The problem of suffering and evil

It is commonly argued that there cannot be an all-knowing, all-powerful, good God because there is so much evil and suffering in the world. Is this true? If God exists, how are we to understand suffering and evil?

I’ve always held that problem of evil is not something you can consider while deciding if God exists. A good God could have any number of reasons for allowing evil, depending on what He is like. Therefore there is no contradiction in a benevolent God allowing evil, but you can’t address the question if you don’t even know if He exists or not.

So for this post, I will assume that Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are true and take it from there. (Read more about those at Aquinas Explainer: The First Way and The Fifth Way.) This means that God is a conscious, immaterial mind that holds everything in existence and enables everything that happens from moment to moment as a First Cause.

Aquinas holds that evil is a privation – it does not exist on its own, but is parasitic on the good and acts by attacking or distorting the good. Since God was before everything else, He must have been originally good and the only way He could be evil is by attacking or distorting Himself, which is impossible. Therefore God cannot be evil.

If God as First Cause is enabling all our choices, what does that mean? Since God is keeping everything in existence and being the First Cause of everything from moment to moment, He is in some sense enabling every good thing that ever happens – every opening flower, every baby being born, every sublime piece of music or art, you name it. But in the same way, He is in some sense enabling every evil thing that ever happens – every murder, every rape, every genocide.

That’s disturbing, but if God cannot possibly be evil he presumably doesn’t like evil. So why is he constantly enabling every evil thing that ever happens? That’s the big question here.

Evil and choice

Whatever else you might say about it, evil is a byproduct of choice. Choice is the world’s most multifaceted tool. You can choose to cook lasagne, study mathematics, start a hairdressing apprenticeship, buy and sell, go to work, plan finances, take the day off work, learn painting, read a book, attend a Mozart concert, give blood, play cricket, get married, have children, invent, build, rest and so on. We choose all these things because they seem good to us – we need them or they bring joy to our lives.

So if you choose to torture someone, and liaise with other torturers to refine your torture techniques and make them more agonising, thus increasing your pleasure from hearing your victim’s screams, is that not an example of human creativity and ingenuity, just like other choices? Also, isn’t the underlying motive the same as other choices – in this case, to gain pleasure?

If evil is not a thing in itself but a distortion of the good, and is a byproduct of the human capacity to make choices, how is God to get rid of it?

A knife can stab or it can chop carrots. If you made knives safe, they would no longer be knives.

The easiest way for God to annihilate evil would be to annihilate the human race.

Suffering

Cancer. Rocks falling on people’s heads. Drowning in a tsunami. The list of sufferings is endless.

Some group suffering together with the problem of evil, but this doesn’t make sense to me. A tsunami, a rockfall or cancer, bad as they can be, have no agency. They are bad for us but how can something with no will of its own be evil?

Should He exist, can we critique God based on suffering? To answer this question, we must ask another – what are we expecting God to do? What should He have done otherwise?

To my mind, it is hard even to imagine a material world without suffering. For example: a rock falling on someone’s head, killing them. Why do such things happen? It is because matter has weight and mass, and this because of gravity. Objects falling on smaller, less dense objects damage them for this reason.

So to ask that such sufferings not happen, what we are really asking is that gravity be switched off. Or that gravity exist but not when we are around. Or for gravity to exist but not when I say otherwise, thank you very much. (Are we entitled to this? Why?)

The same thing applies to other sources of suffering. To have a physical body is to be vulnerable to damage by other physical things, so that a material world without suffering is inconceivable. So ultimately the question becomes: should God have created the material world in the first place? Is it worth it?

If God exists, it seems He decided it was worth it.

Is there an ultimate meaning to suffering and evil?

I assumed at the start of this post that God is as described by Aquinas, the First Cause of everything that happens, who keeps everything in existence from moment to moment; who designed the natural world and is responsible for the order we see in it; who is good; who is in everything that takes place; who is constantly making decisions about what to let happen and what to deny; who is rational and does this according to His own plan; who created the human race to know Him.

If this is correct, it follows that all aspects of the world we see around us have meaning; that all aspects of human existence are meaningful. Even the most horrific sufferings that we experience because of evil and the predations of nature ultimately have a reason. So cancer and earthquakes, terror famines and the Holocaust all have meaning – even when this is incomprehensible to us.

This is a difficult thing to accept; no doubt many atheists would see this as demonstrating the absurdity of theism. Some sufferings kill or drive insane their victims. It just seems over the top. What value could there be in such things?

I read an extraordinary book recently: “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist, who observed what he saw in Hitler’s camps and applied it to the human experience more generally. He invented “logotherapy”, or meaning-based therapy. I hope to write a post on it, but meanwhile here are a couple of choice quotes from his book:

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. […] It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

More:

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. […]

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.

Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had similar insights.

Our culture treats pain and suffering as a dead loss, with no meaning in it. Why is this? To my mind, it is because we see no meaning in life generally. It makes no sense to say that life has meaning, but only when it is pleasant.

If belief in God gives us confidence that life has meaning in itself, it should also give us confidence that all aspects of life have meaning – including suffering and death.

Further reading

Man’s Search For Meaning – Full text available at archive.org.

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky provided one of the most evocative portrayals of the problem of evil ever set to print.

Unbroken and the problem of evil – A discussion of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, by philosopher Edward Feser.

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