How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? (RJS)

Chapter 2 of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God broaches the problem of pain. Given the pain and suffering in the world – either God is not good or God does not exist. This argument has many variations but there is an underlying thread of continuity. Certainly there is a great deal of pain and suffering in our world, not to mention out right evil – from a tsunami that wipes out a quarter of a million people in a day, a disease that takes the life of a child or young parent, or even an older parent, a drunken driver who kills a family in an instant, to intentional and premeditated exploitation, abuse, and murder, even a gunman who takes out a class of first graders.

The title question of the post comes up repeatedly.

I was listening recently to a Veritas Forum discussion held at MIT in 2011. This presentation features four MIT professors, two Christian and two non-Christian. The forum begins with a ten minute presentation by each person presenting their world view or their story.  The last half of the video is a question answer panel session.

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The video is a bit long, but I recommend it if you are interested in the kinds of questions people ask and the kinds of answers that are given. This forum does not present final answers on anything – but it could be an excellent conversation starter. (If your schedule is like mine, it might be easier to find time to listen to the downloadable audio found at the Veritas Forum site under Life, the Universe, and MIT.)

Daniel Hastings, one of the Christian professors, brings up the issue of human suffering in his introductory comments.

(29:50-31:18) I start by saying there is a God who created the universe, and he is not an impersonal God. He has declared himself as a loving God who seeks a relationship with us and also gives us free will to choose him or not. And our purpose then is found in being in relationship with him. … So if I were to describe myself I would describe myself as a reasoning Christian person. And what that means to me is that the world and its associated events even with immense suffering caused by natural events must be ultimately explicable. And the reason I say that is because that is the piece that gives me the most doubt. How to explain suffering caused by natural events as opposed to suffering caused by evil.

In the question and answer section, when the question was “what personal experience would it take to change your religious beliefs?”  Hastings expanded on the problem of suffering a bit.

(52:25 – 53:15) I intimated in my comments, there are times when I have doubts, and the thing that frankly gives me the greatest doubt is the nature of suffering. But not suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man, because that is actually explicable on the basis of a concept of evil. It is suffering caused by natural events, right, It is when a tsunami kills, as the one off Indonesia did, two hundred thousand people far from the event, who on the face of it were just going about their lives. They weren’t doing bad things and suddenly they were gone. That causes me doubt.

This isn’t a question only for skeptics and agnostics, it is a question that hits at the soul for many Christians as well.

We cry out – If God is good and transcendent – why hasn’t he stopped evil and suffering?

Is there a reason for evil, even natural evil?

Or is “God” nothing more than an inconsistent myth?

There could be a “silver-lining.” Keller offers some of the usual arguments – who are we to think we know God’s ways and perhaps we don’t see the good reasons for what appears as evil in the world. After all God used suffering in the life of Joseph to save the Israelites from famine. … Of course this doesn’t address the issue of why there is famine (an evil) in the first place, or why a salvation that results in captivity and then the killing of first born sons of the Egyptians is in fact a “good” outcome. Come on – the real question here is this: “if there is a God why do we live in this story that includes at its core pain and suffering?” He gives examples of a few people (including himself) who have grown through the painful experiences of life. Certainly this is true … except for those who perish in the painful experience of life, for whom there is no silver lining.

One of the major reasons I’ve been running through my occasional series on the book of Job is to explore the problem of suffering more carefully. Job, at least on the surface, doesn’t allow the usual platitudes to stand. Most evangelical responses to the question of pain and suffering sound more like Job’s friends than anything else.  In his commentary Tremper Longman keeps coming back to a justification of suffering, including Job’s suffering, that is rooted in the Fall. But this has to be read into the book of Job.  And … even if we go back to Genesis 3 as the root cause of suffering, this doesn’t really answer the question. Why did God allow the Fall? Why did God allow the serpent into the garden in the first place? Why was the serpent “evil”?

I expect to get some serious disagreement on this – but I don’t think that a Calvinist approach to Christian doctrine allows an acceptable answer to the question suffering. There must be a God-allowed element of freedom and openness in God’s good creation. Here is the real power of the book of Job as it seems to me, especially in the last section of the book when God speaks to Job (the series will continue as I have time to read and process the commentaries by Walton and Longman).  The question is “who is wise?” and the answer is God. We rest in assurance of his wisdom and his justice whether we understand all the reasons or not.

God is not aloof and distant. But this isn’t to suggest that Keller’s approach is wrong. He doesn’t stop with the silver lining arguments (and admits that they are not really satisfactory, e.g. p. 27). He moves on to point out that we don’t worship a God aloof from the evil in the world – but a God who came himself incarnate in Jesus to experience and ultimately to conquer pain and suffering in the world. Resurrection, initiated by the resurrection of Jesus, is “not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted.” (p. 32) and “Jesus insisted that his return will be with such power that the very material world and universe will be purged of all decay and brokenness.” (p.33)

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From 4:03 to the end of the clip above (from the last half of the interview linked last week): We may not know the reason why God allowed pain and suffering to enter the world, or why he has not yet eliminated pain and suffering. But whatever the reason is, it is not that God is aloof and did not care. The Christian view of God is that he cared enough to come down and enter into the pain and suffering in the world.

So…Far from disproving the existence of the Christian God – the existence of pain and suffering, however it came about, is the reason for the story we find ourselves in as Christians. The Christian story is the story of God come to earth and of evil conquered.

Which leads to my questions:

How would you respond to the proposition that pain and suffering demonstrates that an all-good and all-powerful God does not, cannot, exist? Why did God – does God – allow pain and suffering?

And… What has helped you most in struggling with natural evil as well as human evil and injustice in this world?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The forum at the top of this post was held at MIT. Cambridge and Boston are places not unlike Manhattan (where Keller pastors). The hard questions are asked with no holds barred. A commenter (#37) on last week’s post In an Age of Skepticism provided an example of the kind of approach a church can (and perhaps should) take in such an environment.

In Boston here we’ve been trying to respond to these two questions: “How can we make room in our community, within our local churches, for people to mature into robust Christian faith? Is there a place for honest interaction with all of the issues?” Since 2009, at Park Street Church, we’ve been running a “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” class (named after Mark Noll’s book of the same name), where we run an ‘An organic learning community in which we challenge each other to think and discuss difficult or untouched topics, in love and in the light of Scripture.’

You can read the rest of the description in the comment on the original post.

  • http://ofdustandkings.com T. E. Hanna

    I’ve been reading NT Wright’s book “Evil and the Justice of God” lately, and he makes an interesting claim: that the central story of scripture is about evil and God’s response to it. So, in that vein, we see the issues of sin, justice, judgment, and redemption.

    I tend to think that we grossly oversimplify the idea of sin when we make it all about moral action. The introduction of sin entailed a fundamental breaking in God’s Kingdom. If the creation narratives are about that Kingdom, about a god who brings order in chaos, then sin entails a sense of devolving back into chaos. This has moral implications to be sure, but it also has societal and even natural implications as well. Suffering is the result of a broken world.

    The hope we have as Christians is that God is not aloof, and that brokenness is not the end. We serve a God who suffered, whose central redemptive act was won at the hands of evil men, and whose crucifixion reverberated throughout the natural world as the sky grew dark and the earth shook. We look ahead with a glorious hope, that suffering is not the last word, and that there is coming a new creation in which all things are subject right.

  • dopderbeck

    I came across this quote from an Eastern Orthodox thinker recently: “faith is trust in the benevolent providence of God.” I think a God who is truly good, who truly will make sense of it all, is the only hope against nihilism. I agree that a thoroughgoing Calvinism has deep problems here.

  • Tracy

    “Most evangelical responses to the problem of pain and suffering sound more like Job’s friends than anything else.” Amen. Thank you for saying that.

    “You must have done something wrong” (or America has done something wrong) or “this is meant to teach you something, just watch and see what you’re going to learn” or “God is mysterious, very mysterious, Job. His ways are not our ways.” And when God shows up at the end of the book he sends the friends away.

    Every time some Christian offers up — really anything, — I think they’ve grappled with suffering as a philosophical problem but not an existential one, which is what really matters. Try standing at the graveside of a child who was raped and murdered holding in your head how important and wonderful free will is. You can’t, you’ll scream to the heavens — “couldn’t you have done it some other way?! Take our free will and stuff it.” You’ll tell God it would have been better to have no heaven and earth, than to have had this happen, never mind the death camps, the child soldiers.

    I once heard someone ask Elie Wiesel a question about theodicy, and he answered, “we Jews have a theology of protest. For the rest of my life I will worship God, and I will shake my fist at heaven.”

    I wonder if we’ve yet grappled with “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” which goes unanswered. Of course there is a resurrection. Death doesn’t have the last word. But there was suffering just the same, and no good “explanation” offered to even Jesus on the cross. (Please don’t answer easily, “because this is what had to happen.” Because that’s really not an answer to somebody in pain, even to Jesus, he too might have wondered in the moment, “isn’t there another way, you’re God, you can write the universe as you like!” I appreciate that he shared our deepest doubts and sense of abandonment too.

    By the way, I’ve often wanted to ask an evangelical like Hastings, why is the phrase “relationship with Him,” the go-to phrase for describing what it means to be a Christian. Its not a biblical phrase. Not once does Jesus say, “I want to have a relationship with you.” He says, “follow me,” among other things. He never says, “my followers will have a relationship with me.” So why do we use it, constantly? I think it confuses people — makes it sound like Jesus goes out for coffee with us, you know, we’re “in a relationship.” Facebook. Its not what our ancestors in the faith would have said. So why do we use it so much?

  • http://www.kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    I think it’s not just Calvinism that has a deep problem here. I think any framing that is deeply rooted in philosophical “givens” is going to run smack into pain. Really appreciate the Elie Wiesel quote from Tracy. We are “Israel” – we wrestle with this God. We pray Psalm 22 along with our Master. The question is not new, as if we just recently posed it – the book of Job. I need to take very seriously that Job and our entire Book refuses a tight, rational, philosophical answer. And instead offers the Story, with many embedded stories, of solidarity and victory. Very unsatisfying. My instincts are that the root problem is in my/our unBiblical view of God and who He is. Moreso than the problem of pain.

  • barlow

    I don’t see, theologically, how Calvinism or Arminian soteriology has much to do with “a God-allowed element of freedom and openness in God’s good creation.” Certainly an open theism allows for events outside of God’s control or planning, but that is not part of Calvinism or Arminianism proper. Perhaps you mean that Arminianism has more of an aroma or tendency towards openness, but that’s very different than finding systematic theological resources within Arminianism to exonerate God from planning or allowing a tsunami. I doubt Wesley would have had much patience with that. Every soul that died or suffered in the tsunami still lives, and one day will be part of the resurrection of the dead, and will either suffer in the body or be at peace with God in the body. Unless we are universalists, we cannot compare the sufferings of this life to the sufferings of eternity. And so, at that point, we are merely asking whether it is just for God to do things on a timetable that surprises us. Every person that dies of a disease is killed by something just as “natural” as a tsunami. The problem is not that we haven’t adequately accounted for tsunamis, the problem is that we don’t recognize that we will all die of “tsunamis.” The death toll of the fall is 100%, and it is all natural evil, from mental illness that motivates a gunman, to the turbulence of the tectonic plates.

  • Phil Miller

    Tracy #2,

    It’s not as if there’s no Biblical support for relational language between Christ and His followers.

    John 15:15 comes to mind right away – I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

    Also, as far as what the historic church talks about, Eastern Orthodoxy speaks of the church’s relationship with Christ in even more intimate terms – the bride and the bridegroom. The thing that’s different in more modern evangelicalism is the overly personal tones of the relationship. But even then, one can find that thread running throughout church history, especially when you get into the more mystical side of the faith.

    One thing I’ve found interesting is that the one group of American Christians that seems to have the most Biblical theodicy is the African American (which isn’t exactly a homogenous group, but there still seems to be a common thread in many of them). Of all the groups in America, they probably know the most about suffering. But a thing you notice is that they typically don’t get into the area of speaking of suffering in the abstract. What comes through in a lot of their worship is a cry for deliverance along with a realization that Christ is walking with them through their suffering.

  • nathan

    I don’t know…it never seems right to me to attribute the word “evil” to the natural results of plate tectonics. I don’t find tsunamis or hurricanes “evil”…they can have tragic “effects”, yes. But is it really “evil”?

  • barlow

    Nathan, the idea from those criticizing theism would be that it is evil for God to plan or allow such things when he could otherwise prevent them. That’s why I used the word “evil.”

  • Jeff

    All I can say is “Creation Untamed” by Terence Fretheim. Everyone needs to read this book. Basically his best points are that suffering has been built into the very fabric of creation – Not all ar equally intelligent, or strong, or fast, we all must suffer to be more of these things. Loneliness was something that man experienced before the Fall. Man was alone. Eve experienced pain in childbirth before the Fall. Her pains increased, not started after the Fall. And suffering happens in part because for God to let us be free from a micro-management process means potential suffering could insue, including natural disasters. The same mechanism that causes cells to change and benefit us, is the same process that causes cancer.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Some very nice explanations here, but I do get the feeling that they miss the point, the heart cry, somewhat.

    Narratives about why evil (whether intentional or “accidental”) is in the world, and what could be perceived as its purposes, do not answer the actual question – sure, we can try and “look on the bright side of things” (more about this later), but in the end, we claim that God is love, yet He allows (and foresaw, and, in subtle, deterministic way, created a universe that allows for) people to do unspeakable things to each other, or unspeakable suffering (death of hunger, disease etc) “by chance” (although, even the “chance” was created – if there is no lottery, there are no losers or winners). Of course, after all that, if one allows for the Biblical narrative, a vast proportion of humanity, including those who suffered, will either be annihilated, or tortured eternally. THAT is the question, THAT is the cry.

    Is it not then remarkable that the narratives reflects what one could imagine a people would create for themselves to sustain them in their suffering? that it is merely “looking on the bright side”? Very understandable, but is it not merely that? We picture a pleasure after the pain, or a purpose to the pain, to make the pain more endurable?

    Could we answer those questions truly, instead of just replacing Job’s friend with upbeat versions of the same??

  • Karl

    I have yet to find an intellectually satisfying evangelical to the problem of suffering. Some of the answers offered by some apologists may speak to some situations of what we call suffering.

    But the “answer” that speaks most to my heart lies more in Christian mysticism than in rational apologetics. It is an affirmation of the mystery of God’s love and intent to “make all things well” even in the face of what seems insurmountable evidence to the contrary. The answer that offers me consolation lies less in Tim Keller’s reasoning than in Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well”, or Alyosha’s embrace and kiss in the Brothers Karamazov, a kiss that flies in the face of his brother Ivan’s demand for logical explanations justifying the world’s suffering.

  • Karl

    First sentence of #10 should read “. . . an intellectually satisfying evangelical ANSWER to the problem of suffering.”

  • Tyler C

    Thanks for this post.

    Barlow #4 – I agree that it is not doctrine of salvation in Calvinism or Arminianism which is the issue, but God’s relation to the world. In what way is God sovereign? If he is so sovereign where does evil come from? Does God really want a tsunami to kill thousands and children to die in childbirth? How can we call that God good? These are not new or profound questions, but I think they show the issues in what Greg Boyd would call a “blueprint” picture of the world.

    I’ve recently been reading Is God to Blame by Boyd and it has really challenged my perspective. Allowing for God’s will to be thwarted, the presence of angels and demons, the incredible complexity of the world, etc. These help explain why evil is present by why God is still good. I am still very young and I may be trying to sing while my voice is changing, to borrow a phrase from a recent post here, but a picture of God including some of the ideas of open theism seems to be a very helpful theodicy.

    My favorite point Boyd makes so far is that we should locate the mystery of evil and suffering in the world in the complexity of creation, not the character of God.

  • barlow

    Tyler, evil has usually been a problem for classical theism. It has always been an option to abandon classical theism in order to solve the problem of evil. But then you create other systemic problems. Does Boyd’s advice really seem wise? That is, does it seem right, while looking at a complicated world and an incomprehensible God, to then choose to locate the mystery in the world? First, I’m not sure we have to choose, but secondly, it is much harder to understand the musician than his instrument.

  • LT

    Outside of Calvinism, I think all the options on the problem of evil make no sense.

    In atheism, there is no real way to define evil. So it loses. In Christian theism, we have a real and coherent way to define evil, and a legitimate reason to be upset about it. Atheism’s idea of evil is tied to nothing substantive or coherent.

    In “openness and freedom,” evil has no point; it is simply the free choices of beings to do whatever they desire. God, if he acts, does so only in response to try to salvage something out of it, and God can only do so with the consent of people. And whenever he does act to quash evil on one front, he often creates evil on another front.

    In Calvinism at least there is a point to evil, even if we don’t understand it. We all understand this personally. We undergo the pain of a dentist visit because of a greater aim. We undergo the pain of surgery or chemotherapy because of a greater aim. In Calvinism, there is always a greater aim. It is a serious philosophical and theological mistake to limit that to our understanding.

  • Phil Miller

    LT,
    I would beg to differ with you on your contention about Calvinism. Really, it’s Calvinism that offers no real answers. The answer that “it’s all for God’s glory, but we just don’t understand” simply doesn’t cut it. For one thing, it truly does mean God is the author of evil. it means that God is not merely responsible for rapes, murders, holocaust, but that He planned them and made sure they occurred. That is simply not something Scripture allows as a possibility.

    As far as open theism, it’s really the only view that makes any real sense to me. But you’re right, it does mean that we have to be willing to accept that there’s not a reason behind every evil act. The term that Greg Boyd uses is ambiguous evil. Not everything evil that happens has a deeper purpose behind it. In fact, most of it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean, however, that God can’t or won’t bring beauty from ashes. That is God’s nature. He’s in the restoration business.

    I think the Calvinist example of going to the dentist falls flat. Certainly no one would say that a dentist was working for the greater good if he ended up maiming or killing half of his patients.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    LT @ 14 – but, to take you analogy further, in the Calvinist Cosmos, why do you need chemo in the first place?

  • dopderbeck

    Some folks have mentioned Freitheim and Boyd. Both are open theists. I don’t think open theism helps at all with the “problem of suffering.” IMHO, it tends to make God seem negligent, unleashing forces he doesn’t really understand and can’t really control.

    In response to LT (#14), I think one of the key problems with Calvinism, as it is usually expressed by thoroughgoing Calvinists, is that it tends to make God seem arbitrary. “God can do whatever he wants” — a phrase often employed — suggests that God’s character has no connection to his will.

    Here, I think, we start to get at a root problem: nominalism and voluntarism vs. realism. The Medieval scholastics began to divorce God’s will from His being, and this trend was picked up in greater (Luther) or lesser (Calvin) degrees by the Reformers. Contemporary strong Calvinism, IMHO, makes this key mistake. God is just arbitrary Will.

    Classical Christian theology, at least at its best, never divorces Gods will from His being. Among other things, this means God’s Providence encompasses (contra Open Theism) but does not override (contra Calvinism) created freedom. Also among other things, it means that only “good” comes from God — God does not predestine evil (a blasphemy!). Evil, in a sense, is a sort of non-being, an un-creation.

    As others have stressed, this means there is no humanly comprehensible final “answer” to the problem of evil and that efforts to construct rational theodicies will always fall short. But, it also means that there can be a confidence in God’s goodness and in His finally good purposes for creation.

  • Rick

    Related thoughts from C. Michael Patton, a Calvinist: “The issue of God’s sovereignty is not exclusively a Calvinist position. All Christians – Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and the like – believe that God is sovereign…Arminians believe God is sovereign. While we may frame things a bit differently, the best Arminians I know don’t think God is a cheerleader, nor do any (but Open Theists) believe he is a chess player. They believe that God is in control and could have prevented the happenings in Newtown. Like us, they don’t know why he did not prevent it. All of us believe that God will bring good out of this tragedy. When we make it an us vs. them thing, we unwittingly push people to defend extremes that don’t represent the best of their theology. In these battles, unnecessary division takes place between brothers of the same faith as our theology begins to lisp. Don’t make the Arminian theology lisp simply because you want to turn this into an opportunity for theological politics to find a canvas. Arminians, this goes for you too…
    In times of emotional hurt and pain, while it may be true that it was God’s “will” for something to happen, it is not God’s “will” for you to pronounce such right now. You see, most of us (Calvinists) know how we distinguish between God’s will of decree and will of desire. We know that there is the will of the heart of God and the will of the hand of God. God’s heart did not want these children to be murdered, and he mourns over the death of those lost. Yes, he decreed it to take place before the foundations of the world, but his heart is not always in concert with his decrees. God is never the agent of sin or evil, but he does make extensive use of it in a fallen world. It is all he has to work with.”

  • Phil Miller

    dopderbeck #17,

    I guess after reading Boyd, Fretheim, and other open theists, I struggle to see much meaningful difference between what they say and what you’re labeling Classical Christian theology would be. The biggest thing would be in how foreknowledge is described.

  • Johnas

    The Internet Monk had a great post on “Surd evil,” evil present before human sin and which continues in the world until the day of new creation. The creation story presents a view of God taming the forces of chaos, or leviathan. And where did the snake in the garden come from?

    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/surd-evil-serpentsand-the-cosmic-battle

    If God is the architect, builder and deliverer of evil, then while He may force us to worship him through the threat of eternal torture, He is indeed a monster.

  • http://ieday.net Tony Whittaker

    No one has mentioned C S Lewis’s Problem of Pain book, which does have a lot of wisdom in it.

  • Tyler C

    Tyler, evil has usually been a problem for classical theism. It has always been an option to abandon classical theism in order to solve the problem of evil. But then you create other systemic problems. Does Boyd’s advice really seem wise? That is, does it seem right, while looking at a complicated world and an incomprehensible God, to then choose to locate the mystery in the world? First, I’m not sure we have to choose, but secondly, it is much harder to understand the musician than his instrument.

    Barlow, I guess I haven’t felt as though embracing some of Boyd’s perspective is abandoning classical theism. Could you tell me the most significant places you see them differing? You make a good point about the nature of God and the world. The world is finite; God is infinite. Which one is really more incomprehensible? I accept that distinction as well, but with a qualification. While we cannot completely comprehend all that God is, we can know truly what God is like and what he wants.

    I would argue that we know clearly what God wants which is communicated through Jesus. We know what God is really like, most clearly shown in Jesus’ death on the cross. His character is love and his desire is to redeem and renew a rebellious people and creation. God’s desire is not sin and suffering, but holiness and peace. Therefore, any of those things we find in the world must find their source in something other than God. This is where Boyd (and I think Jesus and many other biblical writers), point to agents (people and demons) working against God’s purposes in the world.

    Tony #20 brought up The Problem of Pain by Lewis. I think there is wisdom in those pages as well.

  • LT

    @Phil (#15),

    You say the answer that “it’s all for God’s glory, but we just don’t understand” simply doesn’t cut it.

    Doesn’t cut if for whom? Are you willing to subject to wisdom of God to man’s small mind? To say that because you don’t understand something, it cannot be true? I am not willing to do that. At some point, it seems that we must believe that God is in the heavens doing whatever he pleases. He is working all things after the counsel of his own will (interesting, how the non-Calvinists love to say “all” means “all” until they get to these “alls”).

    You say that Scripture does not allow God’s ordination of things like rapes, murders, the Holocaust as a possibility. Yet Scripture says that he did just that, with Israel in the OT (slavery in Egypt), with Jesus himself (murdered by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God), etc. So the Scripture clearly testifies that God has done these things. The question is about whether he always does them or not. (BTW, I think you are equivocating on “author” there. God is not the author of evil in the sense that it is traditionally used by its detractors).

    @Klasie Kraalogies (#16),

    We need chemo because of cancer.

    @doperbeck (#17),

    Regarding arbitrariness, I don’t know of any Calvinist who would separate God’s will from his character. If you can point one out, I would like to read how he or she argues for that. I certainly wouldn’t do that. I think it is patently unbiblical. I have never sensed that Luther, Calvin, or any other Reformers did that. And I don’t know of any comtemporary examples. I think most would say that God does all things in accordance with his own will.

    I agree that there is no “humanly comprehensible final ‘answer’” to the question. That’s why I think the Calvinist view is the only one who can deal with the real problem of evil. I think that is why, to use your words, “there can be a confidence in God’s goodness and in His finally good purposes for creation.” That confidence can only really exist if God is in control of it.

  • Phil Miller

    At some point, it seems that we must believe that God is in the heavens doing whatever he pleases.

    Well, that right there’s your problem…

    I refuse to accept (along with the Biblical authors) the premise that God is capricious. That is really what the whole idea behind the problem of evil is about. If we’re willing to accept that God is something other than benevolent, the problem goes away. If we’re willing to accept that God sees humans as something like pawns, then the problem is simply that we need to accept the fact that we’re mere pawns and accept our lot in life. I just don’t see how that fits in with Biblical narrative at all.

  • AJG

    One mistake that I think all theology makes to some extent is that the universe could be anything other than it is – i.e. God could have created a universe in which there was no suffering but did not. I’m not at all convinced this is true. There are numerous instances in the Bible in which God is said to express regret or grieve over something that happened. I think this indicates that God Himself suffers to some extent. The idea that “when we all get to heaven, there won’t be any sadness or pain, etc.” just doesn’t seem to ring true given that God seems to feel pain as well.

    I know it seems heretical to suggest that God could not have created a universe without suffering, but perhaps that was the only way for God and humans to express empathy and true love towards each other.

  • Marshall

    I read Boyd and it seems to me he just gives large, complicated versions of the sound-byte simplistic answers he rejects. In the end, obviously God is not “omnipotent” or else not “omnibenevolent” in the usual senses. And the most loving parent is neither from the child’s point of view. For individuals, there is just a choice to “curse God and die”, or to bless God and die.

  • Jeff

    In response to Klasie Kraalogies,

    You only offered two choices for Hell – annhilation or eternal torment. There are other options see C.S. Lewis’ – The Great Divorce. I hope there is a place where people go who get what they want, it is only fair. Why would someone who hates God by their actions want to be where He is?

    Also why doesn’t LOVE answer the question as to why horrible things happen? THere is a teachin in Christianity and Judaism where God gives people over to their passions so that they will get to their last rope and sincerely and completely turn their lives over to the Lord.

    Also I disagree with anyone that would say we have no ability to prevent the results that happen due to natural disasters. Would it not behoove a government to provide materials and require people who live in dwellings for the dwellings to be safer. A simple cheap item like Bostich hurriquake nails could save hundered, even thousands of lives in poorer countries, or more concrete structures along coastal areas, and prevent people from building on sand, I think Jesus said something about that. Did it ever strike one as extremely stupid that the US government provides trailer homes to victims of tornadoes or hurricanes!!!! In hurricane and tornado prone states at the very least a temporary concrete structure should be built where residents can go to.

  • AJG

    LT@22 said:

    So the Scripture clearly testifies that God has done these things (holocaust, rape, murder).

    God is not the author of evil in the sense that it is traditionally used by its detractors.

    How can you possibly reconcile these two statements in any coherent, logical manner? If man is created in God’s image, don’t you think that part of that includes an acknowledgement of what constitutes good and evil behavior which in turn leads us to say that a God who does these things cannot be good?

    If God gives us a command (i.e. Thou shalt not murder), don’t you think it’s reasonable to assume that He also believes in the sanctity of that law, or does God simply not abide by the law that He mandates? Calvinism is a complete logical fail.

  • LT

    @Phil Miller (#23)

    I refuse to accept (along with the Biblical authors) the premise that God is capricious.

    Then I welcome you to my position and the Calvinist position. I do not know of any Calvinist who believes that God is capricious. As a personal note, I would encourage you not to make comments like this. They simply aren’t true.

    But Calvinism seems to me the only position that keeps God from being capricious. In the other views, you have God who could do something but doesn’t and has no good reason for not doing something. In Calvinism, there is a “greater good” for God’s not fixing all evil.

    Once you leave it to man’s “freedom” (something we cant’ really even talk about until there is a definition given), you have entered a world of serious problems because you have seriuosly compromised the love of God.

    Can you imagine a parent saying a to a child, “I love you so much I will not protect you from any evil? I will simply let it happen to you.” We would call that cruelty.

    But as parents, we all know that there are some things that we let kids learn the hard way, and we do it for a great purpose.

    Now, as with all analogies, it breaks down. But here’s the point: If God could do something and doesn’t, for no reason other than preserving “freedom,” then he is a capricious and intolerable God. He is the farthest thing from loving that is conceivable.

    However, if God has a greater good, then the toleration of evil can be understood.

  • AJG

    Also I disagree with anyone that would say we have no ability to prevent the results that happen due to natural disasters.

    How do we have the ability to prevent an asteroid from colliding with the earth and wiping out all life or a nearby (from a stellar perspective) gamma ray burst? Some mighty destructive things that are part of the cosmic historical record cannot be blamed on Adam and Eve eating the Fobidden Fruit. So what was the origin of said destruction?

  • AJG

    Can you imagine a parent saying a to a child, “I love you so much I will not protect you from any evil? I will simply let it happen to you.” We would call that cruelty.

    How about a parent that has a hundred children and picks one to protect and ignores the other 99? That’s much closer to the Calvinist God than your example. Any reasonable person would call that parent evil, which is why Calvinism destroys the character of God.

  • Phil Miller

    I do not know of any Calvinist who believes that God is capricious.

    You just said God was capricious! You said He was up in heaven and could do anything He wanted. If that involved condoning rape, murder, etc., than so be it. How is not that the definition of capriciousness? As John Piper would point out, God may strike any one of dead at any moment. It basically makes God something more like Zeus.

    These conversations are too much for me. I think I’m on the Calvinist discussion. These things lead me to a bad place.

  • Phil Miller

    I messed up the blockquote tag up there in #31. Only the first paragraph was meant to be indented.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    To me this question is very closely related to the question: why did God create something, anything, rather than nothing at all. The reason I say this is because only God is/can be perfect being–God can no more create a perfect universe than he can create a circle composed of four right angles, because only God is/can be perfect. To say that God can create something self contradictory would not mean that God all powerful–it would mean that God and, ultimately, the universe he created are simply irrational. And this we know from our experience is not true.

    This consideration also addresses the whole question of a “Fall”:

    And … even if we go back to Genesis 3 as the root cause of suffering, this doesn’t really answer the question. Why did God allow the Fall? Why did God allow the serpent into the garden in the first place? Why was the serpent “evil”?

    The story of a “Fall” is very clearly a metaphorical expression of man’s universal experience that he and the universe he inhabits are (inevitably) imperfect–simply because they are not and cannot be God. Pain and even evil are inevitable in an imperfect universe, but Jesus is God’s expression of solidarity and offer of help to us. Forget about serpents in gardens.

    Note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily answer the original question. The only answer I can offer is that God knows that he can bring greater good out of this imperfect universe and that this ultimately justifies the evil that occurs. Very few can honestly say that, no matter the pain/evil they have suffered, they would prefer that they had never existed.

  • LT

    @AJG (@27),

    So do you deny that Acts 2:23 is true? What exactly do you say about it? It seems pretty clear that the murder of Jesus was the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.”

    How about a parent that has a hundred children and picks one to protect and ignores the other 99? That’s much closer to the Calvinist God than your example. Any reasonable person would call that parent evil, which is why Calvinism destroys the character of God.

    Who believes that God doesn’t protect all his children? Until I know who that is and what they are arguing for, I can’t respond to it.

    You say that Calvinism is a complete logical fail. That assumes that our minds are big enough to know enough to make that sort of determination. I am not arrogant enough to think I know enough. I think it better to take God at his word. At some point you have to come up with explanations for what God says about himself that cohere with everything else God says about himself.

    @Phil Miller (#33),

    You just said God was capricious! You said He was up in heaven and could do anything He wanted. If that involved condoning rape, murder, etc., than so be it. How is not that the definition of capriciousness?

    Well, because it’s not. Look it up and put it in the theological context of God and his revelation to us. Capricious means “given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary). God is not given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior. Everything he does is purposeful and just. He is faithful. He cannot deny himself.

    Being able to do whatever He pleases (which the Bible says; I didn’t make that up) is not the same as “given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour.”

    As John Piper would point out, God may strike any one of dead at any moment. It basically makes God something more like Zeus.

    Well, no. First, God can’t be like Zeus because Zeus doesn’t exist. God can’t not exist. Second, Zeus doesn’t have the power to strike anyone dead at any moment, because, well, a non-existent entity can’t do anything, and even if he did exist as mythology suggest, he didn’ that kind of power anyway. Third, if God were to do that, it would be entirely just because all men are sinners and deserving of death.

    I am not given to playing the “gotcha” games of theology. I think we have to look at Scripture in its entirety for what it actually says, and put it together. We can’t trot out beliefs and proof texts without legitimate biblical support.

  • RJS

    Well this has gone just about as far as it profitably can on the Calvinist/nonCalvinist discussion. And I know I started it in the original post.

    How about Keller’s solution or mitigating truths toward the end of the post?

  • AJG

    Note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily answer the original question. The only answer I can offer is that God knows that he can bring greater good out of this imperfect universe and that this ultimately justifies the evil that occurs.

    True, but making it personal makes this a much more difficult problem (the necessity of suffering to bring about a greater good). It’s easy to say that God had to do this and it will utimately work out for the best. It’s much more difficult when Ivan Karamazov asks Alyosha if he would be the author of a world in which one could create a perfect world for man but it could survive only by torturing to death “one tiny creature.”

    Very few can honestly say that, no matter the pain/evil they have suffered, they would prefer that they had never existed.

    Yes, but if you add in the idea of eternal conscious torment after death, I would say most would say it would be better if they never existed. Heck, Jesus himself said it about Judas.

  • dopderbeck

    LT — I’m really not sure how much you truly understand the logic of Calvinism and the way scholastic Calvinism is often popularized today. Most definitely, that God “can do whatever he wants” is a central theme in much of it. Will precedes Being in this logic, even if that isn’t commonly acknowledged. And the lineage between this and the nominalism and voluntarism of late medieval scholasticism has been pretty well traced out. Duns Scotus, for example, famously argued that God could decide to decree that adultery is lawful and then we could all go out and commit adultery — meaning that marriage and sexuality were essentially divorced from the order of creation.

    I agree with you that thoughtful Calvinists do not speak this way. Indeed, Calvin’s own thought is much richer than this. In some ways, Calvin’s ontology can be “participatory” like Aquinas’. There were even Reformed approaches to natural law theory. Luther is another matter — read On the Bondage of the Will!

    But in my experience today’s Calvinist popularizers aren’t terribly thoughtful about this kind of thing. You give an example yourself: You say that Scripture does not allow God’s ordination of things like rapes, murders, the Holocaust as a possibility. Yet Scripture says that he did just that…. So the Scripture clearly testifies that God has done these things.

    So, you are saying that God ordained the Shoah? God is the cause of the Shoah? You are attributing to God one of the greatest evils of the 20th Century? When the Nazis herded millions of women, children and old men into the gas chambers, the person responsible for pulling the lever to release the Zyklon B was God? That would be blasphemy!

    I think that to avoid the blasphemy of attributing evil to God, you have to have a much more nuanced approach to causation than the logic of Calvinism seems to allow. The Thomistic model of primary and secondary causes is a pretty good model. Calvinism, it seems to me, finally destroys the integrity of secondary causes and thus has to attribute evil to God.

  • AJG

    Well this has gone just about as far as it profitably can on the Calvinist/nonCalvinist discussion. And I know I started it in the original post.

    You may have started it, but I threw gas on the fire. For that, I apologize. Still, I don’t see how one can reasonably address theodicy unless one talks about the character of God. The debate over divine foreknowledge and God’s will is at the center of that discussion.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @AJG

    “making it personal makes this a much more difficult problem”

    Yes it does. I didn’t mean to make creation sound like an impersonal “process” or something of that sort, if I did. I do believe that everything that happens in this universe, including what happens to persons, flows from the creative decision of a personal, Trinitarian, God.

    Re Judas, Jesus may be said to be speaking rhetorically, as he often did. Whether Judas would have agreed, I obviously don’t know–but your point is taken. :-)

  • AJG

    So do you deny that Acts 2:23 is true? What exactly do you say about it?

    I believe the author of Acts believed it was true. That’s about all I can say for certain.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW — the example of the Crucifixion is a particularly interesting here. “God” didn’t ordain the murder of Jesus, as though “God” and “Jesus” lacked a common being! It’s correct to say that in the Crucifixion, the Son subordinated his will to the Father’s, but at the same time, the Father, Son and Spirit are three persons in one being, without parts or division. In the person of the incarnate Son, God voluntarily went to the cross. This doesn’t compromise the true human agency of the Romans and religious leaders who crucified him.

    Could Jesus have refused to go to the cross? On the one hand, the narrative of Jesus in Gethsemane suggests he could have. On the other hand, if Jesus had refused to go to the cross, would God have remained God? I think the answer is clearly no: it would have ruptured the will of the Trinity and the character of God.

    On this example, can God do anything at all that He pleases? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that no power can supervene on God. No power could have forced Jesus to go to the cross. No, in that God’s “pleasure” is indistinguishable from His being. In common usage, “I can do whatever I please” means that I am not required to act with any consistency or in accordance with what is good. I can act arbitrarily, lie, change my mind, and commit senseless violence. But God does not do such things (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2). Therefore you can’t speak of God’s will without first speaking of His being. What God “pleases” is always the same as who God “is.”

  • EricG

    “Thr person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world.” Moltmann.

    Hauerwas notes that our current focus on abstract philosophical answers to this question is contrary to the early Christian community’s response; for them it was crucial that explanations not be given, because they “would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing the suffering.” The response of the Christian community should not be to justify or answer suffering, but to sit with the suffering in community.

    Practically speaking I see this problem play out all the time. One example: Although the OT had a tradition of community lament, today that sort of thing makes us uncomfortable – we are worried that it calls our reasons for faith into question. In doing so, we lose the ability to lament as a community, as in Psalms 88 and many others, which is one of many ways in which we fail to sit with the suffering today.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @dopderbeck

    I like your train of thought, but would add re:

    Duns Scotus, for example, famously argued that God could decide to decree that adultery is lawful and then we could all go out and commit adultery — meaning that marriage and sexuality were essentially divorced from the order of creation.

    Scotus’ voluntarism (= good and evil depend upon God’s will, voluntas) actually goes further. Scotus would say that the order of creation is divorced from considerations of good and evil in general–good and evil are simply what God says they are and are the product of his will, not his intellect. For Scotus, God is simply all powerful and so nothing can bind his will. So, he would obviously totally disagree with everything that I said before.

    BTW, Benedict XVI, in his address at the University of Regensburg, compared (with reason) Scotus’ views to those of orthodox Islamic thinkers. Left unspoken, but very much as you said, this view definitely flows from late Catholic scholasticism (not Aquinas) into Protestant thought. The Thomist thinker Etienne Gilson long ago pointed out the connection between the Augustinian thought of Bonaventure, and contrasted it with the thought of Maimonides and Aquinas.

    Also, re Luther, it has always seemed to me that there is a real affinity between his concept of the world as an inn with the Devil as the innkeeper, and the Buddhist attitude toward existence as suffering.

  • Tanya

    EricG — thanks so very much for this.

  • dopderbeck

    AJG (#39) is right, we must talk about the character of God. It is also, though, a discussion about causation. In contemporary discussions, we tend to assume that God is a “cause” in the universe like other material causes. I push the cup on my table; subsequently the cup falls. God decrees this or that; subsequently things happen. This is a very significant mistake, which often falls under the concept of the “univocity of being” or “ontotheology,” which is related to nominalism and voluntarism. I think it is a core mistake of much popular Calvinism.

    God is not a being in the universe. God is utterly transcendent of the created universe. Thus, to speak of God as a “first cause” is not to suggest that “God does X at time T(1) and then Y happens as a result at T(2).” The classical, Patristic, and Thomistic sense of God as “first” or “final” cause is that God is (a) that which sustains the universe in existence at every moment; and (b) that towards which all things in the universe properly have as their end or goal.

    If you make a decree of God the “cause” of evil then you have effectively rendered God Himself as evil since this would mean that evil sustains the universe and that the universe’s teleology is finally evil. This is why in the classical, Patristic, and Thomistic sense “evil” is seen as a sort of non-being. The human creature possesses a moral will that allows us to resist our proper end — to choose the non-sense and non-being of evil rather than our union with God — and this disorders everything. But this in no way compromises God’s power or knowledge, since God Himself is the sustaining source of the secondary ability of human beings to so choose. Moreover, such a choice is not really an exercise of “free” will in our modern sense — the refusal of one’s proper end in God is finally a rejection of the freedom to be who and what we are created to be. Thus, human “freedom” is in no way pitted against Divine “freedom.” Rather, God allows human beings to choose bondage rather than freedom.

    This is not really a “theodicy.” Why did God create a universe with such beings who can choose bondage and disorder? It may be that the final good of such beings united with God is worth it. We don’t really know. But we know God’s character, revealed in Christ, and trust, love and hope.

  • dopderbeck

    EricG (#43) — yes!! That is why the Christological example of whether Jesus could have refused the Cross is so important. The kenosis establishes what it means to be truly “human” in the face of suffering (Phil. 2:7).

  • Mike

    Could it be that much of this discussion (which I have enjoyed following as a first time visitor to this blog – very thoughtful and engaging stuff!) focuses on the wrong end?

    Instead of looking at how could a good God allow so much evil, how could such evil people be loved by a good God? Isn’t the nature of man so that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.” (Gen 4:5)

    When examining the bad things that happen to people, we often think they don’t deserve it. That has the premise that folks are good, and don’t deserve bad stuff. I think when that is the beginning of the thought process, it is difficult to get to a good conclusion. I don’t deserve the good things in my life. The rain falls on the just and the unjust.

  • RJS

    Mike,

    But that reasoning “how could such evil people be loved by a good God?” is exactly what the book of Job decisively undercuts as I read it. God himself says Job is righteous in the prologue. Job does not “deserve” the suffering that has fallen upon him.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    LT @ 23 – you miss my point. Of course it is for cancer. But why is there cancer (in the analogy)? Later on you speak about God’s children being protected – of course, the inference is that some humans are not God’s children. So we’re back at square one. He creates people that are going to be evil, and then punishes them for being evil. Calvinism might make some sense if it was Universalist.

    Back to pain…

    Earlier I said that without the lottery, there are no winners or losers. Thus the creator of the lottery creates both. Thus, even in a non-deterministic world, the pain is of God’s creation. If we presume Universalism, thus getting rid of my earlier objection, we still sit with the problem of untold suffering due to the luck of the draw. I’m a bit pressed for time, but this part of the problem needs some more investigation…

  • NateW

    I will not pretend to have an explanation that will provide solace for those going through pain and suffering, but I have come up with an argument that, from my individual perspective, helps me to understand the problem of pain. This is not meant to be an air-tight logical proposition, but a simple outline of my thought process on this.

    1. God IS Love. While god can be spoken of as a spiritual person/being, he can also be thought if as a spiritual embodiment of the concept of Love-eternal and unconditional self-sacrificing active affection and desire for the greatest Good of one who is “other”. God literally IS Love, and to share an experience of this kind of Love with an “other” is to meet God (whether named or not).

    2. Love seeks a relationship of mutual knowing between self and an “Other” (I.e. “not self). Trinitarian theology says that within God there is 3 “others” who are eternally dancing in love. Creation is the overflow of this love’s joyful will to know and be known by yet more others.

    3. To create an “other” God must allow space within his infinite being for “not God”. In other words, rather than the earth coming into existence “from nothing” we can think of the earth being formed by the absence of “something.” Think of michaelangelo’s David. It is universally renouned as a work of creative genius, yet its creation was fundamentally a labor of destruction. A huge slab of solid rock had to be systematically “destroyed” in order to “create” the masterpiece. Fundamentally, we know the David to exist not by its physical substance (for what we see remains as it has always been) but by the “presence” of “NOT stone” that now surrounds the masterpiece.

    4. To create “not God” God must be shattered and broken. For man to know Him as the eternal creator and core substance of our being, we must first know his absence. To know Him as Love, we must first come to know ourselves as surrounded by and defined by the absence of Love.

    What we see then is the astounding idea that God’s creative action is, in fact, fundamentally wrapped up in his death. We are born as God himself is broken away, revealing our finite forms from within his infinite substance and simultaneously exposing us to the horror of an existence defined by the all encompasing absence of God.

    5. So, regarding pain and suffering, God has designed the world such that life and knowledge of him are revealed as He Himself is chiseled, chipped, shattered and broken. He has created the instrument of his own death.

    6. That we so painfully know the absence of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, etc., bears witness to a deeper knowledge with us that these things are the substance of that from which we have been carved and thus awakens within us the desire to be rejoined to it.

    7. We are prone to picking up the broken shards of these things laying all around us, attempting to reconstruct ourselves by affixing ourselves with virtues and achievements, but the call of Christ is the opposite: To join with God, by faith, in His work of creation by self-death. It is to enter loving union with him not by believing that he will make us whole, but by believing that wholeness lies within union with Christ in allowing ourselves to be broken, even as it feels like there will soon be nothing left and we will end up as bits of rubble on the floor with Him.

    8. Christ, then, calls us neither to convince the world that the emptiness is an illusion–that the pain isn’t real–nor to claim that we have found that which will make us whole again, but to stand with others in loving solidarity as we are all being broken to pieces. [Picture the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. Yeah, I cried.] To peacefully enter into the death we see all around WITH and FOR others is to know God through the painful experience of His absence. To become increasingly aware of the enclosing emptiness, and yet pursuing unity and solidarity with all others–knowing that ALL others are enveloped in the same loveless void–is to participate in the present resurrection of Christ and to find in that a foretaste of the resurrection at the last Day.

  • Sherman Nobles

    For me, the belief that God ultimately reconciles all of creation to Himself through Jesus (Christian Universalism) has taken the sting out of the question of evil and it has empowered me to enter into the evil and seek its ending, whether that be personal or corporate systemic evil. I trust in faith that God will make all things right, the life that was cut short will be ressurected, the relationships that are broken will be restored, the debts that are owed will be paid and forgiven, the pain that is endured will bear precious fruit in and through our lives. God has, is, and will make all things right. We, being created in the image of God shall experientially know what is good and evil because that’s how we learn and grow. This is profoundly revealed in the creation stories, for me. Adam, Eve, and we learn what evil is through participation in it. Thankfully, God does not allow this “training” to go on endlessly but brings an end to it through death. If we lived forever then there would be no end to this present evil age. It was mercy that forbad Adam and Eve from partaking of the tree of life and living in their post-apple state of rebellion and separation from God endlessly.

  • NateW

    Sherman – I was saying, “yeah! yes! rock on!”, etc., through your post until that last sentence made me stop.

    “It was mercy that forbad Adam and Eve from partaking of the tree of life and living in their post-apple state of rebellion and separation from God endlessly.”

    Wow, I cant believe I’ve never heard it said that way before! Just the other day I was wondering why God would so adamently close off access to the tree of life. I’ve always thought of it as purely as retributive punishment but the idea that it could be both a sort of restorative punishment/consequence AND God’s merciful response to their sins (depending on one’s perspective) is brilliant. I’m gonna hold on to this. Thanks man.

  • Jeff

    to AJG #31,

    I didn’t know we were discussing a total annihilation of the earth. But we have the answer for that too. Ever see that Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon”? :) Notice I did not say every answer but it is clear that less bad things happen to people in developed countries than in less developed. Is that because God likes us better, or because of our infrastructure?

  • Marcus C

    Mark #35 wrote: “To me this question is very closely related to the question: why did God create something, anything, rather than nothing at all. The reason I say this is because only God is/can be perfect being–God can no more create a perfect universe than he can create a circle composed of four right angles, because only God is/can be perfect. To say that God can create something self contradictory would not mean that God all powerful–it would mean that God and, ultimately, the universe he created are simply irrational. And this we know from our experience is not true.”

    So the reason God’s universe has so much pain and suffering is because only God can be perfect and He had no choice but to make an imperfect universe? So why doesn’t He tone down the pain and suffering? He could still have His imperfect world but keep pain and suffering to an absolute minimum since He is all powerful couldn’t He?

  • Marcus C

    dopderbeck #47 wrote: “This is not really a “theodicy.” Why did God create a universe with such beings who can choose bondage and disorder? It may be that the final good of such beings united with God is worth it. We don’t really know. But we know God’s character, revealed in Christ, and trust, love and hope.”

    What about God’s character revealed in the OT where, for example, he commanded genocide including the murder of children and infants?

  • RJS

    Marcus C,

    That is a good question – but not really the question posed in this post. As far as I can tell Keller doesn’t deal with the questions of the OT genocides in his book.

  • Phil Miller

    What about God’s character revealed in the OT where, for example, he commanded genocide including the murder of children and infants?

    But what reveals God’s true nature more perfect – OT or the Jesus Christ? According to the Apostle Paul, Christ is the image of the invisible. In other words, God’s true nature was perfectly revealed in Christ. All of explanations are incomplete and left wanting.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    War, slavery, polygamy, and divorce, why did God allowed them? From Jesus words (and application of them), because of the hardness of our hearts! The problem is not God’s character but us!

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @ Marcus

    So the reason God’s universe has so much pain and suffering is because only God can be perfect and He had no choice but to make an imperfect universe? So why doesn’t He tone down the pain and suffering? He could still have His imperfect world but keep pain and suffering to an absolute minimum since He is all powerful couldn’t He?

    Fair enough, Marcus, but let’s rephrase that. To be very precise, it’s not that God “had no choice but to make an imperfect universe,” but that if God was going to create a universe, it would necessarily be less than himself, i.e., imperfect. But God did choose to create, and so we’re left to try to reconcile this imperfect universe–and we imperfect humans–with the good God.

    As for “toning down the suffering,” I can only say that I believe that has something–even a lot–to do with human freedom. The highest creature would be one in God’s image and likeness. That has traditionally been understood to refer to man’s intellectual abilities. That suggests that God wished to place in this universe, as its crowing glory, a creature who could by his God-given abilities come to some understanding of God and glorify him of his own free will. In broad terms, that is what I believe is the big picture of what we call “revelation”: the development of a gradually truer understanding of God and his identity. That, IMO, is the story of Israel, culminating shortly before the time of Jesus in the more or less full understanding of God’s identity as Creator (this did not fully occur until the Maccabean period). God’s self revelation in Jesus takes our understanding beyond anything we could arrive at by our own efforts–the understanding of God as Trinity. Unfortunately, our free will (made possible by our rational nature) carries with it the ability to screw things up. The hard part to understand at times is how the goodness of God’s creation can outweigh the evil that man causes. But for God to “tone down” the imperfection of created, finite, being would mean that God would be treating creation–and, in particular, man–as a puppet or plaything. This would be no glory to God, who wishes that glory to come from the exercise of freedom by created goodness.

    That’s the thumbnail version.

  • JamesB

    “…pain and suffering demonstrates that an all-good and all-powerful God does not, cannot, exist.” Do you think that’s the proposition most atheists make? I think it’s more a matter of the likelihood of such a god in light of pain and suffering.

  • RJS

    JamesB,

    I don’t know if it is the proposition most atheists make. I am not sure this reason is even all that high on the list for most atheists. The phrase in the post is stated in the manner of a philosophical argument, and in this case the “does not, cannot,” strength may be right. Most people are not philosophers though and don’t think in terms of mathematical or philosophical proofs.

    Keller includes the question because it is one that came of frequently in the conversations he had with people in and around his church in Manhattan.

    The matter of likelihood is interesting – an all-good and all-powerful God in light of the pain and suffering we see must mean that there is a purpose to the pain and suffering whether we understand it or not. This is where I was going with the reference to the wisdom of God and the end of Job. Keller brings up an illustration contrasting no-see-ums and St. Bernards (see the last 4 minutes of the video). Should we think that purpose for pain and suffering is so obvious we can’t miss it? Is “St. Bernard” the measure of likelihood? We can’t take the illustration too far of course. It isn’t perfect.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    God IS love, and demonstrates that nature in his passion to redeem that which is broken.
    He has not promised perfection here and now – this is not heaven.
    He respects the free will he has given us, and the boundaries that gift created for himself.
    So while he doesn’t prevent all acts of evil and suffering, he DOES redeem those acts in the lives of those who do love him.
    Hallelujah.

  • NateW

    To say that God should “tone down” evil presupposes that his existence is akin to a kid playing in a sandbox or a director in charge of all the wheels and pulleys that control earth as if it is some great soundstage a la The Truman Show. In our minds it is easy to project ourselves onto God, making Him a big (but mysterious!) version of us. I’m not sure who said it, but I like the quip, “God creates us in His image and we return the favor.”

    Perhaps instead of imagining God as one who creates “ex nihilo” (and thus interacts as one who stands outside our existence) by his great power, we might find it helpful to think of God as the source and substance from which creation is cut from, separated from, or brought forth from, into being (which is actually very close to what the word translated “created” in Genesis 1 literally means. Notice all the “separation that goes on throughout the creation story). As I argued at length in post #52 the act of creating is necessarily also destructive. Ini order to create God allows himself to “not be”. Like Michelangelo’s David, our existence is defined by the emptiness, the absence of stone, that surrounds us. God is the master sculptor and Christ the stone “from which everything that has been made was made”. He was with God in the beginning and since the moment of creation has been cracked, broken, and carved away in order that others may exist and know Him.

    Pain and suffering in this world then are not events upon which God looks and does or does not choose to exercise control, but are the spaces in which our infinitely loving God is dying so that His life might be raised within those who follow him into death. For love to die is hate. For peace to die is war. For rest to die is labor. For union to die is discord.

    We look for evidence of a God who is able to save, fulfill, and complete us by his limitless strength and power. When we find none, we either conclude that God does not exist, or we redefine “Good” to make room for the evils that we seem unable to avoid ascribing to God. The tragedy of this is not that we have insufficient evidence or draw the wrong conclusions, but that we are looking for the wrong God. The God revealed in Christ does not overcome evil with power as we know it, but with weakness. The God revealed in Christ does not rail against pain, but steps into it for others, allowing evil to wear itself out beating against his bloody back.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    @Klasie #51: “we still sit with the problem of untold suffering due to the luck of the draw.”

    I think suffering is simply part of life here – a function of this universe with it’s God given laws of physics. Life happens (see Ecclesiastes). e.g. earthquakes are a part of this system, and sometimes they create life-ending tsunamis. Tsunamis are not about God “doing” something to someone – they are simply a part of this place. As is gravity. As is cancer.

    The bigger question – the more revelatory question – is why does God REDEEM these acts that cause suffering? even suffering caused by evil. Why does THAT happen? What does THAT tell us about who this God is, rather than getting stuck in “why does God allow evil?”

    Given this universe, “why God allows evil” isn’t even an issue; evil/suffering will inevitably be. The way we frame that Q makes it sound as if God sat down and had to decide whether or not to grant man free will. It wasn’t a decision; the only decision God had was whether or not to create. Once that decision was made, being a God of love creating to extend the expression/experience of that perichoretic trinitarian love, free will wasn’t an option… it wasn’t a decision God HAD . . . which is why we can’t satisfactorily answer the WGAE question – it is the WRONG question.

    The bigger, more important question that I think we should focus on is why does God REDEEM? What does that tell us about who he is? May we engage with the world around us on THAT question – much more productive, imho.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    @dopderbeck #43: “On this example, can God do anything at all that He pleases? Well, yes and no.”

    I don’t believe God can act contrary to his nature, which is love – perichoretic, kenotic, eternal love. In this way God and Allah differ (people ask/assume differently), for Allah’s edicts can change being rooted in his will. God’s cannot as they are rooted in his nature – love.

  • JamesB

    @RJS (62),

    I may be making more out of the wording than was intended. Most atheists I know would not say God does not or cannot exist, just that it’s not very likely that he does. That’s all. It just seems like it’s asking someone to prove a negative the way it’s worded.

    I’m fine with pain and suffering not having some ultimate purpose. It’s the world we live in. Thinking that it does and that God is somehow behind it in ways we just can’t understand only creates more problems and confusion, IMO.

  • phil_style

    How do we deal with Isaiah 45:7? “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

    Here are some interesting thoughts from Steve Wiggins, which maybe not everyone will agree with:
    http://sawiggins.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/mercurial-monotheism/

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Phil – A thing is able to be known only if there is absence of that thing to distinguish its form. Light appears bright only in comparison to the darkness of its absence. If light was not absorbed or blocked by objects vision would be impossible. Light would be omnipresent and thus unknowable as light. A sculpture becomes known as art because rock is made to be absent around it. The stone of the sculpture has always existed in precisely it’s present form, down to the last molecule; the genius of the sculptor is known only in his creation of emptiness, his destruction of stone.

    Likewise, Light and peace are eternal realities bound up within God, but remain unknowable to any other until light and peace are destroyed. God is unknowable until God dies, and the death of God is the absence of love, light, and peace.

  • phil_style

    Nate W., thanks. I hope/ think I understand your position, which seems from my reading to be similar to what Trin also suggests further up in the conversation this being that, in order for creation to have any kind of reality of-its-own, it must exist Independent of God.

    In that respect, it has characteristics, by necessity which must distinguish it from God. And thus, the “nature” of the universe MUST be different from the nature of God, otherwise it would be indistinguishable from God.

    I would suggest that the fact that suffering (that is, the conscious experience of pain in both the imminent and the ability to perceive it in the abstract) only occurs (to our knowledge) in very, very small sections of the universe both in terms of time and space indicates that there was no attempt made by God to ensure that the universe was so wholly different from him that is was pure evil. Only different enough, perhaps.

  • LT

    @KLlasie (#51).

    But why is there cancer (in the analogy)?

    Because we live in a world broken because of sin, and sin has consequences. They are not always direct (as Job’s friends tried to say).

    Later on you speak about God’s children being protected – of course, the inference is that some humans are not God’s children.

    That’s not really an inference so much as a direct declaration of the Bible in various places.

    He creates people that are going to be evil, and then punishes them for being evil.

    Assuming by “created” you do not mean directly created (since only Adam and Eve were directly created and all others are “created” in line with Traducianism), yes. But this is true outside of Calvinism as well. So denying Calvinism doesn’t help to solve this problem. It merely relocates it.

    Better to accept the words of Scripture and recognize the limitations of our human finitude. After all, a God we could understand wouldn’t be much of a God.

  • NateW

    Phil – I thnk you’re on the right track (to understanding what I’m thinking, for whatever that’s worth) but I wouldn’t say that the nature of the universe is any different than God’s, any more than the sculptures nature is different from that of the original block of stone. Both share the same molecular makeup and physical properties (hardness, color, etc.) the only difference between the sculpture and the rock is the emptiness that now surrounds it. Likewise, every bit of creation that truly exists owes its existence to the original source of being (that is, to the fact that it has been brought forth from within God Himself) and is thus perfectly good in itself. The EXPERIENCE of the creature though is much more traumatic because in the creative/destructive act of being made (think sculpture again) we find ourselves existing, but surrounded by… Nothing. Our deepest nature/substance is like God, is GOOD, but our created form is visibly shaped and defined (from our natural perspective) by the absence of God that surrounds us. We see ourselves and others as being nothing but small statues, but God sees us all as being made of stone, “set apart” in his creative act of self death.

    The evil that we experience is the vacuum left in the wake of our creation through death. Pure evil is “nothing”. It has no real existence, but is perceived to exist in the absence of our Crucified God. Our forms are given shape by removing the Love and Peace (AKA God) that surrounds us. Thus, we truly experience the horrific results of God’s self-sacrifice/creation and are called, in Christ, to join God in his eternal creative work of self-emptying death/Love for others, that they might be made to know the stuff from which they have been formed.

    Yeesh. I wish this stuff was easier to say. I hope the gibberish above helps a bit.

  • phil_style

    @LTBut why is there cancer (in the analogy)?
    Because we live in a world broken because of sin, and sin has consequences.

    Can we presume then, that you believe the world was created recently, and that the chemistry/physics of cell duplication in organic life arose supernaturally some time after humans had begun to inhabit the planet?

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    How would anyone here characterize John Piper’s “The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God” in this conversation? I’m not at all comfortable with the notion that Calvinist doctrine intends to communicate a “Tough crap, sufferer! Suck it up!” attitude, as it does intend to focus of the supremacy of God to have purposes within suffering that are greater than our ability to understand them. In our human suffering, we cry out against the pain, the seeming injustices, and the seeming aloofness of God. This response is normal—a God-affirming response, if you ask me. Whether the suffering we endure is spawned from evil or from natural consequences of things (or a combination of both) is somewhat irrelevant in that both are portals through which suffering drives us to seek the One who is called wonderful, counselor, mighty God, ever-lasting Father, and prince of peace. The fact that it may be natural within the mind of fallen humans to interpret suffering as something that drives us away from sin does not make such a response the one that is healthy. When we answer suffering with a questioning of God’s mercy and a dependence upon a rational response that requires no faith, I don’t see how we can give God His rightful place in suffering or anything else. When we read aloud (because it really helps to let the words resonate in the ear, I think) Job, Chapters 38 and following, we are thrown directly into confrontation with the scope of God’s creative abilities, and his power over creation. We come eyeball to eyeball with His wondrous mysteries, and I think if we are operating under the assumption that God in all of His omnipotence does not owe us a complete revelation of His ways and purposes, then we also come eyeball to eyeball with the faith that keeps us from being spiritual robots. Who among us wants love relationships that are forced. If we are to enter into a full and loving relationship with God then it must be anchored in His sovereignty, which includes His holiness, righteousness, justice, love, etc. The questions we face in suffering are, “Do you love me and trust me even amid inexplicable suffering?” “Will you continue to serve me and obey me faithfully despite your suffering and your unanswered questions?” “Will you lay down your anxieties about what looks to you like my ambivalence and/or absence and continue to trust me and my authority over heaven and earth?” and other similar questions. I do not know how to comprehend suffering and its purposes outside the realm of complete submission to the complete sovereignty of God regardless of my human desire for rational explanations that seem just and right to me. Natural events like tsunami should not fall outside the scope of my faith. If my greatest questions and deepest, most pressing pains are construed with the notion that God has something to prove to me—such that he is on trial—I think I miss the point of faith, trust, and obedience. Despite that, God, in His mercy does not forbid my pain (though an interesting complement to that thought is that He did say that Ezekiel could not take time out to grieve his wife). God does say that His grace, mercy, and comfort (which we ought first to access through a basic belief that He is always the righteous, holy, and omniscient authority who has His own mysterious purposes in creating portals to His mercy through unspeakable tragedy) is sufficient for ALL our needs…including our need for comfort.

  • NateW

    LT

    To say “better to accept the words of scripture” is true, but we need to realize that there are deeper truths within, behind, and above those words than can be contained within the single way that we have been raised to hear them. It is certainly true that we need to approach the words of scripture with humility, not forcing our own meanings into them, but it is equally true that we need to be humble enough to know that it is possible to have already done is and not be aware of it.

    You are absolutely right that cancer exists because of sin, but it seems to me that sin has taken on a far narrower meaning for us today and has lost a lot of the richness and depth hinted at in the bible. Try, perhaps, to entertain the thought that sin may be a deeper concept than just a word describing man’s law-breaking error. Sin is a word we have equated with “evil actions” which is true, but in a deeper sense, the root of sin is that which stands between man and God. Sin is the chaotic vacuum that exists around us wherever God is experientially absent. It is not actions per se, but the reality which these actions open us up to experiencing. The first time sin is mentioned God says, “if you do not do good, sin is crouching at the door”. Is man’s action therefore the root of sin and al evil? Or does it just open the door to His experience of it?

    If Sin is seen as the desolate absence of relationship with God, then might it be possible that this existed before man’s first “sin”? I think so. In the act of creating, God separates darkness from Light, even before the sun and moon were created. Thus we could read this as talking about the creation of an expanse of “not light” torn open in the midst of God himself (who “is light and in whom is no darkness”). I would argue that this is the origination of sin (not that God sinned, but that his infinite brightness was made finite, was “crucified”, that there might be an expanse in which to raise up men who share his image but are free to exist independently of, or “set-apart” from it. At “the fall” we see mankind becoming aware of this rift, aware of the distance between themselves and God, and ashamed of their very own skin.

    If that all makes you uncomfortable, think about it, but don’t worry about it. It’s all just my own thoughts. In my mind, knowledge exists as a means to living for/as/like/through Christ, not as an end in itself. What is ultimately “True” is that which leads one to that.

    So, Phil, I would say go easy on her regarding age of the earth, etc. : ) I think that she is absolutely right about cancer existing because of sin, but is just looking at it from a different perspective than we might.

  • NateW

    P.s. no idea what led me to label LT a “her”. Must have been thinking “Laura” or something. Sorry if I’m wrong!

  • Phil Miller

    Anne, #75 – I’m not familiar with that particular piece by Piper, but elsewhere Piper has taken the tact that God really should just kill us all because we all deserve to die, and it’s only by his mercy that He keep anyone alive. Take a look at this piece.

    http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/putting-my-daughter-to-bed-two-hours-after-the-bridge-collapsed

    All of us have sinned against God, not just against man. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

    It seems to me there’s a shred of truth in Piper’s view. We’re all guilty, yes, but to simply connect events like a bridge collapse, a tornado, or a tsunami to such thing, well, it’s ridiculous. This is why I said earlier that Piper’s version of God is capricious (and, just in case anyone feels the need to break out a dictionary again, the common meaning of capricious is “unpredictable”). One can never really be too sure about how God feels about him. Sure, Piper can tell his daughter that she can rest assured that God loves her, but what about the other people who aren’t so lucky?

    A lot of what Piper says reminds me of famous quote from the Simpsons – “To Alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” Except it would be, “To God! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”

  • NateW

    Anne Bosworth – I am not familiar with Piper’s work that you mentioned, but my response to your questions would be that it is fundamentally incorrect to view god as if he sits above directing, manipulating and causing or not causing things to happen by virtue of his almighty power to control. Rather he is radically integrated to and integrated with our world such that every ounce of combined human suffering, now and in all times past and future, is simultaneously the experienced as pain and suffering by God. He is infinitely powerful, but Christ reveals his power to lie not in coercive control, but in weakness, meekness, peace, and love that dies for and with others. Every innocent child’s death is fully felt by God as both his own death, and his beloved Child’s death. Every cancer patient’s pain is born equally by God, as well as the pain of envy person who suffers because their friend or family member is dying.

    God has been dying and suffering alongside humanity ever since the dawn of creation.

    It may sound radical, but if this world is the titanic, God is the captain who stays on board and goes down with the ship, freezing or drowning with the rest of us. If we love him for this, then we will likewise stay aboard and give up our seats in the lifeboats to others, believing that death with Him is also life with Him.

  • NateW

    I would say that hurricane’s, tsunami’s, and tornados are natural and even majestic in and of themselves, but are perceived as evil by those to whom they seem to cause very real pain and suffering. By “seem to” I am not denying the reality of pain and suffering at all, but mean to imply that these events are not themselves the direct cause of suffering, but that it is the experience of the absence God that transforms interaction with nature into deep suffering and pain.

    “For the suffering in suffering is the lack of Love, and the wounds in wounds are the abandonment, and the powerlessness in pain is unbelief. And therefore the suffering of abandonment is overcome by the suffering of Love which is not afraid of what is sick and ugly but accepts it and takes it to itself in order to heal it. Through his own abandonment by God, the crucified Christ brings God to those who have been abandoned by God. Through his suffering he brings salvation to those who suffer. Through his death he brings eternal life to those who are dying.” Jurgen Moltmann “The Crucified God”

  • NateW

    Phil Miller – Yeah, I think you put a finger right on why I’m sometimes uncomfortable with John Piper. His way of conceiving God implies, to me, that Christ died FOR sinners, but does not literally stand beside them, bearing every bit of their suffering Along WITH them. It’s if he’s essentially saying that, yes, Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and sinners and hung on a cross beside thieves, but that “God” is too holy to ever do that and cannot stand the stench of those who don’t worship Him. I think we need to stop thinking of crucifixion as merely something that Christ DID for us after showing us what God is like, and begin to understand that the crucifixion manifests the central aspect that he came to reveal about the eternal character of God. God is one who suffers with us when we suffer, even when the cause of our suffering is our own sin, and is willing to condemn himself to death that we might know this and, in following him into death, find life.

  • LT

    @phil style (#74),

    The age of the earth is irrelevant to any argument here.

    @NateW (#76),

    Honestly, Nate, that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo about nothing. The Bible tells us what sin is and it matches what we see in the world around us. Sin is the lack of conformity to the moral perfections of God.

    The first time sin is mentioned in the Bible is not Genesis 4, but rather Genesis 2 where God gives a command and a penalty for disobedience. The first sin occurs in Genesis 3 at the fall. But the idea or concept of sin existed before that.

    You ask, Is the action sin or does it just open to the door to the experience of it. The action is sin. It also opens the door to the experience of the consequences of sin.

    So yes, I do think the modern conception of sin that many hold is far too narrow. And I think you are hitting that narrowness that is trying to define sin in a way that is incompatible both with revelation and experience.

    So if we are going to have a theology of sin, then we must define not first in terms of human experience, but first in terms of God’s revelation against whom all sin is actually committed.

  • EricG

    With all respect, I have to say that all the attempted theodicies in the comments seem very weak. They appear to be philosophical abstractions that don’t even come close to really addressing the hard parts of the question – why this much suffering? Why must thousands or millions of children die in immense pain? Why is this child spared, and that one not? Can God intervene for some and not others? Philosophers for hundreds of years have attempted to deal with the problem unsuccessfully. We aren’t going to resolve it now.

    More importantly, I return to what I said in #44: the very debate is damaging, and it reduces the Christian community’s ability to absorb suffering. Christians want there to be an answer, so they offer these hollow platitudes to those suffering. They don’t engage in community lament, for fear that it will somehow call our faith into question. This is a distortion of historical Christianity. It reduces our ability to absorb suffering as a community. I know this from experience, as I am struggling through terminal cancer myself.

  • EricG

    And it isn’t just Hauerwas and Moltmann (who I quoted above) making this point. N.T. Wright notes that there is a “noble” Christian tradition of not attempting to “solve” this problem, which would “belittle” it. (Evil and the Justice of God, p. 40). In fact, he says, the Bible does not really address the issue, and certainly “not in terms of later philosophy.” (p.45).

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    @EricG

    With all respect, I have to say that all the attempted theodicies in the comments seem very weak. They appear to be philosophical abstractions that don’t even come close to really addressing the hard parts of the question – why this much suffering? Why must thousands or millions of children die in immense pain? Why is this child spared, and that one not?

    To keep things in a certain perspective, it may be worth looking at it from the following point of view:

    Pain and suffering are undergone by individuals, and only by individuals. The pain and suffering undergone by a given number of individuals cannot be added up to become “this much suffering,” i.e., the sum of the pain and suffering of “thousands or millions of children.” The amount of pain and suffering can never be more than the worst that one individual suffers.

    That said, there are two further considerations:

    1. Each individual’s suffering is unique to that person and possibly/probably not replicable, so there can be said to be qualitative as well as quantitative differences;

    2. Evil is different from pain and suffering. One individual or group of individuals can commit many evil acts, thus multiplying the amount of evil in the world many times, but that is a separate (albeit related) issue.

    I offer these thoughts in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death, as well as the suffering of all individuals. We all suffer as individuals, and God relates to each of us in our suffering as individuals–not as a conglomerate concept (abstraction) like “human suffering” or “the suffering of thousands or millions of children.” Like sparrows falling to the ground.

    As for the “philosophical abstractions” expressed in these comments, they are much like any other abstractions: they are the way that rational intellects (intellects that belong to beings composed of body and soul) deal with reality. Abstraction is a powerful tool, as long as we refer our concepts regularly to the reality from which they are derived. As such they are not to be despised, as long as we don’t mistake concepts for reality (Platonism). Each “theodicy” has to be judged on its merits. Some have merit, others don’t, but the fact that they are expressed using abstractions isn’t necessarily relevant to their merit.

    It may be, well, should be of interest that there are commonalities in the ways that different cultures approach the question of death and immortality–which I take to be related to pain and suffering.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    N. T. Wright has a habit of of expressing somewhat (or sometimes very) questionable views with apodictic certainty. The fact that the “Bible” doesn’t express its thoughts on the issues we’re dealing with “in terms of later philosophy” doesn’t mean that the underlying thought of both is not similar or related. I highly recommend the work of Mircea Eliade in that regard. For example:

    Eliade (in The Myth of the Eternal Return) refers to Plato as providing “philosophical” expression to the thought of “archaic man” or “archaic ontology” (by which term Eliade is referring not to “ancient” man but to the people of traditional societies). That being so–and IMO it is–it is of great relevance to all of us Westerners that Alfred North Whitehead famously stated that all of Western philosophy is little more than “a series of footnotes to Plato” (quoted from memory, but it’s close). There are notable exceptions, but not many.

  • RJS

    EricG,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with Wright – we can’t solve the problem. I tried to convey this in the OP. Our attempts are weak and sound more like Job’s friends than anything else.

    We continue to pray for you.

  • phil_style

    @Lt “@phil style (#74),The age of the earth is irrelevant to any argument here.”

    I disagree, if (as you state) cancer is the result of sin, then it must be causally relate to sin in a post-hoc manner with respect to chronology. Now, if sin is post human, then cancer must also be post human. therefore we can locate the arrival of cancer into the natural system post the arrival/ emergence of “sinful” humanity. The alternative would be to posit that either (a) sin pre-existed humanity, or (b) cancer is no the consequence of human sin.

  • EricG

    Thanks RJS. And that is how I read your post – as expressing skepticism.

    Mark – thanks for the response. I don’t see it responding to my original points, however.

    In particular, the fact that each one suffers as an individual, and God deals with us as individuals, does not provide a theodicy. The fact that individual situations may be incommensurable doesn’t reduce the problem. If God could create a world with less than thousands of children dying a horrible death, but didn’t, that raises serious questions. Moreover, as Dostoevsky suggests, could any of us tolerate the terrible suffering of even one little child? I don’t see you answering the various intractable questions I posed; indeed, I don’t think we have answers.

    In addition, my point about abstractions is that these philosophical answers people offer are not connected to reality. And they provide no relief to the suffering. In fact, the platitudes and the rest harm the church community’s response to suffering. See the concrete examples I offer above.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    I think Piper’s statement about us all deserving immediate death is interesting. I interpret it with a bit more grace toward his intentions in such a statement. I read a thing like that to say that the sin in us is significant enough to warrant death justifiably because sin puts us at enmity with God…making us criminals who deserve eternal death, which to my way of thinking doesn’t necessary mean just when we die. It would mean that we would not have any hope of the mercies that are new every morning. The fact that we do live, and that every day offers opportunity for blessing and mercy (whether or not we have a constant ability to see such opportunity).

    Whomever above interpreted what I was saying as a belief that God is a divine operator throwing switches and pushing buttons like some sort of heavenly wizard…that really wasn’t what I was trying to communicate. But when I read Job I see intense suffering that doesn’t even seem to have God’s attention for a substantial period of time, and when God finally chimes in it’s not all warm and fuzzy. It’s a dressing down to make sure Job understands who he’s dealing with AND it is a merciful assurance that Job’s faith has not been misplaced. The God who can do all that He notes in Chapters 38 and following plus more, and all with a mind and purpose beyond our comprehension is worthy of our trust. He owes us no explanation or assurances beyond His Word.

    I take exception to this kind of talk being potentially caught up in the notion of being a platitude. We are told in Scripture that we receive comfort so that we can comfort others. Seeking out and accepting that comfort is not always easy, and there are some comforts that may be withheld and/or refused rightfully. When someone’s soul refuses to be comforted it may be that there IS sin involved in the suffering and that such sin receives no comfort until it is confessed, turned away from, and the process of redemption and restoration begins. Comfort prior to that moment is limited to encouragement of the hope there is in Christ, which includes turning from the sin that is causing our suffering.

    It may also be that the suffering is so soul deep that it won’t respond to someone who cannot possibly relate to its profoundness. Think about the plethora of absurd things that people say to families who have lost a child at any stage of development. They may be well-meaning comforters, but they are miserable at the job.

    There are also people who offer stupid and unholy comforts—suggesting to a jilted man or woman that the way to manage grief and suffering of a betrayal or a break up is to get drunk, or make the person jealous, or go to the movies and forget about it. This kind of comfort is moronic and useless.

    But there’s certainly a great chance that the person who is refusing comfort it wrong. People are reaching out, offering practical help, kindness, patience, listening ears, shared weeping, sound godly counsel, etc all to no avail. Generally speaking, I’d say that even in the most horrific circumstances an extended period of refusing such comfort isn’t such a great idea. God makes provisions to demonstrate His care. Turning them away as entirely useless and insufficient—being persistently ungracious about the genuine efforts of comfort they are being offered—typically this is a bad idea.

    I came to this view by way of Spurgeon, who himself knew great suffering and struggled with depression, so I don’t take him to be a pontificator or a purveyor of platitudes. He was working through his own suffering for the better part of his life.

    http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols43-45/chs2578.pdf

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Eric, you’re right in this sense: I wasn’t attempting to offer a theodicy, so you naturally didn’t find one in my comment. And you appear to have been reading my mind. I had Dostoevsky’s idea specifically in mind–as you point out, there’s no need to posit the horrible sufferings of “thousands or millions” to question God’s goodness or even his existence. The suffering of one individual is sufficient.

    So here’s a sketch of my own view. First, you’ll have to accept that I believe that God cannot create a world without suffering–one individual or “thousands of children,” it makes no difference. First, my view is that the world is created–incomprehensible as it may be for the finite human mind to conceive of an action by an infinite creator God, I believe that’s what the evidence tells us. Second, I believe that for God to include in his creation creatures who are able to dimly understand God’s greatness and the glory of creation is a far greater good than if God created a universe that was uncomprehending of such things. I believe that that holds even if humans are also capable of sub-human, mindless cruelty. Therefore I believe that God is good–good beyond my comprehension and, in principle, good beyond the comprehension of any finite mind. For that reason, Third, I am convinced that God who is infinite must be infinitely good, he can and will bring great, even incomprehensible, good out of this (necessarily) less than perfect creation.

    This is ultimately faith, of course: trust. But it’s faith/trust based on reasonable belief, not mere subjective conviction. I also believe that these philosophical reflections are connected to reality and aren’t platitudes. I think it is such considerations that keep many people focused and give them relief. When I was in hospital I spent some nights awake talking about these things with nurses, and they seemed to feel the same way.

    Here is a link to the Wikipedia article on Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence. Perhaps it will speak to some. The novel is based on the historical reality of the Japanese “hidden Christians.”

    I know it may sound naive to say that a novel has made a profound impression, when discussing serious issues about real life. Still, it’s true. A novel by a Japanese Catholic writer did just that for me. Sadly, I can no longer remember either the author’s name or the title of the novel. I’ve tried every conceivable search to try to find it, but cannot (I read the book years ago at my local library). The plot was a commonplace one, for Japan, but probably increasingly common here. A married woman must take care of her father-in-law, who is a complete and ungrateful jerk who enjoys the trouble he inflicts on his frustrated daughter-in-law. That may not be the sexy kind of suffering like that of an innocent, but it is a deep existential suffering that the woman endures virtually every waking moment. The book ends with the father-in-law’s death and the daughter-in-law’s somewhat paradoxical grief.

  • Josh

    “How would you respond to the proposition that pain and suffering demonstrates that an all-good and all-powerful God does not, cannot, exist? Why did God – does God – allow pain and suffering?”

    Please excuse me throwing some insensitive spanners into the works. The questions suggest a lot about people’s preconceptions about God. Consider that God is both just and loving. When God encounters sin, does he not harbor just wrath towards the sin? Could not pain and suffering be the cause of his just wrath and judgement? Why don’t people naturally come to that conclusion?

    What if we go in the opposite direction to these questions. Don’t the blessings and happiness people experience who live in rejection of God deny there is a God as well? Surely if God is just and angry at continued sin then these people would not experience blessings in life and happiness? Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow blessings and happiness?

    I suspect people don’t think this way because the dominating characteristic of God they think about is love.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Ha! Found it!

    The author is Sawako Ariyoshi, and the novel is The Twilight Years.

    Maybe it’s me, but I found this book very moving:

    Akiko’s superwoman-life takes an unexpected turn when her father-in-law, Shigezo, becomes senile. Because of Shigezo’s rude and disrespectful treatment of Akiko over the years, she and her husband had a house built out back for her in-laws, physically close but emotionally distant. Now Akiko’s mother-in-law is dead, and Shigezo is slipping further out of touch with reality, becoming childlike and dependent on Akiko, staying in her home and complicating her already full life. How can she work her full-time job, including half days on Saturday, clean house, cook meals, and provide a home for her husband and teen-age son – as well as care for an aging, difficult man? She can’t, and it causes her to wonder: “Was her husband about to tell her that she could not go to work and leave his father unattended? Would he also say that it was high time she stayed at home where she belonged?” Her struggles are compounded as she tries to reconcile her harsh feelings for Shigezo. The Twilight Years is Akiko’s life in the kitchen, the bathroom, at work, and with herself, a woman caught between traditions, expectations, and personal realities.

  • EricG

    Anne,

    In response to your comments, I am very opposed to Piper’s views on suffering, which I understand you to be advocating. To suggest, as he does, that every bit of suffering – every child’s painful death, every rape – is part of God’s plan makes him the author of evil. D.B. Hart suggests it borders on blasphemy, and I recommend his article on theodicy in First Things, or his book Doors of the Sea. It is Piper’s type of view of God that result in the worst platitudes, in my view.
    As I read your comments, I also don’t think they leave room for lament, which is a firmly Biblical practice (e.g., Psalm 28).

  • EricG

    I mean Psalm 88

  • EricG

    Josh,

    Are you suggesting that all suffering is the result of God’s wrath? The death of the child today who didn’t have food or clean water?
    What you appear to be suggesting is also firmly rejected by the book of Job. And by Jesus in the gospels.

  • EricG

    Mark,

    Thanks for the book recommendations, I will check them out. Silence sounds particularly interesting. I agree with you that novels can convey profound meaning – often more so than other writing.

    As for the explanation for suffering you suggest, I agree that you could accept what you outline as a matter of faith, but I don’t think it works as a matter of philosophy or reasoning, or as an “answer” to the problem.

    In particular, you suggest that God cannot create a world with no suffering (either suffering of one or thousands). Why is that? Will there be suffering in the heaven traditional Christianity suggests he is creating (Christians usually say no). How is that different?

    As for the suggestion that God will create good from suffering in some way we can’t comprehend, again I think someone could accept that as a matter of faith. But it is problematic as a matter of reasoning or philosophy, or as an “answer” to the problem. Why doesn’t he prevent some suffering now – maybe the child suffering and dying a painful cancer death tonight? And most Christians believe he does heal some – why not others? Is all this suffering somehow necessary for the greater good you describe, and if so how? If not necessary, how is it justified? And your suggestion raises the troubling moral question Dostoevsky raises – e.g., there is great ethical appeal to his point (in the mouth of Ivan) that he would return the ticket if offered a spot in heaven on the back of one innocent suffering child.

    What I am suggesting is that we can’t arrive at a solution by reasoning. And as Christians we shouldn’t try, because it reduces our ability to handle the suffering of those in our community. Good Christian responses, in my view, can include faith, lament, sitting with those suffering – but not trying to explain the suffering.

  • NateW

    LT – “Honestly, Nate, that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo about nothing.”

    Haha, well, I guess that confirms what I feared then. It isn’t mumbo jumbo in my head and I could try to explain further, but, honestly, I’ve said enough. To quote my favorite poet and theologian (Bob Dylan) “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.” Gods thoughts are not my thoughts. : )

    EricG – I beg your forgiveness if I came across as trying to explain away your pain and suffering or establish a clinical understanding of an aloof God. My intent was actually to do the opposite; to express that God literally dies with every child that is lost, suffers equally with every unique person who is in pain, and calls those who would follow him to also share the burdens of the oppressed. I do not believe that God authors sin or pain, and acknowledge that it is tragically unavoidable and inexplicable. I would never try to help a hurting person by offering the explanations I have here. I assumed in writing the above that it would be read by those with intellectual questions and might help them to consider another angle, but readily admit that intellectual answers are of exceptionally lo truth value in in themselves.

  • NateW

    Just a few quotes that have been helpful to me in thinking about all this:

    “Jesus died crying out to God, `My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked as he died. The atheism of protests and of metaphysical rebellions against God are also answers to this question. Either Jesus who was abandoned by God is the end of all theology or he is the beginning of a specifically Christian, and therefore critical and liberating, theology and life.”
    Jurgen Moltmann “The Crucified God”

    “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering … Only the suffering God can help … That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    “An ideology requires fanatics, who neither know nor notice opposition, and it is certainly a potent force. But the Word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men and being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened and doors which are closed to the Word. The Word recognizes opposition when it meets it, and is prepared to suffer it. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, that the gospel, unlike an ideology, reckons with impossibilities. The Word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with only the gospel at their command the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion. But although they are weak, they are ready to suffer with the Word…” Also Bonhoeffer.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    I don’t think I or Piper ever said there was no room for lament. And I don’t think the fact that nothing goes on without God’s knowledge makes Him the author of evil. I am merely suggesting that there is a level of mystery involved in suffering and God is not required to reveal explanations…only Himself as He sees fit. We have experienced child loss on profound levels here, so it’s not an arbitrary heartless comment. Neither is is a proclamation of how people “should” experience grief. I’m merely saying that assuming God guilty until proven innocent is a wrong approach.

  • Marcus C

    @Mark “First, you’ll have to accept that I believe that God cannot create a world without suffering–one individual or “thousands of children,” it makes no difference.”

    So you believe that God is not all powerful? I gotta say this is the explanation for suffering that makes the most sense to me. I know God does intervene in some people’s lives to heal them for example. Maybe the reason He doesn’t heal more people or “tone down” the suffering is because He actually is doing the best He can and isn’t capable of doing more? Maybe the reason we are encouraged in the Bible to lay hands on people and pray for them to be healed is because God genuinely needs are our help? Pardon my ignorance but can someone please remind me of the Bible verses that support the idea that God is literally “all powerful”?

  • Marcus C

    @EricG “Are you suggesting that all suffering is the result of God’s wrath? The death of the child today who didn’t have food or clean water?
    What you appear to be suggesting is also firmly rejected by the book of Job. And by Jesus in the gospels.”

    Well if you take this verse that phil_style mentioned earlier at face value then yes all suffering is the result of God’s wrath.
    Isaiah 45:7? “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Eric

    Up front, yes it is a matter of faith. However …

    “you suggest that God cannot create a world with no suffering (either suffering of one or thousands). Why is that?”

    Simply because any finite, created world must be by definition imperfect. OTOH, no, I don’t mean to suggest that this particular world can be deduced a priori nor that no other world is possible.

    “As for the suggestion that God will create good from suffering in some way we can’t comprehend,”

    Not “from” suffering, but that will overwhelm the suffering. However, by definition that must be super-natural: above what would be possible for our natures as created. We see Paul, for example, struggling with that idea and John, too, in a way.

    What I am suggesting is that we can’t arrive at a solution by reasoning. And as Christians we shouldn’t try, because it reduces our ability to handle the suffering of those in our community. Good Christian responses, in my view, can include faith, lament, sitting with those suffering – but not trying to explain the suffering.

    I agree that we can’t arrive at THE solution by reasoning. The human mind is structured to “deal with” reality, and does a pretty good job of it. It is, however, not possible for such a mind to comprehend reality completely from within, especially in view of the fact that we can never comprehend the source of our being–God, who is infinite. However, by reason we are able to “frame” the problems of existence that we encounter and set limits to them and that can lead to faith–reasoned belief. We see this appeal to reason repeatedly in the NT.

    For example, being able to have a reasonable certainty that the world is the creation of a good God is helpful in coming to terms with the issue of suffering–even if it isn’t a solution. Which is to say that I believe that it increases rather than reduces our ability to “handle” suffering. I can see that expecting a full explanation could reduce that ability by leading to frustration, but coming to a coherent understanding of our human capabilities as well as limits will increase that ability. As for not trying to explain, to attempt not to try would simply be to go against our God-given nature as rational animals. There’s no point in trying not to try. Explaining why we can’t explain is, after all, an explanation of sorts. :-)

  • Phil Miller

    Well if you take this verse that phil_style mentioned earlier at face value then yes all suffering is the result of God’s wrath.

    Even if you take that verse at face value, I think it’s a stretch to say that God is claiming responsibility for all evil… But taken in context, I think the point that Isaiah is trying to make isn’t about evil in general. He’s talking about very specific events – namely various pagan nations coming in to conquer Israel.

    Terence Fretheim says this of that verse:

    [the language] is not cosmic in orientation, but language typical in the prophets for specific (historical) divine judgments….God’s “creating” here is not ex nihilo, but action which gives specific shape to a situation of historical judgment.

  • Marcus C

    Thanks for the explanation of Isaiah 45:7 Phil. That verse was really bothering me TBH…

  • EricG

    NateW – absolutely no need to apologize! We all have experienced, or will experience, suffering; nobody can hold the problem as uniquely theirs. My experience has been that the intellectual dialogue can’t be separated from the actual way the church community deals with suffering. For example, when Piper puts out a book or article stating why he thinks suffering is part of God’s plan, it leads to people sitting in the pews offering Piper-type platitudes. That is one reason why I think we should avoid providing “answers” to tragedies.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Marcus C – I’m sorry that I don’t have the verses handy, but there are many attestations to God’s unimaginable power throughout the bible. The twist that throws us off though is that God’s power is the opposite of what man expects power to look like. We think of power as the ability to enforce our idea of how things should be by coercive force, but Chris reveals the fullness of God’s power in his death for the good of others and the promise that life awaits those who follow him into the same fate. It all comes down to whether we choose to believe that this is true and this follow him into self-sacrificial love.

    2 Corinthians 12:7-10
    So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “ My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    EricG – totally agree with what you say here. I have spent so much time trying to share my thoughts here today because I think that the image of God that we carry around in our heads is unavoidably and invariably reflected in how we treat others. Behind every angry and judgmental Christian is belief in an angry and judgmental God whether one will admit it or not. Belief in God as aloof and primarily concerned with punishing sinners will result in the same in us.

  • EricG

    Anne,

    To make sure I am being clear, when I refer to the practice of lament I don’t mean just expressions of sadness. I mean questions like “God why have you forsaken me?” Or “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Ps 88; also see many others). These are vital to Christian tradition, but we have lost them because we think it is wrong to question God. And your comments above suggest exactly that – you suggest: who are we to question God? I think we have lost lament because of this type of thinking. When do we hear the lament Psalms in church, for example? I think they are vital in addressing suffering in an authentic way.

    As for Piper, he says more than that God knows suffering in advance – he says that God plans suffering in advance as part of his scheme (but query the real difference). So Piper’s god is in fact the author of evil and suffering. Perhaps you are not advocating his full views, I do not know.

    I do agree with your point about mystery.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    I would not argue even one bit about the value and humanness and even necessity of lament. I don’t see it as mutually exclusive from advocating for a point of view that really highlights God’s sovereignty and omniscience.

    Piper remains something of a wildcard for me. He seems to swing through a lot of unusual spaces…poet, preacher, prophet, peacemaker. I’m would not share a position that labeled God the author of evil, but I’d need to really study things much more deeply to really be sure of my overall assessment of Piper’s theological position as well as yours. I invited him into the conversation because his book “The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God” (which is a poetic re-telling of Job along with beautiful supporting photos that focus on the magnificence of Creation) made sense alongside my own readings of Job, and were of great comfort.

    But this discussion of evil is interesting to me because I have always had a very rich view of the Bible account of the fall of man. When I think about the tree in the garden being the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. It’s not like I have this ultra-settled view of precisely how I’d parse the doctrine(s) that explain God’s relationship to evil. But I feel confident that God’s desire for us to not even know evil (which I think can only be rightly understood as absolutely anathema to good) says that He knew the absolutely horrific depths of evil…and all of it’s “mysteries” as well. I’m not saying it well because I’ve never talked it all the way through, and because I’m uncomfortable with trying to make humanly rational sense out of things that are beyond our comprehension. Even so, I don’t think God’s deep understanding and knowledge of evil is necessarily evidence of his authorship of evil in a way that is convenient for “doctrinalizing.” I remember something R.C. Sproul once said about these kinds of issues. I’m paraphrasing, but his basic claim was that despite all of our scholarship and best efforts, we will ALL be surprised in the end. So I’m comfortable operating with some ambiguity about ultimate knowing/understanding about precisely how suffering/evil/mercy are best described doctrinally. And I feel content to offer Piper grace whether he is right, wrong, or something in between.

    The thing about suffering that makes it so difficult to pin down is that no amount of framing suffering and trying to come up with an appropriate “pathology” for it is that it’s never what we think it is when we are not in it—when we are not the subjects of its assaults. My faith in a God-shaped tourniquet that is sufficient for all suffering does not exclude the fact that not all suffering is relieved neatly…or even in this life. Anyone who has outlived their child would likely agree.

  • Jon T.

    God has a master plan. Man has free will. God writes history. Man writes history.
    Both God and man perpetuate their will resulting in suffering, pain and evil. The caveat is that God doesn’t not tempt us to commit evil, though we may choose to participate.
    Another thought is that God is working to resolve the issue of evil in it’s ultimate defeat and this would include the curse of death, sin, unrighteousness, etc. We have a sin and suffering problem in this present evil age, which is to be rectified by God in the next. As to the present suffering, either it hardens, matures or is preparing us for something. Some suggest that suffering tempers you in preparation for a higher consciousness? Perhaps. The apostle Paul taught that, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” (Rom. 8:18). And this thought in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, “This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” Seems to me that those new to the faith or seeking an easy road were not intended to walk as such. Name for me a participant in the biblical narrative who did not suffer at some level?

  • AJG

    Maybe Agent Smith was on to something:

    “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.”

    All joking aside, I agree that suffering is absolutely essential to the human condition. Without suffering, there is no way to gauge what is good. How can you ever appreciate that which is pleasing without having that which is unpleasing to compare against it? As I stated above, the Bible indicates that even God suffers to some extent. If we’re created in God’s image, why wouldn’t we suffer as well? I don’t accept the belief that heaven will be a place where there will never again be sadness or pain. How can there be when God Himself feels pain and grief? I suspect this is simply another aspect of Greek philosphy which creeped into early Christianity and is now accepted as droctrinal.

    While I don’t believe that suffering will ever be completely eradicated, I do believe there will be no second death. Jesus’ death on the cross frees us from the wages of sin which Paul states is Death, not suffering. Once you free yourself from the notion that there is no possibility of a Panglossian utopia where pain is eliminated (and would you REALLY want to live in a universe without any pain or obstacles to overcome?), the problem of suffering loses much of its power.

  • EricG

    Mark (103) –
    I agree in some respects with your suggestion that a finite world must be imperfect. But that doesn’t by necessity require it to have such immense suffering (perhaps that is what you are suggesting in your second sentence?)
    You also suggest that God’s good will overwhelm the suffering. But that is subject to all the troubling questions I raised in 97.
    As for our desire and quest for reasoning on this problem, I would argue (as others have) that this project of trying to “solve” the problem (or parts of it) is a project of the Enlightenment, which has led us away from the premodern and early Christian practices of dealing with suffering. I think we should recover them. I just don’t think we can reason our way to any aspect of this – particularly the suggestion that the world is by necessity the creation of a good God.

  • EricG

    AJS (112) -

    You say that without suffering we can’t gauge what is good. But do we need the painful death of thousands of children to gauge what is good? Do we really need all this suffering for that purpose? I disagree.

    I think you raise an interesting question though, about whether heaven could entail some level of pain. And the Matrix question is interesting – the machines tried to create a perfect world in the minds of the humans, but the humans kept waking up to the real world which entails suffering, is one way of thinking of what Agent Smith was saying. Which I think is an interesting point.

  • EricG

    Jon T – I don’t think your suggestions address the hard parts of the problem of suffering – for example, they do not address the intractable questions I noted in #83.

  • EricG

    Anne – thanks for the response. I can relate to a lot of what you say.

  • Marcus C

    Nate W #107 “I’m sorry that I don’t have the verses handy, but there are many attestations to God’s unimaginable power throughout the bible.”

    Do you know of any verses that say God is literally all powerful and can literally do whatever He wants? Could it be possible for God to have immense unimaginal power but be limited when it comes to pain and suffering? Most Christians believe there are limits to God’s power. For example, Mark said in a earlier post God cannot create a circle composed of four right angles, most Christians believe God is not capable of lying, etc… So maybe God really is doing literally everything in His power to bring His kingdom to earth to reduce the pain and suffering of the people He loves so much.

    “The twist that throws us off though is that God’s power is the opposite of what man expects power to look like. We think of power as the ability to enforce our idea of how things should be by coercive force”

    But there are many examples in the Bible of God using His power to “enforce” His “idea of how things should be by coercive force” whether its causing destruction, the sea to be still, miraculous healing, etc… also I believe God is still using His power today to “enforce” His “idea of how things should be” especially in regards to healing. The question for me is: is He using all the power He can possibly muster to heal the people He chooses to heal, or is He truly all powerful and just withholding His power to heal more people.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Eric:

    As for our desire and quest for reasoning on this problem, I would argue (as others have) that this project of trying to “solve” the problem (or parts of it) is a project of the Enlightenment, which has led us away from the premodern and early Christian practices of dealing with suffering. I think we should recover them. I just don’t think we can reason our way to any aspect of this – particularly the suggestion that the world is by necessity the creation of a good God.

    I disagree emphatically with the notion that applying reason to the question of human suffering is “a project of the Enlightenment.” Of course the Enlightenment had its own approach to these issues and I’m not endorsing that. However, the history of man is replete with man’s grappling with this issue. As I said before, the mere fact that the vocabulary and style used in “non-philosophical” works (scripture, etc.) doesn’t always conform to what we are familiar with as “philosophy” does not at all mean that reason is not at work–as acute or more so than is the case among philosophers. Certainly a leftover of the Enlightenment project was the supposed distinction between reason and faith–often characterized by the supposed opposition of Greek “reason” and Hebrew “faith.” For Christians to accept that supposed distinction is, IMO, to give up an essential aspect of Christian faith as it was understood as early as NT times. To oppose reason can only be done by the use of reason, and that is always a self defeating endeavor.

    Regarding the relation of the Enlightenment project to Western culture and Christianity as a whole, Benedict XVI has spent the better part of a long life trying to come to grips with this problem. The day before John Paul II died, Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) gave a lecture which served in a sense as his campaign speech for the papacy. In the lecture, Ratzinger critiques the Enlightenment as a deformation of Christianity, while at the same time urging the recovery of reason as essential to the recovery of Christian culture. Unfortunately, I felt called upon to take issue with Ratzinger’s attempt at a solution (yes, that word again), for all his good intentions: Cardinal Ratzinger On Europe’s Crisis of Culture.

    Here’s a brief example of the traditional Catholic take on reason:

    In one of his best novels [actually, a short story in the Fr. Brown mystery series, The Blue Cross], G. K. Chesterton introduces a very simple priest who finds out that a man, though clothed as a priest, is not a priest but a common thief; when the man asks him what made him sure that he was not a priest, Father Brown simply answers: ‘You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.’

    For a Protestant take, which I highly recommend, see Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason.

    Finally, regarding the world as the creation of a good God, my point of departure–one which other commenters have also espoused–is the idea of the transcendental properties of being, including that being as such and goodness are different aspects of the same thing, and that evil is a privation of being, a lack rather than a positive factor. I’m sure you’ve encountered those ideas before, but I do earnestly recommend them to you. They do, in fact, address your “intractable questions.”

  • EricG

    Mark,

    Thanks for the conversation. I am familiar with the age old thinking that evil is a privation and other ideas you refer to, but I do not believe they resolve the question of suffering at all. There are various versions of the arguments, but if you want to suggest how you believe they resolve the questions I raise in #83, then I’m all ears.

    I certainly agree with you that the question of suffering has been the subject of much thought throughtout the ages. But as i initially suggested, efforts to “solve” the problem of suffering as a matter of pure reason are a creature of the Enlightenment. (And i certainly can’t agree that there is no distinction between faith and reason; they should certainly work together, but to suggest there is no difference is to rob the words of their meaning, in my view – eg Hebrews 11). The difference between modern and ancient thinking on suffering is a matter of substance and not merely form. Theodicy was a question that the ancient Greeks and the many other polytheists wouldn’t even relate to, since they did not believe in a single good God. The Bible itself isn’t a book of reasoned theodicies either, but instead in part a narrative describing God’s efforts to deal with evil (a different question than theodicy). Augustine certainly discusses evil (including the privation question), but not in the way modern thinkers tried to offer analytical abstract “solutions” based on reason divorced from revelation or faith.
    I am certainly not advocating faith divorced from reason. What I oppose are efforts to explain suffering based on reason itself, which have all failed. And which, as I’ve noted above, I believe have numerous bad consequences.
    I will check out your response to Ratzinger on the question of reason.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    Y’all lost me with over intellectualizing a “problem” that has no “solution” other than the success or failure we assign to system we use to endure suffering. No offense, but what I learned way back when is that we understand things essentially by what they are not. God is not suffering. Jesus suffered FOR us…and I suppose we might say that he became suffering itself. In that way, perhaps God is the author of suffering. But why, why so much chicken/egg pathology of suffering? Does it make us suffer less or better? Even if you were to encounter a suffering person, would these explanations give them some “aha” moment where they said with great relief, “Ohhhhhh, thanks for that awesome explanation. I’m suffering much less now?” Is it not enough to say to someone, “I don’t know why we suffer, or the exact origins of suffering, but I’m sorry for your pain, and I am here now to try and help. I come bearing what I know of Jesus who suffered beyond our understanding.” Honestly, I love doctrine and philosophy conversations, but only in as much as they really do what they ought to do…bring Jesus to someone. And honestly, the greatest intellectuals are not exempt from suffering the most lowly and base horrors. They don’t need a rational or a mystical argument. They need compassion. We cannot ease their suffering with this sort of talk. In moments of frustration they may look to us and expect us to have some miraculous explanation, but in the end they will never be satisfied by any explanation. Jesus is the satisfier of souls. If this conversation isn’t about Jesus, then I don’t see how useful it will be.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Eric,

    First off, yes, I thank you for the conversation, too. Forums like this aren’t perhaps the best way to go into total depth, but forum participants can’t very well write each other books.

    In some ways I think we’ve been talking past each other, and I’ll willingly take my share of blame for that–I suspect we come from rather different backgrounds.

    Re faith and reason. While modern Christians speak of “faith,” the word itself is probably best understood as “trust.” That’s why I prefer “reasoned belief” because we always have reasons to trust, for our belief, for our faith. Some good, some bad.

    Re theodicy and the ancients, I still think you draw far too sharp a division between “them and us.” For example, during the ancient Egyptian “times of troubles,” there were strikingly modern texts written, such as the Dispute between a man and his soul. Israelite Wisdom literature, such as Job, Qoheleth, etc., also exhibit the same modern feel.

    Re communal mourning, I have a sense for what you’re getting at. I’m Catholic, as you must know by now. I grew up under the “old” liturgy and was an altar boy. Back then at funeral Masses the priests wore black vestments, etc. The air of mourning–the songs, the decorations, everything–was palpable. Nowadays, it’s supposed to be “joyful,” but all too frequently comes across as superficial. I’m not advocating morbidity, but I think you know what I mean. Example, within the last year, an acquaintance whom I knew fairly well lost a very young grandson–died at night with no warning, some weird syndrome or other. This acquaintance gave what I can only call a “sermon” at the funeral Mass which I found profoundly unedifying. He gave all the reasons for not being sad at the child’s death. It’s difficult to explain exactly why I found it so unedifying, but it’s probably something like the distinction you make between abstractions and faith. I don’t see it that way–more a question of simple human nature. Well, not so simple, but I see no conflict between reason and mourning.

    Anyway, I’ll keep you in my prayers.

  • EricG

    Anne – what you are saying is essentially what I’m trying to say throughout this. Although you say it better.

    Mark – thanks. I appreciate the dialogue and prayers.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    In this debate, I am getting the distinct impression that many are making the same mistake that some in the Creation-Evolution debates are making. They have a God of the philosophical/psychological gaps, and he is being pushed further and further back. Either God is the author of all suffering, or he is not God as we understand him.

  • John I.

    RE A. Bosworth “If this conversation isn’t about Jesus, then I don’t see how useful it will be.”

    But it is about Jesus, and it is not sufficient to address the issue of suffering simply by saying that we are sorry for the pain and want to help. This issue is one that can be a barrier to faith in Jesus, and one in which the intellectual answers can increase or decrease the pain to some extent. There is a mental anguish that is other than that associated with the suffering of loss or with the emotional pain.

  • EricG

    John I – I fully agree that there is mental anguish other than from the suffering or loss. Many of us who suffer really want to understand why, to make some sort of sense of it (I feel this way myself). But the problem I see is that we don’t have anything close to a satisfying answer, and to act as if we do just adds to the problem you identify.
    What we can do is point to Jesus who participates in suffering, and offer a community that participates in anguish.

  • gingoro

    Not quite on topic but related.
    RJS said:
    “And … even if we go back to Genesis 3 as the root cause of suffering, this doesn’t really answer the question. Why did God allow the Fall? Why did God allow the serpent into the garden in the first place? Why was the serpent “evil”?”
    What serpent, What Garden?

    I can understand how young and old earth creationists can have a real fall from perfection to a sinful state. But I find it difficult to imagine how a TE or Evolutionary Creationist can talk about a real fall. At best we have hominids who do bad things just like the animals do. Then God makes his law and will know and mankind continues to do bad things which are now sinful as they are known to be contrary to God’s law. To some extent this seems to be what Paul is talking about when he says there is no sin before the occurrence of the law. Psalms also says Against thee only have I sinned, which seems to support what I have said above.
    Could you please devote a post or two to how you see the fall in light of an evolutionary origin to mankind who inherently does bad things and is in general imperfect.
    DaveW

  • RJS

    gingoro,

    I will look into a post or two on that topic. It is well worth some discussion.

    You can ask what serpent, what Garden – and you are right in that I don’t think they should be taken literally. But my point is that even if there was a serpent and a Garden it doesn’t “get God off the hook” so to speak. I don’t think young earth or old earth creationism actually make the question any easier to answer. God instantly prepared a world with a snake and “geared” to Fall?

  • Gordon Southgate

    The answer is in the background of history. Let’s look at it from the top…

    1. God is all powerful
    2. God created everything, nothing existed without Him
    3. God created mankind
    4. God put mankind in the garden called Eden.
    5. He also placed a tree in the middle of the garden and told the man not to eat from it or he would die.
    6. He either placed or allowed Satan in the garden knowing that he would tempt mankind to eat from the tree (remember all knowing).
    7. He also before the creation of the world prepared a sacrifice to redeem mankind.(1 Peter 1:18-20 and Ephesians 1:3-7).

    Getting the picture so far, no surprises for God here, from this point mankind disobeys God (sinned) and death entered through the disobedience. Since then death and suffering is common place that we all are familiar with.

    Our first ancestors (Adam Eve) I assume were given total autonomy (Genesis 1:26) so wilfully did what they did with clarity of mind. They were not burdened with a sinful mind, knew God as they walked with Him so were quite capable of making decisions, in fact more capable than we are today.

    Rather than saying why does God allow suffering perhaps we can rephrase it with, why would God take the risk of allowing suffering? As the risk was enormous and horrific, the death by sacrifice of His own son, millennia of human suffering that goes beyond measure. Eternal damnation for the sons and daughters of Adam that are not redeemed, again, the consequences are immeasurable.

    Did God know they would sin? By placing all the elements in the garden of Eden He took an extremely big risk. Why then, who knows? We were made in His image but perhaps that image was incomplete, perhaps the image was only complete when freely we became one with the trinity.
    Whatever the reason the value must be wonderful, beyond human comprehension as the cost is truly high.


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