Evil, Suffering and the Problem of Pain

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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:

Logical Problem

  1. How does an all-powerful good God allow gratuitous evil to exist in the world?
  2. Why are their evil humans in the world?
  3. Why does suffering seem arbitrary (it rains equally on the good as it does the bad)?

Emotional/Spiritual Problem

  1. Why does God allow His people to suffer?
  2. 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:

  1. What purpose is there for children suffering from disease, hunger, etc?
  2. 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.

  1. The existence of Evil is the result of a fallen human race attempting to live communally.
  2. God’s benevolence is exercised through providing humanity with free will.
  3. 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.

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  • charlesburchfield
    June 10, 2015

    I think that when I suffered childhood trauma, of which there were many, It was like being kicked out of eden & thrown into a wilderness. Thinking back on my preverbal days I remember having a felt sense of wellbeing & that was ripped away at the point of contact w the evil that seemed to claim me. I had the felt sense of being powerless to improve this state of disconnection from family, community, peers or teachers. I had become a displaced person early on in life & learned to cope by trying to pass as normal. I felt disouraged fr asking for help bc how to articulate what happened? I had no language & besides all that ppl around me, evidently, were also suffering the effects of long unhealed trauma. They coped by denial and my naked suffering triggered anger, fear rejection & abandonment. When I was a young adult I turned on to alcohol & drugs. The further drop out from healthy living, tho I was unaware at the time, prepared me for a spiritual awakening. I had suffered the loss of family,community & selfhatred put me in a fair way to recieveing gods spontanious introducton to himself by way of a messenger who was somebody who had also survived the things I was going thru, had made contact w jesus & had a profound testimony of his miraculous
    interventon in saving her fr a living death.

  • Julian
    June 11, 2015

    This is not the comment that I would like to live. I am quite sick today with an illness that I have had for 20 years that has no current cure. I have spent much time thinking, complaining, reading and praying about this issue. I think you are right in that the POE is not as important a discussion than the problem of our own personal suffering. We are at heart self-focused I have found. I am not so much concerned with the problems of philosophy and metaphysics when I’m feeling good lol.
    Your argument re. the amoral nature of God is interesting.. I’ve not heard this before. It makes some sense… though I feel an enormous emotional need to see God as just, honest, loving etc.
    The fallen world hypothesis has much to commned it self but the free will arguement works better for me. To be human is to suffer. To love is to suffer. To act in this world is often to contribute to the suffering of others.
    I like the idea that God sets up the universe with all the laws of physics, probability, etc… gives us freewill and then stands back to see what we will do with it. The Adam & Even narrative speaks to this and argues that choice/freewill is the ultimate source of our suffering.
    But then we see God inserting himself into history, into our own personal history. We see God attempting rescuing humanity from itself. All without over riding our free will. Not an easy task.
    So we leave behind the “why does an all powerful God all evil” arguement as not asking the right questions. Rather we look to the facts we see demonstrated in front of our faces day after day… that we live in this universe and suffer the consequences of being here… of being human…. of having free will…. yet God continues to interveen… mostly to the extent that I want God to interveen. I don’t understand this dynamic but it seems real.

    • Eric English
      June 12, 2015

      Julian…first let me say how sorry I am to hear of your circumstance. I do not say this out of pity, but through the common bond we have of being human and suffering together in this world. When we suffer for Christ, our faith in Him is being challenged. I think that even those in your circumstance also suffer for Christ, because you suffer to maintain your faith in spite of your situation. By holding fast and staying strong you are suffering for Christ. That makes you every much of a hero of the faith as those who have been tortured or killed at the hands of some other person.

      Second, I think you accurately captured the essence of what I wrote. As I am sure you can imagine quite a lot could be written on a number of concepts presented here, so in one sense the treatment of the topic is very much inadequate.

      Perhaps most importantly is the fact that this issue is much more about how we experience suffering (as you rightly pointed out), than it is some academic exercise in logic. The reason I like this approach is because it takes seriously those ideas which are most important regarding this topic. It takes seriously personal suffering (especially as a religious person), it takes seriously our role in our own suffering and that suffering we impose upon others. It takes seriously the essence of what it means to be human in this increasingly complicated world.

      Thank you so much for sharing this testimony it was a great encouragement to me and I know it will be our readers as well!!!!

      Peace to you brother.

      • Julian
        June 13, 2015

        Thank you Eric.
        Terrific encouragement… I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I am tired and angry of people feeling that they have no choice but to reject a God of “allows” evil, or even inflicts it. Possibly, the biggest barrier I see to so many people coming into a loving relationship with God is that they have to wade through the quagmire of shit that is “the all powerful God who controls everything” and therefore becomes the greatest nightmare monster of the Universe… one that knows you are going to Hell, yet predetermines that you should go there anyway for all eternity.
        Good New hey???????? Fuck that… yes I am feeling particularly ill today.. the normal social respectable christianese is going out the window LOL
        So how about we share about a God who is NOT in control… who has passed that on to us.. that we make our own choices and we make our own heaven and hell.. for ourselves and for others.
        This is my immediate experience. Though I am uniquely convinced of God’s good purposes in my life. Not to rig the Universe for my wealth and health, but that I might participate with the establishing of His kingdom here.. that His love would be experienced by all who want it.. that His freedom and power and joy might explode into the lives and hearts of those who can catch a glimps of how beautiful He really is…
        Just rambling now… but I so want to proclaim from the rooftops “God is not like that!!!!” Look at what he’s done in my life!!! He’s like this… loving, compassionate, redeemer, liberator. He opens blind eyes and hearts and enables us to transcend these light and momentary afflictions that are achieving for us an eternal glory… Let you kingdom come and your will be done.. King Jesus… take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee…
        Hugs brother… love your work on this blog 🙂 Blessings … I’m praying for a continued explosion of insight into the intersection of your journey and the glory of God. What a brilliant collision that will be 🙂

The Almost Christian Discovered
Evil, Suffering and the Problem of Pain