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.

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  • http://none Chance Rigsby

    Hey I read your article and I have to say it was pretty well written. Might I say that I agree? In part at least. Your right that God is omnipotent and that nothing happens that He doesn’t allow. And your right that kids will suffer and die. But your blaming all of this on God. You act like God is responsible for all this hatred and all this destruction. For the senseless rape, murder, and neglect that so many childdren suffer through. But God didn’t hurt those kids. People did. God didn’t abandon them. People did. I understand that you’ve spoken to many “Christians” about this and found some very heart-breaking and unreasonable responses from them. But might I be so bold to say that those people themselves have missed the entire point of the Gospel? Jesus Christ didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. Jesus was once speaking before the peaople when He told a story. A man was on the road when he was set upon by bandits who beat him, robbed him, and left him for dead. Later, a priest was walking along the road and saw the dying man. Rather than stooping to help him or return where he came from to get help, he kept walking. Later, a Levite (if you don’t know what a Levite is, they were the only people in all of Isreal who could be priests and were considered to be the most godly of the tribes) was walking by and he saw the broken man. Just like the priest, he left him. Then a Samaritan was walking along the road and found the beaten man. Samaritans were hated by all of Isreal because of there mixed Jewish and Palestinian descent and few would ever dare to call a Samaritan a good person. Yet despite this, the Samaritan stopped to help him. Not the priest, not the Levite, but the Samaritan. He put the hurt man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. He treated his wounds and left money for the innkeeper and said “let him have whatever he asks for and anything he has ordered worth more than this I will return and repay.” When Jesus finished this story He asked a simple question. “WHo do you think was this man’s neighbor?” A man in the crowd replied, “The man who helped him.” Jesus then replied “Go and do the same.” Jesus didn’t call us to read our bibles and sit here quietley while the world is dying all around us. He told us to do quite the oppisite. God wants us to bring healing to the broken, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. I myself am appalled by the complacency of the Church. We are supposed to be the Bride of Christ. God has called us to live as He did. You asked me what would I say to that 4-year old kid. Something like this, “Hey little guy. I know things hurt. I know you don’t understand what’s happening and quite honestly you shouldn’t have to. But i want you to know that God loves you and I love you. I’m not gonna leave you here. You can trust in me because I trust in Jesus.” I wouldn’t leave that child to die nor will I continue to ignore thier suffering. As the church it is not our duty to accept evil but by the grace and power of God, put a stop to it. He called us to go out in the world and make disciples. To bring life, hope, peace, joy, and love. “It is by your love they will know you are my disciples.” Jesus doesn’t expect me to just believe in doing good but to actually DO good beacause God DOES love us, all of us. I know he loves them because He’s called His church to stop this crap. I know He loves the lost because He sent His Son to find them. And I know He even loves athiests because I used to be one. I know this is a long e-mail and you probably have some things you may not agree with but if you feel like there are some questions you may want to ask or you just want to talk about it, you have my e-mail adress. I hope you have a good day (I’m being genuine not sarcastic) and I hope God will help you see things the way He does.
    Sincerely in Christ,
    Chance Rigsby

    • cat

      Ultimately, you have to seek knowledge of the Lord in the Word He sent to everyone. Jesus is the way, He reveals Him. It is not the church that saves you, it is your decision to accept Him solely on His sacrifice for your sins so that you may be forgiven. That is the saving gospel! :)
      You can never blame the church for rejecting Him. That will never give you a pass into heaven to live with Him. NEVER!

      • cat

        Continue:
        It’s because of the love of God, that He sent Christ here to pay for the world’s sins thru His own sacrifice. His church or children belong to Him, and He does instruct what they can do for Him & others. However, He is still merciful & compassionate to forgive because He is our savior.

        To blame a church or people for their imperfections, and use it for an excuse to reject God is a foolish thing to do because it’s not going to fly with Him. You are responsible for your own deeds and your decisions to accept Christ or not.
        So, don’t waste time looking for a way around Christ’s sacrifice and putting blame on God for the world’s sinful behavior. God has warned people from the beginning about sinning against Him, and He has offered His Son’s sacrifice for you. It’s more than generous for Him to suffer on the cross for you. All you have to do is receive the free gift. =)

  • Tim

    Thank you, Don, for writing this, and thank you for posting it Atheismresource.com. This speaks very clearly to the strange duplicity that I find is present throughout Christianity, and organized religion in general.

    First, shall I premise this by providing you a spiritual reference point to use when considering my position? I’m not a Christian, and I am not an Atheist, and I am not an Agnostic. If you need to box me with a clinical term, I am the sole practitioner of an omnitheistic pandeist religion of my own creation.

    Back to topic, I have also heard the defense of this particular rationalization as, “God doesn’t do these things, Satan does.” Even in the response that Chance wrote, this is present.(Which, by the way, I really love your response, and I don’t think I’ve seen a more appropriate use of the Good Samaritan story). God did not abandon these children, but people did. Much as I enjoyed the response, I have to disagree with Chance. Chance states, “You act like God is responsible for all this hatred and all this destruction.” And my response is that, Yes, God IS responsible.

    God, as described by Christians, is the creator of the entire universe. God is the creator of everything in our world, living, dead, or otherwise defined. God is omnipotent and omniscient, and forgives all, loves all. This means that global peace, the eradication of disease and hunger, prevention of natural disasters, and cessation of human evil, are all within the range of his abilities. If your child killed another child at school today, would you not feel somewhat responsible?

    If God is our Father, what sort of Father is he? When my brothers and I would fight growing up, my “biological” father would stop us. It was within his power to do so. It was within his knowledge to try and teach us a better way to resolve our problems, and to avoid violence as a solution. Being that it is within God’s unlimited and absolute power to stop human beings from killing one another, why doesn’t our “spiritual” father intercede?

    I find that these sort of rationalizations and self supporting cycles are present throughout all religions, and I count Atheism among them.

    I think the undoing of modern Christians is in Jesus’s own words when he says, “It is by your love they will know you are my disciples.” I’m not sure how the average Christian is identifiable by their love. I have, on rare occasion, met many people who exemplify this statement, but the only Christian that I know like this is a Mormon. It seems to me that the modern Christian has divorced himself from Christ’s doctrine of unconditional love. I know you could certainly ask almost any gay person in the United States if a Christian is identifiable by their love.

    I think the undoing of the Atheist, however, is by not being Agnostic. It is very duplicitous to site on one hand that science is proof against god, while at the same time insisting on proof from Christians that God exists. This makes Atheists the same as Christians in my mind. It is simply more difficult to create counter arguments against Atheism due to a lack of consistent doctrine and traditionally established norms. If Atheists were to meet up once a week and discuss their views, this would be vastly more simplistic.

    It takes the same amount of faith to be an Atheist as it does a Christian. Atheists may disagree, because their faith is placed in theories crafted and extrapolated from basic measurable principles that they observe every day. However, when you think about, that’s exactly how Christianity and every other religion originated as well. The people who created these religions didn’t have the building blocks of science to use in manifesting their worship. If they had, the “Big Bang” and the Christian God saying, “Let there be Light” may have been combined in a single story.

    It is just as likely that God created the Universe that the Big Bang did, regardless of the “evidence” you have to produce. You will find that these are all still theories. Anyone claiming to have indisputable knowledge concerning the origin or governing of the universe is in fact mistaken.

    Narrowing back in on the topic, I do not see these children as being abandoned by God or just children because god cannot “logically” exist. I see these children as suffering human beings. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the origin of the universe and how it is governed, thousands of children die each die of hunger alone. This is a harrowing fact, especially considering that it is completely and totally avoidable.

    I myself don’t much care what the Christians tell children that are suffering, as long as they keep giving them food, shelter, and medical treatment. Nor do I really care what Christians believe, especially if they are going to channel that into positive change for mostly forgotten, impoverished, and exploited groups.

    Also, I think a lot may be lost in the details, especially when explaining something as complex as religion to a child, but in the end, at least they are getting some relief. We will never be in a situation where someone must hypothetically explain why god or Jesus or whoever has “made” these children to suffer. This conversation only really happens when you’re passing out food, blankets, or mosquito nets.

    Would our humanitarian efforts in this country be so great if we did not have non-secular groups leading the way? I’m not myself sure of the answer to this. I’d really really like to say that we would. I know that there are many Atheists and people who are religious but not Christian that participate in outreach and charity, that’s not what I’m saying so please do not get hurt feelings. I think that without religions, there would be more children starving and dead, and there would be less awareness about it as well.

    Sorry I went on for a while there. I really hope that the things I said were not too offensive to anyone. I like to bring different view points to conversations like these.

  • Lanead111

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I would like to know where you got the picture of the starving child. Please email me any information you have on it/him to lanead111@yahoo:disqus .com

    Thanks

  • yonster

    This is such a tough question which I am not sure if anyone will have a question that will satisfy everyone. However, those who truly believe in Jesus Chris knows that without him, this world does not make any sense at all. Einstein said that (paraphrase) that there’s no such thing is darkness, coldness or evil, as these three are just absence of light, heat and goodness. These days, the Christianity is getting a bad reputation due to media playing only those who fall as we all do, of Christian leaders. I know many of my friends that have sacrificed all they have and gone to middle east, africa, irian Jaya, Bangladesh and other places to be with those suffering people that Jesus said to help. So many of these true disciples of Christ are actually doing what is in the Bible. Over a hundred years ago, American missionaries came to Korea, gave up their lives, their children’s lives, to build schools, hospitals and spread the good news of Jesus. It drove out the centuries old shamanism to bring out the best in Korean people and now they are paying back by sending missionaries to Africa and remotest part of the world to build schools, hospitals and spreading the good news of what Christ is all about. Yes, there will be evil in the world until Chris comes back, because we are all sinful. But those of us who trusts in Christ will work locally as well as globally to love those that are suffering and give their lives to help those Christ said to help.

  • Mark

    Hi Don, thank you for showing “God” that he is a hypocrite. Now what are YOU going to say to the 4 year old starving kid?

    • armando

      I think this is the best argument, what are we doing to help.

  • cat

    God is real, He created everything if you believe what you see around you has been designed. He is not responsible for our actions, because He did not do them. Yet, He allows many things to naturally happen because that is the freedom of our will which He allows us to have. It is also the freedom to decide to obey Him & do good. At the end of this age or even you natural death, He will judge each person according to either their faith in His Son’s payment for your sins, or according to their works. Any one choosing works over His shed blood is doomed to the penalty of sin, which is eternal death & suffering for rejecting His payment. He has fulfilled past scriptures, and foretells the future of His main plan in miraculous details. If you want to know Him, check it out through scripture or mature Christians. It’s up to you. That is your only hope to decide if you’re for Him or against Him. Your mind alone and speaking to people who do not know the gospel will keep you lost, but now you know where to find Him. It is all about your decision now. He created the physical and spiritual world, and nothing goes unjudged in the end. Him & His children lives together with Him after all this is over. Those that are for Him, will be separated yet can not spiritually die ever. Where they will be, is their doing, because they heard the consequence. He is Holy, Just, and a wonderful Father to those who want Him. Yet, He foreknows already. God bless, may you be saved also. Spend your time seeking Him instead of coming up with ideas against Him now. Your choice!

    • cat

      I meant “Those that are Against Him, will be
      separated yet can not spiritually die.”,
      not “Those that are for Him, will be separated yet can not spiritually die ever.”

  • cat

    God is real, He created everything if you believe what you see around
    you has been designed. He is not responsible for our actions, because
    He did not do them. Yet, He allows many things to naturally happen
    because that is the freedom of our will which He allows us to have. It
    is also the freedom to decide to obey Him & do good. At the end of
    this age or even you natural death, He will judge each person according
    to either their faith in His Son’s payment for your sins, or according
    to their works. Any one choosing works over His shed blood is doomed to
    the penalty of sin, which is eternal death & suffering for
    rejecting His payment. He has fulfilled past scriptures, and foretells
    the future of His main plan in miraculous details. If you want to know
    Him, check it out through scripture or mature Christians. It’s up to
    you. That is your only hope to decide if you’re for Him or against Him.
    Your mind alone and speaking to people who do not know the gospel will
    keep you lost, but now you know where to find Him. It is all about
    your decision now. He created the physical and spiritual world, and
    nothing goes unjudged in the end. Him & His children lives together
    with Him after all this is over. Those that are Against Him, will be
    separated yet can not spiritually die ever. Where they will be, is
    their doing, because they heard the consequence. He is Holy, Just, and a
    wonderful Father to those who want Him. Yet, He foreknows already.
    God bless, may you be saved also. Spend your time seeking Him instead
    of coming up with ideas against Him now. Your choice!

  • Steven

    Reconciling evil with a loving God depends upon your definition of evil. Evil, if defined by the bible is first and foremost “To offend God”. Under this definition, to offend a human being is in the end the ultimately offence against God.

  • td

    The author seems to have a good heart. You got that from God. You seem to have some good ideas. Good things will become better when God is brought into it. Let me ask you to do this When you go to bed tonight – with an open heart – ask God to answer your deepest questions. You will – with an open mind and open heart receive your answers. They will come to you at the perfect time and at the perfect place and in the perfect way as determined by God. Think about it – what have you got to lose? Life is finite – start to see God in all his goodness and enjoy life as you could never have imagined. Perhaps it is your time to act now…

  • http://filmasministry.com Ty Gotham

    Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. *For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.*

    Hebrews 12:9-11