Suffering and an Omnibenevolent God

Suffering and an Omnibenevolent God November 2, 2017

Here is a guest post from C. Peterson who has recently been making some great contributions in commenting here. In this piece, he looks at the logical problem of evil (as opposed to the evidential problem of evil), suggesting some theodicies (such as the soul-building theodicy) and ideas like heaven as justification.

This should provoke some good discussion, as well as giving me some content to grapple with in some “rebuttals” of sorts. For example, on the heaven aspect, see my “Heaven Is Not a Moral Justification” piece that concludes that if Christians are using heaven as justification, they are being consequentialist and thus “reverting” to secular morality.

Thanks to C. Peterson, and please keep them coming – if you have anything you want to write for ATP, please contact me using the contact link in the menus above.

There have recently been several discussions here on A Tippling Philosopher about the so-called “omni qualities” of a deity (pretty specifically meaning the Abrahamic god, AKA “God”). These are usually taken as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence.  All-powerful, all-knowing, universally ubiquitous, and all-good. While there are some exceptions, these qualities are generally recognized by most Christians as characteristics of God.

Critics of religion (and to some extent, theism) look at the variety of internal contradictions that these omni qualities produce; religious apologists seek to bend their definitions in order to avoid those contradictions. That is very difficult to do when we are discussing omnipotence and omniscience – qualities that are easily defined in a fact-based manner. Omnipresence introduces many difficult logical problems, as well. Omnibenevolence is a different matter, however, and I generally advocate for leaving it out of discussions involving logical reduction. Why? Because benevolence itself doesn’t seem to be definable in a fact-based way. More critically, to the extent that we can define it, we don’t have any reliable way to measure it when we look at the world from a religionist viewpoint.

The question of God’s benevolence is often tied to a set of closely related issues, variously dubbed “the problem of evil”, “the problem of pain”, and “the problem of suffering”. But are these actually problems? Can a truly benevolent god – one that has the best interest of every human in mind – allow evil, pain, and suffering to exist? To have actively created these things? I argue that it can.

Before delving into this further, let’s establish some definitions that I will keep as broad as possible in order to satisfy most people. “Pain” is simply an aversive response to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli. It’s something that most organisms experience. “Suffering” is an emotional response to pain produced by reflection. Suffering requires sentience. “Evil” is the malevolent causing of suffering.

My question is, does the presence of suffering necessarily prove, or even provide reasonable evidence, that God is not benevolent? My assertion is that it does not, and further, that any arguments that involve suffering necessarily depend on opinion and value judgements, and are therefore not effective in rigorously logical analysis.

I approach this question from several directions. First, consider the model adopted by Christians, in which we are eternal beings. We begin our existence here on Earth, experience a temporal lifetime, and then move on to an eternal afterlife. In such a model, I would argue that any finite suffering falls to insignificance. Think of the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced, and if it was far enough in your past, it almost certainly isn’t something you dwell on. It is, of course, possible that this suffering actually damaged your mind, in which case you might still be affected (e.g. PTSD), but I think most Christians will take the position that any trauma, physical or psychological, will be healed in the afterlife. The conclusion of this line of analysis is that temporal suffering is, in the limit of eternity, insignificant.

Second, suffering may be required as a necessary counterpart to pleasure. Perhaps if we do not experience suffering, we cannot fully experience (or comprehend) joy. Perhaps we cannot have pleasure without pain. More to the point, joy and pleasure may be meaningless concepts without their negative counterparts.

Third, consider the possibility that suffering is formative. Even without eternal life, suffering may be seen as valuable. We encounter many stories of people who suffered from some illness or malevolent attack, and ultimately concluded that it changed them for the better. A good friend of mine died last year from an exotic form of breast cancer that metastasized into her spine. She survived for two years, with the last months very painful. Yet she found the entire experience, including the end stage, brought her great clarity and a different view on her entire life. It also brought together a substantial community around her, which continues to benefit even after her death. In the context of an eternal life, this may be seen as nothing more than a valuable lesson.

Finally, consider the effect of suffering on the malevolent who cause it, and on those who simply witness it. Being a deliberate cause of suffering may itself be seen as a lesson when viewed from an eternal perspective. In the same way that a bully can grow out of his behavior and become a healthier human being, who is to say that a mass murderer can’t do the same and become a healthy soul? Or that simply witnessing suffering in others doesn’t build empathy and moral understanding?

To be absolutely clear, I myself do not make these arguments. I don’t believe that life is eternal, I don’t believe in souls, I don’t believe that suffering is essential to joy (although I do believe it may, in some cases, have a positive value in a person’s life). But I cannot draw on anything other than my opinion, my worldview, in discounting them. I can’t draw on any facts to say that suffering is “bad”. I can’t discount as non-benevolent a god that uses suffering to build the best possible souls, in the same way that we recognize that certain kinds of pain are necessary to build better people (such as the pain of losing loved ones, or the pain that comes with exercise). And because I can’t make a fact-based argument surrounding omnibenevolence (as I can with issues surrounding omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence), I simply think that the best strategy is to not discuss it at all in the context of using logic to prove the impossibility of God.


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