27 Jan 2019

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Religious 49 Comments

My pastor tackled this question today in church. I was impressed and glad to hear him admit fairly early that, “I don’t know.” (R.C. Sproul did the same thing, if I recall correctly, in his speech, “What Is Evil and Where Did It Come From?”)

My pastor used an analogy that I have often found useful, in comparing us to little children with earthly parents. There are time when a child might be furious at his mother, not understanding why she’s “being so mean!!” Yet in many cases, the human parent is actually acting in the best interest of the child, even though he might not understand why he has to take medicine, leave the playground, go to bed, etc.

Likewise, though we as adults are far wiser and smarter than toddlers, we are nothing compared to God. And so whatever the answers are to the toughest questions–why does He allow wars? children to get cancer? etc.–we literally could not comprehend them right now.

One thing I would like to add, which my pastor didn’t touch on: In this type of scenario, it’s understandable that a cynic would respond, “Oh great, you admit you don’t know, and so you just punt. Let me guess: You have to have ‘faith.’ Thanks, but I’ll stick to reason and evidence.”

Yet this is misunderstanding what “faith” is, in this context. Even in everyday language, if you have faith in someone, or if someone says, “You’ll just have to trust me on this,” that does not mean, “Throw your mind out the window.” It would be foolish for Lois Lane to trust Lex Luthor, but it’s entirely rational for her to trust Superman.

Likewise, Christians believe that God became a man in order to suffer and die to rescue us from our sins. Given our understanding of God’s character, it’s perfectly reasonable to trust Him. So no, I can’t explain exactly why every injustice occurred, though we do see some examples in the Bible. (E.g., Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God used that in order to rescue all of Israel from the coming famine and ensure that His promise would be fulfilled.) But I am confident that God is good and in charge, and we will one day understand.

(Speaking of which, if you’ve never listened to the lyrics of this Dan Fogelberg song, give them a chance.)

49 Responses to “Why Does God Allow Suffering?”

  1. Harold says:

    God and parents allow suffering because it is the only way to achieve a greater good.

    Parents cause suffering in their children because they do not have the power to prevent it. They know (or believe) that the short term suffering inflicted will result in less overall suffering. But if they could avoid the long term suffering without causing the short term they would. For the medicine example you give, they would have the medicine taste nice. It is simply not always within their power to do so.

    God, however, is omnipotent. For a simple thing like medicine he could make it taste nice. So we are still left with the conundrum of why He does not have the power to prevent suffering. I guess this must be the version of all possible worlds that has the least suffering in order to achieve His purpose. I cannot disprove that, but it seems a bit of a stretch that gum disease and piles are such an essential element of His plan rather than an accident of nature.

    • Matt M says:

      I definitely think this is the right sort of objection. While very young children might believe parents to be omnipotent, you learn fairly quickly that they are not.

      To the extent that this is the “best possible universe” for humans it implies that there are limits to God’s power and ability. In such a case, God is not omnipotent, therefore, he is not God.

      • Andrew in MD says:

        I don’t think so. I think this sort of objection completely misses Bob’s point. He isn’t saying that your parents were omnipotent when you were a child. He’s saying that your parents’ judgement was incomprehensible while you were a child because you didn’t have all of the information or even the required mental capacity. Likewise God’s judgment is partly incomprehensible to us because we don’t have His knowledge and wisdom. To object to Bob on the grounds that parents aren’t actually omnipotent is silly. You aren’t even addressing Bob’s point.

        But even then, your “objections” are both wrong. (1) If parents had the power, they would choose to eliminate all suffering from their children’s lives. This can’t be true because parents don’t even seek to eliminate suffering to the extent that is within their power. Good parents will allow their children to skin their knees and make mistakes so that they might learn from them. Good parents also tell their children the truth, even when it might be painful. It is a poor parent that seeks to maximally shelter his or her child from suffering. (2) Suffering and evil are things that God would eliminate from existence if He had the power. Wrong again. That God created earth and that He allows hell to exist are clear evidence that minimizing suffering within human experience is not one of his priorities. God doesn’t want you to be comfortable. He wants you to be good.

        I’d love to see an atheist write a full length book on what God could have done better. Because it’s always some simple high-level statement like, “God shouldn’t allow cancer.” Well, the probability of cancer is a fundamental aspect of our biology. So how do you propose to alter biology such that all beings are forever immune to cancer and similar ailments? And what unintended consequences might your alteration have? And once you’ve fixed that problem, what about the next worst problem with existence? How many “problems” can you “solve” before reality ceases to look like reality? Everybody’s a critic but no one is proposing real solutions that God could implement to improve reality. It’s all communist utopia and no bloody revolution.

        • Matt M says:

          ““God shouldn’t allow cancer.” Well, the probability of cancer is a fundamental aspect of our biology.”

          This doesn’t make any sense to me. Our biology was designed by God. It operates in a universe designed by God with various rules and laws (i.e. physics) designed by God.

          You are suggesting that God himself is operating under some sort of limiting parameters. That it is impossible for him to design a human being similar to the ones that currently exist, only without cancer.

          But how can that be the case if God is truly omnipotent? Who designed the system and the laws that are limiting his ability to do this?

          And your last few lines are funny to me. You sort of have a point as it regards economic thoughts. People often accuse libertarians of “worshipping” the free market and assuming “everything will work out” so long as we have no government intervention. But that’s not quite right. The libertarian says not “Nobody will starve in Ancapitstan” but rather “Ancapitstan will be better than the state at valuing resources while operating under the confines of scarcity.” Scarcity is the limiting parameter on human design. But it is not, by definition, a limiting parameter of God. If it is, he is not God.

          • Andrew in MD says:

            God designed the entire system. It all works together perfectly. You can’t change one thing without it rippling throughout every part of the system until it converges back on a new sustainable equilibrium. So yes, God could re-optimize the system such that it maximally resembled what we have today minus the existence of cancer, but it wouldn’t be as simple as snapping your fingers and saying, “Cancer be gone.” The entire system still has to be comprehensible and stable. He would have to redo the entire thing to the extent necessary to make cancer an impossibility.

            But why would He? Let’s imagine God said, “Fine, you know what, people really seem to hate this cancer thing. I’m going to issue a miracle that removes it from the system and maybe eliminate it from everyone’s memories.” It’s not like humans would suddenly be happy with the state of affairs. We wouldn’t even be collectively happier. Humans would just fret and blame God over the next most terrible thing that came across their attention. There is no existence in which humans would not question or blame God for their hardships. And hardship is an intentional feature of the system and effect of free will. God wouldn’t choose to eliminate it entirely.

            • Matt M says:

              “And hardship is an intentional feature of the system and effect of free will.”

              I agree with this part of it.

              But people aren’t asking God to remove hardship associated with free will. I don’t think anyone is saying “No matter what decision you make, things should turn out great,” but rather “Maybe if you’re generally a good and kind person, you shouldn’t be randomly stricken by a painful and debilitating disease that has nothing to do with your own choices.”

              If God can’t snap his fingers and remove those things, he’s not God. And “but free will” might cover say, lung cancer associated with smoking, and maybe you say it covers all human-on-human violence (for God to eliminate murder and torture would require him to limit the free will of murderers or torturers), but surely childhood leukemia isn’t needed in order for the rest of us to have free will. And if God can’t snap his fingers and say “no more babies getting horrible mortal diseases” then he’s not really God.

              • Dan says:

                Maybe childhood cancer is needed to teach us empathy and to not take life for granted. Maybe it’s needed because humans accomplish great things while striving to eliminate hardships such as that. There could be a million and one reasons why childhood cancer could be an integral part of the story God has weaved. Not knowing why doesn’t mean there is no possible reason.

              • Andrew in MD says:

                Please don’t read me as saying that God couldn’t do any of those things. He could, although “snap his fingers” probably isn’t how it would work in practice. But what you ask for is a deterministic universe where man is invulnerable to everything except his own failures and the malice of other men. In such a universe, men would be like warring gods and there would be no chance, as the proper decisions would reliably yield expected results. You may find that preferable, but you can see that this is fundamentally different than the nature of man as he exists in our present reality.

                And I get that no one likes that bad things happen to children, but really, how do you build a coherent system where humans are magically invincible until they reach a certain age? It’s like people don’t even think about what they’re asking for. And atheists claim that they’re the rational ones.

              • Matt M says:

                I’m sorry, but I reject any statement of the variety “Maybe bad thing X is required in order to bring about good thing Y”

                Any such statement is invoking a world of trade-offs. Such statements are entirely appropriate for humans and how we manage human affairs. Trade-offs are why we give children painful vaccinations, and why we do not favor a government that gives “free health care for all people.”

                But God is not constrained by trade-offs. Or, if he is, he is not actually God. God could create empathetic humans without leukemia. He could create a life that is interesting and varied and susceptible to some certain amount of randomness without destructive tornadoes or whatever.

                You say that I am incapable of understanding God. I say that you lack the sufficient imagination to realize that if his power were in fact truly limitless, your objections would be trivial to him.

                Also, just for the record, I don’t consider myself atheist. Agnostic would probably be the most correct term, but I have a huge amount of respect for Christian tradition and values, and I think the world would be a much better place if more people adopted them.

              • Dan says:

                “I’m sorry, but I reject any statement of the variety “Maybe bad thing X is required in order to bring about good thing Y”
                Any such statement is invoking a world of trade-offs. Such statements are entirely appropriate for humans and how we manage human affairs. Trade-offs are why we give children painful vaccinations, and why we do not favor a government that gives “free health care for all people.”

                Authors are not limited by trade offs either. They can create their worlds however they want. Why don’t they all just create utopian worlds where nothing bad happens?

              • Keshav Srinivasan says:

                “Authors are not limited by trade offs either. They can create their worlds however they want. Why don’t they all just create utopian worlds where nothing bad happens?” Because authors know their characters aren’t real, so they know that if they make their characters suffer, in reality no one will suffer.

              • Harold says:

                The epicureans were on a similar wavelength
                http://existentialcomics.com/comic/133

              • Matt M says:

                What Keshav said.

                I’m not saying that God cannot exist. I AM saying that the current universe we inhabit is quite incompatible with the belief that God is omnipotent AND that he loves us unconditionally and is doing everything all for our own good as part of some master plan.

                Either God loves us but he’s incapable of eliminating all of our suffering (while retaining whatever benefits suffering might potentially provide us), or he is capable of doing so, but doesn’t feel like it.

              • Dan says:

                What does it matter if characters are real or not? Why create suffering at all?

              • Keshav Srinivasan says:

                @Dan Having characters suffer makes the story more interesting, which is well-worth doing when your characters aren’t real, since no one actually suffers.

              • Dan says:

                Why does it make the story more interesting?

              • Harold says:

                “why does it make the story more interesting?”

                That is itself an interesting question.

                Are there even children’s stories where there is no suffering? Most I can think of involve at least some anxiety which gets resolved to everyone’s happiness. The little animal is looking for his friend and has to ask several different animals first before finding the right one. Not much of a story without the suffering.

                Robert McKee, apparently known as “the story doctor” says “and my understanding on what makes a good story is suffering—a well-written and designed inciting incident.”

                To answer the question I suppose we have to ask why we like stories at all.

                The obvious extension to this is if stories without suffering are pointless, is it the same for life? But maybe it is true for life anyway.

              • Andrew in MD says:

                Matt M said:

                But God is not constrained by trade-offs. Or, if he is, he is not actually God.

                I AM saying that the current universe we inhabit is quite incompatible with the belief that God is omnipotent AND that he loves us unconditionally and is doing everything all for our own good as part of some master plan.

                These statements are both wrong and you’ve said nothing in support of these false assertions. You accuse others of not having sufficient imagination but all of your objections are mindlessly simple and require no imagination at all. Furthermore, you yourself fail to imagine what would become of us if God were to take your advice and eliminate suffering; and why suffering might be an essential element of a non-deterministic existence that includes free will.

                It’s as if you think your inability to see two moves ahead is a virtue that we’ve failed to appreciate. That’s not the case. We understand exactly what you’re saying. We’ve grappled with what you’re grappling with. And now we’re here, on the other side, praying that you’ll see the light and join us.

              • Mark says:

                Matt: “Either God loves us but he’s incapable of eliminating all of our suffering (while retaining whatever benefits suffering might potentially provide us), or he is capable of doing so, but doesn’t feel like it.”

                Trotting out debunked old saws like that is kind of silly, don’t you think?

            • Harold says:

              My examples were gum disease and piles. Compared to cancer these could be removed without changing too much. Some valves in the hemorrhoidal veins might do the trick.

  2. Eyal Benari says:

    Maybe God is using suffering (and scarcity, evil etc.) as an obstacle to mankind for the self improvement of individuals and humanity as a whole.
    Note: I’m not a believer, but it’s just an interesting idea to me.

  3. Andrew in MD says:

    Remember that God originally placed Adam and Eve in Eden and they rejected it. God could put us in a place without suffering once again, but it is not in our nature to live in a walled garden. We are too rebellious and adventurous. Eventually, we would reject it again.

    Adam and Eve were different animals before they received the knowledge of good and evil. And while God may be disappointed that they disobeyed Him and were thus exiled from paradise, He still loves us the way that we are today. Some will say that God could intervene more often and save us at least some of our suffering without destroying our essence. But where is the line? How far may He intervene before His action robs us of our free will and the capacity for good?

  4. steve says:

    I wonder often why God allows such suffering, but I can’t help but think that if we all followed the command of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves that there would be a lot less suffering in this world.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Yes! Great point Steve.

    • Harold says:

      Also if we all followed the teaching of Buddha and liberated ourselves from attachment.

      • steve says:

        Ok, Harold, I watched a three minute video about the teaching of Buddha and what it means to liberate ourselves from attachment, so my knowledge is limited here. But it was enlightening. Thank you for the idea. It seems to me that Jesus and Buddha did share a lot of the same ideas about living our lives on this planet, and would all do well to incorporate them into our lives.

        • Keshav Srinivasan says:

          Regarding the Buddha-Jesus comparison, I posted this quote by Robert Ingersoll in an earlier thread:

          “Why should we place Christ at the top and summit of the human race? Was he kinder, more forgiving, more self-sacrificing than Buddha? Was he wiser, did he meet death with more perfect calmness, than Socrates? Was he more patient, more charitable, than Epictetus? Was he a greater philosopher, a deeper thinker, than Epicurus? In what respect was he the superior of Zoroaster? Was he gentler than Lao-tsze, more universal than Confucius? Were his ideas of human rights and duties superior to those of Zeno? Did he express grander truths than Cicero? Was his mind subtler than Spinoza’s? Was his brain equal to Kepler’s or Newton’s? Was he grander in death – a sublimer martyr than Bruno? Was he in intelligence, in the force and beauty of expression, in breadth and scope of thought, in wealth of illustration, in aptness of comparison, in knowledge of the human brain and heart, of all passions, hopes and fears, the equal of Shakespeare, the greatest of the human race?”

          • Mark says:

            Since Jesus is God Incarnate, the answer to all those questions is yes.

          • steve says:

            Well, Keshav, from how I read the New Testament, Jesus seems to be a pretty awesome character in a lot of ways. Not to take away from any of the men Ingersoll mentions.

            • Keshav Srinivasan says:

              Yeah, Ingersoll’s point isn’t that Jesus isn’t awesome, just that he isn’t the top and summit of the human race, given other figures who were even more awesome.

              • steve says:

                We can all decide for ourselves if that is true.

              • Mark says:

                No one is more awesome than Jesus. You are using the word awesome in the sense the a Five Guys burger is awesome. Jesus is truly awesome by the original meaning of the word, not the watered-down version. After all, He spoke the universe into existence. And He died to offer you eternal life. “how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” Hebrews 2:3

              • Keshav Srinivasan says:

                Mark, Ingersoll’s argument is targeted at those who say “Even if you think Christianity is false, you still have to acknowledge that Jesus is the top and summit of the human race.” And Ingersoll’s response is no, if you believe Christianity is false and you judge Jesus by his personal qualities, then you can find lots of people better than Jesus.

              • Mark says:

                Keshav: if you believe Christianity is false and you judge Jesus by his personal qualities, then you can find lots of people better than Jesus.

                Yesterday, the lewrockwell blog posted the great Walter Williams’ latest column, Is Reality Optional?, where he points out the lunacy of believing a man is a woman. The reality is that Bruce Jenner is a man, no matter what you or he or the rest of us think.

                It’s no different here, Keshav. The reality is that Christianity is true whether one believes it to be true or not. You and I, and everyone in Ingersoll’s statement, “have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Jesus, otoh, led a sinless life. We could stop right there, but I won’t. He also healed the sick, raised the dead, offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins and raised Himself from the dead to offer us His eternal life. Those are historical facts.

                John ended his gospel with this: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” You can find no one that comes anywhere close to Jesus – the gap between sinners and God is infinite and one day we will all, willingly or unwillingly, bow to Him.

              • Harold says:

                Tell it to the great economist and Christian libertarian Deirdre McCloskey. Just to point out that some people who share a lot of your views disagree on this point.

                I find it slightly ironic that you think a declaration of the reality of Christ a convincing argument but a declaration of being a man or woman not.

              • Anonymous says:

                Harold: “Tell it to the great economist and Christian libertarian Deirdre McCloskey.”

                Harold, I guess you didn’t read William’s article or don’t understand that reality exists independent of our belief in it. “Deirdre” is no more a female than you or I or Bruce Jenner. He is a just a very confused man that has mutilated his body after denying the truth of Genesis 5:2.

                In Matthew 16, Jesus asked his disciples, ““Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-17)

                This is the question you have to ask yourself, Harold: Who do you say that He is?

              • Harold says:

                You have your view about gender, others do not share it. I do not expect to change your mind but just point out that people who have otherwise similar views disagree with you. There are also several intersex conditions you need to incorporate into you binary model if you wish to be comprehensive.

                “This is the question you have to ask yourself, Harold: Who do you say that He is?”

                Actually I don’t have to ask myself that at all, anymore than I have to ask myself how Jupiter overthrew the Titans. However I have asked myself that question and I think he was a historical person now wrapped up in myth.

              • Mark says:

                Harold : “You have your view about gender, others do not share it.”

                So you’re a science denier. There are only two genders – it’s settled science.

                “I have asked myself that question and I think he was a historical person now wrapped up in myth.”

                And what if He’s who He claimed to be?

              • Harold says:

                “And what if He’s who He claimed to be?”

                I treat this question the same way I imagine you treat the question “What if Vishnu (or Muhammad) is who he is claimed to be?”

                “So you’re a science denier. There are only two genders – it’s settled science.”

                Er, where did you get that idea from? Here is one link it took about 2 seconds to find.

                https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150107082133.htm

                It is about scientists who prove that gender exists on a spectrum.

                Perhaps you mean that sex and gender are the same thing, which is a semantic rather than scientific argument, but it is still wrong. The claim that there are only two genders is a scientific fact is just wrong.

        • Harold says:

          I know some don’t like existential Comics, but that does not stop the being funny, as with this Buddha/Hume one

          http://existentialcomics.com/comic/231

  5. JimS says:

    I am puzzled how if we believe that we are born into sin and are sinners and we must seek redemption why we think we should never suffer ills? I take the complete opposite approach; I am a sinner doomed to eternal damnation, it is absolutely amazing, a miracle, if you will, that anything good EVER happens.

    Redemption is difficult, it is not as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.”

  6. Rand says:

    If people will recall, the Bible states that Man was given free will…the choice to do good or evil. If God intervenes every time that evil occurs, that’s essentially saying that we have no free will…kind of like the overprotective parent who lets the kids do whatever they want, as long as the parents approve, and the parents move to protect the kids from every bad thing that happens to them.

    God also put the current laws of Nature into play. Created the rules of nature, put it into motion, and stepped back. Expecting God to prevent every natural disaster also has the effect of absolving us of the responsibility to take care of ourselves and our environment, since, “Hey, we can do whatever we want. God will take care of our screwups and protect us from natural disasters”. It’s not a responsible attitude to have.

  7. Mark says:

    Anytime someone tries to understand leukemia in a child or 9/11 or anything of that nature, you can answer in two words: Adam sinned. Death and suffering were never part of God’s plan – they are temporary intruders and they are to be blamed on us, not God.

    Here are a few good resources to better understand the temporary nature of death and suffering.

    Walter Martin was the original Bible Answer Man. (After Martin’s death, Hank Hanegraaff stole that nickname without the Martin family’s consent.) Here is Dr. Martin’s commentary on the subject of evil and human suffering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4w3RnlbctdE After listening to this, you will understand why God can’t make a rock so big He can’t lift it, and why Matt’s argument, “To the extent that this is the “best possible universe” for humans it implies that there are limits to God’s power and ability. In such a case, God is not omnipotent, therefore, he is not God” is not valid.

    Here is a great talk by Ken Ham on the same subject: https://answersingenesis.org/media/video/god/why-is-there-death-suffering/

    Finally, here’s an article worth reading on the same subject: https://creation.com/why-is-there-death-and-suffering

    These three resources will make you an expert.

    • Matt M says:

      I find it incredible that anyone with even remotely libertarian sympathies could make such an argument.

      I have to watch my daughter suffer through a painful and debilitating illness that will kill her before she’s a teenager (note: not my actual experience, but definitely a thing that happens) because her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great (repeat 100x) grandfather ate a forbidden apple? And I’m supposed to consider this a just and deserving outcome?

      That kind of multi-generational retribution would be considered beyond the pale even for fiction’s greatest supervillains – let alone from a deity who supposedly loves us.

      • Mark says:

        I’m not sure what libertarian sympathies have to do with accepting the reality of a situation.

        My guess would be you didn’t bother to listen to/watch/read the resources I provided as all of your questions (along with the fallacy that you know better than God) were answered.

      • Andrew in MD says:

        I find it incredible that anyone with even remotely human experiences could hope to have a daughter without suffering.

  8. Major_Freedom says:

    If God exists, no human could understand it by definition

    • Mark says:

      God does exist, and you are correct that no one can understand HIM (not it – God is a Person, not a thing,)

  9. mogden says:

    Perhaps God maximizes total good in the multiverse by instantiating any universe that has net positive good over evil / suffering.

Leave a Reply