If God loves us, why does He let us suffer?
This age-old question is still one of the more difficult questions facing Christian theists. My role as a parent makes the intuitive appeal of the question more impactful. My love for my children is what motivates me to protect them. I do what I can to shield them from the multeity of evils that await them. By comparison, God’s apparent indifference to suffering in our world makes it hard to conclude that God loves us. His apparent indifference makes it easier to conclude that this all-powerful, all-loving God doesn’t exist at all.
Over six million Jews were exterminated during WWII. Followers of Christ have been and continue to be imprisoned and tortured for their faith. Consider the experiments and cruelties inflicted on those under the secular regimes of the 20th century. How could God allow these things to happen if he loved us? How could He allow it if He has the power to stop it? Surely you or I would have stopped these great evils if we had the power to do so. On the face of it then, we are more loving than God who is supposedly all-loving. Or more likely, the God that Christians believe in just doesn’t exist at all.
The Problem Of Evil
“The Problem of Evil” is a well-known issue in the philosophy of religion. This problem largely amounts to pointing out some sort of incongruity between “what traditional religion believes about God” and “the existence of evil in our world”. In its most basic form it runs something like this:
- If God is all-loving, He would want to stop evil.
- If God is all-powerful, He would be able to stop evil.
- Since God is all-knowing, He is aware of the evil that is happening.
- So why is there evil?
Atheists generally think that affirming 1 through 3 is incompatible with the fact that evil exists. Some would assert that this incompatibility amounts to a contradiction, while others think the incompatibility leads to the conclusion that God probably does not exist. The claim that a contradiction is entailed by affirming the existence of a good God and the existence of evil is largely rejected by contemporary philosophers of religion. Most philosophers concede that these two claims don’t entail a contradiction. This consensus is in large part due to Alvin Plantinga’s work “God, Freedom, and Evil”. More commonly, the discussion centers on the likelihood of the compatibility between God and evil.
Can The Problem Of Evil Be Solved
Alvin Plantinga’s work advanced the discussion on the problem of evil by ruling out some of the ways we argue against the existence of God. But he would be the first to admit that this does not amount to a fully orbed answer to the problem. The question of the solvability of the problem still stands. Can we solve the problem of evil?
If your immediate reaction to the question is, “What an absurd question, the problem of evil cannot be solved!”, let me suggest that you take a step back before making that determination. We must first ask what we mean when we ask the question.
Possible Meanings Of The Question
One possible way of asking this question is to think that we are asking if we can exhaustively understand why an all-good God allows evil. I don’t think that this is possible. Even philosophers and theologians who think that we can offer explanations for why God allows evil should not take those explanations to be exhaustive. They certainly should not think that we can know all the intricate details involved in the justification of God’s actions.
Another way of taking this question is to think of it in terms of adequately responding to the implications presented by the critics of theism. If this is what we mean when we ask the question, then the answer to that question is “Yes, we can solve the problem”. I am sure that some might take the word “solve” to be too strong. Fair enough, it might be better to say that we can provide meaningful answers to the problem of evil. Can we do so in a way that compels all critics to accept our conclusion? Of course not. But this isn’t a problem for our “solutions” per se.
I don’t know of a single issue in philosophy where all professional philosophers agree. If this is a problem for our solutions to the problem of evil, then it is a problem for all of philosophy. I am not saying that there is no consensus in philosophical circles, only that philosophical solutions aren’t required to be compelling to all to be considered legitimate solutions.
Our Starting Point
I maintain that to have a fruitful discussion on the problem of evil, we need to at least agree with the following:
- We can formulate meaningful arguments for and against God based on the existence of evil.
- We can evaluate those arguments for logical consistency and general plausibility.
- An estimation of the plausibility of an argument is based on our knowledge of the world.
Without agreement on these points, there cannot be a problem of evil, there cannot be solutions to the problem of evil, and discussions about the problem are essentially baseless and meaningless musings. But if you agree with the above three points, it is at least possible for us to come to conclusions and even possible “solutions” to the problem of evil.
Type of Solutions
Some theists try to solve the problem by offering refutations of atheist and agnostic formulations of the argument. Several different arguments are utilized in this approach. One such argument concludes that our human cognitive abilities are not suited for the task of dealing with this problem. We are not in a position to know why God decided to allow this or that evil. This approach attempts to undercut the atheist/agnostic by undermining their ability to put forward the problem of evil as a problem in the first place.
Another response to the problem calls into question the atheists/agnostics’ ability to establish such a thing as the “best possible world”. If the atheist’s argument is predicated on the notion that “A good God would have created the best possible world”, then this argument would attempt to undercut that by arguing that there is no such thing as a “best possible world”. And if a “best possible world” is impossible, then it would not be meaningful to assert that God must create the best possible world to be good.
Another approach to the problem of evil is to offer what is called a defense. A defense involves some positive reasons for why God might be morally justified in allowing evil in this world. These reasons are not explanations for why God allows evil, rather they are explorations into why we might be justified in believing in God despite the apparent incongruity between God and evil.
This sort of theistic response attempts to offer positive arguments for God’s existence. Since we have positive arguments for God’s existence, the problem of evil does not succeed in showing that God does not exist. This approach generally attempts to place the burden of proof on the atheist to show that all of the attempted arguments for God’s existence are false. They claim this must be done before the atheist can employ an anti-theistic version of the problem of evil argument.
Another approach along these lines would be to argue that belief in God is “non-inferentially” justified. The claim might go something like this. There are all sorts of things that we are justified in believing that we don’t arrive at by way of argument. Our belief in God is among those beliefs. This approach doesn’t require that the atheist defeat all theistic arguments before engaging in a problem of evil argument. Rather it says we are justified in believing that God exists apart from arguments under the condition that we don’t have any serious defeaters to that belief.
Some defenders of theism offer theodicies in response to the problem of evil. To offer a theodicy is to offer a morally sufficient reason for why God allows evil. These sorts of responses are optimistic in that they suppose we can know at least some of the reasons why God allows evil. Two popular theodicies are the free will theodicy and the soul-making theodicy. The good of free will is said to be a morally sufficient reason for God’s allowing evil. In the case of soul-making, it is said that the qualities of the soul that are formed by living in a world with evil justified allowing evil.
My Take On The Problem Of Evil
The force of this problem did not hit me until I was in seminary. I learned more about the sovereignty of God which made the problem more difficult. The problem would be easier to handle if God was not aware of what was going on. If God wanted to do something about it, but could not do anything to stop evil, that would be one thing. However, the Christian tradition has a very strong sense of God’s ability and desire to stop evil.
Knowledge of God’s Reasons
I am optimistic about our ability to know some general reasons for why God allows evil. We can have some idea of why He allows evil from nature. We can also grasp some reasons from Scripture. However, the knowledge we obtain from these sources is “knowledge in part”. They give us clues as to why God allows evil. But they do not amount to some kind of exhaustive explanation. To my knowledge, there is no single answer to this problem. It is much more like solving a murder mystery. We have various clues that can be more or less charitably woven together.
I am pessimistic about our ability to know specific reasons for why God allowed this or that particular evil. God is not a mere principle. In Christian theology, He is a tri-personal being that wills some things and not others for reasons that may only be known to Him. It is common for us to be in the dark regarding the motivations of other human beings. All the more so when it comes to God.
Why God Allows Evil
I think many of the standard answers to why God allows evil are sound. Free will is required for the sort of result God is working to produce. Evils provide opportunities for spiritual growth in human beings. A lot of evil can be attributed to bad decisions on our part and God allows us to see the fruit of our bad decisions. God has cursed the earth after the fall which at least potentially accounts for natural evils. God may allow specific evils for very specific reasons that are only known to us by way of special revelation. I think all of these answers have their place in an overall response to the problem of evil.
Most of my interactions with people on this subject come down to some sort of gut-level emotional response. The thought is, “I see how there isn’t a contradiction involved in affirming God and evil, but it still seems wrong”. I have sympathy for this response. Dealing with the intellectual problem often helps in dealing with the gut level “yeah but it still seems wrong” but that is not always the case. I have spent several years reading academic literature on this problem. To this day, there are times when the problem of evil still strikes me as a strong defeater of theism.
In those times when the problem seems so strong, I have to go back to the intellectual reasons for why that gut-level reaction is not appropriate. Some may see this as an admission of the weakness of theistic “solutions” to the problem of evil. In one sense, I think that is true. Even our best intellectual answers to the problem are “in part”. But in another sense, I think that is false. Part of the reason why the gut-level worry exists is because it is easy to become wrongly oriented in relation to God. Our “gut” can be right or wrong. And that is precisely why need thoughtful answers to this problem. We need to be able to remind ourselves of why our “gut” is wrong sometimes.
So can we “solve” the problem of evil?
We can provide reasonable answers to the problems posed by this issue in the philosophy of religion. Those reasons can provide support for our faith in God during times of doubt. We are not in a position to know God’s reasons or intentions apart from His revealing them to us. But we can grasp some general reasons for why God would allow evil. At a minimum, we can grasp why God might allow evil. While this may not be satisfactory to some, it is helpful to those who have deeply considered this problem.