The problem of evil, suffering, and pain are those topics which are commonly used in philosophical arguments against the existence of God. However, there are also practical concerns when it comes to the problem of evil as well. I am going to address both.
The Intellectual Problem of Evil
The underlying logic being put into question is that, if God exists and we define Him as all-powerful and good, then why is their gratuitous evil in the world. Therefore, it must be concluded that either God is impotent to prevent evil or He doesn’t exist.
When it comes to the issue of the problem of evil I think we oftentimes throw in a bunch of presuppositions that ultimately prevent us from reconciliation. For example, the question of the problem of evil is really multiple questions spanning various aspects of the human condition and experience. These assumptions are subsumed into the question.
It seems to me this is a good start in separating out the right questions:
- How does an all-powerful good God allow gratuitous evil to exist in the world?
- Why are their evil humans in the world?
- Why does suffering seem arbitrary (it rains equally on the good as it does the bad)?
- Why does God allow His people to suffer?
- Why do we have to experience emotional pain?
I believe if we address the questions individually we eventually come up with some sort of reconciliation for the problem of evil as a whole.
The problem with the “problem of evil”.
Outside of the fact that the POE as a whole is conflated with presumptions I also take issue with the premise that somehow evil is a problem for the existence of God. Why? Because evil has nothing to do with the existence of being. If you take God out of the equation you still have evil.
It would be no different if I were to claim that because Evil exists in the world the universe cannot possibly exist (assuming there is no God). The two have nothing to do with each other.
The second part of the premise assumes the morality of a divine being. Granted, Christians over the centuries have made the leap (an incorrect one at that), regarding the morality of God based upon the commandments that he gave Moses. For the most part, Christian theology has assumed that these commandments reflected the character of God. Not only does the text not say or even imply this, but it’s also not logically cogent.
God cannot exist as a moral being. If he does, then there always exists the possibility that God does not choose Good over evil. However, even assuming that He would always choose Good, the mere fact that there exists this dilemma within God means he cannot be the greatest possible being (another important assumption for Christian theology).
Therefore, as far as the problem of evil in its current form exists I see no actual problem. Even without God evil still exists and God is amoral.
The problem of suffering
The most significant problem, as it relates to the POE is the fact of suffering. Before we jump in we should first understand what it means to “suffer”. To suffer means to experience emotional and/or physical pain.
The POE is concerned about the type of pain that is a result of emotional suffering. Some of the questions we might ask are:
- What purpose is there for children suffering from disease, hunger, etc?
- What purpose is there in the suffering of animals?
Perhaps an even more important question is, would this world be a better place without the presence of evil? At its foundation, the problem of suffering is the questioning of God’s benevolence for humanity. If we believe that God’s truly has a benevolence for humanity, then how does the appearance of gratuitous suffering not make God unjust or unfair?
Some traditional approaches
One of the more popular theories has come to us via the Reformed tradition. Here the question of suffering is taken off from God by putting it back on humanity. In essence, it states that all human suffering is a result of human depravity, which was acquired at the fall. As a result of our depravity humans deserve whatever consequences they reap because of this action. Therefore, the fact that God would interact at all demonstrates both His sovereignty and grace. The fact that God can alter human suffering demonstrates His sovereignty while His willingness to act demonstrates His grace.
This is a nice sounding logical theory; however, it is much too speculative and suspiciously convenient. It’s an invention that has no demonstrative evidence that God acts this way towards humanity. Additionally, it fails to address the question of arbitrariness. For example, why do Christians suffer just as much as non-Christians? Although it is certainly possible that this is true, I find it highly unlikely.
Perhaps a better option is the reformulation of Augustine’s “Free Will Defense”, by Alvin Plantinga. The idea of this defense is based upon two premises: 1. the existence of free will, which is not as problematic since there is only a small group of extreme Calvinists who would deny free will in its entirety. 2. Possible world semantics. “Possible world semantics” is a logical formula meant to provide a framework for imagining the various possibilities of existence. Put these two together and you get some interesting conclusions:
It’s better for God to create beings with free will than it is for Him to create a race of automatons.
- The existence of Evil is the result of a fallen human race attempting to live communally.
- God’s benevolence is exercised through providing humanity with free will.
- Since God is all knowing, powerful and benevolent, it must be the case that he has already created the best possible world where fallen humans are able to maintain their free will while at the same time living communally.
Practical Considerations: so why do we suffer?
It is usually the case that it is difficult, if not impossible, to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the practical. I think this is one of those cases. For example, if we accept the intellectual premise that God has already placed us in the “best possible world” where good is maximized and evil is minimized; while at the same time preserving human free will, then we must conclude that all evil, suffering, and pain is a product of free will.
So the practical question becomes much more specific: why does God allow, what appears to be, the needless suffering of His people?
It seems rational to think that God would do everything in His power to prevent evil from occurring when it appears that no good can come from it. I think of the needless death of people who have an enormous testimony to God’s will. It seems needless for them to be taken suddenly or “before their time” (people like Rich Mullins comes to mind).
But…what if in some metaphysically nebulous way God suffers too? If we believe that God maintains the best possible world, then we must also have to think that at times this maintenance comes at the expense of His will. Perhaps, to use our example, God suffered when Rich Mullins died.
Love, for which there is no greater argument
In Christianity, we talk a lot about sin. We even use it as the primary doctrine for evangelism (though I am not sure why). However, if the problem of evil teaches us anything it’s that the only combat we have to evil is love.
So…how can I be a Christian in spite of evil and suffering? Because God could have done nothing. He could have let us spiral out of control into our own selfishness. He could have abandoned us.
However, not only did He NOT abandon us, but he became a participant when he descended into the depths of humanity to wear our flesh. He did so to experience our injustice. He experienced the greatest type of pain in the sacrifice of His Son. Our lord participated in this because His love runs to unfathomable depths. He suffered the greatest evil because He is just.
The problem of pain and suffering does not hinder my faith in God, but bolsters it. The Incarnation did not come to destroy evil. No, the incarnation came to give us hope despite it!
Humans suffer as a result of evil – sometimes directly; sometimes indirectly. We must create the necessary space within so that we might properly evolve into this suffering. If it is inevitable that we suffer, then let’s do it well.
Remember, with love their always comes the possibility of grief. It is human to grieve because it is human to love.