The Loud Absence: Why does a good God allow suffering?



                Ask any Christian what the most common objection to their faith or God from the outside is, and I would be willing to bet one of the top objections would be: “If God is so good and loving, why does He allow suffering and evil in the world?” This question is probably one of the hardest ones to answer. I will not insult anyone by saying that I have a set of simplistic answers to deal with any form of suffering. For me to write about this, I have to appeal much to the love of God and the mind of God, which I have experienced only a sliver of His infinite love and wisdom. I hope that by my admitting my shortcomings at the beginning, I have not already shut some of your minds to what I have to say.
                So to start, we should break down the suffering that people deal with. I would say that there are two types of suffering: one caused by people inflicting suffering on others, which is called moral evil, and the suffering inflicted on people by natural events, such as a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. I will call this natural evil. Much of the time when people speak of suffering, however, they will intertwine the two into the same question. If you want a biblical case where both natural and moral evil befell a person, look at the book of Job. God allowed Satan to cause multiple evils to befall Job so that Job might curse God and prove Satan’s statement that there were no righteous men on earth. Throughout all of the disasters and loss of wealth and wellness of body, Job still praised God.
                So maybe we want something a little closer to home,  the 9/11 terror attack for instance, or someone robs you in the parking lot of a grocery store, or maybe you are just at your whit’s end with the people around you and don’t know what to do. Suffering is all around you and it is an integral part of being human. The New Atheists like to point to all of the suffering in the world, especially the suffering caused by religious persons, and use this as a point to prove that there is no God. I would like to take a minute here and respond to this objection. I notice that only those who were not directly affected by a tragic event are those saying that it is proof that God does not exist. My father was supposed to die in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He had a business meeting there, but the meeting was moved back a couple of days so my father was getting ready to leave when the attack happened. Coincidence or divine intervention? I would argue for the latter, since my father came back to God and is now a pastor. During the anniversary event last year, there were those who lost loved ones and spoke of them on national television. The people speaking did not speak of their loved ones like they would never see them again; instead they spoke like they had moved on and were in the presence of the God they believed in. The victims spoke of the comfort God had given them in one of their darkest hours, learning that their husbands, wives, sons, and neighbors, would not be coming home. So what about the evil done on that day or any other day where blood was spilled? I cannot speak for any other faith, but for the abortion clinic bombings here in America or any other act of violence committed in the name of Jesus Christ, I am personally ashamed of it.
                So where is God in the midst of suffering? Why doesn’t he just stop it or why did he make the possibility for it in the first place? Theologically, some suffering comes as the form of sin, either your sin or your suffer because of sin committed by others. So why sin in the first place? When God made man, he wanted a being that would freely choose Him, or choose to be good. If this is true, then we had as much capacity to do good as to do evil. What about physical pain? Not all pain is bad, because if your arm suddenly starts hurting, you know that something is wrong and you must get away from whatever is causing you that pain. But if you repeatedly expose yourself to that same pain, you will get used to it. I would compare that to sin. When you first do a certain kind of evil, you probably have some sort of instinct telling you that what you are doing is wrong, be it your conscience or the Holy Spirit. Eventually you do it enough and quiet those thoughts in your head. If you consistently sin, I fully believe God gets to a point that he will allow consequences of that sin to come upon you. This is not because God has given up on you, but He is going to use the consequences of that sin to drive you back to God. This is described perfectly in the Bible in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
I would like to ask the atheists a few questions about their own worldview on this matter. If you are a naturalist, a believe that we are machines constructed of atoms on this earth and are led by the programming of our DNA, what basis have you to decide what is right and wrong? If what Richard Dawkins said is true, “the universe is exactly what we think it to be, that at the very bottom level of existence, there is no good, no evil, and we are just dancing to the music of our own DNA,” what authority are you appealing to when you tell others what is right and wrong? Dawkins made this statement in his book, The God Delusion, but then goes on to state his outrage at the evil done by religious persons. A little hypocritical, don’t you agree? My next question, where is justice in your worldview? Whenever injustice occurs, in America at least, thousands of people of varying worldviews take to the streets calling for justice. What about those who suffered innocently and died without receiving their justice? What about the atheistic regimes of Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong?  If there is no ultimate justice, then Hitler got away from the 6 million Jews that he killed and the countless others that died to stop his regime when he committed suicide.If there is no justice, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot will have gotten away with the slaughter of their own countrymen for simply disagreeing with their leaders or because these "leaders" thought that they needed to be eradicated just because of what these people were or believed.
I would contend that if you eliminate God, you are not eliminating a problem from the earth, but you are eliminating a solution. I believe that God has not stayed away from the problem of suffering, but has become very much involved in it. God came down to earth, fully man, fully divine, and took on the sufferings of this earth, and suffered a most gruesome death, and rose three days later. He did this to bridge the gap and offer a way to end our suffering when our time here is over. We will suffer on this earth, Jesus did not cringe from that fact, but He has offered us eternal peace with Him in Heaven, if we will only accept Him, believe in what He did for us, and repent of our sins. Have a good rest of your week and may God bless you in your endeavors.
               

Comments

  1. "I notice that only those who were not directly affected by a tragic event are those saying that it is proof that God does not exist."

    How can you say such a presumptuous thing in good conscience? Furthermore, hardly anyone asserts that any one thing is "proof" that God does not exist.

    "During the anniversary event last year, there were those who lost loved ones and spoke of them on national television. The people speaking did not speak of their loved ones like they would never see them again; instead they spoke like they had moved on and were in the presence of the God they believed in."

    So? When did it become a good idea to decide the truth of a proposition with the belief of a majority? Furthermore, atheists lose loved ones every day, religious and irreligious. It's not like such a thing is impossible to cope with without expecting to see them again. Carl Sagan's wife Ann Druyan gives an excellent example:

    "When my husband died, because he was so famous & known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me — it still sometimes happens — & ask me if Carl changed at the end & converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage & never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief & precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive & we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous & so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space & the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me & it’s much more meaningful…

    The way he treated me & the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other & our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”


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    1. Perhaps some people don't like to think about things this way; that's fine, but there are certainly millions who do and manage to live reasonably happy and fulfilled lives.

      "I would like to ask the atheists a few questions about their own worldview on this matter. If you are a naturalist, a believe that we are machines constructed of atoms on this earth and are led by the programming of our DNA, what basis have you to decide what is right and wrong? If what Richard Dawkins said is true, “the universe is exactly what we think it to be, that at the very bottom level of existence, there is no good, no evil, and we are just dancing to the music of our own DNA,” what authority are you appealing to when you tell others what is right and wrong? Dawkins made this statement in his book, The God Delusion, but then goes on to state his outrage at the evil done by religious persons. A little hypocritical, don’t you agree?"

      No, I do not (in the event that Dawkins actually said that; I can't find a source for that quote). I'll tackle this one backwards because I think it's more lucid that way. It is pretty easy to think about what it might be like to be another person. It is slightly more difficult, but also the essence of morality to treat a person as you would like to be treated, or as Jesus Christ said, to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself". These are absolutely words to live by. The idea itself is much older than Christianity; it goes back to Confucius and even further and was not always attached to any sort of belief about a god or the afterlife.

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    2. "If you are a naturalist, a [sic] believe that we are machines constructed of atoms on this earth and are led by the programming of our DNA..."

      Do you not believe this? What are we constructed of if not atoms? And DNA does determine large swaths of what we are, so do neurons, protein interactions, and a whole host of other things. In any case, a thought experiment:

      For a given physical system, you can write down some equations of motion that can be used to predict the behavior of the system at a later time. These are not in practice always solvable, but the physical principles that logically imply these equations of motion have not once been seen to have been violated. Given some initial conditions and boundary values the system is deterministic.

      So how does free will work? Are we allowed a violation of conservation of energy in some cases? Of charge? Of angular momentum? Does quantum mechanics allow the brain to be subservient to some sort of mysterious spirit elsewhere? If it did, I think that that would throw the statistics at least a little bit out of wack, so the only way out I can see is to say that the laws of physics don't just have exceptions, but that these exceptions are commonplace. In any case the role of quantum mechanics in many (if not most) biological systems is negligible (this is not to say that they don't obey quantum mechanics principles but only that the numbers are large enough that the limit theorems of probability allow them to be treated without appeal to quantum mechanical behavior). So what, exactly, happens? I know that you took biochemistry. Is that stuff only true sometimes? How do the resurrection and virgin birth work in that framework?

      In any case, onward:

      "What about the atheistic regimes of Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong?"

      While I don't think you can claim Hitler's regime to be really "atheistic" and I don't know much about Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and Stalin certainly were. What we see here is actually an excellent argument for the separation of church and state. This does not mean an atheist state, but a secular one that recognizes that religion is a personal decision and the government will have nothing to say one way or another. In other words, the first amendment to the constitution. While atheistic governments have horrible track records, secular ones (meaning ones that operate without appeal to any specific religion) have excellent track records. Just look at all of Scandinavia, most of Western Europe, and, yes, the United States. Stalin and Mao are examples of the government taking too large of a role in the religious lives of the people. This can also be seen in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan.


      "If there is no ultimate justice, then Hitler got away from the 6 million Jews that he killed and the countless others that died to stop his regime when he committed suicide."

      I don't plan on losing any sleep over what happened to him as long as something like the holocaust never happens again.


      "God came down to earth, fully man, fully divine, and took on the sufferings of this earth, and suffered a most gruesome death, and rose three days later. He did this to bridge the gap and offer a way to end our suffering when our time here is over."

      Seems a roundabout way of getting things done for a being that could create the universe with the words "Let there be light".

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  2. On the free will comment, do you really believe in what you are saying? Do you really want to resign yourself to the idea that you have no choice in what you are or what you prefer? If all the thoughts we have are just the random motions of atoms in our brains, where do we get abstract concepts of truth and beauty? Unfortunately my course in biochemistry focused mostly on memorizing structure and function of various molecules; it did not cover whole systems, so I cannot comment with that perspective.

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    1. Sorry, I made a mistake citing the Dawkins quote. It was actually from River Out of Eden.

      In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. — Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, p. 133, 1995

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    2. "On the free will comment, do you really believe in what you are saying? Do you really want to resign yourself to the idea that you have no choice in what you are or what you prefer?"


      First of all, what I want to believe is irrelevant; all that matters is how things really are. From what I see, I cannot conclude that our actions are not more or less deterministic. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about this. People have been thinking about this for a long time, though, and there are some ways out that seem to make sense. Compatibilism is one of these; I do not know much about others. Thomas Gilton is probably better schooled in philosophy than I am, he could probably point you in the direction of some good stuff to read on the issue. I do know that Daniel Dennett has written a good deal about the compatibilist approach. Sam Harris has written a short book on free will, but I wouldn't recommend it. Of the so-called New Atheists, Dennett is probably the most lucid.

      Anyway, I'll use the Dawkins quote (which is a bit different than the one in your essay, but not by too much) as a launching point.

      I don't think you can argue any differently than Dawkins does about DNA. You've been in advanced physics chemistry laboratories, so you've seen for yourself that the bulk behavior of chemical systems behave the way the rules that we've inferred say they should. I doubt there was a single case in which, once you carefully checked your work very carefully, things ceased to make sense. Likewise, at the molecular level it stands to reason that things are behaving in accordance with physical law. I don't know how you talk about justice in an ideal gas or fairness in a redox reaction.

      In any case, there are plenty of things that are not well defined on some level that nonetheless make plenty of sense on a higher level; statistical mechanics offers a prime example. No single particle is in a liquid/gas/solid state. These states instead emerge from the interactions (or lack thereof) between the particles. It at least stands to reason that consciousness, truth, beauty, and al these other higher order concepts emerge.



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    3. I should be careful here to point out that that doesn't have to change much. Emotions like love, grief, joy, and sadness are every bit as real as the solid table under my arms as I type this. Justice is a real to us as it feels and remains something that should be aspired to. It is not necessary to give up empathy, altruism, or anything that makes us human. All I'm saying is that they have different (and from my point of view much more mysterious) origins. Somewhere in the vast dance of matter and energy, we become humans -- vastly complex, thinking, feeling beings. We are the universe observing and reacting to itself.

      So to answer your question: I don't feel like I am "resigning" myself to anything. Life can still be beautiful. A reading of Dawkins or any of his contemporaries shows that they are no less passionate about justice and kindness than anybody else. The plain non-existence of abstract concepts at the atomic and molecular level doesn't invalidate the entire human experience and there is no reason to think that it's depressing in the slightest.

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