A Stab at Philosophy: The Problem of Pain and Evil

In this short essay, I would like to offer my view about God and the problem of evil.  I will start with the premise that God exists according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I will look to show that the presence of pain and suffering in this world does not, as some contend, prove that God is not good.

If God exists and is a good and loving God modeled after the Judeo-Christian concept, then how could He allow evil to prosper, pain to exist and suffering to be wide-spread?  It is not hard to produce a long list of tragedies many of which are inexplicable in scope. The great tsunami of 2004 destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods in Sumatra alone.  The great cyclone of 2007 wrecked havoc on untold thousands in Myanmar.  If there is a God, especially a good God who holds the cosmos in His hands as many Christians may say, how could He have let this happen, and how could he not stop nature from causing such cruel disasters?  But not all disasters are natural.  Tens of thousands of children die each day around the world from preventable diseases.  Most of them live in Africa.  Strongmen with guns divert aid, pocket the money and watch their citizens die.  Terrible disease and famine strike down uncountable families.  Villages in Darfur, Sudan have been decimated; women raped and then slaughtered.  Humankind seemingly has little will or desire to step in and stop the senseless killing and violence.  Likewise, it seems that God is nowhere to be found.  For how can we pray to a merciful God when such pain is so widespread?

Sometimes we are not distant observers of pain.  There are many examples of suffering that happen around us each day sometimes in very personal ways. Often times these occurrences seem illogical and have no explanation at all.   B. C. Johnson, in his article The Problem of Evil, gives us a poignant example of a six-month old helpless baby being left behind in a burning house (137).  Johnson contends that God could not be good because He, assuming He is all powerful, could have stopped the fire and saved this life but did not.  Let us expand Johnson’s reasoning and see what other types of scenarios it could also apply to.  A lazy mother decides to go shopping and leaves her baby unattended in a car on an extremely hot day.  A toddler wanders into the kitchen and accidently pulls a boiling kettle down upon herself.  A man slips on the ice, hits his head and dies.   All of these scenarios, and countless others, have something in common.  Someone is hurt that didn’t deserve it.  There were no bad actions or evil intent on the part of the victims.  Even the boiling kettle incident, though caused by the actions of the toddler, was the result of a benign movement that caused indescribable pain, for she was merely reaching for things like she reaches for a mobile in her crib.  An action we as parents encourage.  How could something so simple turn out to be so bad, and where is God in these instances?

May it be taken for granted that there are few or possibly no palatable reasons why a six year old child has to die a painful death by fire?  This incident is not good.  It is a hollow statement to say that I continue to have faith in God’s goodness even though it seems like God did nothing to prevent this.  Johnson describes this type of faith as “confidence in a friend’s innocence despite the evidence against him” (138). Johnson would damn God’s goodness for allowing the child to die while he would call a theist nothing more than a stubborn person who ignores the evidence against him.  However, we need to examine this more closely.

Could it be possible for God to intervene sometimes?  For all the babies who have died unjustly in fires, there are most likely the same number or more that have been saved – sometimes in a most miraculous way.  How often do we hear someone say ‘If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be alive’ after an ordeal which nearly took their life?  How many times does a car miss a person by ‘mere inches’?  How many times has someone been shot and just barely survived because the bullet was not one inch further to the left or right?  What if a baby is saved in a fire?  Perhaps God intervened to raise the pitch of the baby’s cry just enough to be heard by the fire fighter or perhaps God protected the baby’s lungs from the smoke to allow it to survive long enough to be rescued.  If we blame God for the death of a child, shouldn’t we at least possibly consider giving God some credit when a child survives?

This doesn’t, however, adequately explain why God would allow some babies to live and others to die.  Some Christians may quote Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul writes that “all things work together for good…”  But this kind of reasoning and faith seems inadequate here.  There is no good caused by a baby’s senseless death, and I believe God is greatly pained by this event.  Then why let it happen?  Perhaps there is something else at play here.

Let us look at the Christian view of the world.  The world we live in is neither the world God intended nor the world which ultimately will endure.  The Christian views humankind and nature itself as a corrupted form of what will someday be perfected by God.  In the meantime, pain and suffering is a by-product of our fallen world.  This means that fire, an item which sustains life, also is an item of destruction and unfortunately may even take an innocent life.  Why God would chose to let one baby die while rescuing another baby is a perplexing problem.  It is easy to say that ‘God has His reasons’ or that ‘His ways are higher than ours’ but that provides little relief to a hurting mother.   This may be enough for some to argue that God’s inability or unwillingness to help every child in every situation proves that God is not all good.  However, this too doesn’t quite make sense.

The moral boundaries of good and evil are generally easily seen and understood by humankind.   God created these moral boundaries for humans.  However, God is not a human; therefore humanity’s moral boundaries do not apply to God.  One might counter that this is taking the easy way out, but if we take for granted that God is spirit, then how can we hold God to a human standard?  It sounds cruel to us, but there are many instances in the Bible where God destroyed people or let people die.  Even the great flood of Noah would have caused the death of many women and children.  Does this prove that God is cruel?  It only shows to me how much man thinks of himself.  It only shows to me that God sees the big picture and knows that what is happening now is not the end in itself; he chooses to use the laws of nature to His purpose whether it makes sense to us or not.

John Hick in his article The Problem of Evil describes how God never promised that our lives here on earth would be perfect and pain free.  He describes our lives here as the substance of “soul-making”, that the world “with all its rough edges” is where humans learn, strive and endure so as to be able to be “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life” (146).  Actually, what would life be like if we didn’t have trouble, trials, pain and suffering here on earth?  These tests of our soul seem to define the human experience for without them, how would we know what joy, laughter and love really is?  A world that Johnson envisions where God saves every child, where pain doesn’t exist would not be human at all.  In fact, it wouldn’t even be earth because the very laws of nature would no longer apply.

Hick shows how strange and drastic a world such as this would truly be.  The laws of nature would have to be suspended because gravity’s pull could cause no injury (147).  The child pulling the hot boiling water down upon herself wouldn’t cry at all – perhaps her skin would quickly turn to stone as to deflect the high temperature of the water.  Let us suppose that we lived in a world where pain like this did not happen.  The man who slipped on the ice and hit his head would stand up again and be fine.  In fact, he could throw himself off the Empire State building and find himself no worse for wear.   If God intervened and stopped all pain and suffering, the world as we know it would be gone.  In fact, it sounds as if we are describing heaven – the place that the God of the Bible promises to those who have become ‘children of God’.  It is illogical for us to demand that God provides a paradise for us now only so we can go to paradise with Him later.  This earthly evil does not necessitate that God is not good or even that God does not exist. We may not understand all that God intends for us on this earth, and we still may not understand why a baby dies in a fire, but would we want it any other way?  To say so, would be like taking the humanity out of humans.

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