A correspondent raised this common question today. If you give good enough reasons for believing in God, unbelievers invariably resort to questioning his character in this way. But it’s still a natural question to ask, and we should have thoughtful answers, so I’m reposting mine here.
Why is there so much suffering and ugliness in this world? If God is real, and all powerful, why make a world that has so much misery in it?
It appears to me that this God created all this, and then took a jolly long break and has not returned to sort it out :-)
It is right, of course, to note that God ultimately is responsible for suffering, since he could have created the world differently. I don’t truck with open theism. But there are a surprising number of issues we need to divide here…
We need to be careful to define suffering in a useful, meaningful way.
a. Take, for example, the recent travesty of education we’re seeing in banning speakers who are likely to cause controversy—and if not banning them, then setting up “safe areas” for students who might be “traumatized” (example).
Apparently there is a statistically significant number of young adults in our society who experience suffering just from being exposed to disagreement with their views. But is this kind of suffering something we should imagine is problematic for the existence of God? One can hardly imagine why. It seems to be a suffering caused not by external circumstances, but internal ones. It is not a suffering produced through a defect in the world, by some circumstance which is not as it should be; but rather entirely by a defect of character—and a culpable one at that—in the people experiencing the suffering. The correct response to such “suffering” is not bewilderment at how God could allow it, but at how the sufferers could.
b. Apropos (a), this should lead us to acknowledge that much suffering is actually caused by a defective response to circumstances, rather than defective circumstances themselves. My children, for example, often “suffer” because I don’t let them watch movies all day, or eat snacks whenever they want. But we wouldn’t want to say this suffering is a problem for God’s existence. Yet there seem to be obvious analogies between children and parents, and us and God—which should lead us to be cautious in drawing too many strong inferences from the existence of suffering in general.
c. There’s also the question of whether some suffering can be a non-defective response to good circumstances. For example, it’s hard (for me at least) to see anything objectively wrong about the army’s Marines bootcamp process. Indeed, given the kinds of soldiers they want to produce, their process is quite warranted. Yet many men drop out because their suffering is too intense. But as much as I can’t find fault with the bootcamp process, I also can’t find fault with men who can’t handle it. I don’t think every man must have the kind of fortitude required to endure that. Some men have other kinds of fortitude. Some men don’t have the physical capabilities required. There’s nothing wrong with that; it isn’t a defect in their characters or even in their bodies. So what should we make of suffering that is not caused by a defect either in the circumstances or in the character of the sufferer? Is there something wrong with that suffering? It’s hard to see what it would be. Surely at worst it is neutral, and at best it is at least useful to inform the kind of men who are willing to undergo it about their limits.
d. Apropos (c), it also seems that objectively good (and evil) circumstances can cause objectively good character changes through suffering. Suffering, even if it is evil, can produce character (Romans 5:3-5). Indeed, there are many people who have suffered greatly who would nonetheless not change that past experience if given the opportunity. They would rather suffer through it again because they recognize that the commensurate good that resulted outweighed the suffering itself. And if they wouldn’t change it, why should God?
e. This raises the question of how to balance suffering—even when it can be said to be objectively evil—with the goods that can come about from it. Suppose God wants to create mature people with whom to relate; people who have moral and emotional fortitude. To take a biblical analogy, suppose a craftsman wants to create a pure gold item. He must refine it in fire to remove the impurities from the ore. Now, you can argue that God could have just created people “refined” to begin with; but even if that is true, it’s hard to see why the fact that he could have must entail that he should have.
f. Apropos (e), a point to bear in mind as we continue is that a majority of objections to the existence of God actually boil down to a disapproval of his methods—“I wouldn’t have it done it that way, and I don’t like that God did.” But of course, not liking something isn’t evidence against it. And it takes a peculiar kind of chutzpah to think an all-knowing creator would act just as you would!
There’s also the question of desert.
a. Do we deserve not to suffer? There doesn’t seem any easy answer from an atheistic perspective. To say we deserve something is to say there is a way things ought to be; but that is also to say there is a design for things, or an ideal or a standard that we can compare our circumstances to. But this leads us directly to the existence of God; not away from it! The only apparent way to establish such a standard is if there is an authority who can impose it. Evolution certainly doesn’t qualify, since it is unguided, and the results are essentially accidental, not designed at all, and not intended to be one way rather than another.
b. It seems obvious that some suffering is deserved. If you imagine a man raping your children (if you have none, substitute in children you know well), then you have an irrepressible sense that he deserves to suffer in response to that action. If you don’t, I say your moral compass isn’t pointing quite north.
This in turn gets us to the real question, which is gratuitous suffering.
a. Even if all people are sinners and do deserve punishment (which of course I believe), there are instances of suffering that seem so extreme, so disproportionate, that it’s hard to conceive them being deserved. Take the suffering of nursing Jewish mothers and their babies, in Nazi death camps. The mothers had no breastmilk because they were so malnourished. All they could feed their babies was bread dipped in coffee. I can’t even conceive of the despair, the agony of seeing your baby waste away over a period of days or weeks until it eventually dies of malnutrition, while you desperately try to feed it food that it can’t eat. That kind of suffering seems to be a proper, rather than defective response to an objectively evil circumstance. (Never mind the suffering of the infant itself!) How could God silently watch that, let alone will it?
b. But a problem develops when we try to turn our emotional inability to answer that question into an intellectual reason to deny the existence of God. Because how would the argument go? Again, it comes down to disagreeing with God about the way he has chosen to do things. But at best that is an argument from silence. We’d need to be able to show not just that we can’t explain why God has done things this way, but rather that it cannot be explained. That God, in principle, could not do things this way. But this is called the logical problem of evil, and it is a philosophical dead end. There aren’t any contemporary philosophers who defend that argument any more, because it is simply fallacious. We can easily see how fallacious through a basic thought-experiment:
Suppose you know someone—let’s call her Amy—who has infallible knowledge of how her actions will affect everything else in the world. Imagine that she knows, for example, whether releasing a butterfly at a certain time will cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet due to the chaotic effect of cumulative weather patterns. You might think nothing of releasing a butterfly, yet she would have infallible knowledge that doing so would indirectly kill thousands of people. In fact, she would probably know that every single action she took (or didn’t take) would somehow effect and possibly kill thousands or millions of people.
It seems quite apparent that Amy would act in ways that were often puzzling, downright bizarre, or even seemingly gratuitously evil. Imagine she knew, for instance, that if she didn’t run down the toddler crossing the road in front of her car, he would grow up to be a dictator twice as bad as Hitler, and would enslave the entire world under a totalitarian regime. Of course, we can also see that there would be far more complex circumstances than these—possibly so complex that we not only can’t see why she would act in certain ways, but she herself would be unable to explain it to us.
If it is true of Amy that her actions would be often inexplicable and seemingly contrary to reason, yet she only has infallible knowledge of her own actions’ consequences, surely it is not only possible, but actually plausible to suppose that God would frequently act in ways we cannot see any purpose to, and indeed think are terrible and wrong?
This leads into the question of why God does anything at all.
a. Most objections to suffering that I’ve seen treat God as something like a cosmic superhero. They suppose that if he loves humanity, then he wouldn’t allow at least gratuitous suffering. But when you think about it, this doesn’t follow at all. It is simply a case of conflating God’s attitude to humanity with his goals. It effectively makes God’s benevolence the sole end to which God must act. But why? Why think God is limited in such a way? Why think he exists only to serve us?
b. From a Christian perspective, this is simply wrong. God’s purpose in creating the world was to reveal his perfections. His goal is to fully manifest both his love and mercy, but also his justice and wrath, since these are perfections too. But how could he fully reveal his wrath against sin without extreme evil?
c. Non-Christians don’t much like this explanation because it makes man less than the ultimate good; indeed, it makes at least some people a means to God’s own ends. But objecting to that begs the question against Christianity. It says, in effect, that God is wrong to act in such a way; but that just brings us back to how you would determine right and wrong apart from God himself. God can’t be wrong to act like that if, in fact, he is what goodness is. (And it should hardly surprise us that if we make man the standard of good, rather than God, it ends in bad conclusions.) On the other hand, if there is some other standard of goodness that God is violating, then God is not God, and so the objection is simply presupposing his non-existence—needless to say, the very thing it is supposed to prove.
d. None of this might be emotionally satisfying, but using emotion as an objection seems to bring us back to my initial example of students who need counselling and puppy DVDs to deal with disagreement. Is a neo-feminist’s emotional fragility in the face of arguments for abortion being morally equivalent to murder supposed to prove something? Doesn’t it just prove a defect in her own outlook? In the same way, then, doesn’t our emotional inability to deal with extreme suffering merely suggest a defect in our own perspective, resulting from the fact that we aren’t omniscient?
Even if you find the answers to suffering unsatisfying, you have to balance that against the overall weight of evidence. Given the number of independent reasons to believe that Christianity is true—including the reasons for thinking there must be an independent, authoritative standard of morality—does suffering really constitute a large enough reason to even doubt Christianity?
Imagine you’re on a jury. The prosecution shows a couple of dozen independent forms of evidence that the accused must be guilty. There are no other suspects. The defense brings in one form of evidence that seems, to you, to point to the accused being innocent—but fails to refute all the other evidence. Is that really enough to acquit?
Apropos (5), I think the argument from suffering is easily reversed. It seems to ignore some obvious counterevidence—namely the existence of pleasure and beauty.
a. The world is undeniably much worse than it could be. Yet at the same time it is undeniably much better than it could be. Even people who, on average, suffer a great deal, still want to live rather than die. Moreover, while there is a great deal of ugliness in the world, there is “beauty in every moment”, as the song goes. There is so much beauty that people devote their entire lives to finding and documenting it. Reproducing it. Sharing it. So the overall weight of suffering and ugliness to pleasure and beauty actually seems to fall on the positive side.
b. Moreover, if pleasure and beauty are really good, you’re once again left with explaining why. To say such a thing seems to demand a standard of comparison. Pleasure and beauty are easy to explain if God is beautiful, the source of aesthetic value, and if he is a benevolent creator who wants us to experience enjoyment. But they are much harder to explain in his absence. For example, why would evolution program us to enjoy a sunrise? There’s no survival benefit in that. Why would it program us to be impressed by a frozen tundra, or high-resolution photos of the sun? Those are dangerous; by rights, we ought to have a similar reaction to them as we have to smelling feces. So again, I think the argument from suffering ends up being foot-shooting when you think through its implications.