Why Do Innocent People Suffer?

Health Warning: This presentation is in two parts. If your approach to this subject is more emotional, i.e. you are battling with the results of a trauma that has affected you or a loved one, you may not find Part 1, which is more intellectual and philosophical, very helpful. You may wish to go to Part 2 (which is actually reproduced on its own elsewhere on the site.

If you approach is more general and less emotional, you may find both parts helpful

PART 1, then, is MORE PHILOSOPHICAL and deals with the question: Does the problem of evil/undeserved suffering disprove God? It is on a more logical and academic level.

PART 2 is MORE PASTORAL and deals with the questions:
How can I deal with my pain, anger, disillusionment?
How can I find help and healing?
How can I regain my belief in a loving God?
Dealing with emotions

PART 1: MORE PHILOSOPHICAL

A. INTRODUCTION

1. Most pain is caused by human failing

Most pain in the world is caused by man's inhumanity to man: e.g. poverty, humiliation, oppression, injustice, torture, murder, genocide, crime, war, greed, lust, bad relationships etc.

2. Some pain is necessary and beneficial

Pain can be the lesser of two evils, e.g. nerve endings use pain to protect us from or warn us about burning ourselves, breaking bones, dehydration, starvation etc.

Some pain is a deterrent against wrongdoing, i.e. fair retribution is the foundation of a stable and free society.

Some violence can be justified as the lesser of two evils.

3. Some natural disasters result from beneficial natural processes

For example, gravity is beneficial but can cause injuries.

Plate tectonics (movements of the plates in the Earth s crust) causes earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis which can lead to human suffering. But such activity, which appears to be unique to Earth in the Solar System, recycles the earth’s crust producing a fertile, habitable planet. Volcanic ash and rocks form some of the most fertile soil on Earth. In addition, tsunamis are thought to bring fertile soils in coastal plains and lowlands.

It regulates the Earth s temperature through the production of carbon dioxide from volcanoes. This greenhouse gas prevents the Earth from becoming an ice ball and maintains temperatures essential to life.

It maintains the chemical balance of the oceans.

Without movement of the tectonic plates, which formed continents and mountains, the Earth would be completely covered by a deep ocean.

Most geologists think the earth's original ocean and atmosphere were formed by water vapour, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other gases emitted from volcanoes. Many biologists think life probably arose along the volcanic thermal vents deep in the oceans.

4. Darwinism is cold comfort on suffering

Darwinism provides no comforting or helpful answers to the problem of suffering. Natural Selection simply uses disease to weed out the weak

Darwin in the Descent of Man wrote: With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health . We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination .. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. (This is not to say that Darwin approved of the elimination of the weak).

5. However there is much apparently inexplicable innocent suffering:

For example: some caused by natural disasters (although some could be avoided if towns were not built in danger zones), diseases such Leukaemia and Alzheimer s and many more, blindness, deafness and premature death.

How can a loving, all-powerful God allow so much innocent suffering?

However, in this more philosophical Part 1, we have to face the question: Who is innocent? The Christian answer is that none of us is innocent, we all fall short of God s standards. So is it really fair that creatures who break God s law or even ignore him altogether should criticize him for not stopping all suffering? This is not to say that all suffering is a result of individual sin, which is manifestly untrue.

Most modern philosophers don’t accept that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God:

Now . most [atheists] have conceded that in fact there isn't any inconsistency between the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God and the existence of the evil the world contains. It is heartening to see that the [atheists] are giving up the incompatibility thesis and are now prepared to concede that there is no contradiction here: that's progress. (Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame, Indiana)[1]

"It used to be widely held that evil--which for present purposes we may identify with undeserved pain and suffering--was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended." Peter van Inwagen John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.[2]

"Although the logical problem of evil marks an important phase in the literature on evil, discussion of it markedly diminished during the 1980s. It is fairly widely agreed by theists and nontheists alike that Alvin Plantinga, Keith Yandell (1938-), and other theistic philosophers have cast serious doubt on the viability of all formulations of the theological problem. Critics who still think that evil presents a problem for theistic belief have shifted focus away from the logical version of the problem and have sought to construct a viable evidential version. "
"Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed, . there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God." (William Rowe, a non-theist philosopher, professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University)[3]

"I agree with most philosophers of religion that theists face no serious logical problem of evil" (Paul Draper , agnostic philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University )[4]

More weight is given to the argument that it is not the sheer existence of evil per se that counts against the existence of God but the fact that there are so many evils that are very severe and present in patterns defying comprehension...

But how do we know how much evil God should allow? And how could we know God had exceeded this limit?

B. THE PROBLEM OF INNOCENT SUFFERING IS EVIDENCE OF GOD

C.S. Lewis wrote: "My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line."

The argument against God based on the problem of evil can only be raised if some form of moral objectivism is true (i.e. if morality is more than just personal or society s opinions, if it is something given from outside humanity).

Calling innocent suffering evil is making a value judgment. But if there is no God, morality is relative. Who is to say what is moral? It seems that morality is known directly through moral intuition but where did the intuition come from?

This relates to other issues such as the value of human beings and we must ask: Where do human beings derive their value (i.e. so that their suffering matters)? It seems that this value can only come from the God who created them in His image.

We might also ask: Why did God create human beings when he knew they would go seriously wrong? However, we must remember that we parents create children knowing they will go wrong! We do this in the context of love and of desiring children to love. It is the same with God.

C. SUFFERING IS MEANINGLESS IF THERE IS NO GOD

If the universe and human beings are merely the product of blind chance and impersonal natural selection, then why do we expect the world to be intelligible and meaningful? If there is a God then there might be an answer to the problem of suffering. If there isn’t a God then it seems there is no answer other than that of natural selection.

D. MORAL FREEDOM REQUIRES THE POSSIBILITY OF EVIL

Why didn’t God create a better world, where these evils wouldn’t happen? God, who is love, wished to have a love relationship with created beings. He therefore created beings capable of intelligent love. Of necessity, such creatures require free will freedom to choose to love. Choice is essential to true love. As one theologian put it: “the only kind of creation that can be attributed to the Christian God is creation as an act of selflessness which we might picture as God desiring not to be all that there is, God making space for another who is not simply an extension of God s own desires, God making something that is given its own way of being.” (Dr Mike Higton; Yes, he is my son, who is also in the family business! He is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Exeter University).[5]

However giving human beings choice inevitably gives them freedom to make the wrong choice. In creating human beings with free will, God created the potential for moral evil, not moral evil itself. And, as we have noted, most suffering in the world is caused by the misuse of this freedom, namely human failing and evil.

God also allows an equivalent freedom in creation. He is not constantly pulling the strings of every event in the world.

God allows the created other to be truly itself-- a world allowed to be itself and to make itself must necessarily be a world of blind alleys and ragged edges as well as fruitfulness and fulfillment. Exactly the same cellular biochemical processes which enable some cells to mutate and bring about new forms of life will also permit other cells to mutate and become cancerous. (John Drane) In creating a physical world with dynamic processes and human beings, God created the potential for natural disasters, not the disasters themselves. In creating a physical world with physical forces such as gravity and mass, God created the potential for accidents not the accidents themselves. Accidents are caused by the fallibility and weakness of human beings.

E. VARIOUS VIRTUES COULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT EVIL

Certain virtues are only achieved by moral choice of good as opposed to evil, for example the qualities of courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, the giving of comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, long-suffering, etc.

F. THE PRESENCE OF EVIL IS EVIDENCE OF GOD S MERCY

This may seem a strange thing to say but C. S. Lewis put it like this: I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over.

In other words, if God wiped out all the evil in the world tonight at midnight, where would you and I be at 12:01am? We are sinners, we ve all fallen short of God s standards. We are part of the problem. If God were to eradicate all evil now this could lead to a great deal of judgement. In his mercy God is patiently giving time for repentance so that human beings have the possibility of enjoying eternal life.

PART 2: MORE PASTORAL

This part may be more helpful to those battling with trauma over personal or family suffering. However, some of the points here, if said in the wrong or at the wrong time could sound glib and even hurtful. Great sensitivity is required in seeking to help those facing such pain.

A. FOR THE BELIEVER DEATH IS PROMOTION TO GLORY

This point could easily be made insensitively. However, it is true. This life is not all that there is. Death is not the end. Heaven is a reality. So, for the believer, one’s death, even premature death, is not an evil, tragic though it is to those bereaved and left behind.

We can ask why God did not place us in heaven to begin with. Maybe there is no adequate answer to this question. But nevertheless, God is going to bring believers to heaven.

According to Christianity, the next world is:

  1. A world without wrongdoing, violence, division, poverty, injustice and hatred.
  2. A world without suffering, disease, pain, ageing and death.
  3. An unspoilt world in all its God-intended beauty: a world of peace, unity and positive relationships.
  4. A world where all the art, music and culture and good human achievements will be present to enrich life.

According to Christianity, we will have the same sort of resurrection body as Jesus, which can appear and disappear at will, and pass through solid objects. Such abilities would afford protection from any natural turmoil such as earthquakes, floods etc, if they still were to happen.

B. GOD REDEEMS OUR SUFFERING

Again, one must be very sensitive about sharing this point, but I can testify to the fact that even through the most meaningless and unjust suffering, God can work out a wonderful purpose, whilst giving healing and helping the sufferer to come to terms and cope with it.

C. GOD SHARES AND BEARS OUR PAIN

To me, this is the real response to the problem of suffering. Our God became incarnate (human) in Jesus Christ and experienced blood-sweating anxiety, excruciating pain, humiliation, torture, and (literally) Hell.

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second Person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. . . Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself . . . in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. . . he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.
(Professor Alvin Plantinga) [6]

With the Incarnation, the reality of evil is absorbed into the deity, not dissolved into thin air, because God freely tastes the bitterness of the medicine as wounded healer, not distant doctor. Further, given the drastic nature of this solution, we begin to recognize that God takes the problem of evil more seriously than we could ever have taken it The question of evil is, therefore, not Can we reconcile the claim that God is good with the claim that there is evil? Rather, the question is, Is it really possible for people to go on trusting in the covenant promises of God, and living in response to those promises, in the face of extremities of suffering? (Mike Higton). [7]

Clearly I (and my son) would respond: Yes, it is!

[1] Alvin Plantinga, "Tooley and Evil: A Reply," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 60 [1981]: 74).
[2] Peter Van Inwagen, "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence," Philosophical Perspectives, vol.  
5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, Calif.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991), p. 135.
[3] William L. Rowe, ‘The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism’, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979).
[4] Paul Draper, Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists, p. 349
[5] Deliver Us: Exploring the Problem of Evil, Church Times Study Guides, Canterbury Press, Norwich 2007, p. 19
[6] 'Self‑Profile,' in Alvin Plantinga, ed. Jas. E. Tomberlin and Peter Van Inwagen (Dordrecht:  D. Reidel, 1985), p. 36.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page