The Problem of Suffering

A handout from a talk I gave last night on the problem of suffering. 


If we live long enough, everyone will be the victims of evil and suffering.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad things happen at all? 


Christianity says that God is all-powerful and all-good.  If he truly was all powerful, he could stop suffering.  If we truly was all-good, he would stop suffering.


Since there is suffering in the world, there seems to be only a few explanations:


1.  Perhaps God is all-powerful, but not all-good.  He could stop suffering if he wanted, but he doesn’t want to stop it.


2.  Perhaps God is all-good, but not all-powerful.  He would like to stop suffering, but is unable.  He would do it if he could, but he can’t.


3.  Perhaps God is not all-powerful, nor all-good.  He doesn’t want to stop suffering, but even if he did, he couldn’t.


I’m going to contend that this problem of evil and suffering is a problem for everyone, not just Christians.  It is a difficulty faced by every religion and ideology, not just Christianity.  Secondly, I’m going to contend that Christianity has the most satisfying resolution to difficulty (though clearly we’re not going to “solve” this problem tonight).

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 1.  Everyone must deal with the problem of evil and suffering.

Let’s look at three basic worldviews and their approach to this topic.  We will necessarily be painting with a broad brush and people will fall in the cracks between these broad categories, but hopefully this overview will serve to illustrate the problems that everyone has without actually addressing every possible worldview that someone might hold.


Secular humanists, atheists and some agnostics tend to believe that “evil” and suffering are simply part of the human experience.  Something is bad (or “evil”) if it is not good for me.  There is no God above us, no hell below us.  All that exists is here today.  Suffering is relative.  That is, one person’s suffering is another person’s pleasure.  Good and evil are usually culturally specific.  So, whatever is most helpful for the objectives of most people is good, and whatever goes against that is bad.  Or, another way to approach morality is to say that you can do whatever you like as long as you don’t hurt other people. 


In this worldview, suffering has very little meaning (in my opinion).  Let’s take a few examples to illustrate.  Let’s think of a person born with Down’s Syndrome.  What does this mean?  Nothing.  It is a genetic anomaly.  At best, it means that this person will probably not have any children since fertility is greatly reduced.  This is a good thing for future generations.  It is a sad thing for the parents and family of the child and abortion is a good idea if possible because it will save the parents and family a lot of work and sadness.  They will be more productive and happy without the child.


Or, let’s take an example of a tsunami killing 230,000 people in Asia (we’re coming up on the 3 year anniversary).  It is estimated that this under-ocean earthquake released the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs.  What does this mean?  Not much.  It means that we need to find better warning systems so that future systems don’t inflict so much damage.


Finally, let’s think of the Holocaust in which between 5 and 6 million Jews were exterminated.[1]  What does this mean for the secular person?  It’s hard to say.


We all have a sense of justice and injustice.  We can fight about where to draw the lines, but everyone has a sense that some things are good and others are bad, no matter the culture, time, place, circumstances, etc.  If that line comes from inside us, as an evolutionary tool, then killing of the weak is a good thing, but this is universally rejected in practice.  Some philosophers adopt this as a working theory, but they cannot find a society in which to practice it.


That is to say, the problem of evil and suffering is a huge obstacle for the secular humanist and the atheist.  We all have a sense that suffering is truly meaningful and we act like it, but there is no ultimate reason for meaning in this worldview.


Worldviews that subscribe to the philosophical concept of Karma such as Hinduism and Buddhism says that suffering has ultimate meaning.  All suffering is the consequence of harm inflicted upon others.  Believers are usually quick to point out that karma is not a punishment.  However, it is a consequence.  Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  Most believers also believe in reincarnation (past and future).  So, when something bad happens (suffering) to a person, the only explanation is that they have done something to hurt others in this or a different life (past or future?). 


So, the child born with Down’s Syndrome.  Perhaps he or his parents are now deserving of this horrible disease.  The same is true with the victims of the tsunami and the Holocaust.  We can be compassionate to people who are suffering (and we should), but ultimately, they are responsible and they get what they deserve.


The problem of unjust suffering is solved.  No one suffers unless they deserve it.  The secular problem of no source for justice is solved, evil comes into the world when we hurt each other and causes suffering.  It seems to me that this worldview has a better understanding of evil and suffering than the secular, but there is still a huge problem.


We know lots of examples of people who suffer for seemingly no reason.  What about this baby with Down’s Syndrome?  Some might say he deserves his condition.  Ok, what about the tsunami?  Did 230,000 people and their families all living on that one part of the world deserve that suffering?  That seems like an incredible coincidence.  What about the Holocaust?  All the Jews deserved the suffering they got?  That’s hard for me to understand.


Monotheism (Judaism, Islam, and warped Christianity) says that God is all-powerful, but distant.  Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a very famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1983).  Kushner sums up the basic idea of much of monotheistic religion (though many might disagree with him on the finer points).  He says that while God is in control, he chooses not get involved in most of what happens on Earth.  Suffering happens when people hurt each other and God does not intervene though he could.  Natural disasters are a part of this world and God chooses not to intervene.


So, what do we say to the parents who just found out their baby has Down’s Syndrome?  Well, God could have intervened and changed things, but he didn’t.  Why not?  Perhaps you didn’t pray enough, perhaps he wasn’t listening, perhaps he doesn’t like you, or perhaps there is some reason that you don’t know about.  The same can be said of the tsunami and the Holocaust.  An all-powerful God could have intervened, but he didn’t.  We’re not sure why.


This is actually more cogent than it might sound at first.  If God is all-powerful (he knows all things, he can do all things, etc.), then there might be a good reason for suffering that we don’t know about (after all, we are certainly limited in our power and knowledge).  On the other hand, if God is not all-powerful, then he can’t be held responsible and cannot be blamed. 


In other words, if there is a God, he cannot be blamed for your suffering because either he is sovereign (and you don’t know the end of your suffering, maybe it will be good for you), or he is not sovereign (and he is therefore not responsible in any way). 

 2.  Christianity’s problem of suffering is most satisfying.

Christianity has a similar response to the other monotheistic religions with one significant difference — Jesus.  Jesus is God incarnate.  He is God become a man.  That means that God knows our suffering first-hand.  He knows what it is like to be rejected.  He knows what it is like to be alone.  He knows what it is like to be the victim of injustice. 


Since God knows intimately the pain of suffering and injustice, we can rule out the possibility that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care.  He clearly cares enough to get involved in our suffering to such a degree that he suffered immensely.  That is not a casual kind of compassion, that is a furious, earnest compassion.  We may not know the reason, but only Christianity says that suffering is never meaningless nor consequential.  That is to say, suffering is (at least) commonly unjust, but never meaningless.


Christianity also has a strong sense of purpose to history.  That is to say, that history is going somewhere (this is not true of atheism and the karmic religions).  All justice will finally be accomplished.  Evil will be punished.  All things sad will come untrue.  This is what I mean when I say that suffering is meaningful.


Ok, let’s start the discussion.


Atheist             Suffering is always meaningless

Karma             Suffering is always meaningful, and always just

Monotheism    Suffering can be meaningless, but usually not just

Christianity      Suffering is always meaningful, and usually not just

[1] Unfortunately, this kind of event is not unusual.  Chairman Mao and Stalin are each responsible for at least 20 million innocent deaths.


8 responses to “The Problem of Suffering

  1. An interesting overview of a subject much agonised over by many… but your view that only through Jesus could God “know” our suffering must be challenged. It is illogical, unless you define the limits of the knowledge that you impute to a god without Jesus. If God/G-D/Allah does not know and understand human suffering, then s/he/it is not omniscient. I think that, rather than a way that God needs in order to know anything, the value of Jesus in the Christian story is to give humans a human-shaped icon to communicate to them what it is that God already knows, so that it is easier to trust in God’s empathy. Another point: the fact that Jesus suffered does not necessarily make all suffering meaningful, although it does prove the point that suffering happens even to good people. Also, Christianity does not discourage the idea that some suffering is consequential. It is clear that sometimes we do bring it upon ourselves by our own thoughts and actions, and that sometimes, even when we may not be the original cause, we worsen our experience of the suffering by the ways in which we respond to it. Some suffering is avoidable, so if we choose to experience it, it’s a bit rich to seek for “meaning” in it!

  2. A life without god isn’t a life without meaning.
    Obviously Atheists / Non Believers suffer as much as anyone else.
    And it is in our rational and emotional interest to act ethically , and give respectful regard to other peoples suffering.
    Your implication seems to be that a secular humanist / atheist would choose to abort a child with downs syndrome if they could rationalise it as being in their own self interest.
    All of the atheists i know wouldn’t be that cold or calculating.
    Suffering like life isn’t meaningless – but we create meaning in response to our short existence on this planet, and the things that happen to us while we are here.
    One thing I wouldn’t do – is let someone else define that meaning for me.

  3. Tia: I see your wheels turning , and I think you’ve engaged with William’s post quite thoughtfully. Let me offer some thoughts of my own.

    First, regarding God “knowing” suffering, you’re right and you’re wrong. Yes, God is omniscient, so He knows everything, including our suffering. But, to know something experientially, subjectively, is different than to know it objectively. There are lots of things that God doesn’t know subjectively: He doesn’t know what it’s like to do evil, He doesn’t know what it’s like to forget something, He doesn’t know what it’s like to create a four-sided triangle, etc. Yet, just because God doesn’t know some things subjectively (experientially), I’ve never heard of any philosophical system that would challenge God’s omniscience on those grounds.

    So, I think William is right that when God was born, lived, and died as the man Jesus, something new happened in universe, which was that God knew (experienced) suffering.

    Further, I agree with you that Jesus’ suffering does not necessarily make all suffering meaningful. But I disagree that the main point of His suffering was to show that even good people suffer. If that was God’s/Jesus’ intention, then it was a waste of time. Everybody already knew that! Neither do I find much comfort in the thought that the intent of Jesus’ suffering was to assure us of God’s empathy. I don’t want empathy, I want Someone to fix the brokenness of my soul, my life, my relationships, and my world.

    That’s where I think you’re on to something when you talked about suffering that we bring on ourselves. The fact is, no suffering happens in an existential vacuum, not even disease or natural disasters. Nothing “just happens.” All suffering is rooted in the mess that has become of this world since its infancy. Your suffering and mine is part of the course and web of history and events and cycles and patterns of actions and relationships among our fellow broken people ever since something went drastically wrong in this world that God made good.

    The great thing about Jesus is that He broke the cycle. He was the One strong enough to live as part of our broken world, yet remain whole Himself, even through suffering and death. And He offers His enduring strength to us. So when we identify with Him to the extent that we see our suffering as a participation in His suffering, we can know that we will also find healing and participate in His wholeness.

  4. Hi Nick – I didn’t say that “the main point” of Jesus’ suffering was to show that good people suffer. I simply observed that it proves the point that good people suffer also, which was something mentioned in the original post. It may (or may not) prove other points also and I didn’t address the question of which might be the “main” one.

    Although you say that we already know that good people suffer, there is an enormous swathe of preaching across religions that suggests that if you are “good” you shouldn’t suffer (based on texts like Deuteronomy 30), so people continue to be surprised when they do. I think it’s not only to do with preaching, but also with humans’ ability to distance themselves from others’ suffering – witness the inconsistency of the “comforting” exhortations to patience and faith that someone may offer when a friend’s loved one dies of cancer, which strangely turn to bitterness and questioning of God when their own loved one dies similarly.

    I don’t understand why you suggest that omniscience includes objective but not subjective knowledge? On what do you base this assumption? In any case, isn’t it the Christian contention that God is a personal god, a “Father”? Surely a personal god has to have subjective awareness? Also, how do you know that God doesn’t know what it’s like to do evil? Many of the things that he is supposed to have done according to the Bible record are considered evil by many people. If they are to be considered “not evil” simply because they were performed or instructed by God, then we are indeed attributing to s/he/it the ability to create a four-sided triangle, i.e. to redefine reality.

    And speaking of this, I found your example that God “doesn’t know what it’s like to create a four-sided triangle” perplexing. I don’t see how it serves your argument. It is nonsense, something that cannot be known, objectively or subjectively, by anyone, including the particular God that most Christians claim to serve. Or do you have inside knowledge of a dimension from which both God and the rest of us are excluded? On the other hand, even if we took the view that an omnipotent god could make anything, including a four-sided triangle which defies the apparent (to us) “laws” of the universe, we could not know whether s/he/it has in fact done so. There might be one somewhere in the universe, or right here on earth, for all we know!

  5. Tia, you’re right; you didn’t say anything about a “main point.” That was sloppy reading on my part.

    Two points of clarification: I didn’t mean to imply that God doesn’t have any subjective/experiential knowledge. God is personal and He certainly has personal/experiential/subjective knowledge of many things. My point was only that there are some things (many things) that God doesn’t have subjective knowledge of (read: “experience doing”), such as evil, etc.

    The four-sided triangle example was supposed to be nonsense. It fits into the argument because the few other examples I listed were also nonsense.

    I have no aspirations of convincing you or anyone else in this exchange. I was just thinking out loud and entering into the exchange with you and William. I don’t pretend to have the philosophical or rhetorical expertise to convince you to share my muddled thinking. We’re entering the conversation with such radically different presuppositions that I’m happy to let the conversation rest. I don’t think this is a forum in which we’re going to get anywhere with each other. But, it’s been fun thinking out loud with you.

  6. Suffering is a choice!

    I think you are probably confusing suffering with pain?

    You can be in pain but not suffer but you can also be in little pain and experience suffering. There is an active component in suffering which involves choice. Suffering is an emotion.

    The question probably ought to be “The problem with pain”?

    1. Perhaps God is all-powerful, but not all-good. He could stop suffering if he wanted, but he doesn’t want to stop it.

    Because suffering is a choice, it would be illogical for God to prevent suffering. To prevent suffering would be to prevent free will, which is illogical.

    2. Perhaps God is all-good, but not all-powerful. He would like to stop suffering, but is unable. He would do it if he could, but he can’t.

    Suffering is a choice. God does not prevent choice.

    3. Perhaps God is not all-powerful, nor all-good. He doesn’t want to stop suffering, but even if he did, he couldn’t.

    Suffering is a choice. God does not prevent choice.

  7. Victory! New content! You’ve clearly been working on your writing skills. Bravo 🙂 Thank you so much for the creativity of well – you!

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