One of the greatest acts a person involved
in health care can perform is bring relief from suffering. This
occurs in many ways, but from a Christian perspective the greatest
source of comfort comes directly from God himself. In addition,
God uses those who have earlier experienced his comfort to help
those currently suffering. As the apostle Paul summarised:
"Blessed be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort;
who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to
comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which
we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)"
When Jesus Christ first made his ministry
public he announced that he had come to bring relief and comfort
to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden (Luke
4:18). Yet what we find in our own experience, as do many others,
is that the very existence of suffering casts doubt on the very
existence of God. If he is there, some conclude, he cannot be the
all-loving and all-powerful God portrayed in the Bible. The tragedy
is that those times when we most need the comfort and reassurance
of a loving God can be the very times we most doubt his existence
and his care and concern for us.
Many of the current ethical dilemmas
in medicine revolve around suffering. Those experiencing suffering,
and watching others suffer, propose ways to deal with the pain.
Abortion is viewed as a legitimate way to deal with 'suffering'
an unwanted pregnancy, or of preventing the child from having a
life filled with suffering. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are
proposed as solutions for those suffering too much. New technology
is often developed to help people avoid suffering. But does the
relief found with Viagra, for example, warrant its expense, and
the broader goals it requires of medicine? The lengths to which
society goes to avoid suffering reflects an inability to deal with
its very existence and to understand the redemptive role it can
play in life.
For those in the midst of pain, illness,
or grief, questions about suffering are more personal. People ask
things like: 'Why is such a good person in so much pain?' 'How could
such a healthy woman be struck down so young?' 'Where is God in
all of this?' 'Why me?' This article will provide an overview of
the many reasons given from Christian perspectives for the existence
of suffering. Intellectual answers, no matter how reasonable or
logical, may not bring relief to some in the midst of the suffering.
Comfort, emotional care, and being present with the person may bring
However, to find comfort in God and
his love, it is important to have seriously struggled with this
problem and its proposed solutions before our bodies and feelings
are screaming at us in pain. We need to think this issue through,
and decide to believe that the God of the Bible is loving and powerful,
in spite of the existence of suffering. Then we will be better able
to cling to him in the midst of our own suffering. It will then
be easier to accept in faith the comfort and endurance he
promises. Having dealt with the issue ourselves, we will be better
prepared to help others reason through this problem and find God's
comfort in their time of need. Having seen God work in our own pain
and suffering, we will be more able to bring his comfort to those
who need it.
The relentless nature of suffering
forces everyone to struggle with this issue and to seek to understand
why people suffer. Many great minds over the centuries have grappled
with this question and have come to a variety of conclusions. Before
accepting any of these, they must be evaluated in light of some
authority. For Christians, that authority is the Bible (2 Timothy
3:16-17). However, even this is not a simple task, and some of the
struggles in this area have been exaggerated by faulty interpretations
of passages in the Bible regarding the causes of suffering. The
proposed interpretations must be carefully evaluated since people's
pain can be worsened by false solutions to the problem of suffering.
When interpreting a passage, proper attention must be paid to the
context of the passage, and to the overall teaching of the Bible.
This paper will evaluate the different explanations for suffering,
and their objections, and particularly how these proposals compare
to biblical teaching.
Statement of the Problem
The problem of suffering is usually
presented in two ways, with different responses required of each.
First of all, there is the claim that the existence of suffering
(as one aspect of evil) and the existence of God are contradictory,
or logically incoherent. This philosophical and logical problem
requires an answer of the same nature. The second issue is why,
even if it is logically consistent, would God still allow suffering
to exist? What possible reasons could God have for allowing suffering?
After considering the logical problem, the bulk of this paper will
deal with the latter.
According to most commentators (see
for example), the five propositions essential to traditional theism
are: (a) that God exists, (b) that God is omnipotent, (c) that God
is omniscient, (d) that God is wholly good, and (e) that evil exists.
No formal contradiction exists between these, so another proposition
must be added which is either necessarily true, or an essential
part of theism. This is usually done by spelling out the meaning
of the terms good, evil, or omnipotent. J. L. Mackie provides one
example of how this is done:
"These additional principles are
that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always
eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to
what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good
omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions
that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible."
At the outset, Mackie's principles
appear logical, especially when today good actions are often considered
to be those which cause no suffering or pain to others, and bad
ones those which do. But, a closer examination reveals that this
is not always so. Sometimes the choice of an action which causes
suffering is judged as good if there is some greater good which
is then achieved. For example, a physician causing pain by giving
an injection is viewed as doing good if the substance injected brings
a greater amount of relief. Similarly, if the consequences of relieving
suffering would be an even greater evil, the good thing would be
a lack of action. For example, when children are learning to walk,
parents stand back from them, even though this may bring about suffering
when the child falls. The greater good is that the children learn
to walk, in spite of the suffering involved. Thus it is not necessarily
true that to relieve suffering is always the most loving action
for a person to take.
An objector may reply that this analogy
with human actions fails because of human limitations. An omnipotent
God would be able to figure out a way to remove the suffering without
having to remove these greater goods. These arguments view an omnipotent
God as one who can do anything. But, this is not how omnipotence
has traditionally been defined by Christian theists. It has been
taken to mean that God has the ability to do anything which is not
Thus omnipotence does not mean that God can do something like create
an uncreated person. In relation to suffering this means that it
would be impossible for God to make a world with certain types of
good without at the same time allowing for the possibility of some
types of evil.
Harold Kushner has responded to this
issue somewhat differently. He concluded that God cannot be omnipotent,
but is limited by the laws of nature and human moral freedom.
While Kushner finds it more comforting to believe in a God who wants
to relieve suffering, but can't, this view is not compatible with
the biblical description of God. But for most people it is not enough
to just show that logically an omnipotent, loving God could allow
suffering to exist. The existence of suffering and evil is not merely
a problem of logic, but is a problem in our daily experience.
"If truth is a legitimate philosophical
interest, then pastors and philosophers, believers and sceptics,
theists and atheists all share a common problem of evil - the need
for insight into the mystery of human iniquity and tragedy."
To turn to an all-loving and omnipotent
God, who also allows us to suffer, requires that we truly believe
he has some very important reasons for allow suffering to exist.
There must be some greater good that would not be possible in this
world if God was to eradicate all suffering. Christians have made
a number of proposals concerning what this greater good might be.
A theodicy is a justification for the
existence of suffering and evil. A number of theodicies have been
developed by theists, the most popular of which will be examined
here. Each theodicy does not necessarily seek to explain all suffering,
or claim to be better than all the others, but seeks to explain
certain instances of suffering. One simple answer to the problem
of suffering does not exist. But, when taken in combination, these
theodicies provide many reasons for believing that an all-loving,
all-powerful God does exist and that he wants to comfort people
and care for them in the midst of their suffering. However, Christians
need to evaluate each of these theodicies since they are not equally
consistent with the Bible.
1. The Free Will Defence
The most common theodicy is that the
world is a better place because it contains moral agents who are
free to choose between good and evil, even though this requires
the possibility of evil occurring. The alternative is a world with
agents who are not free to choose, and would therefore be more like
robots than humans. It is taken as generally accepted that a world
with only robots would be less good than one with moral agents.
We see this in the desire many people have to raise children instead
of buying robots. Children are morally free agents, and thus we
cannot guarantee their choices. The same action performed by a freely
choosing child and by a robot are regarded very differently. The
child's action could be seen as morally good while the robot was
simply performing its programmed task. Morality is not an issue
with a robot. Thus, in our own lives we regard the existence of
morally free agents as better than the existence of only robots.
To have a world where moral agents
love one another, there must be the freedom to choose whether or
not to love. If God created agents who were not free, then they
would love others because they had no choice in the matter. It could
even be argued that without freedom there could be no love. The
good that comes from people loving one another, and God, outweighs
the evil that results from people choosing not to love one another.
One objection raised to this theodicy
is that if God could create people who could choose either good
or evil, why did he not create people who would always choose good?
But, this situation implies one of two things. (1) God could have
created people who were free to choose good or evil, and then ensure
that they always choose good. In this situation, God would be responsible
for all actions, and not people, and thus we would not have morally
free people. (2) God could have created people who always choose
to do good. But this contradicts the idea of freedom, which entails
that when faced with a choice either the good or the evil can be
chosen. People who always choose good are not free to make moral
choices. Therefore, this objection actually creates a contradiction.
As C. Stephen Evans states:
"If God creates beings who are
truly free, then whether they do right is at least sometimes up
to them and not to God."
A second objection is the claim that
God could have created people who were better able to resist temptation.
Thus, while having the freedom to choose good or evil, they would
have a greater ability to resist evil. Jesus is usually given as
an example of just such a person. Although he was tempted in every
way, he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15), and Christians are challenged
to be like him (Philippians 2:5). John Hick admits that there is
no contradiction in God making people who always choose to do good
'so long as we think of God's purpose for man . . . exclusively
in terms of man's performance in relation to his fellows.'
But God's purpose also includes people entering into personal relationships
with him. For a relationship to exhibit the attributes of trust,
love, faith, obedience, etc., it must 'arise in a free being as
an uncompelled response to the personal qualities of others.'
For this reason, each person must be able to choose whether or not
to be involved in a relationship with God. If it has been predetermined
in any way that a person must have a relationship with God, that
relationship would not be viewed as authentic.
A third objection raised against the
free will defence is that while God is justified in allowing people
to choose to do evil, he is not justified in allowing that evil
to come to pass. Instead, God could arrange a coincidental miracle
to counteract the intended evil. This view is espoused by Steven
Boer and Robert McKim, but Frank Dilley has critiqued it.
Dilley raises three main objections. (1) A world governed by these
constraints would require such a large number of miracles to prevent
evil that the natural laws that we now have would need to be drastically
revised. The Natural Law Theodicy section later in this paper will
show that this type of world would not allow meaningful choices.
(2) If evil cannot result from our actions, then the result must
be good, and this would divorce outcome from intentions. This would
also make intending to do good meaningless. (3) If every intended
evil led to a counteracting miracle, the existence of God would
be as empirically well-proven as the existence of Europe. It would
then be irrational to not believe in the existence of God. But,
God chooses to remain somewhat hidden from humans so that they will
respond to him in faith, trusting that he exists and is loving (Hebrews
11:6). Otherwise, belief and trust in him would be forced on people
in order that they avoid being seen as irrational.
A fourth objection to this theodicy
is the assertion that humans are not morally free in the first place.
This view, called determinism, claims there are earlier events and
circumstances which combine to be the sufficient causes of every
apparent choice. Support for this position is usually derived from
the successes of modern science. Physics shows us that the universe
runs according to natural laws, while biology and biochemistry show
that the physical body does also. It is claimed that all human behaviours
can be explained in terms of Freudian unconscious motivations, Skinner's
behaviourism, and operand conditioning, or the impact of society.
For those areas where free will still appears to exist, it is held
to be just a matter of time before science will show how these areas
also are completely determined by pre-existing causes.
But this position is not as firmly
established as it may appear. Determinism can be taken as a presupposition,
but the evidence for it is far from conclusive.
With the advent of quantum theory, and the randomness seen in subatomic
particles, modern physics is becoming less committed to absolute
determinism on the subatomic level. Chaos theory is revealing that
determinism may not be as valid on the macroscopic level as once
was thought. Human behavioural sciences have made many predictions
based on determinism which have not been borne out in practice.
But most seriously, there is a high cost to holding to determinism.
If reality is completely determined, the experience of free will
and moral responsibility must be an illusion. It can even be argued
that rational thinking would not be possible in a determined world
as even our thoughts would be simply consequences of earlier events.
Creativity would no longer be real. Complete determinism can be
rejected based on a lack of evidence, and the fact that its implications
lead to a discounting of much of what makes human experience unique.
The Bible claims that God places a
high value on free will and the choices that humans make. God created
humankind in his own image (Genesis 1:27). The precise meaning of
this term has been much debated, but in its immediate context it
results in humans having dominion over the earth. The Hebrew term
translated by image refers to the statues which were left by a king
in those regions which were under his authority as reminders of
his sovereignty and character. Given this meaning, humans are to
serve as the representatives of God, carrying out what God would
want accomplished on earth, and also revealing the type of person
who God is.
But almost immediately, people rejected
doing what God wanted, and decided to do what they themselves wanted
(Genesis 3:6). The Fall was the source of the first human suffering.
But rather than destroying humanity, which would have brought into
question just how free human choice was, God decided to continue
to work through humans to further his ways. God chose Israel, freed
them from slavery, and gave them a land, not because of anything
they had done, but so that he could bless them, and thereby bless
all the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). If Israel had responded in gratitude
to God, and obeyed his Law, relief from suffering would have occurred,
and the world would have been drawn back to God (Deuteronomy 4:6-8;
But Israel generally chose not to bring
peace and comfort to others, but became as selfish a nation as any
other. However, God was preparing to send someone who would be able
to fulfill his law (Isaiah 49:5-6), and who would bring true healing
(Matthew 8:17). This was Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross
paid the debt owed by every person for sin (Colossians 2:14), thus
restoring people's relationships with God and allowing the Holy
Spirit to dwell in each new believer.
Rather than doing nothing about suffering,
throughout history God has been preparing the way for true comfort
and healing to occur. Through the empowering of the Holy Spirit,
each Christian can have a powerful impact on suffering in the world.
This is what God wants, but he still allows each individual to decide
whether or not to pursue him and bring comfort to others. Some may
feel that he should have given up by now and taken over control
again, but he claims he is being patient so that more can decide
to have eternal comfort with him (2 Peter 3:9). By 'holy conduct
and godliness' Christians can even hasten the arrival of the day
in which God will restore justice and end all suffering (2 Peter
3:10-11). This is a powerful acknowledgement of the significant
role God offers to every Christian. God offers help and guidance
to anyone willing to bring comfort to others, but the responsibility
lies with each person to choose to do so, or to choose to increase
suffering in the world, either actively or passively, through neglect
2. Punishment Theodicy
Given this link between people's choices
and suffering, the punishment theodicy claims that suffering is
sent by God to punish people for their sin. This can be viewed either
as punishment for one's own sin, or for sin in general. The Bible
does teach that all human suffering ultimately stems from sin since
God allowed suffering to enter his creation because of the first
sin (Genesis 3:16-19). But this only begs the question as to why
God would choose that consequence as opposed to some other one not
However, the link between sin and suffering
is often expressed in a more individualised way. Some claim that
God inflicts suffering on a person as a punishment for a specific
sin. This is the sense in which this theodicy will be discussed
here. In the face of suffering, reactions of the type 'What have
I done to deserve this?' or 'Why is God punishing me this way?'
reveal this belief. This belief is also revealed when people expect
suffering to diminish in their lives as they mature in Christ or
simply become 'better' people.
This view is often claimed to be presented
in the Bible. The Old Testament repeatedly states that God will
reward those who obey his law, and punish those who do not (e.g.
Deuteronomy 11:26-28). But many of these rewards and punishments
were promised to the nation of Israel as part of the covenant which
they willingly entered into during a period when God's kingdom was
geophysical, in addition to being spiritual (Deuteronomy 5:27).
These punishments were given for specific actions, often after many
warnings, and did not have the random character of general suffering.
They should not be taken as the normative way God deals with all
people at all times.
The Bible does say there are blessings
for those who obey God (Psalm 128). While miracles may still occur,
the blessings which are promised are linked predominantly to spiritual
health and growth (3 John 2). Yet the abundant life promised by
Jesus will include overall good health (John 10:10). The quality
of our lives as Christians should always be improving, but this
does not guarantee immunity from sickness or suffering. What is
promised is a better way to deal with those times (Philippians 4:10-13).
If the Bible did teach that suffering
occurs in this life in proportion to the wickedness of people, one
quick look at the world would reveal the fallacy of that argument.
The wicked obviously do get away with many things while apparently
good people have to suffer their whole lives. This corresponds exactly
with the type of world described in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 3:16
notes that wickedness has replaced justice and righteousness. Psalm
73 makes the same observation, which briefly led the author to wonder
if he was keeping his heart pure in vain. The apostle Paul, in his
desire to follow God and do his will, lived a life filled with suffering
to a degree which most do not have to endure (2 Corinthians 11:23-33).
In fact, Christians are promised that their suffering will increase
simply because they are Christians (Hebrews 12:5-11).
This theodicy can also be objected
to if punishment without explanation is viewed as retribution, not
true justice. If suffering comes as punishment for particular offences
against God, we do not usually get an explanation for it. Much of
the anguish in holding to this theodicy comes from trying to figure
out what we did to merit this particular pain or suffering. Instead
of randomly inflicting punishments on us, a just, loving God would
explain why each punishment is being inflicted so that we can amend
Another objection is that if suffering
is punishment for sin, how have children born with congenital diseases
sinned? The only obvious answers were raised by Jesus' disciples
when they asked him this same question (John 9:2). (1) The person
sinned in the womb. This is discounted by Jesus, and the doctrine
of the age of consent (Isaiah 7:16). (2) The person sinned in some
earlier life, as various reincarnation doctrines hold. This doctrine
is opposed to biblical teaching (Hebrews 9:27). (3) Children suffer
for the sins of their parents. Some passages (e.g. Exodus 20:5;
Numbers 14:18; Psalm 79:8) refer to the iniquity of parents being
passed on to their descendants, which is viewed by some as support
for this teaching.
Reichenbach mentions that other passages teach that parents' punishment
will not be passed on to their children (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel
18:20), but discounts them as being fewer in number. However, the
words most commonly translated by 'iniquity' do not represent the
judicial punishment for sin, but the painful consequences of sin.
These are manifested in the guilt which a person feels, destruction
of community, and separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). Jesus' reply
to his disciples in John 9:3 makes it clear that all suffering is
not a form of punishment, and offers an explanation which will be
Two other passages in the Bible make
it very clear that suffering is not usually sent as punishment from
God. In the Book of Job, Eliphaz tried to convince Job (Job 4:7-8;
15:24-25) that his misfortunes were the result of his sin and that
if he repented all would be well. But Job denied that this was the
case, and was later vindicated by God (Job 42:7). In Luke 13:1-5
Jesus denied that the Galileans killed by Pilate and those killed
by the falling tower of Siloam had died because they were worse
sinners than those who had survived.
All the suffering in this world cannot
be explained as punishment for sin. However, God has at times punished
people for their sin by inflicting suffering. He did it at the Tower
of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and a number of times to
the Jewish people. When disease or suffering are sent by God as
punishments, they are usually specifically warned of ahead of time.
Many wonder how God could have done such deeds to so many people,
but he looks at things differently. The Bible teaches that we all
deserve death because we have all sinned (Romans 6:23). Instead
of asking why God can be so cruel as to kill some people, we should
be asking why God can be so merciful as to withhold the death penalty
from many of us for so long.
Sickness may still sometimes be connected
to some sin, which in that case should be confessed (James 5:13-16).
Suffering may come as the natural consequence of sin, such as when
sexual immorality leads to disease or emotional pain. But sickness
is often completely unconnected to illness (John 9:1-3). Many godly
people mentioned in the New Testament got ill without any suggestion
it was due to sin (Acts 9:36-37; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Philippians
2:25-30; 1 Timothy 5:23).
When we suffer from pain and illness,
we need, in general, to look elsewhere than to God for its cause.
He may choose to allow it to continue for reasons that are explored
below. This was the essence of Jesus' response to the questions
in Luke 13. He told his audience that there was no particular reason
why those people died. However, those listening to him should examine
themselves and note that they deserved the same fate. In light of
that, they should turn to him and ask for his mercy and forgiveness.
God's normative way of dealing with people is not to punish them
with suffering every time they sin. We are told that God will punish
individuals for their sin, but often not until the Day of Judgement.
Those who appear to be getting away with evil will be punished at
that time (1 Thessalonians 1:6-10). This truth allows us to bear
with the apparently unjust distribution of suffering in the world.
3. Repentance Theodicy
This theodicy introduces the first
of a number of possible beneficial effects of suffering. God designed
people to be in intimate relationship with him and empowered by
him for everything. But this has not been people's natural tendency
since the Fall. We now want to be in control of our own lives and
destinies, thus blind to our true needs (Jeremiah 17:5-8; Revelation
3:17-19). God wants to woo us back into his care (Jeremiah 31:20;
Matthew 23:37). But often it takes suffering and need to get us
to the point where we will turn to God. C. S. Lewis put it this
"God whispers to us in our pleasures,
speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone
to rouse a deaf world."
This appears to be part of Jesus' response
to his disciples in John 9:3 concerning why the man was born blind.
He says that 'it was in order that the works of God might be made
manifest in him.' In John 10:38 Jesus claims that the purpose of
these works is that people might come to know the Father.
With Cain and Abel, God allowed the
righteous person to suffer an untimely death, while the evil person
lived on (Genesis 4:1-15). God went to great lengths to rescue Cain
because he was in danger of eternal death, while Abel's acceptance
with God was secure.
God's numerous interactions with Cain revealed that he was committed
to helping Cain get right with him, something God wants for all
humans (2 Peter 3:9). God even allowed his own Son to suffer terribly
and die on the cross so that the greater good of many people coming
to know him personally became possible (John 3:16-17).
Pain and suffering can be used to show
us that our lives are not as they should be. They can awaken us
from our pursuit of material things and worldly happiness. They
show us that we are not really in control of our lives, no matter
how much we think we are. They can cause us to turn to God in repentance.
We may grant him the control of our lives we should have given him
in the first place. This pattern is often heard in the testimonies
of Christians. Many people have accepted Christ only after going
through some type of bad experience: death of a friend or family
member, illness, divorce, career failure, or a life-long dream being
put completely out of reach. It is also revealed in one of the common
jibes thrown out against Christianity: that it is a crutch for people
who can't make it themselves. In many ways this is actually true;
Christians have come to see that we cannot make it in this world
4. Character Building Theodicy
The positive effects of pain and suffering
do not stop with the initiation of a relationship with God. God
can use times of pain in our lives to mature us and deepen our relationship
with him. For Christians, this also includes God's discipline. Just
like a parent God sometimes allows his children to suffer, or even
does things which feel painful to his children. Always, this is
done for the good of the one disciplined:
"All discipline for the moment
seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been
trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness."
C. S. Lewis explains in great detail
how God's love for people is the type which is committed to making
them into the best people that they can be. This involves pointing
out our faults, and empowering us to change. This is, by definition,
going to be painful. But because of the good that comes from it,
God is justified in allowing this type of suffering.
"You asked for a loving God: you
have one. . . . not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you
to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscious
magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the
comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love
that made the worlds, persistent as the artist's love for his work
and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident and venerable
as a father's love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as
love between the sexes."
This explanation is also given in more
philosophical terms when it is claimed that many positive human
attributes develop only in the face of pain and suffering.
"Courage develops amid danger,
perseverance in difficulty, honesty defying temptation, charity
confronted with privation and need, self-sacrifice in the context
of struggle, self-esteem in the face of challenge, confidence against
uncertainty, love where obstacles abound."
An objection raised against this theodicy
is that while the suffering may sometimes lead to good character
development, it often doesn't. For example, poverty may lead to
charity, but it may also lead to indifference and even exploitation
of the poor. In this area alone, who is to say whether the existence
of poverty in the world leads to more evil or more good? Illness
may bring some people closer to God, but others have rejected God
because of sickness and disease.
While the points raised by this objection
are valid, they do not invalidate this theodicy. It is the necessity
of suffering for character development that is proposed, not the
necessity that good must result. The outcome is ultimately determined
by people's choices, which leads back to the free will theodicy.
Much suffering exists because of the way people treat one another.
God offers a way to bring good from this by changing people's characters,
which will lead to less suffering. In this way, God can cause all
things to work for good, for those who love him (Romans 8:28).
Another objection to this theodicy
is that the characteristics said to be formed as a result of exposure
to suffering could be developed in other ways. For example, courage
and fortitude could be developed in light of a difficult or demanding
task like space exploration, as opposed to being developed while
in search for a cure for AIDS; help and co-operation could be developed
in training for an Olympic team event, as opposed to carrying out
In response, Christianity claims that
the problem with humans is not the characteristics they portray,
but their will.
As a result of the Fall, humans no longer have the capacity to will
what they ought to will (Romans 7:14-21). This makes union with
God impossible, and what is needed is the repair of our wills. God
has left open the possibility that we can desire that he repair
our wills, which an omnipotent God can do. Our experience of suffering
is often what it takes to get us to the point of desiring this.
"Things that contribute to a person's
humbling, to his awareness of his own evil, and to his unhappiness
with his present state contribute to his willing God's help."
This is not a complete, instantaneous
repair. As we experience God's healing in one area of our lives
we are inclined to ask him to do more. The goal, then, is greater
conformity to the divine will which allows greater union with God
and leads to character traits more in accordance with those of Jesus
The character building theodicy has
also been criticised for not explaining how evils like the suffering
of a child can contribute to the child's salvation or character.
This issue will be addressed later under Gratuitous Evil.
5. Demon Theodicy
The theodicies discussed so far deal
with suffering which comes as a result of human choices, i.e. moral
evil. But there is also much suffering which cannot be directly
connected with the actions of humans, such as earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, and many diseases. These are collectively known as natural
evils, and different explanations are often proposed for these.
Some evils which are often classified
as natural evils may actually be moral evils. For example, famine
may be regarded as due to a lack of action on the part of those
who have abundant resources. One of the oldest theodicies treats
all natural evil as moral evil by claiming that these are caused
by Satan or his demons. Since the devil is the one in control of
this world (1 John 5:19), he is able to use it to inflict suffering
on people to push them away from God. For example, Jesus states
that an illness he had just cured in a woman was inflicted on her
by Satan (Luke 13:16). Conversion of natural evil into moral evil
makes it susceptible to the theodicies covered earlier.
The main limitation with this argument
is that there is very little evidence to support, or negate, it.
Unlike Jesus, we humans cannot confidently declare that Satan caused
an instance of suffering. While we must affirm Satan's continued
involvement in causing suffering, the Bible gives few guidelines
to allow discernment of this in actual situations. Anthony Flew
claims that this is 'just another desperate ad hoc expedient of
apologetic,' to which Alvin Plantinga replies that 'to rebut the
charge of contradiction the theist need not hold that the hypothesis
in question is probable or even true. He need hold only that it
is not inconsistent with the proposition that God exists.'
As such, this claim passes the test
of logic. But for many people it does not provide a satisfactory
explanation since it removes the discussion to a realm where we
have little information, and in this sense makes theism a less realistic
view. Therefore, other explanations for natural evil have been proposed.
6. Knowledge and Experience Theodicy
One of these theodicies is that God
is justified in allowing natural evil because it is one of humanity's
principal sources of moral knowledge.
Through observing predictable events in nature people learn what
actions cause or prevent pain, and thus what are morally bad or
good actions. For example, from seeing the results of a fire started
by a bolt of lightning we can deduce that it would be a bad thing
for a person to start a similar fire. In addition, through experiencing
the pain of natural evil, we can learn to sympathise with others
experiencing similar pain, and also view inflicting that type of
pain on others as wrong.
"If man is to have a free and
responsible choice of destiny, he needs to have a range of actions
open to him, whose consequences, good and evil, he understands,
and he can only have that understanding in a world which already
has built into it many natural processes productive of both good
An objection to this theodicy is that
God could have given this knowledge in some other way which did
not involve suffering. God did this in the past when he used prophets
(Jeremiah 42:1-16), visions (Daniel 8-10), animals (Numbers 22:21-35),
and inanimate objects (1 Samuel 23:9-11) to warn people of the consequences
of their actions. But, even when it was widely acknowledged that
these people brought knowledge directly from God they were rarely
Personal experience appears to be a
better teacher than another's advice.
It is important that people come to some understanding of right
and wrong on their own so that they develop responsibility for their
If God had delineated right and wrong for every circumstance people
'would be so suffocated by God that they had little real choice
God's existence would become so obvious that it would be irrational
not to believe in him. The problem with this situation has already
This theodicy may give some helpful
insight into the meaning of the tree of knowledge of good and evil
(Genesis 2:17). Humans were tempted to become able to understand
good and evil, and thus disobeyed God. The consequences were that
humans were banished from the Garden of Eden and began to suffer
pain. The knowledge of good and evil would then come through the
pain which people would suffer. This would come from natural evil,
but also moral evil, which would proliferate as a result of people's
inherent sin nature.
God accommodated the human desire to
know good and evil apart from him. But this could only be done at
the price of suffering. In his grace and mercy, God still instructs
us about good and evil through the Bible and the Holy Spirit (John
16:8-11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). But even this requires we have some
moral concepts with which to see the goodness of God's ways. Suffering
teaches us enough about good and evil that we can judge that God
is good, and that what the Bible teaches is good.
7. Natural Law Theodicy
Another explanation given for natural
evil is that it is a necessary product of an orderly universe governed
by natural law. In a world where choices are to be judged as good
or bad, there must be a significant amount of predictability. Based
on how things normally occur, a person can know with a good degree
of confidence what the outcome will be. Therefore, they can be held
accountable for the moral nature of their decisions. This can only
occur in a universe bound by certain laws of nature which are independent
of the desires of the involved parties.
So, when a boulder moves on a mountain-side
we know that it will roll downhill. When it hits a larger boulder,
it will probably be broken into smaller pieces. But, when it rolls
onto a road and hits a passing car, the car will probably be smashed
and the passengers hurt or killed, causing grief to their relatives
and friends and fear in other motorists. If the boulder was to stop
rolling simply because its path could result in suffering, or if
it was to cause no damage upon hitting a smaller, weaker car, we
would loose much of our predictive powers. This would eliminate
accountability and true moral choice, thus making natural evil amenable
to the arguments of the free will defence. Therefore, God is justified
in creating a world of this type and placing humans in it. However,
when personal beings are introduced into a world based on natural
law, natural evil and its accompanying suffering are inevitable
Some have argued that God could have
made a world with different natural laws which would not have led
to natural evils. However, natural laws are not abstract mathematical
equations, but descriptions of how natural objects act and react
under certain conditions.
To change these laws would require changing the very nature of objects.
For example, water would have to become something in which people
could not drown. That would involve changing all its related properties
which make it the compound we are familiar with and which make it
so essential for life. To change the natural laws would require
changing almost all objects to such an extent that they would not
be recognisable to us. Thus, we have no way of predicting what such
a world would be like, and certainly no way of being assured that
it would be a world with less natural evil. In this case, the burden
of proof is on the objector to provide a model of a universe with
alternative natural laws. It remains reasonable to believe that
God was justified in choosing the natural laws we have.
Another objection raised against this
theodicy is that a loving God would protect his creatures from the
negative effects of these natural laws by suspending them whenever
evil was about to occur. So, for example, as the boulder continued
onto the road it could become elastic and bounce over an oncoming
car. But these types of 'miracles' would have to happen so often
that people 'could not entertain rational expectations, make predictions,
estimate probabilities, or calculate prudence.'
The result would be a world 'in which wrong actions were impossible,
and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; . .
. evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which
we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame
Therefore, moral choices would not be possible, which would not
be desirable for the reasons given under the Free Will Defence.
8. Evidential Form of the Problem
This form of the problem admits that
it is possible for God and evil to co-exist. This is treated as
a hypothesis which is tested based on the evidence available to
support and refute it. Many people experience God as a loving God.
They have read in the Bible that he is so, and believe he has acted
in loving ways at many points in history. This counts as strong
evidence for the theist.
So, even though we may not be able to reconcile all the suffering
we see, it must be remembered that our finite minds will not be
able to comprehend everything. We must examine all the evidence,
and though we may see the existence of evil as a difficulty, we
can take it on faith that God is loving and has his reasons for
This argument has the advantage of
making use of all aspects of religious experience. It accepts the
incompleteness of each theodicy. But taken together, they constitute
a strong argument. It shows that there is an element of faith in
people's willingness, or otherwise, to accept a resolution to this
problem. On the other hand, it legitimises the atheist's attempt
to accumulate evidence and testimony contrary to the existence of
a loving God, and boils the solution down to a choice between two
9. Gratuitous Evil
A problem with any theodicy attempting
to explain every form of suffering is that some suffering seems
to be beyond explanation. Foremost among these gratuitous evils
is the extreme suffering which some children go through from birth.
This, of all suffering, seems to have no redeeming value. This allegedly
weakens the case for theism in that new explanations are seen as
ad hoc. As we have seen, some theists claim that the apparent
gratuity of some suffering is caused by the limitations of human
reason, while others claim that these types of sufferings are punishments
for sins committed. Others claim that it will all work out in the
long run in heaven, so meanwhile we should just have faith.
However, some commentators have noted
that these interpretations are not necessitated by beliefs about
the character of God. Rather, they are based on the assumption that
a loving God could not allow gratuitous evil to exist. This involves
denying the experience and feelings of gratuitous evil and means
that 'theodicy never relevantly addresses the very phenomenon it
purports to explicate.'
This assumption has been critiqued
in detail (for example, by Peterson). This is not just a philosophical
point of discussion, but has broader implications:
"A theistic case against gratuitous
evil casts grave doubt on the reliability of human experience and
on the moral and rational categories which condition it, and thus
runs the risk of being self-defeating." 
Peterson assumes that if God gives
people free will with the goal of accomplishing the maximum good,
it must also be possible they can accomplish the maximum evil, which,
be definition, would be gratuitous evil. Since the world needs to
operate according to natural laws which do not seem easily changeable,
the gratuitous nature of some natural evils is a consequence of
the natural order, and not of a specific reason for that evil. Peterson
claims that gratuitous evil is an essential part of God's hiddenness,
which, agreeing with Hick's thesis, is needed for humans to freely
choose whether to believe in God or not. He claims that gratuitous
evil is evidence for theism, revealing a God who places a
high premium on creativity and moral effort and who wants to transform
humans into his likeness. It reveals a God who wants to give the
most to his creatures. But in order that this gift can be freely
accepted, the environment must be a perilous one.
Theodicy does not explain each particular
instance of suffering, but tries to explain the kind of world we
have, which allows even the most gratuitous suffering to occur.
This view leads to a change in the role of the theodicist.
Instead of seeking an explanation for each case of suffering, the
theodicist shows how suffering in general can be redemptive. This,
in itself, can bring significant hope in the midst of pain. It gives
someone reasons to cling faithfully to God while weathering the
storm. This remains an important way to relieve suffering and spread
the grace of God in the world.
Suffering exists, and causes problems
for humans in their approach to God. We cannot be confident that
we know why God allows each particular episode of suffering. Job
never found out why he was suffering (Job 42:1-6). The relentless
search for an explanation for each particular instance of suffering
can even be a cause for further suffering. False explanations can
cause even more pain, for example by inflicting false guilt, offering
false hope, or denying the reality or extent of the pain. God does
not promise to explain the cause of our suffering, but he does promise
to be with us and help us get through the pain.
Not knowing why we are suffering is
very different from claiming that suffering is inconsistent with
God's existence. It has proved to be very difficult to demonstrate
that God could not allow evil to exist, even gratuitous evil. Instead,
some very plausible arguments have been offered to explain why suffering
in general does exist, and why God must allow it to exist.
In focusing on the intellectual side
of this problem, it is important not to neglect or deny the emotional
side of suffering. The Psalms reveal that God is very concerned
about people's emotions and their healthy expression. Christianity
goes much further than offering rational arguments for the co-existence
of suffering and God. Through reflection on these arguments, a person's
faith in God and trust in him in the midst of suffering will be
strengthened. Having come to a personal conviction on this issue
he or she will be less likely to waver at the precise moment when
it is most important to cling to God. Our intellect can bring emotional
comfort in the midst of suffering.
Through the example of Jesus' suffering
we know that we have a God who can empathise with us in every way
(Hebrews 2:9, 18). We have a God who wants to comfort us in our
sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). This is accomplished directly
by God and the Holy Spirit, but also through other Christians. The
existence of suffering should motivate Christians to bring healing
and comfort to those who are in pain (Philippians 2:1-8). The Christian
also has a great source of hope in the knowledge that this suffering
will come to an end, and will lead to a time of true peace and happiness
Scripture references from the New American Standard Bible. 1973.
La Habra, Calif.: Lockman Foundation. Return to Text
Clendenin, Daniel B. 'Security But No Certainty: Toward a Christian
Theodicy', Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
31 (September 1988), pp. 321-8. Return to Text
Plantinga, Alvin, God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1967), p. 116. Return to Text
Mackie, J. L., 'Evil and Omnipotence', Mind 64 (April 1955).
Quoted in Evans, C. Stephen, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking
about Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982),
pp. 133-4. Return to Text
Lewis, C. S., The Problem of Pain (London: The Centenary
Press, 1940), p. 16. Return to Text
Kushner, Harold D., When Bad Things Happen to Good People
(New York: Avon, 1981). Return to Text
Wetzel, James, 'Can Theodicy be Avoided? The Claim of Unredeemed
Evil', Religious Studies. 25 (1989), pp. 6. Return to
Evans, p. 136. Return to Text
Hick, John, Evil and the God of Love (Collins, 1966), p.
310. Return to Text
Hick, p. 309. Return to Text
Dilley, Frank B. 'The Free-Will Defense and worlds without moral
evil', Philosophy of Religion. 27 (April 1990), pp. 1-15.
Return to Text
Hasker, William, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View (Downers
Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 29-55. Return to
Reichenbach, Bruce R., Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham
University Press, 1982), p. 92. Return to Text
The most common Hebrew word translated as iniquity is awon
(Harris, R. Laird, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), Vol. 2, pp. 650-2). The other Hebrew
word translated as iniquity is awen (Harris, Vol. 1, pp.
23-4). Return to Text
The most common Greek word translated as iniquity is adikia
(Brown, Colin, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament
Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1967), Vol. 3, pp.
573-6). Return to Text
Martin, James, Suffering Man, Loving God (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1969), pp. 34-5. Return to Text
Lewis, p. 81. Return to Text
Stump, Eleonore, 'The Problem of Evil', Faith and Philosophy.
2 (October 1985), pp. 392-423. Return to Text
Lewis, p. 35. Return to Text
Reichenbach, p. 97. Return to Text
Kane, Stanley, 'The Failure of Soul-Making Theodicy', International
Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. 6 (1975), pp. 1-22.
Return to Text
Stump, (1985). Return to Text
Stump, (1985), p. 409. Return to Text
Fales, Evan, 'Antediluvian Theodicy: Stump on the Fall', Faith
and Philosophy. 6 (July 1989), pp. 320-9. Return to Text
Plantinga, p. 151. Return to Text
Swinburne, Richard, 'Knowledge from Experience, and the Problem
of Evil', The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in Honour
of Basil Mitchell, ed. William J. Abraham and Steven W. Holtzer
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 141-67. Return to Text
Swinburne, p. 165. Return to Text
Stump, Eleonore, 'Knowledge, Freedom and the Problem of Evil', International
Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. 14 (1983), pp. 49-58.
Return to Text
Moser, Paul K., 'Natural Evil and the Free Will Defense', International
Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. 15 (1984), pp. 49-56.
Return to Text
Swinburne, p. 157. Return to Text
Peterson, Michael, Evil and the Christian God (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Baker Book House, 1982), pp. 111-7. Return to Text
Reichenbach, p. 103. Return to Text
Lewis, p. 21. Return to Text
Evans, pp. 137-40. Return to Text
Wetzel, p. 11. Return to Text
Peterson, p. 92. Return to Text
Schuurman, Henry, 'The Concept of a Strong Theodicy', Philosophy
of Religion. 27 (1990), pp. 63-85. 27. Return to Text