Questions of Faith
The problem of suffering, sometimes academically referred to as ‘theodicy’, is a troublesome topic everybody wrestles with, both spiritually and intellectually.
It’s been phrased in many different ways, but the most famous version of the question is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus: “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?” Of course, Christians are acutely aware of this problem in their own tradition – the Book of Job, for example, explores humanity’s suffering and God’s relationship to it.
It’s certainly a question that has stood the test of time. Many atheists have suggested that the co-existence of a perfect God and suffering is logically incoherent, meaning that such a deity could not exist. It’s an alluring argument, but in reality, there a plenty of ways to understand the harmonious relationship between God and suffering.
The first argument goes something like this: If suffering exists, then the objective bad exists. If the objective bad exists, then the objective good exists. If the objective good exists, then God must exist. While this is a neat proof for the existence of God based on the problem of suffering, it still doesn’t address why God allows suffering to happen.
The most common answer is that God has given human beings free will, and individuals can choose what life decisions they make, whether this be setting up an orphanage or becoming a murderer. God doesn’t control or coerce and so allows us to commit sin even if this means the result causes suffering.
This answer places suffering in the context of human agency, but what about natural disasters where nobody is responsible?
Firstly, many have argued that we are responsible for natural disasters because of our ecological activity on earth. Putting that aside, it has been suggested that the physical world we inhabit, with all of its complexities like rocks colliding or waves rising, is the only one by which humans could have existed and flourished.
Natural disasters are really just an unfortunate by-product of our ability to exist.
Another way of looking at the problem is by realising that God too entered into humanity and suffered on the Cross. God is not far away from pain and anguish, but suffered more than most humans ever have or will. This response doesn’t answer the question fully, but offers us an inkling into how God is not averse to suffering.
When it comes to grappling with this problem, our understanding of it is often couched in emotive language leaving the matter very difficult to tackle in an objective way. As a result, many people abandon the Faith because of the perceived irreconcilability between a perfect God and a seemingly broken and unjust world.
While these emotive reactions need to be heard in a pastoral context, they play no helpful role in addressing the higher discussion of whether sin and evil in our world is inconsistent with an all-good God. Hopefully, some of the ideas suggested will prompt you to think about this idea in a deeper and more comprehensive way.