For many, the extreme suffering that so many people experience is incompatible with the idea that there is a loving, all-powerful God who created and looks after the world. God would want to stop this if God were loving. And God would stop this if God were able. This is a troubling question for all of us who look at the war, starvation, abuse, disease, and natural disasters that are so common in our world. There are no easy answers to a question like this which brings to mind both the global scale of suffering as well as the personal sorrow we have all experienced in our lives.
But the fact that this is such a sobering question that we are compelled to take seriously should itself provoke us to think carefully. What is it about ourselves and the world that makes evil and suffering seem so out of place even though they are constant and widespread? Why, if there is no God, should these things seem so wrong? If the world is a product of chance or purely natural forces, then we cannot know how things should be, only how they are. Yet we cannot escape the sense of tragedy at the condition of the world and human beings. We feel not just that we do not like suffering, but that it is in some way a violation of the way things ought to be. We recognize evil.
But, if there is no personal God, then evil is an illusion. It is simply a word that describes how we feel about something or some action, but communicates nothing actual about the thing itself. If God has created human life with value and purpose, then to violate that is evil. But if humans are ultimately an accident, then morality is just a human invention. It is a convention like manners on which we try to reach a consensus and which we learn by custom. In that case, how can you distinguish between the way abusing a child is wrong and the way chewing with your mouth open is wrong since both are things our culture finds distasteful? We could have developed different customs and many cultures do have different moral standards. There is no ultimate way to judge between them.
Human choice is a gift, but it is a very powerful thing. The consequences that come from one choice can be frightening. One choice and the world is never the same again. Multiply those effects by all of the evil choices ever made and you get a world in which there is an awful lot of suffering and sorrow. This is not just an issue of world management, but an issue of relationship. Think of the way parents relate to their children. Few people admire parents who are so protective of their children that they control their every move or lock them in the house all their life. Even with good guidance, when a child is given freedom by her parents, she is going to make mistakes, she is going to suffer. But it is also the only way she will grow up and become a person with dignity and a measure of self-determination. On a larger scale, the majority of people prefer to face the consequences of breaking the laws of a country rather than be controlled by a dictator through force and intimidation. Freedom is better than control even though the risks are much higher. If God were to eliminate evil completely from the world, he would necessarily eliminate meaningful freedom.
Those who argue that a good God could not allow suffering have made certain assumptions about what it means to be good, namely that goodness always eliminates all suffering. But, as we have seen, there are other factors which come to play. We have to consider what is the nature of a human person? What makes a person good? What is the purpose of human life? In the parenthood example mentioned above, the parent does not leave the child totally without guidance or consequences. But, there is always a risk that the child will make choices that are destructive. Love in this case is a risk for both the parent and the child. The child experiences the consequences of his bad choices, but so does the parent who loves that child deeply.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, distinguishes between what we call kindness and what is true love. Kindness is satisfied as long as the object of its kindness is happy or thinks it is. Kindness does not truly have to care for its object. Kindness does not object even to the removal of its object, if that would prevent its suffering, like when injured animals are killed to put them out of their misery. It does not need to care about the character of its object as long as that object is happy. Love includes kindness, but is much more demanding of its object. Lewis says that to assume that God’s goodness requires him to desire only pleasure and happiness for his creatures is a misunderstanding of what love really is.
We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven–a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see young people enjoying themselves,” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.” Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks in the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction. When God created humans, he designed them to be in relationships, with God and with each other. Love, trust, and faith are crucial to such relationships. This is not to claim that every specific instance of pain is for some higher purpose. It seems clear that a lot of suffering is brutal and gratuitous. However, to restrain humans from causing suffering would mean a lot of intervention on God’s part. If God were to interfere that much with human actions, would we really be capable of genuine love and relationship? Love can be painful and even cause suffering, but would a world without suffering or love really be better?
This post used by permission of RZIM Canada.