Rationalizing human suffering… the Christian Dilemma.
Guest Author: Don Severs
The following post discusses the problem of human suffering. I wish to show that reconciling the fact of human suffering with the idea of a loving god leads to absurdities. If you are offended by such discussions, you don’t have to read it and may consider it addressed to people other than yourself.
Here’s a proposition for you. I’m starting an organization you might want to join. It’s totally optional and there are many other groups you could join instead. This group will meet regularly and comfort each other. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and some kids will get killed. Some will die quickly, some will endure unspeakable agony for hours or days first. That’s not important. Kids dying isn’t what we’re about, but it will happen because there’s nothing in our rules to prevent it.
Any takers? Well, yes. Billions.
I just spoke with a Lutheran about whether the idea of a loving god can be squared with the fact of human suffering. He said that our finite minds couldn’t begin to understand God’s plan. It may seem unnecessarily cruel to us that kids are tortured and killed by their parents, but we have to trust that there’s a viewpoint from which it all makes sense. God knows what He’s doing.
I always have to take a deep breath when I hear this one. This guy is a sweet, loving man with children. The only way he can say something like this is by avoiding seeing it from the perspective of the child. I told him I couldn’t be the one to tell that child how wonderful God is, that he should trust that the fatal beating he’s receiving is part of a wondrous plan no mortal can comprehend. I couldn’t do it because it would be no comfort to a 4 year old. The kid would look at me like a horse being led to slaughter, his eyes a mix of terror and disbelief that I could be so cruel, so detached from his real, present suffering that I could still believe God stands by and allows kids to be killed.
My friend said, well, maybe a greater good will come from the kid’s suffering and death. Yea, tell that to the kid. At the very least, a loving god would ask first. “Do you want to end your short life with a 3-day beating so that maybe people will pass a law to protect other kids? How about it? What do you say, sport?” In this scenario, the stepfather/boyfriend/murderer would be God’s agent and should be praised, perhaps even sainted. Killing a kid is no fun and thus a great sacrifice.
Here’s another angle. Free will. Perhaps the benefits of granting humans free will are so great that we all just have to accept that the strong will prey upon the weak. In other words, some kids are going to get killed. As long as we have free will, even an omnipotent, loving god can do nothing to prevent abuses. This one might hold together, but only for human evil. We still have tsunamis and birth defects to explain.
Perhaps you’ll assert that God is a sovereign god and doesn’t need to explain himself to us. You can hardly call such a god loving. Such a scenario casts us as his playthings, pawns in his Grand Plan, which for some kids includes being thrown off a bridge or having their eyes eaten out of their heads by their fathers.
These are absurd conclusions.
This whole area of reconciling evil and suffering with a loving god is called theodicy. One of the consequences of theodicy is this perversion of morality. Here’s the deal:
1. If evil or suffering can bring about greater good, is evil itself sometimes good?
2. If God allows or even commits evil Himself, is evil sometimes good?
3. If evil is sometimes good and God allows and commits evil, is God sometimes evil, or is He always good?
4. In the light of this moral confusion, how are we to act? How can anyone be punished for their actions?
So, do you still want to join my organization? You probably already have. I myself did when I was twelve. I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Now, no one told me kids would get killed, but it followed from these two premises:
1. God is omnipotent. Nothing happens that he Himself doesn’t do or allow.
2. Human suffering is a fact.
That’s all you need. Given those premises, joining the Episcopal Church, which exists under God’s leadership, requires accepting that kids will be tortured and killed even when it could be prevented.
Often, when I talk about this with people, the conversation comes to a close with them saying, “Well, I’m just not willing to give up my belief in a loving God.” They would rather admit their beliefs make no sense than give up the idea that God is looking after them. They torture logic to comfort themselves. I used to do it, too. Whether we can tolerate such a state of affairs depends on how much weight we place on logical consistency. Many say at this point, “Humans aren’t logical. There’s a lot more to human nature than reason and logic.” Ok, granted. You may not mind if your beliefs don’t make sense, but we’re still faced with what to tell our children. I value consistency between belief systems. I need what I believe to match what nature tells us and I need to be able to testify about it to those for whom God is notable by his absence.
You may think I’m not being charitable enough to religion or theology. Please share your thoughts. If there is a way to reconcile evil with the idea of a loving God, I haven’t heard it yet, and I have looked. Either you have seen more deeply into the issue than anyone else, or you don’t require your beliefs to make sense. If you do contact me, I’m going to ask you one question: “What will you say to that 4 year old kid?” Any resolution of this problem has to bring a smile to the kid, even while he loses consciousness from the swelling in his brain.