Like the proverbial ghost of a murder victim hanging around and crying out to be mollified, the question of why God would allow humans to suffer as they do is one that has haunted theologians and religious philosophers for millennia. Nobody ever has been able to provide a satisfactory answer; some seem to believe they have done so, but all they have done is provide some very faulty reasoning — usually red herrings or circular logic invoking biblical passages. But a satisfactory answer is demanded if we are going to allow the possibility of a deity at all.
Why? Because one of the primary attributes of a supreme being is benevolence. God, we are told, is good. But suffering, by definition, is bad; thus a benevolent deity would not allow it unless He had a benevolent reason. This assumes that such a being would be (a) aware of the suffering and (b) able to stop or prevent it. And indeed the other major attributes of divinity include omniscience and omnipotence. (Which are in fact inseparable — omnipotence would include the power of being omniscient, and omniscience would include the knowledge of how to be omnipotent.)
Parenthetically, the very concept of omnipotence is inherently self-contradictory. If God can do anything, can He will Himself out of existence? Can He do so in such a manner that He never will have existed in the first place? Can He create an object so heavy that even He can’t lift it? If there is even one such task He can’t perform, then He is not omnipotent. And yet, if there is even one such task He can perform, he also is not omnipotent.
I suppose one might respond that God’s omnipotence includes the ability to resolve such apparent paradoxes, but that really reeks of moving the goalposts. It’s one thing to assume that a supreme being would have the means to actualize the things that we perceive to be true or plausible; it’s quite another to assume that such a being would have the means to obviate what we perceive to be false or contradictory. And if we grant Him an exemption from being required to have the potential for acts that are self-negating, then we are saying it’s okay if He can’t do certain things that we mere mortals can do — e.g., commit suicide.
But for now, let’s treat such complications the way religionists usually do: let’s ignore them. What we cannot ignore, however, is the unavoidable conclusion that if we grant the existence of an omnipotent/ omniscient God, then it isn’t merely a matter of allowing suffering, but of causing it. An omnipotent/ omniscient God would be a creator of all things, including suffering and evil — and their more immediate agents (Satan, etc.).
Some people have tried to skirt around this by suggesting that after He created the universe, God adopted a hands-off policy and just let things unfold on their own. Doesn’t make any difference; if He set things in motion knowing how every little thing was going to turn out, it’s effectually no different from personally bombing every airport and gassing every holocaust victim.
So why would a benevolent God cause/ allow suffering? The answers that have always been presented fall essentially into one of 6 categories, each of which is quite faulty.
The Job Response
Written around 2500 years ago, the beautifully poetical Book Of Job tells a story in which God and Satan essentially indulge in a bet about what will happen if God’s faithful servant Job is subjected to extreme suffering. Some people have interpreted this as an experiment on God’s part to learn for himself what effect suffering will produce. But this is absurd on the face of it; an omniscient being would never have any reason to experiment.
Of course, there is another explanation for Job’s torments…
The Nietzsche Response
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked,”that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. And many religionists have adopted a similar attitude to rationalize the existence of suffering. In doing so, they (and perhaps Nietzsche as well) are conflating suffering with adversity.
It’s true that our muscles (physical and otherwise) grow stronger with resistance, and it’s human nature to enjoy challenge and its conquest. But suffering is not merely adversity. It’s pain, torment, agony. Very often, it consists of challenges that cannot be overcome, but merely endured as they get worse and worse. And there are at least 5 problems with pegging suffering as a stepping stone to personal growth.
1. It’s a post facto conclusion
Yes, there are times when we prevail over suffering, and we feel the stronger for it. But to conclude that this must be the reason the suffering exists is to put the cart before the horse. Particularly since…
2. It doesn’t always work.
Suffering doesn’t always leave us stronger. Very often, it leaves us quite broken. And yes, Mr. Nietzsche, it often leaves us very dead.
3. It’s inequitably distributed.
We all know people who already are perfectly strong and of sound moral character, and yet have had to endure horrible ordeals. Yet we also know, or at least are familiar with, individuals who are irresponsible, shady and downright evil who lead charmed lives, are born rich, scarcely ever endure a day of pain, and even are elected president. If God had designed suffering as a tool for fortification, surely there would be considerably more justice and reason to it.
4. Opportunity is often denied.
There are many, many people who endure horrible suffering in their lives, but have no chance to reap any benefit from it. Many children, for instance, are the victims of terrible violence, disease or calamity. They feel the pain, but they do not have the potential to develop any more strongly because of that — particularly if they die in infancy.
5. It’s all unnecessary.
Even if none of these objections held true, it still would be quite unnecessary for an omnipotent and omniscient God to subject His subjects to torture. Because anything that possibly can be achieved by suffering can also be achieved by other means — indeed by any of an infinite number of other means — just as effectively — indeed even more effectively. After all, He supposedly can do anything, right? So clearly, He inflicts suffering on us only because He wants us to suffer. And this is hardly the hallmark of benevolence. In other words, it appears that God is either omnipotent/ omniscient, or else He is benevolent — but He can’t be all of “thee above”.
The half-full glass response
Whether or not we derive any other benefit, say some religionists, suffering at least affords us the chance to appreciate our blessings (assuming we actually have any). But the same 5 objections apply to this premise. Above all, God certainly could install in us an innate appreciation for our blessings that wouldn’t require any agony to acquire.
The Black and White Response
Even if you don’t need suffering to appreciate your blessings better, maybe it will at least enable you to tell the difference, eh? So some would argue. But it’s an incredibly silly example of begging the question. If suffering didn’t even exist, why on earth would you need to tell the difference?
The Karmic Response
This one comes from Eastern religious traditions, which have a much broader concept of God than does Christianity. The basic idea is that if you lose an eye, for example, it’s payback for your having cost someone else an eye in a past life. Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why the potential for you to have cost someone else an eye existed in the first place.
The Man Behind the Curtain Response
If all else fails, the religionist is likely to respond that God inflicts suffering just because He does, and it’s not our place to question why; it’s our lot merely to trust that there must be a reason for it, even if there evidently isn’t.
But if God indeed created us, then He created our minds, with their insatiable curiosity. We want to know where we came from, where we’re going, how the universe ticks. How do we benefit in this regard by simply stacking one layer of mystery on top of another? How does it help to say that God created the universe if we don’t know what God is or where He came from? How does it help to say that God wants us to suffer if we have no understanding of the reason?
Of course, Official Explanation is only one of God’s intended functions, but it’s a very, very major one. Another is Succor in Time of Need (although that’s a very problematic proposition too, as we shall see in a future discussion) and in that capacity, His inscrutability actually might be regarded as an asset; in other words, one might believe that it takes an unfathomable being to solve unfathomable problems.
But even that role is secondary to His supposed role as Creator and therefore Official Explanation. And regarding that role, and given the presence of suffering, our (admittedly limited) reason must conclude that one of the following must be true: (a) God does not exist at all; (b) His powers are limited; or (c) He is inexcusably cruel. None of which is a possibility that religionists particularly want to consider.