October 13, 2015

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Holocaust victims memorial
Of all the questions many religious believers will confront at some point in their lives, this might be the most important and most challenging one. It is a question that requires us to define our terms at the outset if we are to have any hope of answering it. Specifically, I see no way to answer this question until we first determine which god we are discussing.

Once we've selected a particular god, we need to figure out what attributes this particular god is supposed to have. Only then can we begin to make sense out of this question. After all, if the god we were talking about was an evil sort of god, the question would be moot because allowing suffering would be perfectly consistent with what we'd expect from an evil god.

To make things easier for the purpose of this post, I suggest we agree to limit ourselves to the Christian god. What do we know of this god and characteristics it is supposed to have? This is for Christians to figure out, and figure it out they must. After all, it makes no sense to claim to worship something that cannot be defined or understood. Someone worshiping something incomprehensible would have no way to establish that whatever it was he or she was worshiping was distinguishable from anything else or even from nothing at all.

Although Christians throughout history have had great difficulty reaching a lasting agreement on the exact nature of their god, many will quickly ascribe at least three characteristics to their god:
  1. Omniscience. Their god knows all.
  2. Omnipotence. Their god is infinitely powerful.
  3. Omnibenevolence. Their god is not just invested in the affairs of humans but is the embodiment of love (at least as much as a non-corporeal entity can embody anything).
It is the combination of these three commonly claimed attributes that raises the problem of evil, which brings us back our question: Why does a benevolent god allow suffering? The grand paradox attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius goes like this:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
There have been many other formulations of this problem, but I've always thought this one had a nice ring to it. So how do we respond?

Perhaps there is suffering because the Christian god wants to prevent evil but is unable to do so. That would leave us with a god that was not omnipotent, raising the question of whether such a being should be considered a god at all. This would certainly a a very different sort of being than the one most (but not all) Christians claim to worship. Perhaps there is suffering because the Christian god wants to prevent evil and is able to do so but is somehow unaware of how to go about it. That would leave us with a god that was not omniscient, once again raising the question of whether such a being should be considered any sort of a god. And most problematic of all, perhaps there is suffering because this god is aware of how to prevent evil and able to prevent evil but chooses not to do so. This calls into question the notion of an omnibenevolent god, which many Christians insist is its central attribute. At best, this would leave us with an uninvolved and disinterested sort of god; at worst, it could leave us with an evil god.

The problem of evil, especially if we restrict ourselves to the topic of suffering among animals in nature and thereby undercut the attempted free will rebuttal of which many Christians are quite fond, seems insurmountable. At least, it is a problem that has not yet been solved to my satisfaction and the satisfaction of countless atheists.

Why does your god allow suffering? My suspicion is that the best answer to this question is that your god probably doesn't exist. The presence of evil and suffering in the universe is certainly consistent with there not being an omnipotent, omniscience, and omnibenevolent god. As I noted previously, I suspect this is also the best answer to the question of unanswered prayers.

If there is a god out there somewhere that has at least two of the attributes we have been discussing, it would seem that this god has a great deal of pain and suffering for which to answer.

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