If God, Why Suffering? Thoughts on Theodicy

Anyone who has been doing Christian apologetics, for any significant period of time, knows that the most frequent objection to the Christian faith is the problem of evil and suffering. Indeed, this paradoxical conundrum has resulted in probably more people abandoning their faith than any other challenge to the Christian worldview. The logical structure of this argument typically takes the following form:

Premise 1: If God exists, he is by definition omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and benevolent (all good).

Premise 2: If an omnipotent being exists, he would be able to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.

Premise 3: If an omniscient being exists, he would know about all the evil and suffering in the world.

Premise 4: If a perfectly good being exists, he would want to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.

Premise 5: If a being existed with knowledge of all of the evil and suffering in the world, and both the ability and will to prevent it, such a being would do so.

Premise 6: Evil and suffering exist.

From 2, 3, 4 & 5:

7: Therefore, if an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being exists, that being would prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.

From 6 & 7:

8: Therefore, no omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good being exists.

From 1 & 8:

Conclusion: Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

How Sound is This Argument?

In terms of its logical structure, provided the first six premises are true, the argument seems at first brush fairly robust.  The key premise, I think — indeed, the main premise which I contest — is Premise 5: If a being existed with knowledge of all of the evil and suffering in the world, and both the ability and will to prevent it, such a being would do so. This Premise is only valid if one assumes that God cannot have morally good reasons for tolerating the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Further problems abound when we consider Premise 6, where we are compelled to ask, “What is the reference point for pronouncing a proposition as ‘evil’ or ‘unjust’?” As we shall see in the course of this blog post, Premise 6 is difficult to justify within the conceptual framework of the materialist worldview.

The First Problem: Providing an Epistemological Foundation for Right and Wrong

The first of the problems with this argument becomes obvious when one seeks an epistemological foundation for discriminating between right and wrong, and just and unjust circumstances. In his classic work, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it like this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

It is not at all clear that the materialist worldview can provide an objective foundation for ethics or moral norms. Indeed, as the notorious Oxford atheist evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has conceded, within the materialist worldview, “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

When one pronounces a moral proposition as “right” or “wrong”, one is implicitly presupposing a binding and transcendent standard above and beyond themselves to which they may appeal, and to which individuals are held accountable. For the Christian theist, moral norms are grounded in the divine nature and character of God. For the materialist, however, there is no such standard in which to ground moral norms. Indeed, if morals are an arbitrary or artificial construct, there is no reason why moral values should not be regarded as a matter of subjective preference.

Some materialists attempt to counter this argument by asserting that moral norms should be grounded in consensus, and that this develops and evolves over time. But this argument is on a highly precarious footing. If Nazi Germany had won World War II and had brainwashed or executed all with whom they disagreed, would that render the Jewish Holocaust morally justified? Surely not.

Indeed, if we are — as the materialist worldview entails — merely reducible to re-arranged pondscum, an assemblage of chemicals dancing to the music of our DNA, then the very existence of human autonomy and existential freedom of the will is seriously brought into question. But surely “ought” implies “can”. To make assertions about the way one ought to behave presupposes that one has genuine freewill and that one can choose between possibilities. But if there is no genuine autonomy, then whence the basis for supposing human responsibility or accountability for violating moral norms? Thus, the first problem facing this argument is that it attempts to refute the existence of God by utilisation of a Premise which presupposes His existence! Atheism does not solve the problem: It just makes it far, far more difficult.

The Second Problem: God’s Will is Multi-Dimensional

The second problem with this argument is that Premise 5 assumes a monolithic structure of divine will: And, moreover, that God cannot have morally justifiable reasons for permitting the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But this assumption is invalid for a number of reasons.

First, if God was to exercise His perfect justice in eliminating all sources of evil and suffering in the world, where would He start? And, moreover, where would he stop? The bottom line is that we are all guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of violating moral norms. We have all fallen short of God’s standard: the very standard to which we appeal when we make moral pronouncements. Next time you think you want God to ride in on a white horse and deal with the existence of evil once and for all, ask yourself “Would I be exempt from God’s judgement on evil?” If we are honest, I think one has to answer with a definitive ‘no.’

Second, suffering may be required in order to accomplish God’s ultimate purposes. Indeed, as a result of the entry of evil into the world (which originally happened in the Garden of Eden), God has been able to demonstrate his love and compassion towards us in a way in which it could not have been in its absence: That is, through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. It also opened a door for humanity to enter into a relationship with its Creator in a unique and intimate way. God loved us enough to send His only Son into this world to suffer and die in our stead, in order to justify repentant sinners. You see, God is just. And being just, he must punish sin with perfect righteousness and holiness. That is why God cannot simply turn a blind eye to sin: It must be punished. Sin is never forgiven; Sinners are forgiven. Sin is either punished by the sinner being held rightly accountable for it (an eternal separation from the favourable presence of God), or it is punished as a result of what Christ has done on the cross. If God had chosen to exercise His perfect justice in eliminating evil and suffering from the face of the earth, he would have had to wipe out all of humanity. Instead, he has chosen to exercise His perfect justice by paying our debt in full by means of the blood of the only spotless and blemish-free substitute: Jesus Christ.

Third, there is the free-will defence. Love is only genuine when it is not coerced. True love requires the ability to exercise free will. Thus, to facilitate the ability of free creatures to genuinely love God requires that one take the risk that these free creatures will choose to reject God or to violate His commandments. 

Fourth, as suggested by proponents of Molinism, it is possible that only a world which was suffused with a certain amount of evil and suffering would result in the maximum number of people freely coming to know God. The doctrine of divine middle knowledge attests that God has knowledge of counterfactuals: That is, God has knowledge of what His free creatures would do under any circumstances. If this is the case, then it is possible that God has chosen to actualise a world — out of an array of possible worlds — in which the maximum number of people would choose to know God as their Creator and Saviour, without being in violation of their rights of autonomy and existential freedom of the will.

Fifth, God often uses evil and suffering to accomplish his ends. One classic example of this is in the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, an incident which set in motion a chain of events which ultimately led to Joseph being falsely accused of a crime and subsequently being thrown into prison. Later, Joseph is promoted to the position of Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and is in a unique position to be able to administer food during times of severe famine: Including the saving of his family. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Only in a Christian Worldview is the Problem of Evil Satisfactorily Dealt With

The Christian worldview is unique inasmuch as it asserts that God has physically entered into our world as a man, has suffered pain, hunger, torment, temptation, false accusations, torture and ultimately death. In no other worldview is this asserted to be the case. To illustrate the power and hard-hitting nature of this point, consider the following parable of The Long Silence.

At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame – but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black !”

In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.” Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.

How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind.

Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.

For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.

Christianity is the only theistic worldview in which God has suffered with His Creation. Christianity is also the only religion in which one cannot say that God has done nothing about the problem of evil. Rather, God has dealt with it in a just fashion. He has extended the offer of salvation to humanity, made possible through Christ’s work on the cross. As Romans 3 tells us,

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Will you take advantage of this offer of forgiveness? Don’t let the problem of evil and suffering become a stumbling block which prevents you from putting your trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. An argument with such dubious Premises, as I have shown this one to be, is not sufficient to displace such powerful and compelling multi-disciplinary evidence for the existence of the Christian God.

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13 replies
  1. johnferrer says:

    Permit me to add some commentary on the formal logic of this argument.

    The problem is logically invalid. It never states it’s most critical premise but assumes it nevertheless, namely:

    “God and evil cannot coexist.”

    that is, G v E

    The argument is not logically valid by any syllogistic form, or by any proof of symbolic logic. to do that it would have to say something like:

    Premise 1) god and evil cannot coexist
    Premise 2) evil exist
    Conclusion) no god exists

    Premise 1 states a strong/exclusive disjunct between god and evil. Affirming either negates the other. Hence this argument would be valid.

    But the classical problem of evil (of which Jonathan’s is a variety, adding the “all-good” attribute), is defeated by the INCLUSIVE disjunct. IE: God AND evil can coexist. This is Logic 101 stuff. The normal reading of disjunctive form allows for “both-and” or “either-or” claims. One proves/uses a normal disjunct by REJECTING one side of the disjunct. Stated symbolically it is INVALID to conclude the following.

    G v E
    E
    : ~G

    Presumably, we are supposed to infer that G is an exclusive disjunct with E. But that needs to be stated (to be valid), and it needs to be proven (to empistemically justified), and the classical argument does not. As such, we cannot infer a strong disjunctive relation nor can we deduce a condictional relation such as:

    G > ~E

    If we could infer that much we’d have a sound logical argument that follows.

    G > ~E
    E
    : ~G (1, 2, Modus tollens)

    But again, if we allow this premise we are presuming precisely the hardest premise to prove, the premise that most of the world already or implicitly rejects, and which is rejected throughout Scripture. Put another way, all the major worlds religions and their scriptures teach that evil exist and they all allow for the existence of a God, and together the membership to the world’s religions constitute something like 90% of humanity. Even if all religious people are wrong, the prima facia evidence of “head count” suggests that the coexistence of God and evil is plausible. It seems a bit presumptuous then to leave this critical premise unstated.

    Reply
  2. Devin Tarr says:

    Excellent post Jonathan! Thank you so much. I’ll be saving this for later and will be sure to site you if I ever use it. 🙂

    All the best,
    Devin Tarr

    Reply
  3. Doug says:

    When discussing theodicy I always like to begin by defining the term during an engagement of apologetics with an unbeliever or witnessing to a believer. As such my working definition is: Theodicy = The manner of explaining, justifying and understanding God’s relationship with man as opposed to man’s relationship with God. As such we often as an apologetic or evangelist or witness are asked in the face of a tragedy: “how could God allow such a thing to occur?” in example a tsunami, earthquake, young person killed, a child being born blind, or a 9/11/2001 tragedy. Two scriptural verses in response are when Jesus is confronted with the collapse of the Tower in Salome and again when he is confronted with the logical fallacy of the false dilemma also known as the fallacy of 2 in regards to why the man was born blind. In the 1st situation Jesus who is God makes it clear that we should respond by being repentant and that we are all sinners. In the 2nd case Jesus explains it was not the man’s own personal sin nor that of his parents which caused him to be blind but rather that God may be known through the healing of the blind man. In both cases it “guilt” is taken away from sin and given a different intended purpose by God for we don’t always know God’s purpose in allowing or purposing tragedy in our lives. A third example is what God allows Satan to do to the Holy Man Job. The most important point that can be disseminated in my opinion to the person not familiar with theodicy is to teach them a lasting meaning of the term so that they can gain a better theocentric orientation as opposed to their egocentrism. The term theodicy is a mind expansion term and when used correctly it can help to be an influencer towards the purpose understanding the next level of eternal life. The obstreperous atheist, unbeliever, skeptic agnostic may always be willing to pounce at the time of tradgedy like Voltaire who condemned God after a great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 when 50,000 people were killed. He asked the question: “Were those in Lisbon worst sinners than those in Paris or London” implying that this would be the Christian view. Yet this should not be the Christian view and such attacks should begin with rebuttal in my opinion with the introduction of the term “theodicy” and that Voltaire’s opinion was from the perspective of the human being without consideration of the Being of God so that one must address the Ontological question of God and factor in eternal life and not just temporal life.

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  4. Toby R says:

    I think my problem with this lies in the first premise establishing that a god exists.

    “If God exists, he is by definition omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and benevolent (all good).”

    I would grant that a hypothetical god that created the universe is powerful in some ways, but I think the rest is pure supposition. This idea of a god is no more or less correct than saying that in another dimension (universe, plane of existence, however you feel the need to express “not in this particular universe”) a scientists throws a switch on a particle collider and the result is a particle that lasts nanoseconds in his/her universe, but is in fact our universe running its billions and trillions of years in our time.

    By what means is it determined that a god is “all good”? Judging from the behavior of the biblical god you might be better off saying that its a fifty-fifty split of good and evil. On one hand loves everyone and on the other is willing to roast them in hell infinitely for finite crimes.

    If a god were to be omniscient then it cannot at the same time be benevolent. There is no way to wash away the guilt or responsibility for evil from a god that is able to know everything at every time. There isn’t even a way for there to be free will in this scenario because, as the indian’s might say, “it is written.”

    These are the reasons there is no god, or at least as convolutedly formulated by modern theists.

    Reply
  5. Charles says:

    From an evangelical standpoint:

    As the Bible tells us in Genesis; man did not know good or evil before partaking of the “fruit” of the “knowledge of good and evil”. Humans did not know what sin was beforehand. So, it seems that once man “decided” to eat the “fruit” he was actually deciding for himself what good and evil was and this is when he would “be like G-D” being able to live for himself and choose to live G-Dless instead of G-Dly.

    The point is man chose for himself what morality was causing separation from his Creator. There was fear because “Adam” knew his Creator, but the separation gave him independance which also ,inadvertantly, left him to the whims of nature. This now begs the question, what is morality? Well, morality is simply what “we” decide it is. When G-D acts we see it as either good or evil with our own understanding. This is why so many can pass judgement with so many different opinions.

    The Nazis thought they were doing society a favor by demonizing Jews in the same light that southern whites thought that they doing society a favor by industrializing agriculture on the backs of Africans. By Biblical standards the only thing that is moral is Love and every act associated with true Love (i.e., the Golden Rule, giving up our lives for each other, etc). Aside from Love everything apart from it wastes away as earthly fodder, so to speak. I think it to be G-D’s only moral standard aside from ackowledging Him as our reason and cause for existance.

    The materialist, I think, knows this within; but because of “religious” history confusion about who was right and who was wrong makes it easier to think of reasons why no G-D could exist.

    Great article…

    Reply
  6. Jonathan McLatchie says:

    Having looked back over the logical structure of the formulation of the argument from evil I presented at the beginning of the article above, I decided that it could be cleaned up a bit — it’s now revised.

    Reply
  7. Lion IRC says:

    Please use the prefix “so-called” when referring to..
    .
    the [so-called] problem of evil and suffering.

    this [so-called] paradoxical conundrum

    The only real problem is the one facing atheists/atheology.

    They have the monumental task of rationalizing;

    1. A reality with infinite inexplicable suffering
    2. The (unethical) absence of God’s punishment of evil.
    3. The origin/meaning of pain in their no-god hypothesis.
    4. The distinction between human and bacterial morality
    5. Nihilism / Camusian absurdity
    6. The difference between useful pain and evil pain.
    7. …..and so forth and so on

    Reply
  8. Lion IRC says:

    And one more.

    Why does an atheist parent bring a child into the world which they already KNOW has “pain and suffering”

    Reply
  9. Mark Guetersloh says:

    Omniscience certainly does imply that God is all-knowing, which in turn suggests that nothing happens outside of His permissive or decretive will. I see no logical error in absolute knowledge and absolute benevolence. In fact I know many athiests, some my friends, who claim such gifts…just kidding…at least a little. Those who refuse the very possibility that God exists have no horse in this race. A nonexistent deity can’t allow anything. Certainly even the clumsiest of philosophers must concede this truth?

    Regardless of your belief system, evil (and suffering) certainly do exist. Does evil come from God? Yes. It is a direct act of His permissive will. By allowing it we can see our utter fallen nature and His immeasurable good. Without Him we wouldn’t know “good” if it bit us on our blessed assurance. There’s that doggone nuisance we call free will rearing it’s ugly head again. How terribly difficult to be both free and bound. Free to sin. Not free not to sin.

    Every time you catch an athiest blaming God for the evil in the world he will quickly shift the emphasis to religion. But if there is no God, then religion is just a bunch of folks believing a lie. Men and women of every tribe, nation, color and belief do this every day. An honest look at history yeilds ample proof than man is very good at evil with no help from religion at all. Christianity and authentic Christians are the only hope this world has. Authentic Christianity is the source of good for all humans, Christian, athiest, agnostic and everything in between. Even the proud Romans pretended Christianity to escape the wholly pagan Visigoths. And Christianity gratiously allowed the forgery, which was quickly abondoned and replaced by blame after the barbarians left the scene. Some things never change. Today, Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, Harris and their acolytes prance about in safety created by Christianity, cursing God for the rules that are the author and sustainer of that very safety.

    Evil is a viral possibility that has always existed by the permissive will of a benevolent God. That benevolence has its perfect expression in the free gift of forgiveness through the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus. No one is forced to swallow the cure. God is also all-powerful and perfectly just, or He is not God. That’s why only He could provide the cure.

    Finally, God is by necessity beyond the understanding of the unaided human mind. We are able to know Him only inasmuch as He reveals Himself to us, and that revelation cannot occur without Jesus. Like it or not. Unfair? Seemingly to some. Nonetheless, the athiest or agnostic cannot know anything about God. On this I am dogmatic, as is His Word. He who writes the program makes the rules.

    Reply
  10. Olesya says:

    Hello Jonathan,
    thank you for the exegesis. I have troubles following your first argument, specifically it is this sentence: “Thus, the first problem facing this argument is that it attempts to refute the existence of God by utilisation of a Premise which presupposes His existence!” – could you elaborate on that? I don’t quite get the point.. could you use some other (secular?) examples that would make the point clear?

    Reply

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