If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.
– C. S. Lewis
The problem of pain represents the most serious intellectual challenge to the rationality of Christian faith. Many have rejected or abandoned faith as a result of the failed attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the realities of evil and suffering. Here I want to outline briefly how Christian theologians have answered this problem and offer a few suggestions for those suffering and those seeking to offer comfort. I make no claim to provide a complete solution to the problem. I do not think such a thing exists. Every answer includes insights and shortcomings. If we examine this issue long enough, we will likely be forced to admit that we have as many questions as answers. Along with the Old Testament character Job, whose suffering is legend, I must eventually confess: “I am of small account, what shall I answer? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4) Eventually we should all confess as much, but not before seeking answers as Job did. We may not get all of the answers we seek, but in the process we may get something better.
To begin, it would be helpful to define evil and to distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Evil is often defined as anything without which the world would be a better place. By implication, some of what we might call evil might make the world a better place. Natural evil (disasters and diseases) results from features of the physical universe that are arguably necessary for survival. Gravity keeps me from floating off into space, but gravity also means that when I trip and fall I may get hurt. The cells in my body regenerate, divide, and mutate in order to keep me alive, but sometimes these characteristics of cells lead to the spread of disease. These examples of so-called natural evil lead to suffering, but the possibility of such suffering is unavoidable in a physical world that operates according to natural laws that keep us alive, making the world better on the whole. Moral evil, by contrast, occurs when people violate divine law, harming themselves and others in the process, rendering the world worse. Of course, there are ways that natural evil and moral evil mingle, such as when drought followed by monsoon rains cause mudslides in communities with substandard housing. Poverty, climate change, unscrupulous builders, and natural weather cycles coalesce to cause suffering. For someone with a biblical worldview, however, both moral evil and natural evil find their ultimate origins in Genesis 3; they result from sin that tainted human society and the natural world.
Now I’d like to review four historically prominent explanations for suffering in Christian history, and show some of their strengths and weaknesses. Theologians sometimes call these ideas theodicy, a term that means “defending the justice of God in light of evil.” These ides have a long history and for the sake of brevity I will avoid attributions, but if you’re curious, feel free to comment. The four ideas are as follows.
Free Will – God created humans with freedom and we may choose to use that freedom for good or ill. Implied in this explanation is a kind of retribution principle – evil behavior is punished, either passively or actively. If I operate an automobile while intoxicated and wreck my car, my injuries are the direct result of my behavior. Whether my suffering is God’s punishment or the result of natural law (or both), I deserve it and few will call it unfair. But what if, in my intoxicated state, I drive my car into a crowd of pedestrians? Free will explains well my pain, but not theirs, or that of their loved ones. Why didn’t God intervene to trump my free will to protect others? Turns out, free will is a helpful explanation for some instances of suffering, but a troubling response to others.
Soul Making – God intends pain to build character, to make our souls more nearly perfect. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes? Or as the New Testament epistle of James states, “Consider it joy when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Indeed, some instances of pain instruct. Who will disagree? The question is whether God could sometimes teach by a less painful pedagogy. In other words, do the ends justify the means? What souls are improved, for example, by the holocaust? Couldn’t the same good be accomplished with less evil? Couldn’t an omnipotent God make it so? Soul making, while helpful in some ways, seems to fail as an explanation for the most horrific evils.
Best Possible World – An all-knowing God would be aware of all possible worlds. A benevolent God would create the best possible world. An all-powerful God is able to create the best world. In other words, our world could be either more evil or less free, either of which would be worse that our current state of affairs. The only way for God to eliminate the possibility of evil altogether would be to eliminate freedom entirely, or not create a world at all. A world without freedom is not a good world, but a morally neutral world, and surely our world is better than no world, or so the argument goes. Of course, someone with cancer might conclude that even if this is the best world possible, it’s still a pretty crappy world. Sometimes we’d all agree.
Divine Suffering – God did not exempt himself from the world’s pain. God suffers with us (in Christ, God feels what we feel). God suffers because of us (moral evil grieves God). And God suffers for us (in Christ, God took suffering upon himself that spares us). Perhaps divine suffering is less of a philosophical explanation for evil and more of a recognition that Christianity situates the solution to evil squarely in Christ. Jesus doesn’t so much explain evil as he experiences it, overcomes it, defeats it, swallows it, and ultimately renders it powerless. Exactly how this happens is a matter for another post; that it happens partially is a matter of experience; that it happens completely in the end is a matter of faith.
So what can Christians offer to a suffering world? Explanations, especially poorly timed ones, can certainly do harm. Theodicy isn’t for funerals. In the middle of Job’s pain God didn’t explain. In response to Job’s questions, God didn’t answer. Instead, God listened. God was present. Job’s final words to God affirm this: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The final solution to evil is to see God, and in Christ we see God most clearly and experience God most poignantly. In the final analysis, this is surely better than explanations.