I’ve started this post a couple of times, and then, unsatisfied with what I had written, discarded it. It’s been bobbling around in my head for several weeks now – hence no other recent posts as I’ve been thinking about how to write about something for which I don’t really have satisfactory answers.
A few months ago we had some young people from our local Church congregation come over to our home on a Sunday afternoon and we talked about science and religion. We had an enjoyable time, and we then asked them if they’d like to come back again, and if so what subject they’d like us to discuss. I’d prepared a few suggestions, and the very clear preferred topic was about the unfairness of life. This may go from the “everyday unfairnesses” of things we all experience, for example why maybe one person gets the job they love, and another doesn’t, or why one person gets serious illness and another doesn’t; through to the unfairnesses that appears so cruel: why do tsunami’s wreak such havoc and devastate countless innocent lives; why are some people born into kind and loving families, while others are born into horror?
Then, a few weeks ago, there was a post from another blog I follow (found here) that asked the same question: if God cares even for the sparrow, then why the suffering of the innocent? The article then asked essentially, are the scriptures and faith that speak of God’s love just empty words?
Really this is just a modern version of the very ancient “Problem of Evil” question. Although I suspect the question has been asked since almost the dawn of man, today we trace it back just a couple of thousand years, possibly to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and the question is traditionally phrased something like this (source, Wikipedia):
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?
Within this argument evil includes suffering, and I find it – and its modern equivalents – shallow in their assessment of suffering; just as too often I think people of faith can give trite and superficial answers to the question.
The reason I find the quote attributed to Epicurus above shallow, is because it makes some rather large assumptions, none of which can or ought to be taken as givens. It assumes, for example, that:
- No good can come from suffering. It is evil by nature.
- Our only purpose in life is to live free of pain and suffering
- Any God who loved us would, in every situation and without question, speak the word and do away with all pains
I consider all of these fallacies. While I disagree with all of them, though, simple disagreement doesn’t answer the question of why the innocent in particular suffer. And as I say above, I think that often those with faith give answers to the question of suffering that may well demonstrate their faith, but do little to answer the question for those who are troubled by it.
So, I’ll elaborate a little on why I disagree with the assumptions above, explaining what I believe instead. I should preface it, though, by saying that while the “problem of evil”, or of suffering, is one that has been discussed by philosophers and theists, I am not attempting to use philosophy. I am no philosopher and no doubt those who have been trained in such things would roll their eyes at my use of Wikipedia as the source of my knowledge on this.
But I am not attempting to use the tools of philosophers; I am not attempting to win any debate. Rather, I am starting from the position of: There is an omnipotent God, who is our Father and who loves us. With that as a given, and using the scriptures where possible, how do I make sense of suffering in the world?
So with that introduction….
Fallacy Number 1: No good can come from suffering. Suffering = Evil
According to Wikipedia, Epicurus equated all suffering with evil, and all pleasure with good. He wasn’t an atheist, as such – he believed in the Gods, but simply believed they took no interest in mortals in any way, shape or form. They were therefore irrelevant to the discussion, much as today many people neither believe nor disbelieve in God – they simply consider His existence irrelevant.
But what actually constitutes suffering? This is incredibly important if suffering = evil, because we can only define evil if we’ve defined suffering; and in some instances at least suffering is relative. Give me a plate of mushy peas and tell me to eat it and I will be suffering – no, really. I’ll be gagging on the first mouthful, eyes watering, and soon wretching. So for me, mushy peas must therefore = evil. Although I am told that there are in fact people in this world who love mushy peas: I find that difficult to believe but I’m assured it’s true.
Or take my autistic son, who is sensitive to sounds, and touch, in particular. Stick him in a pop concert and I can tell you his suffering would be genuine, even while thousands around him danced for joy. Is the pop concert good or evil?
Or take the person who takes drugs from a young age and loves the highs, only to be suffering from addictions or physical/mental illness in later years because of it. Or perhaps two people who take drugs together, one of whom suffers no ill effects while the other’s body reacts violently and they die. Are the drugs good or evil?
There would be plenty of situations I’m sure where we could agree that suffering would be pretty universal, but the above I think shows that at best it is a sliding scale. At one end we have our individual likes and dislikes that progress to stronger feelings that vary from person to person, which could indeed be called suffering for some. And this scale goes right the way through to the horrors almost all would agree would constitute suffering. But where precisely do we draw the line?
If we can’t draw a universal line, but we think suffering = evil, then surely we are saying that evil is therefore relative. And if evil is relative then morals are relative. And if it’s all relative then what do the words actually mean anyway? If we equate suffering with evil, then “evil” is a meaningless word, and really we are saying there is no such thing as evil. As the ancient prophet Lehi taught, “…if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God.” (2 Nephi 2:13) Which is all well and good if you are an atheist, but then why the question about suffering in the first place? If there are no absolute moral rights and wrongs, and no evil, then this world is nothing but survival of the fittest. Suffering happens – just make sure that as little as possible happens to you.
But I am coming at this question as one who believes in God. I believe that He loves us, and wants what is best for us. And I believe that there are such things as absolute rights and wrongs. And as evil is therefore not relative, but suffering is (in at least some instances), suffering can’t equal evil. And if suffering doesn’t = evil, then at times at least, it can = good.
Indeed, the scriptures tell us we need suffering in this world, “For there must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Nephi 2:11) The fall of Adam itself – the point at which suffering entered our human mortal world – was to bring about happiness. As Lehi also taught, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25)
And with that quote I’ll end this part. In my next post I’ll discuss fallacy 2, and describe what I believe are some of the purposes of our suffering. In my discussion of fallacy 3 I’ll address some of the more challenging issues; why I believe God doesn’t intervene when we may think a loving father would.
Click here to go to Part 2
August 10, 2014 at 4:15 am
Well stated Jeff.
August 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm
I particularly enjoyed how you stated the fallacy of how suffering=evil. I agree. Much suffering can lead to improvement. A refiner’s fire if you will.
August 10, 2014 at 10:28 pm
Solid research exists supporting post-traumatic growth (PTG). I have had reason to investigate it via my doctoral dissertation. A particular study (1) reports the novel finding that PTG moderated relationships between Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS)
and both depression and quality of life (QOL). Finding positive meaning in response to a distressing event (ex. early stage cancer), may be psychologically protective and could indirectly influence the long-term occurrence of depressive symptoms and impaired QOL.
Morrill,E.F., Brewer, N.T., et al. (2008). The Interaction of post-traumatic growth and post-traumatic stress symptoms in predicting depressive symptoms and quality of life. Psycho-Oncology, 17: 948-953.
August 10, 2014 at 10:36 pm
In blogging with a Baptist mega-minister, he lamented the existence of the problem of evil. Obviously, it is a real problem for the Orthodox Christian minister because they are so quickly declaring that a certain trauma is punishment from God. They have sold that relationship so exquisitely to their believing members that there’s no easy walking away from the problem of evil. The result for them is it becomes harder to convert people to the gospel if you’re forcing Aaron converts to buy into that kind of God.
It is as it has been stated in this topic that opposition in all things sets us on a path where we can understand that, that enters our lives in a positive frame and move forward.
August 11, 2014 at 5:56 am
Thanks for your replies Robin – it sounds like you probably know more about the philosophical debate than I do that’s for sure! I am saddened that so many christians aren’t able to articulate an adequate response to the problem of evil in its modern guises. The official theologies/doctrines of many churches seem to tie themselves up in philosophical knots which most people can’t understand, and the lay membership will often tend to respond by expressing a heartfelt and impressive faith and trust in God and His purposes, which is fine if you already have a strong faith that is not being challenged. But it’s insufficient otherwise, as a trite answer to the question just won’t cut it if you’re really worried about the suffering of innocent children, for example.
But as I say in my post, I find the problem of evil argument facile when put under any scrutiny – a cleverly worded mantra that that is false in every line when examined closely.
Please continue to contribute in my next couple of posts on the topic 🙂