Wednesday, February 20, 2008

God and Suffering

Here are some familiar responses to the problem of suffering.

Suffering is deserved. Perhaps the most widespread view, on this account when people suffer it is because they are wicked, sinful, and deserving. They’ve done something that is so evil that they now deserve to have awful things happen to them. They’ve got slow starvation, cancer, drowning, dismemberment, or painful disease coming to them.

Suffering is redemptive. Through suffering, humans become better people, they redirect their lives, they find a more beneficial path in life for themselves and others, and they transcend selfishness and narrow-mindedness. Without it, they’d be far worse off.

Suffering is apocalyptic. God, for reasons we don’t fathom, has withdrawn from us, perhaps for our wickedness or our lack of faith. And in his absence all manner of demons, spirits, disease, famine, and even Satan himself have had free reign to abuse us and create great torment. But God is coming back. Jesus will return and abolish the evil-doers, setting up a new theocratic reign on earth that will be filled with peace, love, and forgiveness, at least for those who will repent of their ways.

Suffering is transient. No matter how profound or deep suffering may be for a person here and now, it all vanishes into insignificance when framed against the backdrop of eternal life and joy with God. The suffering may seem awful now, but it will be nothing in the cosmic scheme of things, and the full breadth of God’s plan.

None of these responses reconciles God’s existence with evil. Far too often, people seem to be satisfied with just any sort of justification that makes the suffering seem less severe or maybe mitigated by some benefit. But of course that’s not the point. The point is: how could a good and powerful God who loves you stand aside, unmoved to action, while such things happen? Believers and too many non-believers get embroiled in protracted discussions of whether or not suffering is really deserved, or if it is really redemptive, as if positive answers would get God off the hook. As long as someone has done something wicked, then not only is it permissible to allow them to suffer, that’s what an infinitely good being would justly inflict on them. Believers are content to absolve God of all responsibility as long as in a few cases, suffering plays a role in getting someone to change their behavior. They offer these justifications as if it would be morally acceptable for God to withdraw and leave us to suffer through the apocalypse, as long as he’ll be back. And they are satisfied that even if things are bad now, as long as existence afterward is going to be much better, then the current suffering would be permissible.

It’s a simple matter to see that suffering is not justified in any of these cases. Imagine a kind and loving parent who infects her child with polio for some rule violation leaving her crippled for life. We would even balk at the cruelty of giving polio to a convicted serial murderer. We would never tolerate that sort of maliciousness, yet God, if we are to believe these justifications, is more cruel than any human who has ever lived. Suppose a sadistic kidnapper defended his actions by arguing that in fact the cruelties that he inflicted on his victims actually had a redemptive effect by getting them to turn their lives around. And imagine that his victims really had benefited in some small way in the end from his tortures. Would we accept that as absolution for what he did to them? Would his actions be morally justified by the redemption of his victims? Imagine Michael Jackson, after engaging in abusive acts with a child for a night, justified the suffering he has caused by lavishing gifts and a comfortable lifestyle on the child to balance it out. Does transient nature of his crime make it seem less like a crime now? Imagine parents abandoning a child to an awful group of criminals, rapists, murderers, and abusers, but promising that they will be back in a few years to straighten it all out to everyone’s satisfaction. Would we insist that they really are loving parents as long as they fixed it all later?

The real challenge created by suffering is not whether or not there will be some benefits too, or whether or not the suffering will ever cease. It’s much more substantial: a good and powerful being would not permit any suffering that he could avoid by some alternative sequence of events that would produce as much or more benefit. The only way that being and suffering will be compatible is if every instance of suffering is optimal such that the benefit it produces could not be acquired any other way, and the benefits that are produced are greater than the losses suffered. When we consider the challenge this way, the four responses above completely miss the point. That suffering will end, perhaps with a wonderful existence in the afterlife, does nothing to show that the torment that sentient beings have gone through was necessary or worth it. In fact, the existence of a joyful afterlife suggests that there is a much better alternative mode of existence that is available to God but that he mysteriously prevents us from having. That some cases of suffering redeem some people does nothing to explain why God would employ suffering to change the lives of a few when he could have achieved complete and perfect redemption directly and without any harm at all.


Kailya said...

Very interesting read, though it would seem that the paradigm has been overly simplified. Sort of like Charles Bradlaugh challenging God to strike him down to prove he's real. You're saying that God, if such a being is real, is not real if he is the cause of suffering or refuses to fix one's sufferings? Yet there's copious ammounts of information being lost by this argument. to make this quick let's consider Proverbs 19:19 if you will. Once you save a man from suffering, but because you stepped in mirculously (or not) and ended it, you will have to do it again due to a lack of appreciation for the suffering or ending of it. Also, if a little miracle steps in to help someone, then generally it would take a grander and even more grand miracle to maintain faith. Overly simplified, but arguably true.
Secondly, death and whatever road to death you find yourself on, is ultimately the price you pay for free will (romans 6:23/Luke 13:4/etc.). Does this mean that suffering is therefore deserved? No more than joy. But it does ask the beckoning question: isn't the evil which causes suffering from man then?
However, i tend to see suffering more as a rain and sun dynamic. You enjoy the sun more because of the rain (unless you like the rain more then vice versa).
Lastly, this piece seems almost as though you're trying to explain the mind of God. But that is a natural fallacy. Also, the comments of suffering seem to mostly be those spoken by those who have never bothered to read the Bible. I don't mean this as an insult, but as an obersvation that the comments are simple ramblings. Paul wrote extensively on his suffering and even called it a blessing and that we should rejoice in suffering.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog, Mr. Assistant Professor of Philosophy ;)

But as Lewis would say, you're setting up and attacking a version of Christianity-where Christianity has been spoken of-fit for a six year old. If you're being honest with yourself (and you aren't, nor will you be), you are.

Why does suffering exist? In a few words; for a purpose. Why did Joseph suffer? Why didn't God just place him in rule of Egypt? As has also been proposed; suffering exists as a reminder. Pain, as horrible as it is, does, after all, serve a purpose. Cannot the same be said for suffering?

I wonder then, what the a-theists response to the existence of 'non-suffering' would be.

Matt McCormick said...

Appeals to authority, personal attacks, and smugness are no substitute for reasoned arguments, anonymous. Do you have any actual reasons to reject any of the arguments that have been presented?


Anonymous said...

"Appeals to authority, personal attacks, and smugness are no substitute for reasoned arguments, anonymous. Do you have any actual reasons to reject any of the arguments that have been presented?


I do, actually. But before that I really must apologize for the rather crude attempt at getting your attention. I had read the previous comment and seeing no reply, was not entirely sure whether or not any comment by myself would actually be entertained. For that I apologize--my words are reprehensible. Moving on from this, however, I do have reasons for rejecting the arguments presented. So please forgive my inability to speak (or in this case, write) eloquently, my ignorance of philosophical rhetoric and poor ability to convey ideas succinctly and comprehensibly.

I will first reply to your responses for the problem of suffering (in order) and then suggest my own response, which I do not hold exclusively.

(1)Suffering is deserved...

This, in my opinion, is the most spiteful of all the answers to the 'problem' of suffering. In part it is correct according to the Christian metanarrative. Suffering exists because man is inherently wicked and sinful (Rom. 3:10-18; Rom. 3:23). It is, however, incorrect in its assertion that because 'Bob' has done 'X' he deserves 'Y' and 'Z'. It also, unfortunately, glosses over any doctrine of the Fall. Suffering, according to this response, is deserved because men are sinful, wicked... But why are men sinful and wicked?

It is also an answer which insufficiently addresses existentially based hypotheticals. Why don't all the wicked suffer? Why don't all those who are good flourish? What sort of severe wickedness has the six year old committed to be condemned to death by Leukemia? The unborn to be still born; the newborn to be born blind? The very question is asked of Jesus in John chapter 9, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" Jesus' reply, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him." We have now entertained a new question; is there a reason for suffering?

On the above I reject this answer, finding it insufficient.

(2)Suffering is redemptive...

This I reject on the grounds that it does not reflect reality. Job suffered and he was considered a righteous man of God; what was there to be 'redeemed'? Jesus was sinless and suffered, again, for what purpose? This answer I also find insufficient. Perhaps it is true for some, but definitely not for all.

(3)Suffering is apocalyptic...

This I reject on the grounds that it does not reflect scriptural teaching.

(4)Suffering is transient...

This simply does not address the problem of suffering.

As for an alternative explanation, for the sake of space I won't include that in this response. If you accept the above reasons, then I'll post. If not, then not.

Matt McCormick said...

I don't think you're understanding the original post. Take the four standard responses to evil. I have briefly described them, but I'm not agreeing with them as a justification for human suffering. I am arguing that they are grossly inadequate to address the incompatibility of God's existence with so much senseless suffering.

You seem to be rejecting the responses too. Maybe on Biblical grounds. Again, appeals to authority aren't a substitution for clear, reasonable thinking of your own. The Bible says a lot of things. What would be interesting would be some reasons to think that any of them are true. (See my numerous posts on problems with the Bible.)

The main problem seems to be a failure to even see a prima facie problem with the existence of so much pointless suffering and a God who has the traits that most people think he has. Of course people don't deserve all the suffering they get, and lots of people don't get what they deserve. That all lends support to my point--God, if one existed, wouldn't let things unfold they way they unfold here.

So how about this: without making any circular appeals to the Bible or assuming that God exists to prove God, do you have any reasons to think there a God?


Anonymous said...

Well, since this is a post on "God and Suffering", I would much rather answer the question of pointless suffering, if this is reconcilable with the existence of a good and loving God.

Though I'm sure you've already heard all the 'best' and 'worst' answers people have to offer. And if that's the case then I'll answer why I believe there is a God. If not, rather stick to the topic at hand. Let me know.

Anonymous said...

You just CAN NOT say two opposite things at the same time if you really have common sense:
You say- God loves EVERYONE and is SUPER-KIND and treats everyone equal and will show mercy if you confess. and ALSO at the same time you say that God punishes those who deserve punishment.
This is **bullshit**..
And more over, why did he not punish a million others who are child rapists, parent rapists, force children into sinful acts, hunting down innnocents, smugglers, terrorists, liars, cheats, so many so many others. Most of these people are actually out there enjoying life at the moment.

Let me put this simple. God has to either punish ALL the sinners and bad people in this world, OR show love and excuse ALL the sinners. If you say it both ways, then it is pure pure pure escapism in the name of God

Anastasia said...

You cant have a negative without a positive. Satan brings evil in to the world and if there is a god he should stop it, right? so then humans should be robots and be controlled by the 2 forces. because basically, absolutely no fault falls on to the humans inflicting pain on each other ... they are not responsible for wars, murder, any sort of wrong doing they do because it must be satan and god should do something. Yeah, god is all loving and all powerful, so he gave us free will to do what we want and love him back, genuinely. If he steps in everytime we mess up, then what is the point in it all?

Anonymous said...

If you have heard of Occam's Razor you would know that the simplestest answer is the one in which people most usually choose to belive in. Leading me to wonder why a person would want to live their life in fear of what was to happen to them after death. I mean that is whay most folks go to church correct? People go to church because they are in fear the if the do not pay there due to (g)od then they will be sentanced to an eternity of misery and dispair. Just Food For Thought.

Starchild646 said...

Sounds like ought to sic the trial lawyers on this God fellow for inserting an unsafe and inherently dangerous and dis-satisfactory universe into the stream of commerce. The author here seems to think that rather being in this universe/ full of horror and terrible deeds and boredom and misfortune/ we should all have the benefit of a plastic universe that exists on the plot lines of Disney movie. Perhaps contrast is necessary for depth? Or is it depth is necessary to understand contrast?

Starchild646 said...

"The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer's sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction." F. Nietzsche

Pastor Rick said...

I am not nearly articulate enough to address all of the issues raised by your article though I find several assumptions in it that need challenging. This might help to at least provide food for thought on this topic: However, I am grateful when people wrestle with these questions - for it is only in the wrestling where truth may be found - if it exists. Additionally, if God is Whom He is claimed to be, then I would not expect Him to be offended or intimidated by any question I might sincerely pose.