How can a person believe in a good God, in a world filled with suffering?

Look at all the pointless evil in the world.

An earthquake occurs thirty-two kilometres below the surface of the water near Tohoku, in Japan. The explosive force propels an enormous mass of water upwards and outwards, with the speed of an aeroplane and at the height of an apartment building. An hour later, this wave swarms over the coast of North Japan, gathering families, factories and fishing villages, indiscriminately sweeping up hopes and dreams, traditions and memories, friendships and dependencies. It leaves behind only shattered wood, broken glass, corpses and loss. Fifteen thousand people have died in a day. Over a hundred thousand houses are destroyed. Four million are without electricity.

Unmeasurable, unimaginable suffering, without rhyme or reason, purpose or direction.

When one looks, at all this needless destruction, one might ask.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent (all powerful).

Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent (evil).

Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Perhaps that way of phrasing the problem is too intellectual, too refined, too hard-hearted. To many, this ‘problem of evil,’ is an emotional, and not so much an intellectual problem.

I can’t believe in God, in a world where people die of cancer.

What the answer is not.

I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus is God in human likeness. I think I have good reason to believe this. Given the reliability of the New Testament documents, I think that the bible is an authoritative guide to how I should approach this issue.

So let’s try the two easy way outs –

Is God not all powerful?

Perhaps the answer to the problem of evil, is that God is not in total control of the universe. Perhaps there are limits to God’s powers. God is surely still, compared to us, inconceivably powerful, but perhaps there are things which even He cannot do.

This is a non-answer for a Christian. It is not compatible with the bible.

Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.’ (Jeremiah 32:17).

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.’ (Matthew 10:29).

And, on a purely emotional level, if suffering is beyond God’s control, then what sort of a God is He? He sounds positively unqualified for the job. If suffering is above God, then God loses his dignity.

In addition, if suffering is above God, then suffering loses its purpose. It must be seen as a sort of cosmic inconvenience. Not part of a glorious divine plan, not the sadness in a story that builds to a happy ending. Suffering is a meaningless embarrassment that just happens to exist above God’s pay grade.

This really won’t do.

Is God not all loving?

Perhaps God does have the capacity to remove suffering, but not the inclination. Perhaps He is not the great caring father that we want Him to be. Perhaps He is watching from above, with gathered crowds, enjoying our pain, to the sound of booming laughter.

No Christian can believe that.

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5: 7-8).

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.’ (Luke 23:34).

The central message of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, God Himself, came down from the heavenly realm. He, who had every glory and comfort imaginable, freely laid aside what was His, descended from His place of perfection, and entered into the mortality, the imperfection and the pain of our broken world. He suffered a tough, short life of continual betrayal, and was killed, in excruciating pain. Until the end, he was reported to have been praying for the forgiveness of His murderers. He did all this, whilst we were still His enemies, so that those who choose it would through Him be saved. Why? Out of love.

A Christian can no more easily believe in an unloving God, than he can believe in a square triangle.

The nature of the problem.

So it would seem that I, as a Christian am in a bind. I cannot assert that God is not all-powerful, and I certainly cannot assert that He is not loving, and yet evil exists. The answer, the accuser might assert, is that my religion is nonsense. I believe in a set of propositions that are incompatible.

Could not God have prevented the origination of evil, at the very beginning? Couldn’t He have removed that unhelpful tree? Why create the serpent? Why all this unnecessary, brutal pain? It doesn’t add up.

What are we looking for?

This may look like an unsolvable dilemma.

In truth, it may be surprising to hear that thirty-one years have now passed since anybody in an academic setting has tried to revive this logical problem of evil argument against belief in God.

No-one is using this dilemma to argue against the existence of God. The argument that I have spent two pages outlining, is just not very good.

The problem, with the problem of evil, is that it is so tremendously ambitious, that you could push a multiverse through the gaps in its logic. It spreads itself too thin.

The first thing to note is that the argument has a hidden premise. And it is essential to the success of this argument that the premise remains silent. If mentioned, well then the argument becomes a bit of a laughing stock. So hide that premise.

The premise is this:

  • There cannot be a justifiable reason for God allowing suffering.

To rephrase that premise, it is an assertion that:

  • Suffering is pointless, it has no reasonable purpose behind it.

This perhaps seems like a common sense premise. In reality it is anything but.

God is, by definition, so far above us that we are like characters in a play, and He is like Shakespeare. We are like pieces on a chessboard, and He is Kasparov. We are the four year old child, in the back of the car, complaining that our parents don’t know where they are going.

It may seem to the child that the parent has no conceivable reason for shoving them in the back seat of a car, when they were quite keen to sleep in and then watch the Teletubbies. It may seem like that. But the fact that the child can’t see the reason doesn’t mean that no reason exists. That’s called a non sequitur. It does not follow.

Or we could put this premise a third way. Imagine that someone, while out camping, is worried that an elephant might have snuck into their tent. Suppose that person, to be careful, opens the door of the two by two metre tent and has a look around. They see no elephant.

Now, at this point, they would be pretty well justified to conclude that no elephant is in there. Elephants are generally quite poor at hide and seek within tightly confined spaces.

But suppose instead that a person was worried that a no-sense-um had snuck into their tent. A no-sense-um is of course an insect that cannot be perceived with any senses. Suppose the person had a look around their tent, and couldn’t find the no-sense-um.

Are they now justified in concluding– ‘there is no way that a no-sense-um could be in this tent’! No. Because if a no-sense-um was in the tent, they still wouldn’t be able to sense-em.

When the logical problem of evil is presented, the assumption is that if God has a purpose for suffering, then it must be like an elephant, clear in front of my eyes, and not like a no sense-um, later to be revealed.

How can, ‘God’s purposes must be clear in front of my eyes’, be a key premise in an argument? Isn’t that maybe just a touch arrogant?

Should we expect to be able to derive the inner purposes of God? Do we know the totality of the options that are in front of Him? As He Himself once boomed, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

No, we are a four year old in the back of a car making the following argument:

  1. I don’t know where we are going, therefore my parents don’t know where they are going
  2. Given then that our trip is pointless, if my parents were capable parents then they would have the ability to control the car and take me to Teletubbies
  3. Given again that our trip is pointless, if my parents were loving parents then they would have the inclination to take me to Teletubbies
  4. We are in the car and not watching Teletubbies
  5. Therefore my parents are either not capable, or not loving, or perhaps both
  6. In which case why call them parents? I can conclude that I don’t have parents. I should get a promotion

It’s kind of a poor argument.

A possible path out of the forest

Now all of that is just an attempt by me to show that a believer is by no means obligated to provide a specific answer to the problem of evil. The question in the form it was given isn’t good enough to deserve an answer. The accuser of faith says – there cannot be a possible answer to the existence of evil. The believer says, prove that. The accuser can’t. End of story.

But, a believer can go even further in answering this problem, and may even attempt to show that the existence of evil is evidence, yes evidence, for the existence of God.

A fair description of this logical problem of evil is that it is like the following – suppose that you are out walking into the woods, you have in your hand a map, and an overly pessimistic friend (the friend is not in your hand, he is by your side). As the trees thicken around you, the light dims under the undergrowth. The cold air gathers, and sits in the hollows of the tall, dark trunks. As your vision narrows, your friend starts to panic.

There is literally not a single possible way back out of this forest!’ He exclaims.

That’s quite an ambitious claim.’ You may reply.

Well it’s true!’ He yells, ‘There is not a solitary path back to society from our current location.’

How would you answer that? Well you might show him the map. You might, with your finger, trace a few possible ways to the township. That would be enough to refute his claim. You don’t need to say,

Here is a possible route, and this is the route we ourselves will take.’

Rather all you need to say is,

Here is a possible route.’

You need to identify possible routes, you do not need to show that these routes are actually ones that you will use, because his claim was, ‘there’s no way out of the forest‘. So it is with the problem of evil (there is no way that God could be compatible with evil).

Someone attempting to answer this question just has to provide logically possible ways out of the dilemma, they do not have to be actual.

Some possible routes

I know of three, entirely possible routes out of the problem of evil. They are:

  1. The free-will route
  2. The incarnation route
  3. The foreknowledge route

I am not saying that any of these is the actual justification for the existence of evil (how would I know that?) I am just saying that it is a logically possible answer. The incarnation and foreknowledge routes are the most compatible with the bible, in my opinion, and I think, are reasonably probable to be actual.

I should admit to not being a philosopher. My presentation of these is, I am sure, not up to proper academic standards.

The free-will route

This path might look like this.

  1. Free will is a valuable thing
  2. All evil is a result of free will
  3. God cannot do the logically impossible
  4. A world in which free will exists, and evil does not, is logically impossible
  5. The existence of evil is this compatible with the existence of a loving, all powerful God

Premise one suggests that free will is better than a lack of free will. It is better for a God to create a being who is capable of some degree of independent decision making, than it is for Him to create a robot.

The second premise is more controversial – all evil is a result of free will. To start with, let’s divide evil into two categories:

  1. Moral evil – ie murder or tax evasion
  2. Natural evil – ie earthquakes, cancer or HIV

Few people struggle with the idea that moral evil could potentially be the result of free-will. Human beings have the capacity to choose good actions, or not-good actions, and the effect of the improper choices is often negative on fellow humans, and on ourselves. God could perhaps intervene each time an improper choice is made, but then free-will would be contravened. For example, imagine if each time I went to karate chop somebody, God turned my hand into moisturiser lotion, with the effect being that I improved their skin consistency. Well if God was to do that, to somehow prevent every intended incidence of evil, then we would not be free at all. We would be free, only as long as we chose what he always wanted us to choose. Which… isn’t freedom.

But natural evil is the bigger mouthful. How can free-will be linked to earthquakes? Well remember that we are only trying to suggest one possible way out of the forest, not the actual route.

Here’s an answer – it isn’t our free will that causes earthquakes. It isn’t God’s free will either (or He would be doing evil). So what is left? Well the bible clearly states that there are supernatural persons which are neither human or God-like. Angels, devils and all that. It is an entirely valid answer to say that natural evil could be in some way related to the exercise of free-will by these supernatural beings.

Another answer is that God’s justice compels Him to punish mankind for the improper use of our free-will. This punishment, may be being manifested to an extent in the broken nature of the world already. Thus natural evil is a result of our moral evil. Our moral evil draws just punishment in the form of natural evil. The term natural evil is thus incorrect. Natural evil is not evil, or natural.

There’s other entirely possible ways that natural evil could be a product of free-will.

Premise three suggests that God cannot do the logically impossible. This seems fair enough. God cannot be not-God. He cannot make a round triangle. These things are logically impossible. They do not describe actual states of affairs. They do not describe real things. They are just jumbles of words, as meaningless as a ’round up soup-Thailand good jingle mouse pad milo-television’. God being all-powerful does not mean that He can do things which themselves are meaningless nonsense, just creations of language with no descriptive power over reality (ie He cannot create a taco which is so hot that even He can’t eat it).

Premise four suggests that it may be logically impossible to create a world that possesses free-will, in optimal quantities, without suffering and evil also existing. God does not create the evil, but He does create us, as free beings. Evil exists as a possibility that becomes an actuality when we exercise our free-will in an improper manner. In any possible universe that God could have created, this connection between free-will and suffering would exist. This may be termed trans-world-depravity. Every possible world that contains free-will, would produce evil.

The result of this is that one could say that God, although He hates evil, detests it to His core, permitted it for the greater good of our existence. He permits evil so that He can have us.

Christian belief is of course that evil will eventually be destroyed, that heaven will be a place without the existence of evil. The obvious question is, if evil is a result of free will, and if in heaven we will be free, then will there be evil in heaven?

A possible answer (all we need) is that in heaven the conditions will have changed such that trans-world-depravity is no longer. The change in conditions may be a result of God’s death on the cross for our sins being an infinitely great inspiration to obedience.

I don’t believe that this free-will defense is the real answer for the existence of evil. It is just a possible, entirely logical, way out of the forest. God may have a better, more beautiful reason. He probably does.

Two other possible routes

(If you found the above to be too complex or confusing, perhaps you might want to skip down to ‘Surprised by Meaning’ at this point).

Another path might look like this:

  1. If God existed, He would be able to know all truth, in its various forms. This would include knowledge about the possibility of evil and suffering.
  2. God’s response to this knowledge would conceivably be something like hate, or immense dislike.
  3. If God were to create a universe, He would do so for a purpose or ultimate cause.
  4. Since He is a maximally great being, His purpose in creating something would similarly have to maximally great.
  5. Since the only thing that could be close to or of equal greatness to God is Himself, we can suppose that God’s purpose for creating anything must be grounded in Himself.
  6. Since God would necessarily be the greatest end for a thing – we would be right in assuming that the purpose of a universe would be to display or reveal God in the most maximal way possible.
  7. If a universe was to display God, it would reveal all essential things about His character – for example, His power, His intelligence, and His love. Within these essential characteristics would be God’s relation to things, and since God’s hatred of evil and suffering is an essential characteristic of his relation towards things, the universe must demonstrate this hatred of evil and suffering in actuality.
  8. God’s attributes will be best displayed then, if there is a significant amount of evil in the universe, and a significant amount of hatred toward this evil from God.
  9. Thus if a God existed, He would be justified, indeed perhaps required, to create a universe much like this one, in order to demonstrate His hatred of suffering and evil in actuality.
  10. The existence of evil thus rather than being an argument against the existence of God, fits with what we would expect if a God existed.

And here’s a third route out:

  1. If God were to create a universe, he would do so for a purpose or ultimate cause.
  2. Since he is a maximally great being, his purpose in creating something would similarly have to maximally great.
  3. Since the only thing that could be close to or of equal greatness to God is Himself, we can suppose that God’s purpose for creating anything must be grounded in Himself.
  4. Since God would necessarily be the greatest end for a thing – we would be right in assuming that the purpose of a universe would be to display or reveal God in the most maximal way possible.
  5. An incarnation and an atonement are the best possible display of God’s love, courage, justice, and other good attributes.
  6. An incarnation and atonement are only meaningful if there is suffering to endure, and sin to atone for.
  7. Thus if a God existed, He would be justified, indeed perhaps required, to create a universe much like this one, in order to allow for a meaningful incarnation and atonement.
  8. The existence of evil thus rather than being an argument against the existence of God, fits with what we would expect if a God existed.

One thing to bear in mind when reading those two (and it might take a few reads, there’s a fair bit of complexity there), is that God still does not create evil. He creates the possibility of evil by creating beings outside of themselves which have a degree of free will. It is they that create evil in actuality.

These routes out of the forest are stronger than just *possible* routes. They proceed from such powerful logical foundations, that it would seem likely that if a God existed, then these would form part of the *actual* purpose of evil.

Given these arguments, it would seem inconsistent then to believe in an all-powerful, loving God, if evil *did not* exist. The absence of evil would be a better (although weak)  argument against God’s existence.

Some conclusions

(It’s been a long read, throw this song on for some relief – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeuvegBZFuM)

A Christian certainly does not need to compromise their belief in God’s love, or God’s power, in order to accommodate evil. If anything, the existence of evil could be considered evidence for the existence of God, since evil fits so neatly with what would be expected if a perfect being existed (think in terms of relative conditional probabilities here).

To re-use a metaphor, if an elephant was in your tent, there would be certain perceivable signs of his presence. One could infer from these signs the probability of an elephant being in residence. So it is with God. If the these arguments are logical, then we can make the following further argument –

  1. If a God existed, we would expect that the universe we live in to be one that includes evil and suffering.
  2. Our universe includes evil and suffering.
  3. Therefore this is a mild piece of evidence that God exists.

Of course one may say that a purely material universe would very likely produce suffering also. Sure, of course, and it would then be a matter of considering whether a universe governed by a God would be more or less likely than a universe without such, to produce suffering. You weigh the probabilities of suffering in each worldview, and if the theistic universe is a more likely producer of evil, then this is evidence for God. (I understand that these paragraphs are of a much more advanced level than the rest of the post, if you don’t understand, don’t worry, I don’t either).

So, some atheists seem to think that merely by listing the horrors of the world they can, without even recourse to a logical argument, disprove the existence of God. It is a common tactic of some anti-Theists to talk about the horrors of war or natural disasters, as if this is an automatic coup de grace against belief in God.

Next time someone lists a bunch of problems with our world, bear in mind that unless the previous arguments that I have described can be disproven, we should consider their list of sufferings quite possibly an argument *for* a loving, all powerful God.

Surprised by Meaning

If God does not exist, then suffering is just a natural part of life. When you put a cerebral cortex and an endless unthinking cosmos together, you get suffering and loss. That’s all. It’s a shame. It’s bad luck.

The Christian answer to suffering, is to dignify it, and then to point to a brighter day.

If God exists, then there is a great and mighty purpose behind evil. There is an answer to the riddle that will satisfy every concern and that will quell every tear. Suffering will be undone, unwound, balanced off and swept away. It will be for a greater purpose. No child dies in vain. No earthquake is an accident. God loves us enough to permit it, so that He could have us, and we could have Him. God will some day pull apart reality, like a musician with his accordion, and we will see all that was, and all that could have been. We will see that what was, was what was best, and what was not, was what couldn’t have been. We will see that God chose best, that we are in the greatest of all possible worlds, that next to the gleaming infinite of possibilities, our universe shines the brightest. Every heartache will be explained, absolved, every turn of history straightened out, the ups and the downs, all part of one great narrative, and we will see it laid bare, clear as frozen glass before our minds. We will see that, ‘it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.’

The universe is not a chaotic, bizarre accident of physics. It is a stage that has been set. It isn’t a collection of words spilt across a page, it’s a poem, full of rhyme, rhythm and direction. It isn’t an abstract outburst of noise, it’s a song that can be sung. It’s a work of art. Some things can be said in a word, others require a book, still others require a universe. It is saying something incredible and going somewhere majestic, and because of that suffering has enormous dignity, for it leads to something greater, it is the conduit to glory. The story needs its difficulties, or else it would be nothing worth a read. The night needs its darkness or else no one would see the stars.

And in that mighty story, God’s reaction to evil, was not to glibly put up with suffering, watching from on high. His reaction was to join in our pain, to give us a way out of our own forest. To give a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins. He suffered more than anybody will ever suffer, carrying the full punishment of our irrational rebellion. Where was God in the tsunami? He was at the point of greatest suffering, bearing it, out of love.

So then, we stand on a single page of a lengthy story, and it is bleak, and it is dark, but if we could only look into the next chapter we would see angels leap with joy. We don’t see the whole story. How could we? All we see is shadows cast by that which we do not see. Yet, while we don’t know the fullness of the script, we can see the grandeur. This world is dripping with beauty and purpose, overflowing with divine intent. It is artistry that overshadows us all, and we can find solace in that majestic mystery. ‎’The light shines in the darkness, but the dark has not overcome it.’

The difference, in my experience, between a Christian and a non-Christian funeral is very simple. The Christian is going home, where they belong, they are passing beyond the vale of tears, walking out of the valley of the shadow of death. They are beginning, they are not ending. “The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Don’t we want to go home? Don’t we want to see that sunrise? Don’t we want the end of tears, the end of the fruitless rebellion? “It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”

A non-Christian funeral is very different. Death is a meaningless tragedy. Words have no purpose. It is a final, indescribable atrocity that will not be undone, and cannot be reconciled. The pain that is felt is just the dissonance of life in a universe that does not care.

The alternative is John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’

See, the obvious response to suffering, is to abandon the loving God. The complex response, the thoughtful response, the correct response, is to accept his mighty providence. “There are two ways of getting home. One of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.” Suffering, evil, brokenness, these should all lead us to see the shining mercies of our Creator.

In 1945 they killed Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They led him into a coarse grey yard, put a wire around his neck, and murdered him with gravity. He had been involved in a plot to kill Hitler, and before that had defied the NAZI’s time and time again from his pulpit. He had chosen to return from a safe life in New York, to go back to Germany in 1939, when he knew the risk, to show solidarity with his countrymen. They threw him in a concentration camp and then hung him.

A guard described his death as, ‘brave and composed… In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.’

From where did the pastor source his joy and contentment, his courage and his endurance?

After Bonheoffer’s death, they searched his cell, and found amongst his meagre possessions a small scrap of paper. On it, was just a single sentence, perhaps the answer to this great riddle of the problem of evil and suffering. How did Bonhoeffer make sense of all his suffering?  He wrote, ‘Only the suffering God can help.’

Bonhoeffer was looking back two thousand years, and remembering the manner of another execution, described by the ancient historian Luke, ”And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said (of his murderers), “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The Christian is still stunned by suffering, but perhaps he knows this, God did not remain distant, and death has been overthrown.

The Christian does not have such a tremendous problem dealing with the reality of suffering and evil, he has the shadows of an answer, the shape of the cross. The suffering God does help, in our moments of anguish.

The atheist, by contrast, has no answer at all and no help whatsoever. He has a mind, a conscience and a memory, in a universe made of dust.

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