When I was a boy I had an idealistic view of war, probably created by the fact that any war movies I had seen as a child made war seem like a fun adventure with few real risks. The Great Escape, was about as serious a movie on the subject that I had seen.
It was probably a not dissimilar naive view that led many young men to march grinning and cheering into the meat grinders of the First and Second World Wars. We don’t often cheer soldiers into battle any more, we are older and wiser as they say.
For me my idealistic view of war as being a fun adventure went away the night I saw Saving Private Ryan in my early teens. The veil of bloodless fun and adventure was torn away and the horror of war was splattered onto the screen about as powerfully as any movie can.
Sometimes it takes facing the horror of seeing the true face of something for us to realise the danger and seek to avoid it.
This week, Stephen Fry, one of my favourite celebrities was asked what he would say to God if he ever met him.
Stephen is an Atheist but went along with the question anyway and his passionate answer was basically that he would want to hold God accountable for the suffering he has allowed in the world. I think the point underneath what he was saying, was basically that a loving all powerful God cannot exist, as if he did, he would not have created a world in which so much suffering occurs. In effect God, if he exists is evil, a maniac, a monster.
It’s a compelling argument and is something I have agonised over a lot myself and have heard it many times from many people.
Why does God allow the most horrible suffering to occur without seemingly any physical intervention?
He could easily stop it, but he doesn’t, why?
There are really several questions here. Why did God create a world where suffering was allowed to happen in the first place, why does God allow suffering to continue?, can God be good if he allows suffering?.
I’m just looking at the last question and am only looking at it from a very narrow point of view. This is more me thinking through things from one angle rather than trying to give a comprehensive answer. I’m completely ignoring things like the origins of suffering, original sin and free will for the sake of keeping this short.
As a side note, this type of question appears in the bible itself. The biblical prophet Jeremiah questions the justice of God with regards to the seeming prosperity of evil people.
“Lord, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
Why are evil people so happy?”
– Jeremiah 12:1
The fact that this verse is in the bible tells us two things.
1. It’s not just Atheists who should be asking these questions. People of faith should have difficult questions to ask of their own faith. Nominal box ticking of a belief system is not enough. As C.S Lewis said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important”
2. Christianity should be and is be open to criticism. Christians should be perfectly happy to be criticised and have answers demanded of them. If you believe you have the truth then you can’t fear it being attacked, can you?
So back to the issue.
If God exists and is good and all-powerful, then why is there evil and suffering? Surely he can’t be all powerful if he is good and can’t stop suffering. And he also can’t be good if he is all powerful and won’t stop suffering. Can he?
This argument rests firmly on an assumption and that’s what I am going to focus on. The assumption is that a good all powerful God wouldn’t allow suffering to occur.
But what if he had a really good reason?
The best doctors in the world cause suffering for a time, but they have good reason, the long term good.
If suffering exists and an all powerful, all knowing, all loving God also exists then the only conclusion is that suffering must be allowed to happen for a very good reason. I fail to see how the two can exist together otherwise.
What reason could it possibly be?
What if there’s a serious problem with this world?
What if there’s a great danger in seeing this world as an attractive desirable place?
As a fun adventure with few real risks?
What if God wants something much better for us than this broken world?
What if it partly requires us to look at this world and ask why, why is it so messed up?
What things prompt people to ask why? Do people ask “why is this pleasure so good?”, “why am I so successful?”, “why is life just all round fun?”.
If this world is ultimately very bad for us, it’s in our greatest interest to see it for what it is.
We ask “why” the most from things that horrify us, sicken us, cripple us, disgust us, deprive us. We ask it because we hate to see mindless random evil and tragedy occur. We ask why because we want to believe that there was a reason for it. Otherwise we wouldn’t blink every time a tragedy occurred, we would simply write it off as an inconvenient truth about chance.
What if God allows suffering not because he can’t stop it or that he is evil, but that he is good and loves us. That he wants us to have the chance to ask why and to seek for answers beyond us?
In a world of unavoidable suffering that’s surely the only type of God you would want to exist.
God in having a reason to allow suffering, in turn gives meaning to suffering. Surely even this is of much greater comfort than that bumper sticker attitude which makes suffering meaningless, bad luck, oops too bad. Writing off suffering as a fact of life in no way softens its blow, but the idea that your suffering is part of a plan by a God who loves you…?
So to conclude, for at least the reason I’ve discussed, You can’t say that an all powerful God who allows suffering to occur is definitely a maniac, evil or a monster.
At this point the questions to answer are “Why is there so much suffering and horrible stuff in the first place”, “Why create those things?”, “If the world was created perfect, where do things like those horrible eye eating worms come from?” And of course the big one, “If God is all-powerful, then why doesn’t he just do things another way”.
I think those are perhaps topics for another time, but I think there will always be things to which we Christians may not even find a satisfactory answer for ourselves, but then that goes for everyone else as well. What matters is having the best explanation for all aspects of reality. Questions like: Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is our purpose in life? Is there life after death? Why does rationality exist? How should we treat others?
I found the below article which looks at this from another angle to be helpful.