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 God, for reasons we don’t fathom, has withdrawn from us, perhaps for our wickedness or our lack of faith.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.