Why Does God Allow Suffering?
In recent comments on the post Mercy Killing in New Orleans, we've been dancing around the question of: "Why would God allow suffering?" A reader named Charlotte wisely pointed us in the direction of Tim Keller's comments after the Sept 11 attacks:
9. All this does not make me believe more in God, but less. Isn't all this unjust suffering evidence against the existence of God?Excellent answer to an excellent question. Keller is great in just about everything he writes. Click here to read the whole thing...
The president of American Atheist, the country's oldest organization for nonbelievers in God, said to reporters, "If that [September 11] wasn't a wake up call to a religious nation, I don't know what is. That said to me, 'There is no God.' Where was he, on a coffee break?" ("Atheists Decry Post-Attack Focus on God", Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2001)
There are two ways to answer this.
The skeptic says: "If there is a God, he would have stopped such an evil thing from happening." But how does the skeptic know that this event was evil? All of evolution is based on the survival of the fittest. Violence of the stronger and more adaptive organisms over the weaker and less adaptive is utterly natural in this world. Why is it wrong, then, when humans do what the rest of nature is doing? How could you know if our part of the natural world was unnatural or bad?
"If God does not exist...there is no longer any possibility of an a priori good existing. It is nowhere written that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now on the plane where there are only human beings. Doestoevksy once wrote: 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted'... If God does not exist, we have neither behind us nor before us a luminous realm of values, nor any means of justification of any behavior whatever. (Jean-Paul Sartre "Existentialism and Humanism")
So evil and suffering are major problems for people who believe in God, but they are actually even bigger problems for people who don't believe in God. If there is no God, what is your basis for being outraged at violence and oppression? How can you insist that something utterly natural to this world is somehow unnatural? And if you are sure that the World Trade Center is an evil, doesn't that comprise some evidence for the existence of God?
But there is a second way to respond to the question: "why would a good and powerful God allow evil and suffering?" There is a hidden train of logic deep in this protest. I think it goes like this:
"1. God would have to have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering to keep going on.
2. I can't think or perceive of any good reason.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any."
Of course, when you lay it out like that you can see how fallacious this reasoning is. If you have a God infinite and great enough to be mad at for not preventing evil and suffering, you have to (at the same time) have a God infinite and great enough to have reasons for allowing evil and suffering that we can't discern. (You can't have it both ways).
But how can we know if he has a good reason? [Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the 'Lama sabachthani' and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony -- (Albert Camus, Essais)
Camus is saying that though we cannot discern the reasons that God might have for allowing evil, we have a remarkable assurance that he does have them. He himself has suffered infinitely with us, for us, on the cross. Surely this proves he is not indifferent to our suffering.
Thanks again to Charlotte for this pointer!