious question is this: why does God allow these evil entities so much space in the world? It is especially puzzling when one remembers that according to Scripture, God will ultimately triumph over the devil. If this is the ultimate plan, then why doesn't God speed up the process and get rid of the devil and demons right now?
As one looks at all the different types of suffering, one can understand the atheist who stops right here. These questions are simply unanswerable. As Sam Harris puts it,
The problem of vindicating an omnipotent and omniscient God in the face of evil (this is traditionally called the problem of theodicy) is insurmountable. Those who claim to have surmounted it, by recourse to notions of free will and other incoherencies, have merely heaped bad philosophy onto bad ethics. Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.
At this point, it is important to note that Christians should never be afraid of questions. God created us with minds that have the capacity to think, so we need to enter in and enjoy the questions. However, let us make the questions a little more complicated. Why precisely is suffering a problem to faith?
Digging down into the problem
Philosophers like to be very precise with language. They want to move from the obvious sense in which suffering is a problem of faith (the simple question of "Why does God allow this?") to the more precise. Now some background is necessary at this point. Coherence is very important when it comes to belief. It literally means that beliefs cohere together. They make sense; it is an option because one belief does not cancel another belief out. So for example, if I started talking about drawing a "square circle," then you would rightly be puzzled. How can you have a square circle? We all know what a square is — it is a shape with four equal sides and four equal angles. We also all know what a circle is — it is a shape with no sides and no angles. So how can you draw a shape with both sides and angles and simultaneously no sides and no angles? It doesn't make sense. One cannot even imagine what the shape would look like. It is, to use a philosopher's favorite term, self-contradictory.
For a belief to become an option, the belief must be at least coherent. There are lots of coherent beliefs that do not exist. For example, the idea of unicorn — a horse-type beast with a horn coming out of its forehead — is a coherent idea and one can imagine it being true, but it probably doesn't exist. It is not like a square circle, which is intrinsically self-contradictory. The idea of a funny sort of horse with a horn is no stranger than cats without tails (which do exist — there is an entire breed of Manx cats on the Isle of Man). The question with unicorns is not whether the idea is coherent, but whether there is any evidence that they exist.
Armed with this background, philosophers talk of the problem of suffering in two ways. The first way is to treat it as a coherency problem with belief. Christians believe in a God with a certain set of attributes — a God who is powerful and all loving. Is this type of God compatible with the reality of suffering in the world? As we have just seen, the philosopher Sam Harris thinks that it is not. He sees these two beliefs as being self-contradictory. The incoherence of a "square circle" is easy to see, but the incoherence with an all-powerful and all-loving God is less obvious. Alison Krauss, the blues singer, says of suffering "there must be a reason for it all." She goes on to sing that "hurtin' brings my heart to you." Now Sam Harris cannot say that this is definitely false. Perhaps Alison Krauss is right: there are reasons for suffering, and among these reasons is the closeness that develops between a human and God. This is possible. And if it is possible, then incoherence cannot be proved. So much like the idea of the unicorn, the idea of a God who is all powerful and loving and a suffering world are not obviously contradictory.
The second way in which philosophers talk about the problem of suffering is still very present. The idea of the unicorn is coherent, but it is not obvious that these mythical creatures really exist. We would need evidence that they exist, but all the evidence tends to point against this. This is called the "evidential problem of evil." Philosophers who talk in this way concede that it is logically possible (which is just another way of saying that the belief is coherent) that suffering is compatible with the existence of God, but they still think that suffering is good evidence against the existence of God. Although God might have some reason, it still feels more likely than not that suffering points to the random nature of the world, where stuff just happens because it does.
So now we have a sense of the problem. And it is good to sit here for a moment. Christians often rush to solve a problem without living with the problem for a while. This is a serious challenge to faith. We have seen how many different forms that suffering takes. It isn't simply our innate propensity to be cruel to each other; it includes earthquakes; racism; animal suffering; and, if they exist, suffering caused by the devil and demons. Alison Krauss does make the point that incoherence is impossible to prove (there might always be a reason for why God allows suffering), but we are still left with a massive puzzle. One can understand why a person watching the television news might find themselves thinking, "I just cannot believe that there is a good God in control of this world." It just doesn't make sense.
How are we going to respond to this challenge? This is our task in the rest of this book. We turn now to our head answers.
Suffering is hard. Explanations for suffering can easily sound shallow and painful. When they have just lost a loved one, no one wants to be told, "Well, look on the bright side, at least they are in a better place." Even if heaven exists, suffering is an agony all of its own. Sometimes the moment does not need explanation. One just needs to live with the pain and agony.
But Christians do want to say that there are reasons why God allows suffering in this universe. Two main perspectives have been offered. The first focuses on human freedom, and the other on the values that emerge from suffering. The former is called the "free will defense," and the latter is the "greater goods defense." We start with the free will defense.
Forms of the free will argument can be found in a variety of contexts, from the writings of Augustine of Hippo to the contemporary philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga. This argument is part of virtually every attempt to explain why evil and suffering exists. It starts with the assumption that the goal of creation is to have creatures who are able to have a loving relationship with each other and with God. Love cannot be programmed or compelled. Although I am able to set my computer on start up to announce "I love you," I know that this is not true love. True loves requires freedom — a freedom to hurt, disagree, and hate. And love is precious precisely because true love includes this possibility. As every parent knows, one of the finest moments in the world is when a child turns to them and says, "I love you, Daddy and Mommy." It is precisely because a child has the capacity to dislike and hate that the sentence is so extraordinary. So the free will defense goes like this: God desires a creation where there is love. Love requires freedom. Given love is a desirable end, then freedom is a necessary condition. However, freedom entails the possibility of evil. This possibility was realized (and is realized every day) by humans exercising their freedom for evil ends. Ultimately, at the end of the age, by God's grace, humans will have learned to use their freedom for good. This is the promise of heaven. But for now, we live with the struggle in us all. Every day, we are choosing. Sometimes our better selves triumph, and we choose to act in ways that are generous, gentle, and kind. Sometimes our shadow side triumphs, and we gossip and behave in vindictive and sometimes cruel ways.
While the free will defense focuses on our behavior (moral evil), the Irenaean theodicy focuses on the context in which we are living. It was John Hick, in his rightly acclaimed classic Evil and the God of Love, who argues for an Irenaean, rather than Augustinian, theodicy. According to Augustine, we as humans are placed into a perfect setting that we spoil by sinning; for Irenaeus (c. 130 to 202 ce) we are placed into a challenging setting through which we move from the image of God (our fundamental nature as creatures of intelligence) to the likeness of God (the state where the human is perfected by the action of the Holy Spirit). Hick explains the contrast between Augustine and Irenaeus in this way:
There is ... to be found in Irenaeus the outline of an approach to the problem of evil which stands in important respects in contrast to the Augustinian type of theodicy. Instead of a doctrine that man was created finitely perfect and then incomprehensively destroyed his own perfection and plunged into sin and misery, Irenaeus suggests that man was created as an imperfect, immature creature who was to undergo moral development and growth and finally be brought to the perfection intended for him by his Maker. Instead of the fall of Adam being presented, as in the Augustinian tradition, as an utterly malignant and catastrophic event, completely disrupting God's plan, Irenaeus pictures it as something that occurred in the childhood of the race, an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity rather than an adult crime full of malice and pregnant with perpetual guilt. And instead of the Augustinian view of life's trials as a divine punishment for Adam's sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a divinely appointed environment for man's development towards the perfection that represents the fulfillment of God's good purpose for him.
With this contrast established, Hick then develops the Irenaean theodicy in an interesting and imaginative way. God desires a world that is a vale of soul-making — a setting in which we move from immaturity into maturity. The setting is a stable one in which humans can exercise their freedom and learn to interact with each other. There is an appropriate distance between us and God: God is not so overwhelmingly obvious that we would not dare to develop our character and autonomy. With the challenge of coping with tragedy and pain, we develop character. John Hick is pointing to an experience which is, fortunately, often recognized by people who suffer. It arises when a person who is forced to cope with some tragedy (such as a divorce) and then in retrospect decides "it was all for the good." A person, for example, may lose their job and in a moment of despair discover resources "deep" inside to transform the situation.
One truth about being human is that often suffering is the vehicle that helps one more clearly see the true value of things around us. So we never express deep gratitude for good health until we are in danger of losing it. We never appreciate the love of parents until they are in danger of going. We spend too much time wishing we had the luxury car or the fabulous vacation and fail to appreciate the gift of a friend who keeps us company or running water that comes out of the tap. The truth about suffering is that it often takes suffering to start seeing things aright.
Yet these head answers can feel inadequate when one learns of a child who was tortured and abused. It feels inadequate to say that this suffering is the inevitable result of the misuse of human freedom and will prove helpful in clarifying one's underlying disposition about life. Indeed, it sounds almost cruel. Such a response feels almost immoral.
Excerpted from "Why Suffering?"
Copyright © 2018 Ian S. Markham.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
1 The Problem,
2 Head Answers,
3 Heart Responses,
4 Suffering in the Wider Christian Narrative,
5 Coping with Suffering,