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Does God Care about our Pain?
The questions revolving around the supposed goodness of God and the existence of suffering have plagued the minds of believers since before the beginning of recorded human history. Why, it is so often asked, does mankind groan under the existence of all those things that cause us pain (and the list is utterly exhaustive), when a supposedly omnipotent, omnipresent, and infinitely-loving God has the power to intercede at any given moment? Is he unable? Uncaring? Non-existent? The questions beg answers, and yet, no easy answers can be given. The issue of suffering and God’s goodness is a complex one, but one that must eventually be addressed by the thoughtful believer.
The questions relating to such an issue, while valid, can be met by other, perhaps more thought-provoking questions: Does the gift of free will explain and/or justify suffering? Who defines what, exactly, “goodness” is? And lastly, what effect would the cessation of suffering have on the world as we know it? In this Hub I will attempt to answer these questions, and in so doing, provide reasonable grounds to at least rethink our assumptions concerning the nature of both suffering and evil and the coexistence of a loving god.
Those wishing to either negate God’s existence or to question his omnipotence often raise the following seemingly logical dilemma proposed here by 18th century philosopher David Hume: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"1 At first glance, this is indeed a problematic series of questions, but are Hume’s questions perhaps making too basic of assumptions about the nature of both evil and God? Assumptions that need to be more clearly examined? Does Hume raise a false dilemma?
Does the gift of free will explain and/or justify suffering?
It is fairly obvious that the benefits of pain are often quite detectable, as in the case of exercise or the sensation we experience when something in our body needs medical attention. In this sense, it appears that the very fabric of our being is somehow intimately related to the concept of pain and suffering. Even those things that provide us immense benefits, such as water, fire, and earth, can be the source of immeasurable sufferings through things such as floods, fires, and landslides. But while suffering is, at times beneficial, at other times it is clearly not. The molestation of a child, or the prolonged agony of an animal are just two instances in which trying to discover a benefit may prove to be a difficult endeavor. So the question remains: Where does the suffering of a five-year old child fall fit in with the concept of a caring god?
It seems the most repeated response to the question of how a good god can allow suffering is to point to the existence of free will, as the freedom of mankind to make moral decisions fits quite well with the concept of a loving god. For good or for bad, we are free to do deeds of both terrible depravity and of selfless charity, with God apparently allowing both with impunity. As odd as it may seem to the finite mind, we all possess the capability to deny other living beings their right to live, and God has allowed it to be so. While this appears at first glance unjust, the concept and promise of eternity should change our perspective on this. As apologist Ravi Zacharias has been quoted as saying:
"If I take a life, it is tragic, because I cannot restore that life. But if God allows a life to be taken, he can still restore that life, and the component of eternity does spell the possibility of an explanation. God is able to restore life, and eternity is able to bring ultimate justice."
If a life after this one exists, as expressed by the Bible and nearly every other religious belief, then death is merely the beginning of justice. If we can presuppose that God is a just and benevolent being, then it logically follows that all wrongs and injustices that have occurred in this world shall be dealt with accordingly. When one considers that ultimately, all of mankind will eventually face God, death no longer seems so unjust.
But does the benefit of free will justify the problem of pain? While the existence of free will does seem to harmonize the idea of God’s goodness with the reality of suffering, there have been legitimate questions raised in response to this concept. Nicholas Everitt, in his book, The Non-Existence of God, argues that free will is not so valuable as to justify the evil we see in the world. But, he argues, if free will is valuable enough, then God was either irresponsible in creating a being that could potentially sin, or should have forseen our penchant for sinning and refrained from creating us in the first place. In response to the first contention, that free will is just not worth the price, what is the alternative? Would the strange, God-controlled dystopia that would exist in the absence of free will would be little better than confinement to a terrarium, and would not this sort of world be counter-intuitive to the nature of a loving God? Secondly, who are we to judge a decision so lofty, profound, and infinitely complex as that of the creation of mankind? Given that the alternatives to our current existence as proposed by Everitt are either controlled obedience or non-existence, I’d argue that many alive today, believer and non-believer alike, would like to think that God did indeed make the right decision.
By what, do we mean, "Goodness?"
As to the question of God’s goodness, may it perhaps considered presumptuous on our part to try to fit God into a box we call “goodness”? By defining goodness on our own terms, we invariably run the risk of imposing our own particular brand of morality upon this definition. While the atheist may point to the existence of suffering as a indication of God’s non-existence, and the agnostic may argue that it reveals a trait of apathy or even malevolence within God’s personality, the Bible clearly reveals a god who is both real and benevolent. As is stated in the book of James, “every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.” While the Bible is hardly compelling evidence for the average atheist, it nevertheless describes a god of goodness, a god with which whose existence we can begin to understand the pervasive sense of moral absolutism which inhabits us all.
And what of Christ? 2000 years ago, the God of the universe entered into his own creation, and with a willing, humble attitude of subservience, was tortured, mocked, and executed by the very creatures he brought into existence. And while the death of Christ still does not fully explain the suffering we see all around us today, it nevertheless speaks volumes to both God’s goodness and to his own understanding of the pain we have all endured and will all endure. If God was willing to be broken for our sakes, then the depth of his love is not easy to deny.
What effect would the cessation of suffering have on the world as we know it?
Professor and author John Feinberg, in his book, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, points to several possible ways in which God could remove evil from our world, ways that either contradict God’s very nature, or vastly redefine his creation to the point of unrecognizability. God could remove all objects of desire, or, remove the sensation of desire entirely. God could stop bodily movement when humans intended to do evil, or miraculously interact during every single instance of evil action. He could even destroy every remnant of his very creation. The point to bear in mind is that none of these options for ending evil coincide with the Christian definition of a loving god. In nearly all instances, God is either eliminating the very essence of what it means to be human or is imposing an action upon us that can only be defined as controlling. Neither are in agreement with the biblical, and very poignant statement that “God is love.”
So is God unable to end suffering? In a sense one may answer yes, as God is unable to do several things that in no way contradict his own omnipotence. Carrying out acts that conflict with his nature, such as torture or cruelty, can be categorized as “inabilities” for God, or, as Erickson points out, “God cannot make a circle, a true circle, without all points on the circumference being equidistant from the center," and he cannot “create a a human without certain accompanying features.”
Bart Ehrman, a former evangelical Christian turned agnostic, cited the existence of suffering as his main reason for rejecting faith in God. In the book, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer, Dr. Ehrman poses again the age-old questions regarding pain: “If he came into the darkness and made a difference, where is this difference now? Why are the sick still wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies still born with birth defects?”
Years ago, while watching the footage of hurricane Katrina, safe, warm, and well-fed in the living room of my apartment in Portland, Oregon, I was struck with two, equally stirring, equally inspiring notions. For one, I desperately desired to have more money, so I could fill up my Jeep with water and food and drive to New Orleans. There seemed something so compelling in that idea, as if I, had I the resources, could almost feel a sense of happiness that the disaster had occurred, so that I in turn would have the opportunity to help. Secondly, as I watched the volunteer efforts pour in from every corner of the country, I realized that with no suffering, with no Katrinas, tsunamis or 9/11‘s, there could be no display of this most noble of actions. What drives people to help strangers? To sweat, and toil, and leave secure and safe surroundings? These are the questions Dr. Ehrman should be asking, because for every unsatisfied question raised about the existence of suffering, there is an equal, and far more-compelling question about the existence of compassion. Genocide may make no sense in world watched by a benevolent god, but neither does charity in a world watched by no one. Author Randy Alcorn sums it up well:
"Yes, this hurting world has truckloads of evil, but it also has boatloads of good. Where did it all come from? While atheists routinely speak of the problem of evil, they usually don’t raise the problem of goodness. But if you argue that evil is evidence against God’s existence, you must also admit that good is evidence for it. If a good God doesn’t exist, what the source of goodness?"
The question I end with then, is this: Is God really absent in the face of suffering? Or does he merely choose to act through us, his followers? When I consider all the good done by God’s people in the world, who have been inspired to do good by his holy presence alone, it seems to me that there is no such absence, rather, a huge and unthinkable duty placed upon us, his people, to learn through suffering, to grow in it, and when necessary, to actively pursue its end. Of course, God doesn’t need us to help others, just like he doesn’t need us to pray. And yet, for whatever reason, God asks us to ask him for help, and asks us to help others.
The question of how a good god can allow suffering will, I believe, endure for as long as it takes God to provide an answer. While mankind can theorize and philosophize the issue for many years to come and offer succinct, intelligent and reasonable explanations for or against the goodness of God, at the end of the day, the image of an innocent child suffering will continue to beg the question: Why?
In the Book of Job, after chapters and chapters of speeches by men trying to understand the motives of their creator, God suddenly appears. It must have seemed, I would think, a great relief to both Job and his companions, to finally receive what they had surely hoped would be an answer to the problem that has burdened all of humanity. And yet, God gives no explanation, rather, he asks questions of his own: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and “Who has put wisdom in the innermost being or given understanding to the mind?” It seems that God, by showing Job and his companions how little they truly knew, was in essence saying that the issue of suffering is far too difficult for the human intellect to fully grasp. And Job, after this stern reprimand, before anything has been restored to him and while he still suffers greatly, wisely replies: “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”