The Problem of Suffering

The Problem of Suffering May 10, 2019

It’s easily the strongest argument against belief in a loving, all-powerful God: “Why does God allow suffering?”

Everyone – from the most average man-on-the-street to theologians and philosophers with lofty titles and degrees – has wrestled with the problem of evil.

Believers and non-believers alike struggle to answer this question.

Some Christians hold the view that God is sovereign, and that this sovereignty necessitates that God remain in absolute control of every atom in the universe – and therefore every event in history – down the very last detail. In this view, God is the ultimate micro-manager, and ergo, God is responsible for the suffering of children and the starvation of the innocent, and all other suffering we observe in our world.

But some challenge this notion and suggest that any God who requires evil and suffering as some mysterious part of his “Grand Design” is actually evil.

As theologian and author David Bentley Hart has said:

“Any world in which the suffering of children were morally intelligible or necessary or willed by God would not be a reality worth inhabiting, and it would not involve a God worth worshipping.” 

This has led some authors and theologians to not only reject this “micro-managing” view of God, but to propose the notion that God is NOT in control of every detail of life. They say that because God is good, and because God is love, this means that God is also not “in control” of everything. Because perfect love does not coerce or control people. Love allows us to be as we are and loves us in spite of everything.

While I do prefer this point of view to those who want to argue that suffering is part of God’s great plan, I have to admit I’m not entirely on board with it completely.

I can appreciate the concept that God can’t intervene in our lives because God is love and love is not coercive, on one level, because it’s a better response than the alternative view (that God allows suffering for His own designs). The non-coercive view helps to bring comfort to those parents whose child was not cured of cancer, or to the husband whose wife was not spared in the car crash, but what about in those rare instances when it appears that God DOES work a miracle? What then?

In other words, I have experienced miracles in my life first-hand. In those cases, it was certainly obvious to me that – at least sometimes – God CAN intervene miraculously. What’s going on in those cases?

For example: my Father fell off our roof and landed on his head a few years ago. X-rays revealed that three of the vertebrae in his neck were powdered and shattered. Surgery was scheduled but there was a less than 50/50 chance that he would be paralyzed afterwards. Our Southern Baptist pastor and one of our deacons dropped by my Dad’s hospital room just before he went in for a CAT scan of the spinal cord and prayed a half-hearted “Baptist” prayer for healing – which typically assumes that God won’t heal, but let’s ask anyway. The next day the doctor told my Dad that he was confused because the CAT scan showed that his neck was totally healed. No injury whatsoever.

That was over 25 years ago. My Dad is totally fine. No surgery. No neck pain. Total healing.

That’s just one example.

So, if it’s true that “God can’t intervene” then what about situation like this where it seems that “God can”?

I honestly don’t know.

I mean, I’m more comfortable with the “God can’t” view than the “God allows suffering” view, but neither one feels totally right to me.

Here’s another angle on the whole suffering question.

What are the causes of suffering in our world today? I’d say a short list would be:

*Greed

*War

*Poverty

*Disease

*Famine

*Violence

*Tribalism

Much of the suffering in our world today can be traced directly to one of these things. But, we have the power to overcome and end almost all of these things right now.

It’s within our power to end poverty. We – as humanity – have enough food to go around. So, why don’t we mobilize and make sure that hungry children get the food they need today?

It’s within our power to end war. If we, as human beings, refuse to fight in wars, then no one can go to war. So, why don’t we stop supporting wars?

It’s within our power to get life-saving medicines to the sick, to wipe out malaria, to stop smallpox, and dozens more diseases around the world. So, why don’t we?

I guess what I’m saying is: Maybe a loving God is wondering why we allow so much suffering on this planet we’ve been given to share?

At the very least, we should do everything within our power to end as much suffering as falls under our ability to alleviate before we turn around and blame God for not doing more to stop suffering.

Especially if you don’t believe in God. Because if you don’t think there’s any “Higher Power” out there to make it all better, then who else will fix this broken world?

Maybe we are the people we’ve been waiting for?

Either way, our “thoughts and prayers” can only go so far.

The rest is up to us.

**

For more of David Bentley Hart’s thoughts on Evil and Suffering watch this:

**

Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.

His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. 

BONUS: Want to unlock exclusive content including blog articles, short stories, music, podcasts, videos and more? Visit my Patreon page.

Join me this summer at one of these upcoming events:

*El Paso, TX – May 19 “United We Stand”

*Costa Mesa, CA – June 22 “United We Stand”

*Hot Springs, NC – July 11-14 “Wild Goose Festival”

Want Keith to come speak at your church or in your home town? Learn more HERE

 

"In my view, people who "lose their faith" never had faith to begin with, they ..."

Learning To Detox From Our Detoxing
"I look at the process of deconstruction as preparing for the new wine. The old ..."

Why Is Deconstruction So Hard?
"Love their music and feelings :), but John is clearly outside of his lane here.You ..."

Why Is Deconstruction So Hard?
"you said: The truth is, we need a new reformation of our faith.Freudian slip? If ..."

Why Is Deconstruction So Hard?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chuck Johnson

    Especially if you don’t believe in God. Because if you don’t think there’s any “Higher Power” out there to make it all better, then who else will fix this broken world?
    Maybe we are the people we’ve been waiting for?

    Yes.
    Definitely we are the people that we have been waiting for.
    Or:
    If not us, who? If not now, when?

  • Chuck Johnson

    For example: my Father fell off our roof and landed on his head a few years ago. X-rays revealed that three of the vertebrae in his neck were powdered and shattered.

    Medical malpractice is not a miracle.
    It happens all the time, and it’s a shame.

    Confirmation bias or wearing “God glasses” are also not miracles.
    They are psychological phenomena.

  • Chuck Johnson

    The problem of evil and the problem of the suffering of children is a logical problem for Christians but not a logical problem for atheists.

    The view of evolutionary biology is that humans have had difficulties in the past and still have difficulties in the present because having a life of perfect ease and bliss is just not in the cards for living organisms.
    Life on Earth just doesn’t work that way for any living species, humans included.

    In the future, life for humans will be easier, more enjoyable and more successful because of the progress that is made by human evolution.
    But a paradise of perfection will not happen.
    Difficulties will still be present.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Much of the suffering in our world today can be traced directly to one of these things. But, we have the power to overcome and end almost all of these things right now.

    No we do not, Keith.
    You are so superstitious.

    What we have (right now) is the continuing will and ability to work towards reducing the power of these evils to cause us harm. Working towards these goals has a long history, and such work is slowly paying off.
    But no instant cures for those evils.

  • Jon Laan

    For centuries, men of “high”, “medium”, “low” and in between intellect have wrestled with this topic, and no definitive, universally etc agreed opinion has emerged to satisfy all. So what? Here’s a bombshell: Why are we assuming there is only one answer? Might it not be, and probably certainly, there are a multitude of answers? I would vouchsafe that it may be that for each instance there may be a different “reason”. Jesus pretty much said this regarding the tower of Siloam that stuff sometimes just happens, i.e,, God does not exert control over every atom at all times. Present day physics tells us that the lower down you go into the different levels of the fabric of matter, the less predictable it becomes, at least for us humans.

    My take on my own suffering, which has not been too dramatic as of yet at age 72, is that God disciplines as he sees fit and I would rather be “disciplined” on earth and attempt to learn from my sins and mistakes here than rot in hell (not necessarily accepting the majority held concept of hell as eternal suffering).

    It may be the “happy explanation” that kids dying early may actually go to heaven, a better place, yes, I know a Polylanna excuse for God’s supposed cruelty, but who knows for sure, right?

    In the final analysis, man’s intellect (at least mine) cannot always explain everything and to say this is not necessarily a copout but a powerful truth. Is God’s “cruelty” more powerful or prevalent than his goodness and kindess? I would argue not. My dad sometimes had to use drastic measures (powerful whippings” when his cajolings did not work.

    To the atheist/agnostic who uses the argument of God’s cruelty to deny Him, one little miracle might convert him, and another little miracle to God’s “believers” might actually convert them to real belief which converts one to an active, sharing, caring Real Believer.

  • Herm

    Matthew 6:9-14

    Please, understand this is how a sister and brother of the Son of God/Son of Man is taught to address their Father of God, but not what to say by rote.

    When I was a maturing child of Man, I spoke as an irresponsible child incapable of providing for myself. When I matured to become a father of Man, responsible to provide for our children, I spoke as a man.

    My children, speaking each as a child in their own dependent way, addressed me on Earth as do Jesus and I address our Father in Heaven.

    I love my children who now speak as responsible adults providing by their love for their children on Earth.

    When prime provider for the survival of my children, it was within my power to place them each in a safe rubber room, ignorant and safe from all the imposed suffering of the outside world I knew. I loved my children enough to graciously allow them pain, suffering and stress that they could grow strong from enduring, strong enough to provide for their children from the abundance God graciously provides for them. My Father of God in Heaven loves me enough not to protect me from suffering that I “might” become strong as an eternally aware and influencial child of God.

    My Father knows, from experience, that without any stress life, both carnal and spirit, atrophies to know and influence nothing ever again.

    Our Father in Heaven suffers in our suffering, as do I suffer in the suffering of my children and grandchildren, because we love enough to allow it.

  • Nick G

    For example: my Father fell off our roof and landed on his head a few
    years ago. X-rays revealed that three of the vertebrae in his neck were
    powdered and shattered…

    The next day the doctor told my Dad that he was confused because the CAT
    scan showed that his neck was totally healed. No injury whatsoever.

    Could you please refer us to the medical journal where this extraordinary case is written up? Because if you can’t, why on earth should anyone believe that this “miracle” actually happened?

  • Joseph (the original)

    Life consists of the 2 “Bs” in differing proportions for each individual: blessings and bullshit…

    God, by divine prerogative, decided to remain deliberately restrained in how they (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) interact with their creation. This ‘arena’ we inhabit is the crucible of transmogrification intended to ‘shape’ our character. This life is meant to test us, but not a pass or failure setting, but rather to temper (strengthen) us like a metallurgical process…

    This world is not Plan B (fallen), or the existence of evil a result of original sin, but this world is raw, visceral, untamed. And we, as self-aware naïve creatures, are allowed the privilege of cooperating with the principles of the kingdom, or to remain frightened, prone to self-preservation, and myopic. Since we do know what it’s like to suffer, we should be more mindful of reducing the causes of suffering where we can (cue the parable of the Good Samaritan)…

    With the privilege of free will (okay, limited choice scenario) comes the responsibility of acting as the better angel of our human (godlike, Imago Dei) nature. If God’s priority is love, family and reconciliation and restoration and restitution, then we will be tested here to see if we want to be part of the gospel of reconciliation…

    Miracles, or the absence of them, will be a mystery during our sojourn here. Seems God can be capricious at times, but divine prerogative can only be motivated by love, whether or not we will be given the gift of insight/understanding. At this stage of my faith journey I am more content with mystery and doubt than certainty. And yes, my armchair theology is simply that: my attempt to make sense of the events of my life (my unique set of experiences), within the tension of my faith, which is shaped by those events, and how other people come to terms with theirs…

    Saude!

  • It’s most certainly not in our power to end poverty or war or malaria. Those ideas are a silliness called scientism promoted by atheist socialists. Saint-Simon and eventually Marx, both atheists, taught that people are born innocent and can be perfected by the right legislation and education. All attempts at socialism have proven them wrong. A great deal of suffering comes from the evil that’s part of human nature. Envy causes people to organize society in ways that keep them poor, such as socialism. The evil in human nature causes war. Evil parents cause child abuse.

    Then there are natural disasters we call evil because they create suffering and death. The Bible makes it clear that death, and suffering is just the prelude to death, happens because of our rebellion against God. Christianity shows that much of the evil caused by human nature disappears when we end our rebellion. For example, following Biblical the principles of free markets and private property ended the Malthusian suffering of poverty and famine in the 17th century. But envy prevents most societies from embracing those principles.

    Does atheism offer a better alternative? With atheism, the suffering doesn’t end. Atheists just give up any hope of it ending. No philosophy or religion besides Christianity offers any hope of something better. Modern science and medicine appeared for the first time in human history in Christian Western Europe because it was Christian and emphasized reason according to several of our best philosophers and historians. Christianity also gave us capitalism, which ended the poverty that humans had endured for millennia. Atheists want to take all of that progress away.

  • It’s within our power to get life-saving medicines to the sick, to wipe out malaria, to stop smallpox, and dozens more diseases around the world. So, why don’t we?

    Fair question, but at least mankind is doing something. I see nothing from God. He might as well not even exist.

  • No philosophy or religion besides Christianity offers any hope of something better.

    Hope? That’s your argument–that Christianity has hope?

    I’ll grant that some people in the world live truly horrific lives. Whatever they need to get through the day, even hope despite the evidence, that’s their call. I won’t complain.

    But for the rest of us, let’s understand that science has taught us countless new things about reality that we’re often able to take advantage of (electricity, medicine, telephones). There’s nothing on the religion side of the ledger.

  • Michelle Terriault

    Alzheimers – would someone explain how God could allow for dementia?

  • Nick G

    If you’ll just take a look at the real world for a minute, you might notice that capitalism has not by any means ended poverty, and if you look a little further and can manage to overcome your all-too-obvious prejudices, you might notice that capitalism bids fair to cause unprecedented environmental disaster, leading to human suffering and premature death on a vast scale. You might also notice that both atheists and Christians have widely different attitudes to and beliefs about both capitalism and socialism. But I suspect you’re not really that interested in the real world. Finally, if you learned a little history, you might know both that the roots of modern science and medicine go back to before Christianity existed, much of what led to them occurred in pagan ancient Babylonia, Egypt and Greece, Islam, China, India and elsewhere, and that their development speeded up enormously at the same time as the hold of Christianity over European culture weakened (I’m not asserting simple cause and effect here, but the correlation is undeniable). But I suspect you’re not really that interested in the complexities of history either.

  • I wouldn’t say Christianity had nothing to do with it. To say Christianity had nothing to do with science is the atheist version of the Whig theory of history. The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that Christianity’s emphasis on reason made modern science possible and explains why no other culture developed modern science. Also, the first modern scientists were all priests or very religious. The greatest scientist of all time, Newton, was also a great theologian. See also Stark’s books on Western history.

    The achievements of science have been overrated, too. The biggest improvements in health have come from changes in life styles due to greater wealth. For example, cities were very unhealthy places to live until we became wealthy enough to afford sewers and replace horses. And the capitalism that made us wealthy came from Christian theologians.

    Scientists have done some good things, but they also created nuclear weapons. And world wars I & II killed masses of humanity because of scientific advances. At the same time, the natural sciences have done nothing to reduce crime, war, child abuse or the many social problems humanity faces.

  • I have noticed that capitalism hasn’t ended poverty. I have an MA in economics and taught it for a few years. I think in that respect I know more about reality than you do. I have noticed that theologians avoid economics like the plague. Capitalism can’t end poverty and no one ever claimed it could. Ending poverty is not possible. Only socialists claimed they could end poverty and all attempts only increased poverty enormously. But I don’t agree that capitalism is causing environmental disaster. Air and water are much cleaner than ever in human history. As for global warming, I think the scientific evidence shows that is caused by cycles in the sun and not human activity. Christians have divergent views of capitalism because most theologians refuse to read even an intro to economics book. Theologians who know economics are overwhelmingly capitalist. Yes, some form of medicine has always existed. That is obvious to even the dullest person. But modern medicine is called modern because it’s qualitatively different than previous medicine. No, it did not speed up as Christianity lost hold of European culture. That’s the atheist fake history. See the histories of the West by Rodney Stark.

  • The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that Christianity’s emphasis on reason made modern science possible and explains why no other culture developed modern science.

    Christianity Europe had its lights off when China was inventing paper and gunpowder and during the 500-year-long Muslim Golden Age. (Our words algebra, alcohol, and alchemy came from Arabic. Most of the star names are Arabic.) Our digits came from India.

    I’d argue that the Industrial Revolution and not Christianity kicked off modern science about 200 years ago. Are you going to say that the Industrial Revolution is the fruit of Christianity? I see nothing to argue that anything special about Christianity nurtured science. I’d say that Christianity hindered science far more than helped it. The idea that science could help mankind is certainly not something you get from the Bible or Christianity.

    Also, the first modern scientists were all priests or very religious.

    Because everyone in Europe was Christian? Or are you saying it’s because every professor at Oxford and Cambridge had to be an ordained minister?

    The greatest scientist of all time, Newton, was also a great theologian.

    And a heretic. He rejected Trinitarianism and had to get a special dispensation from the king to become a professor.

    The achievements of science have been overrated, too. The biggest improvements in health have come from changes in life styles due to greater wealth. For example, cities were very unhealthy places to live until we became wealthy enough to afford sewers and replace horses.

    Huh? The idea that poorly managed sewers can be a cause of disease is a result of science! Germ theory of disease, remember?

    And the capitalism that made us wealthy came from Christian theologians.

    Huh??

    Science has taught us about reality and improved society. What has religion done?

  • Nick G

    You said:

    Christianity also gave us capitalism, which ended the poverty that humans had endured for millennia.

    Admittedly, this contradicted something you said earlier in the same comment. Perhaps you should be a little more careful in what you write.

    As for global warming, I think the scientific evidence shows that is caused by cycles in the sun and not human activity.

    The overwhelming majority of relevant experts agree that that is simply not the case: the heat from the sun has not increased in line with the rise in terrestrial temperatures over the past decades, and cannot in any way account for them, while the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can and does. Moreover, phenomena such as the cooling of the stratosphere and the reduction in temperature gradient between poles and equator are predictions of the greenhouse gas hypothesis, and inexplicable if the sun were the cause of climate change. Finally, it was known as far back as the late 19th century that certain gases act to trap heat near the earth’s surface – it would be completely inexplicable if the rise in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere had not produced warming. You are just confirming what I said about your all-too-obvious prejudices. Nor, in fact, are air and water “much cleaner than ever in human history”. Over the past few decades, legislation (not the “free market”) has improved them in some respects and in some countries. But there remain huge and in many cases growing problems, such as pollution of the oceans with plastics. Neoclassical economics, of course, is a highly ideological enterprise, largely aimed at justifying the unlimited greed and selfishness of the rich.

    But modern medicine is called modern because it’s qualitatively
    different than previous medicine. No, it did not speed up as
    Christianity lost hold of European culture.

    Yes, it did. Medicine probably did more harm than good until well into the 19th century, by which time the hold of Christianity on European culture had already diminished considerably. And Rodney Stark is not an authority on the history of science or medicine.

  • Nick G

    The relationships between science, technology, religion, and other aspects of culture are extremely complicated*, and Whitehead was not an expert on them: merely because he said something does not establish that it is true. Newton, meanwhile, spent much of his time on Biblical numerology – evidence that a great scientist can be utterly mistaken in other areas – or, in fact, even in their science. And people did not adopt capitalist economic practices (which themselves have a long history, much of it outwith Christendom) because of what theologians said, but because they wanted to be rich. For example, theologians long condemned lending at interest (“usury”). Of course, people found ways around this constraint, and eventually, the theologians dropped it.

    *Alongside your “Christianity is responsible for everything good, and gave rise to science” nonsense, there is a corresponding “Christianity is responsible for everything bad, and thwarted science for centuries” nonsense. Neither holds up to a serious examination of history.

  • Cynthia

    The “miracle” could have been that one of the doctors saw results that had been placed in the wrong chart, or that one type of scan was more sensitive than the other.