Problem of suffering as seen within a religious view – will of God
Unlike naturalism, a traditional Christian religious view conceives of a conscious, eternal reality over-arching our mundane world. This reality is conceptualised as God – a God who created our transient world; who is needed to maintain it; and who is intimately involved in all its workings. As God is perceived as all-perfect, our world must have also been created all-perfect and, most importantly, for a purpose. So why do we have suffering?
Humans were created physical, like other animals, but also uniquely endowed with the ability to “find” God, a spiritual side. However God wants people to freely choose him and so gave us free-will, the ability to choose or reject God freely. So, within a religious view, people are freely able to do good or to create harm and suffering. That is the cause of “moral evil”. “Natural evil”, suffering from natural causes and suffering of other animals, is the dramatic backdrop or environment needed for true human moral growth, so-called “soul-making”.
An alternate explanation involves achieving a greater good. Like a caring parent who administers bad tasting medicine to a sick child, God has to allow some suffering to achieve a greater goods that more than compensates to associated evils.
If all this seems confusing, we need to realise that it is presumptious and arrogant to apply human moral standards and expectations to God’s will. By nature we are limited physical beings with finite knowledge of our physical existence. God’s will is infinite and so far beyond our comprehension.
So, ultimately, a religious response to the problem of evil is to suggest people were created with “free-will” so that we would willingly find God. The apparent imperfections of the world arise from the choices we freely make – good and bad – and from our inherent lack of understanding of God’s infinite motives and workings.
Alex McCullieNo comments
The ‘Problem of Evil’ powerfully challenges a belief in God. It argues that the existence of God, implicitly taken as all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect, contradicts the presence of evil in the world. Such a God should be able to stop or prevent evil occurring and being morally perfect would will it so. Suffering continues so God does not exist.
The evil (or suffering) is pervasive and not just resulting from human immorality. People of all types and ages as well (as other living things) suffer terribly from natural disasters and diseases as well as the immoral acts of others. Suffering is distributed across the innocent and guilty, the religious and the irreligious with no obvious patterns. A similarly behaved parent, class teacher, military leader or political leader inflicting such pain would be charged with a string of heinous crimes. By any human moral standards the inflicted suffering would be comprehensively condemned. However God is supposed to be better than any person, morally perfect beyond our moral capabilities by an infinite measure.
This argument against the belief in God is compelling. The simplest logical argument is:
|EVIL||(1) The world contains instances of suffering (evil)|
|GOD||(2) God exists – and is all-powerful (and therefore able to deal with it)|
|(3) God exists – and is all-knowledgeable (and therefore knows of the suffering )|
|(4) God exists – and is perfectly good (and therefore wills good and not evil)|
If you affirm (2), (3) and (4) you are denying (1) or, alternatively, (1) contradicts (2), (3), and (4).
Most philosophers do not support this harshest form of the Problem of Evil: any evil or suffering disproves the existence of God. Most allow for some suffering for a specific greater good, similar to a parent giving a sick child some bad-tasting medicine. Many support a probabilistic view that with the extensive and indiscriminate suffering in the world the Christian God is highly unlikely to exist.
The strength of the Problem of Evil has forced Christian thinkers for many years to justify the rationality of believing in the existence of such a God while accepting the presence of evil or suffering.
The ‘Problem of Evil’ attacks antiquated concepts of God and Evil, both inexorably linked to the Middle East of some 2000 to 3000 years ago. These ancient peoples were far removed from today’s protected lives – largely illiterate, tribal societies with superstitions, demons and evil spirits dominating short, hard, and brutish lives. Thirty years or more was old-age; five children per family were needed just to maintain the population; and a tooth absence was a death sentence.
Originally people worshipped gods to survive precarious existences with little interest in or conception of an after-life. They needed protection against a palpably real Evil. Worshipping one all-powerful god introduced problems of responsibility. How could a morally-perfect god create so many everyday hardships and calamities? Warring immoral gods never had that problem. Over time evil spirits and demons transmuted to a personified Evil, a powerful (not as much as God of course) Satan, seeking to undo God’s fundamental goodness. Even the after-life, never a personal part of most polytheist pagan religions and only a later development of Judaism, helped to shore up faith amongst seemingly indiscriminate hardships. Paul’s Christianity later institutionised that as an intrinsic part of Christian faith.
Over the years Christian thinkers have twisted and adapted God and Evil to suit the sensibilities of changing societies. St. Augustine rightfully de-objectified Evil to avoid a devastating dilemma – God, a morally-perfect being, having created Evil. So Evil, at least for the theologians, moved from fearful objective existence to “lack of goodness”, a deprivation – the metaphorical hole in the doughnut of God’s goodness.
So why study the Problem of Evil when the underlying concepts are so irrelevant to today’s secular society? Firstly, it is interesting intellectual puzzle-solving. Brilliant minds have contributed intricate arguments weaving newer and newer clothes for the emperor. Also, secondly, millions of conservative Christians still hold to these concepts. Famously George W. Bush was one of those who saw very-real Evil lurking around every corner, only kept in check by faith in a super-human God.
I don’t quite know what to make of the Old Testament (Jewish scriptures) authors. I’m thinking of the morality of the ten plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians.
You know the Bible story. The Israelites were enslaved and poorly treated by the Egyptians. Moses was commissioned by God to free the Israelites with God’s divine power. After some poor starts with his own people’s doubts and with ignored threats, Moses enacted the first five plagues with God’s help. Pharoah was unconvinced. So God changed his approach. Before enacting the worse plagues God ensured that Pharoah would still resist even against his own best interests (“hardened his heart”). Therefore God was able to inflict more pain and suffering on the Egyptian people as well as show his absolute supremacy over Pharoah as a rival “living God”. The final plague was a beauty with the killing all first born humans and animals.
I’ve always struggled with the US decision to drop the second atomic bomb over Japan to end World War II. Was the time delay enough for the Japanese to surrender? US argued it was. Here God wouldn’t allow Pharoah to surrender. Now, I don’t hold any credence with this story – I’m not that gullible. In fact there is no or very little extrabiblical support for any Jewish captivity in Egypt let alone a mass escape to freedom. However these stories do say a lot about the religious authors of the Jewish scriptures and their moral values.
I know we need to be relativist when assessing the moral values of past generations. But it is hard to see how the forced infliction of pain could be venerated in scriptures. How would have these writers responded to our examples of evil – Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin? Admiringly?
Alex McCullieNo comments