Sunday, May 18, 2008

Why is There Pain?

Utilitarian focused philosopher Peter Singer comes back to the oldest of questions: why does God allow pain. Not much new here, but it does offer a backdrop for discussion and thought. Here are some highlights:

Do we live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good? Christians think we do. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering. If God is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much of it - and he would have done so if he were all good.

Christians usually respond that God bestowed on us the gift of free will, and hence is not responsible for the evil we do. But this reply fails to deal with the suffering of those who drown in floods, are burned alive in forest fires caused by lightning, or die of hunger or thirst during a drought.

Christians sometimes attempt to explain this suffering by saying that all humans are sinners, and so deserve their fate, even if it is a horrible one. But infants and small children are just as likely to suffer and die in natural disasters as adults, and it seems impossible that they could deserve to suffer and die.

Once again, some Christians say that we have all inherited the original sin committed by Eve, who defied God's decree against eating from the tree of knowledge. This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies that knowledge is bad, disobeying God's will is the greatest sin of all, and children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may justly be punished for them.

Even if were to accept all this, the problem remains unresolved. For animals also suffer from floods, fires, and droughts, and, since they are not descended from Adam and Eve, they cannot have inherited original sin.

Read it all here.

Professor Singer goes off on several other explanations--including the one suggested by Job--but I think this gives a good start to a conversation? So what is your response?

To me, the free will argument is the most persuasive, but only if you take a broader view of free will. A few observations: First, it seems to me that if we are to be more than a video game or plaything for God--and are instead to be a being with whom God can love and have a relationship, the concept of free will is inevitable. If God wants us to be more than mere playthings or toys, he had to create us with free will--including the free will to reject God and the free will to cause suffering.

Second, I think that the concept of free will can apply to the rest of creation as well--albeit in a very different way. As readers of this blog well know, I accept evolution, and I also think that the acceptance of creation has implications for how we view God. For this point, I'll borrow from John Haught (who I blogged about here):

A God of love influences the world in a persuasive rather than coercive way, and this is why chance and evolution occur. It is because God is involved with the world in a loving rather than domineering way that the world evolves. If God were a magician or a dictator, then we might expect the universe to be finished all at once and remain eternally unchanged. If God controlled the world rigidly instead of willing its independence, we might not expect the weird organisms of the Cambrian explosion, the later dinosaurs and reptiles, or the many other wild creatures that seem so alien to us. We would want our divine magician to build the world along the lines of our own narrowly human sense of clean perfection. But what a pallid and impoverished world that would be. It would lack all the drama, diversity, adventure and intense beauty that evolution has produced. It might have a listless harmony to it, but it would have none of the novelty, contrast, danger, upheavals, and grandeur that evolution has in fact brought about over billions of years.

According to the contact position, God is not a magician but a creator. And this God is much more interested in promoting freedom and adventure than in preserving the status quo. Since divine creative love has the character of letting things be, we should not be too surprised at evolution's strange and erratic pathways. The long struggle of the universe to arrive at life, consciousness, and culture is consonant with faith's conviction that love never forces but always allows for the play of freedom, risk and adventure.

Love even gives the beloved a share in the creative process. Might it not be because God wants the world to partake of the divine joy of creating novelty, that it is left unfinished, and that it is invited to be, at least to some degree, self-creative? And if it is self-creative can we be too disconcerted that it has experimented with the many different, delightful, baffling and bizarre forms that we find in the fossil record and in the diversity of life that surrounds us now?

Read it all here.

In other words, God the creator, may have decided that allowing creation to unfold in such a process as evolution requires that natural processes be allowed to move forward uninterrupted. And the pain and suffering we see is a necessary cost of the freedom of the created.

Third, try to imagine a world with no suffering and pain, and think through the implications for the meaning of our lives. Our own choices would necessarily be constrained--significantly. The earth and weather would be static and unchangeable. and boring. I submit that life in such a world may be without pain--but it would also be a world with far less pleasure, and far less meaning than the world we live in today. I submit that this world without pain and suffering would actually be more theologically and philisophically problemic than the one we actually live in.

Finally, if you are a Christian, you believe that God--through Christ incarnate--is suffering and has suffered right along with the rest of us. It is not an answer to the problem, but it certainly puts the matter in a very different context.


Robert said...

Hi Chuck,

I would disagree that the free will argument is most persuasive as an answer to the existence of suffering. Consider this analogy. Do law enforcement authorities impinge on the free will of criminals or terrorists when they try to stop the latter's misdeeds? Obviously not. The free will argument conflates free will with license. In truth, an omnipotent deity could constrain the latter without violating the former.

Your other argument is that suffering permits the varied and interesting world we have. But this is not the best possible world available to us. In Christian theology, heaven is. In heaven, there is no suffering or evil, yet we exercise free will there, unless we're simply robots with no choice but to love our creator.

In the end, the Christian must explain this world in light of heaven.

Chuck Blanchard said...


These are both questions I have thought a bit about. They noth deserve a longer response, but here are some headlines.

First, I see your distinction between free will and license. Perhaps a better word than free will is freedom. God gives us freedom. I suppose that God could have given us free will and then acted in the world as a supernatural police officer. Again, however, think about the consequences of such an action. We learn and grow as humans from our mistakes. And we grow from self-reliance. A world in which God is always intervening to stop bad things from happening comes very close to turning the world into a kindergarten. And human development and meaning are lost as a result.

Second, I have come to beleive that God has acted to end suffering in the world--but he has done so by inspiring human action--no through supernatural intervention. In other words, God ended slavery through the efforts of folks like Wilberforce. The world is now a much less violent place (with some exceptions) than it was before the 17th Century. We have learned to be a less cruel and violent people since the 16th Century by almost every measure.

So what about heaven? As you lots has been written about this issue. I think there are several answers--but they must be quite tentative. Jesus was fully human, with free will, but he did not sin. He points to the possibility that with the proper relationship with God, we too will choose not the sin despite the freedom to do so. So why did God not simply create us as Jesus-like creatures to begin with? I think thatthe answer lies again with the fact that human beings need to learn through experience to live with the freedom that God has given us.

The theme to all of this is that creation is a process not a static thing. God seems to have chosen a world of growth and development (a process) rather simply putting us in a static environment. I suspect that heaven itself is not static, but another realm of change and growth.

Robert said...

Hello again Chuck,

You wrote, "A world in which God is always intervening to stop bad things from happening comes very close to turning the world into a kindergarten."

I'm not sure the comparison is very apt. The obvious difference is that some "bad things" have lethal consequences. Would you not prevent your child from putting her finger into an electrical socket on the grounds she needs to "learn and grow" from her mistakes? What if you weren't around to stop her?

Your explanation also appears to suggest that God uses the suffering of some as a means to increase overall human development. Perhaps, but that reduces all of us to unwitting and unwilling lab rats, under an "ends justifies the means" rationale. Really, was there no better way for an omnipotent creator to achieve the same end?

I'm not sure what to make of your discussion of Jesus and free will. You say he was fully human. But traditional Christian theology states he was fully divine as well. That gives him a kind of "leg up" on the rest of us, don't you think?

If heaven is another realm of change and growth, where pain and suffering do not exist, it demonstrates that pain and suffering are not necessary for growth. Sure, heaven could be a more advanced stage, but remember, it's one that a majority of humanity will never achieve due to their being eternally punished for not passing this earthly test which God seemingly puts us through.

I think in sum, you paint a very unflattering picture of your god, one who uses some portion of his creation for the benefit of others, and casting aside the majority of it who do not "graduate".

Chuck Blanchard said...


Sadly, I am just "A Guy in the Pew", and not a theologian. As you know, theologians have struggled with these issues for centuries. I am struggling with this now.

What I do think, however, is that if you accept evolution as good science (like I do), this forces you to rethink the nature of God. There are lots of possibilities, of course, including:

(1) There is no God
(2) We need to rethink the concept that God is all powerful--perhaps there is some limit on how God can intervene in the world
(3) There is some purpose, perhaps one that we can't comprehend, for why God has decided to let creation work its course. This is obviously the option I explored in my post, suggesting that freedom is prized by God. While freedom may mean suffering and pain, if we are all better off for that freedom then that explains the form of creation.
(4) Some of the process theologies (which I really don't know much about)

Not to put off an answer to your specific questions, but they merit a more educated and detailed response that I promise to get to down the road. In other words, watch this space.

Robert said...


I appreciate your candor, though I have to wonder, why interpret the evidence in light of the assumption that the Christian god exists, rather than simply go where the evidence leads?

Chuck Blanchard said...


I think that I am "following the evidence", but the spirit of my inquiry is like that Einstein used when confronted with the Michelson-Morley experiment. (The experiment was an attempt to measure differences in the speed of light between an observer moving in the direction of the light’s emission and one moving away. There was no measurable difference even though the experiment was repeated again and again with increasing levels of accuracy and precision.)

This experiemental result was nonsense from a Newtonian point of view. Even Michaelson doubted his result and dozens of physicists tried to find some flaw in the experiment.

Einstein decided to take this result at face value, and used it as the starting point for developing Special Relativity.

That is what I am doing here, and that is what theologian John Haught is doing as well. Rather than fight the theory of evolution, we are asking the question: assuming that evolution accurately describes the development of life, what does this tell us about the nature of God?

(This analogy, by the way, is not mine--my priest was a physicist before he went to seminary, and he used this anlogy on his own blog here .)

I am certain that science will never provide proof of the existence or nonexistence of God. But I am open to all evidence. Indeed, I have a large number of posts on this issue of reason and faith. I take seriously, however, the accounts of the New Testement, and my own persoanl experience with the divine, and for that reason my operating assumption for this inquiry is that there is a God.