The Problem of Suffering

Note: In this post, I do something I don’t often do — namely, make an argument for why I think religion is mistaken. Or classic Christian religion, anyway. If this is something you think you’ll be offended by, now might be a good time to stop reading.

The classic big argument against the existence of God — or at least, against an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God — has always been the problem of evil. If you’re older than ten years old, you’ve almost certainly heard it: Why does evil exist? Why did God create us with the capacity for evil and the desire to do it? Why do bad things happen to good people?

But for me, evil isn’t so much the problem. Evil can be more or less answered by free will: God wants us to have free will, so he has to allow us to do evil things. I don’t think it’s a tremendously good answer, and it’s one I ultimately don’t agree with; but it’s not an entirely unreasonable answer, and it’s one that takes a certain amount of debate and back-and-forthing to really counter.

The big problem for me is the problem of suffering — suffering that’s NOT caused by people.

Tsunamis. Droughts. Birth defects. Painful, drawn-out illnesses. Five year old children with cancer. That sort of thing.

This is not suffering caused by people with free will. If you believe in God, then you believe that this is suffering caused by God.

Now, the usual answer to these things is “God moves in mysterious ways.” Yes, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (let’s call it APAKAG from here on out) — but we can’t possibly understand his plan. Maybe he wants these bad things to happen so something good can happen later, or to build character, or for some reason we can’t understand because we’re not as all-knowing as he is.

This, unlike free will, is an entirely unsatisfying answer. And not just because so many people use it in such a weasely way, explaining every good thing as being proof of God’s benevolence and every bad thing as mysterious ways.

It’s unsatisfying because it renders the entire concept of good and evil meaningless.

If God behaves in ways that would be considered unspeakably cruel and brutal if any of us did it, and yet is still considered good — not just good, but the apotheosis of good — than what on Earth does it mean to be good?

For God, or for us?

If you’re going to say that God causes these sorts of suffering, on purpose and with the power and knowledge not to do so — if you’re going to say that he has the power to prevent or stop this suffering, and doesn’t — and you’re still going to say that he’s good, then what possible meaning does the word “good” have anymore?

If you say that, then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. If our human understanding of good and evil have any meaning and any basis in reality, then God has pretty much got to be evil — brutally, cruelly evil. But if God causes horrible suffering for the duration of people’s lives when he has the power and know-how not to, and yet is nevertheless somehow good, then what it means for God to be “good” is so far removed from what it means for us to be “good” that it becomes an irrelevant abstraction.

And I don’t think the concepts of good and evil are, or should be, irrelevant abstractions.

Now, you could argue that God doesn’t cause these things to happen. He merely allows them to happen. You could argue that God set the world and its physical laws into motion, but intervenes in that world only rarely.

But that just begs the question. If you have the power and the know-how to prevent or stop suffering — if in fact it would be easy for you to do so — and you merely stand by and do nothing… I suppose it’s not quite as evil as causing the suffering, but it sure is in the same ballpark. And besides, if God is APAKAG, why did he set the world into motion in a way that results in tsunamis and birth defects and pediatric cancer? Even a non-interventionist APAKAG creator god is still, by definition, morally responsible for the world he created.

And you could make the pet or parent comparison. Sometimes pet owners or parents have to do things to their pets or kids that cause suffering — taking them to the vet, pulling out splinters, not letting them eat whatever they want, etc. — in order to bring about some other good.

But the problem with that is omnipotence. I’m a pet owner, and if I could avoid pinning my cat down, sticking her in the back of the neck with a sharp needle, and dripping 150 ml of fluids under her skin, every day for the rest of her life, you’re damn well right I’d do it. I do it because I’m not omnipotent — I have limited power, and that’s the only thing I can do within my extremely limited power to keep her alive and healthy.

And you could argue that heaven is for eternity and this lifetime is an eyeblink, and the suffering of this lifetime compared to the eternity of bliss in heaven is like one stubbed toe in a lifetime.

But again, I make the pet owner comparison. We only spend a couple minutes a day sticking a needle in the back of my cat’s neck… but she really really hates it, and she doesn’t understand why we do it, and if I could avoid causing her that suffering for that two minutes a day I would.

If I — a reasonably good person, but very far from All Good — would avoid sticking my cat with a needle for a couple of minutes a day if I could, then wouldn’t an All-Good God avoid visiting people with tsunamis and droughts and birth defects and childhood cancer if he could?

It doesn’t make sense. And in order to try to make it make sense, you have to redefine the concept of goodness so radically, twist it around in such contortions, that it bears no relation to any kind of human understanding of goodness.

What makes sense is a world without an APAKAG God. As Julia Sweeney says in her performance piece “Letting Go of God,” “The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.” What makes sense is a world in which tsunamis and droughts and birth defects and childhood cancer happen, not because of some God who could stop them from happening if he wanted to but mysteriously doesn’t, but because of the laws of physical cause and effect, the laws of physics and meteorology and biology and genetics.

None of which needs to be explained in terms of good and evil.

The Problem of Suffering

10 thoughts on “The Problem of Suffering

  1. 1

    I think that in your analysis of the Good and Evil question you may be conflating two totally unrelated paradigms. The thing about Good and Evil from a theistic POV is that by definition, everything God does has to be good, and everything He wants us to do is Good. Conversely, “Evil” means not doing what God wanted, or acting against His wishes.
    THAT is the definition of “Good” and “Evil” according to religion. That’s why God can destroy cities, slaughter bunnies, and command parents to stone their disobedient children, and that’s why you can murder in the name of God and believe you’re good. Because according to the tenants of your faith, you ARE being good.
    Consequently, you can’t dismiss floods and plagues and 5-year-old-children dying in agony as “evil that God does.” It ISN’T Evil, because God wants it that way, for His inscrutable ineffable reasons. They are, by definition, “good.” Not “good for human beings” or “good for the environment” or “spread joy” or whatever we think of “good” – they are “good” as they are the will of God, and part of His plan/will.
    In your post, you’re trying to compare that with a humanist view of Good and Evil, in which needless pain is “Evil,” hurting people is “Evil,” etc. And the two aren’t compatible, because they work on very different premises of what “Good” and “Evil” mean. You accept that hurting your neighbour is wrong because she’s a human being with inherent rights to dignity and empathy (or not – let’s not get sidelined into a discussion about atheist arguments for compassion and altruism…), but a religious person accepts that hurting your neighbour is bad because God said so. And if God appeared in a pillar of flame and said “kill thy neighbour” – then suddenly that would be good.
    btw – that’s why I find theistic arguments about the lack of solid foundation for atheist morals so ridiculous; it’s theistic morals that are contingent – on the exact nature of God, which is (by definition) unknown and unknowable. Atheist morals, OTOH, are solidly based on reality – on the humanity that we all share.

  2. 2

    I don’t think that’s always true, Tefnut. I’ve seen plenty of Christian theology go to tremendous lengths to defend or explain why tsunamis and the Holocaust exist even though God is good. Trying to understand God’s goodness in terms of human morality is a big part of Christian theology. (A wildly unsuccessful part, IMO, but a big part nevertheless.)
    And most of the religious believers I know think it’s bad to hurt your neighbor because it’s bad to hurt your neighbor. They don’t interpret the Bible literally or think that every word is true, and they’re completely comfortable using their own moral judgment to decide which parts of the Bible to follow and which to discard. The sort of reflexive, unthinking, “Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it” religious belief is depressingly common — but it’s not universal.

  3. 3

    Good point! I’ve heard the argument before, more tersely, as “omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent: pick any two”, but your expansion really clarified it for me.

  4. 4

    Hi, Greta,
    First, let me volunteer that I do not have “THE” answer to the questions you raise. Instead, I will offer a perspective that you may find helpful. Early in your post you write that for you, “evil isn’t so much the problem. Evil can be more or less answered by free will: God wants us to have free will, so he has to allow us to do evil things.” I believe that way of thinking is instructive and I will return to it later.
    In your post, you identify several catastrophes that entail suffering and that are not the result of free will. In order to try and keep this concise, I will address one example that you cited (“Five year old children with cancer.”), but this reasoning can be applied to other natural phenomena.
    The world is full of amazing kinds of life. Like other living things in the world, human bodies have the ability to reproduce and repair at the cellular level. We are not able to do those things by OUR volition; we did not create those biological mechanisms. I suggest that most humans would agree that such growth and renewel are “good”. If there is a God who created such mechanisms, I postulate that such a God is “good”. Those mechanisms are very complex and they typically work in ways we see as beneficial; however, in our current understanding of microbiology, we think that many cancers are specifically instances of those same mechanisms operating to our detriment. In your post, you have labeled that as “bad”. So, if God created such mechanisms knowing that they COULD go “wrong” or even WOULD go “wrong” with some probability, does that mean that God is “bad”?
    Consider again the reasoning concerning free will and evil. If God had created humans without free will, would it have been good? I think God’s answer to that is NO. I suspect your answer is also NO. If God created life without the capability for reproduction and repair, would it have been good? Again, I think God’s answer is NO.
    This reasoning sometimes leads people to ask the question “Couldn’t God have created life WITH reproduction and repair AND so that it could never result in cancer?” I don’t know. That seems to be a similar question to “Couldn’t God have created life WITH free will AND so that no one would ever choose to do evil?” Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that the scientific investigation of how consciousness and free will can even exist AT ALL and the kind of quantum states and leaps that are probably involved have led me to think that MAYBE it was actually NOT POSSIBLE to create a universe of physics and chemistry and biology such that there would be free will AND reproduction and renewal AND to NOT have the possibility of cancer. I do not have the time or space here to show those investigations because they are incredibly complex and difficult.
    What I believe is that God did create such an interconnected system built on matter and energy and space and time such that we have life and free will and reproduction and renewal. That system also encompasses the possibility of cancer and hurricanes and tsunamis because IT MUST. Just for a moment, try to calculate the statistical likelihood that any given cellular reproductive event will result in cancer. The number is SO SMALL, most mathematicians would be tempted to say it almost doesn’t exist. I am fairly sure that this comment will not convince you, but perhaps God really did good.

  5. 5

    I think your argument breaks down when you compare free will with the natural world, annoDomini.
    Free will, in the sense that you mean, is incompatible with determinism, and so there is a choice there, they are mutually exclusive by definition. (I don’t think the radical kind of free will that would actually exonerate God really checks out with reality, but for the sake of argument, I’ll grant it).
    But that’s not the case with disease, or earthquakes, or tsunamis. We could live on one of the billions of planets that don’t have plate tectonics, and you cut out a whole class of natural disasters right there. And I don’t know enough about the natural science to actually propose an alternative, but I can certainly imagine you could design a universe that’s more hospitable to humans — it’s just an engineering problem, and is there an engineering problem that’s so great God can’t solve it?
    And that’s assuming a watchmaker, Deist God. If we believe that God can or will intervene in the world, then he could just correct things constantly, by denaturing disease-causing viruses, say, or destroying cancers as they appear, or preventing an earthquake from happening.
    So yes, maybe there’s some explanation as to why he can’t do any of these things, and this is the best of all possible worlds, but that’s then a circular argument: God is APAKAG, so the world that he created must be the best of all possible worlds, even though nothing in the world itself particularly bears out that hypothesis.

  6. Rex

    I think the problem lies on the definition of GOOD equating it to BEST. As for example, a question asking, does our WORLD is the best there is? a theist says yes because GOD created it, and GOD by definition is APAKAG. But the idea of APAKAG GOD is inconsistent to logic or non-sensical to the world we live in, says the atheist. But assuming all things are GOOD and being BEST, should there be existence at all? Or assuming all things are BAD, EVIL or WORST, should there be existence? For I believe, existence of a thing is defined by its how it is differentiate or diversified relative to the other. If all things are GOOD then we are all the same, there will be NO diversity, therefore we are one. Therefore the real question for me is this: SHOULD THERE BE NO EVIL DOES IT MEAN THERE SHOULD BE NO GOOD AS WELL? or SHOULD THERE BE NO EVIL, WILL GOOD BE DEFINE.

  7. 7

    I think I’ll recommend a short story by Poul Anderson to anyone who is interested in this question.
    _The Problem of Pain_ depicts the encounter & friendhship of a devout christian with some ETIs who have an interestingly different conception of God.

  8. 9

    One of the main things that isn’t really mentioned in this article in regards to the APAKAG god thing, is the recent storms that wrought havoc in the south last week.
    When something is pretty, like a sunrise, or water dripping from a fern, it’s all “oh look how good god is. god is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!”
    When people die in massive storms, it’s always “pray for these people and my god bless them in their suffering”
    It’s one of those things where anything good or beautiful is the glory of god, yet anything harmful is a natural disaster and we should pray for them. I can’t be alone in thinking that if one is going to believe in god, then you have to take the good and the bad. By this line of reasoning, the summer shower that produces rainbows and horrendous storms in the south must be caused by the same being, else you’re lying to yourself. God created the storms, which in turn killed people.
    It’s the hypocrisy that annoys me the most about religion. The bible isn’t all bunnies farting rainbows infused with love that a lot of mainstream religion packages it as.
    If god causes rainbows and people like rainbows, that same god caused the tornadoes in the south last week and killed a lot of people.

  9. 10

    I know I am extremely late to the party here, but I just wrote a blog entry on this exact topic. Being an Atheist, probably more on the Dawkins line of “Militant” Atheist side, if truth be told, I think the existence of suffering in any form is kind of a weak argument for Atheism. I know you are specifically referring to the Christian concept, which, to me is rather simply refuted.
    However, I think one important aspect is that suffering as a reason for Atheism is also rather weak as well. Suffering seems to be the thorn in the side of most Atheist arguments because people of faith simply disregard it as “God’s Plan” and actually use the fact that they rely on their blind faith as a comfort during times which exceed their understanding. Believe me, I have felt that pull in my younger years. In fact, there have been days I *wished* there were a god that would listen to me and care about what happens to me and the planet as a whole.
    Unfortunately, as we are all aware, wishing doesn’t make it so. No matter how much easier it would be to have an all powerful deity at our beck and call, there are many, many reasons why we know that that isn’t so; having nothing to do with the fact that religion is a man made entity.
    The problem with the argument of suffering against any deity at all is that there could be an infinite amount of explanations for why a creature would create something and then that creation would suffer. Not the least of which is the fact that it is an assumption in itself that any creature capable of creating the universe, the planets or conscious life, for that matter, must, in fact, be omnipotent. If there were such a creator, there’s nothing to say that they are not merely more technologically advanced, or perhaps their moral culture does not consider our “relationship” with it to be of any importance.
    How many human beings create great works of art, or beauty, or even children for that matter and are not even sure how to care for them properly. Not out of evil, but just ignorance. Just because something is more advanced, it does not follow that it is more benevolent, or omnipotent; just further along than we are.
    I don’t even think any of these things, but the list goes on of reasons why the existence of suffering is a poor argument for Atheism. I think, because of its logical fallacies, it leaves the concept wide open for attacks by religious people who use their faith in time of suffering and rely on the “feelings” they get when they feel better that “someone else” is taking care of it.

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