“Life is pain…. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” So says the Dread Pirate Roberts (in The Princess Bride—a must-see movie!) Roberts is right. Life is full of pain. From getting splinters while woodworking to losing loved ones (as I wrote about in my last series here), we all suffer more than we care to admit.
This leads us all—at some time or another—to question whether God exists, whether God is good, and/or whether God is sovereign (all-powerful). These are good questions. They are real questions. And they are important questions we must wrestle with and for which we must have good answers.
Over the next several weeks I’ll share some thoughts on the importance of this issue (formally known as the “Problem of Evil” or the “Problem of Pain”). I’ll also share five reasons to believe the reality of evil and pain is consistent with the existence of a good and sovereign God.
The Most Common Objection to God’s Existence
The most commonly heard objection to the existence of God is, “If God existed, he wouldn’t allow so much pain and suffering!” For many, this is the main (intellectual) barrier to belief. Most, if not all of us have friends and relatives who ask us about this. And most of us have wondered about this ourselves as we observe and experience pain and suffering.
This objection is often stated even more forcefully in university classrooms. Standard reading in philosophy courses is David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. A main character named Philo provides the classic framing of the inconsistency of believing in three apparently incompatible beliefs:
An all-powerful Being exists.
An all-good Being exists.
Since it is impossible to deny that evil is real, Philo concludes one (or both) of the first two beliefs must be rejected.
At first glance, this objection to God’s existence, goodness, and/or sovereignty is reasonable. However, appearances can be deceiving. When we dig a bit deeper we find there are good reasons to believe God exists in spite of, and even because of, the reality of evil.
The Rational and Emotional Contexts of This Question
There are two very different ways this question is asked, which actually turn out to be two different questions (or sets of questions). It is very important to first understand which question is really being asked. Only then will our answer be appropriate, adequate, and satisfying.
On one hand, there is the “rational” or “logical” question of evil and suffering. The person asking this question is someone who wants to have good reasons for what she believes, and is struggling with the logical consistency of an all-loving and all-powerful God existing and evil existing.
Such a person is asking for and needs a sound argument to show how belief in God and evil are not logically inconsistent. To such questions we must be able to provide a robust logical defense of the compatibility of evil and God’s existence. Such an answer is what C.S. Lewis provides in The Problem of Pain. Here we find a tightly reasoned philosophical defense of the existence of God even though there is pain and suffering in the world.
Other times the question is driven by someone experiencing deep personal loss. It is a question of how to cope in the face of great pain. Someone suffering due to an evil or injustice is not asking how the three propositions above are logically consistent. He is asking how he can go on believing what he used to believe.
C.S. Lewis also wrote a book on suffering from this perspective. Later in life he fell in love with and married Joy Davidman. Four short years later she died of cancer. In response, from the depths of his anguish, he wrote a second book on the problem of pain entitled A Grief Observed (this was later made into a very well-done major motion picture entitled Shadowlands, which I highly recommend).
This second book (and movie), though on the same topic, is very different. It is a deeply personal narrative of his emotional struggle and questioning how this evil he experienced can be compatible with what he believed about God. He eventually comes to the same conclusion—that a good, sovereign God does exist—thought he comes to this conclusion by a different route.
I have faced this question both ways myself. First, as a young philosophy graduate student I studied this issue and was convinced there are good reasons to believe God and evil are compatible (these type arguments are called “theodicies” and will be discussed more in future posts). But I then lost my oldest child when she was 23, and began asking these same questions in different ways. Like Lewis, I have come to the same conclusion, though the process has been different due to these two very different contexts.
As we meet others who are asking about how God and evil can both exist, it is of utmost importance to first understand the context of their question. Is it driven by reason? If so, we must provide an answer that touches their mind. We must be able to provide thoughtful, logical, persuasive arguments to help this person work through her intellectual struggles.
On the other hand, is the question driven by emotion? If so, we must provide an answer that touches his heart. We must enter into the pain with him, and not just offer him a logical explanation of his pain.
Such is the essence of compassion. This word comes from the root word “passion,” which means “pain,” and “com,” which means “with.” So literally we must suffer with him. In this context, our response is often saying nothing. It is simply being present. If words are necessary, they must be words of affirmation—that his pain is real, his anger justified, his questions understandable. It is agreeing this is not the way things out to be.
It is also resisting the temptation to delve into theological or philosophical discourses on why God may have allowed this evil. The book of Job is instructive in this—Job’s “friends” do all the wrong things in their attempts to “comfort” and “minister to” Job. We must be more compassionate when these questions about God are asked in the context of suffering. (Of course, at some point our may ask us for a logical explanation, at which time we must be prepared to provide this as well.)
This is what Paul means when he writes, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6) Being wise so that we may know how to answer everyone, in the right context, is our duty and charge. At no time is this more important than when discussing evil and suffering with someone.
The Problem Stated Formally
In this series I will focus on providing a rational response to this question, for reasons touched on immediately above. If someone is asking questions out of grief, there are no arguments to offer or reasons to discuss. These are times when we must simply listen to the person and follow the Spirit’s leading as to what to say and not say.
To begin responding to this objection in its rational context, we first must define the objection precisely. It may be stated in four premises, leading to the conclusion that God does not exist:
If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.)
If God is all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills. (He would be able to do anything in His will.)
Therefore if God exists he would want to and could create a world with no evil (and therefore would create such a world).
Yet there is Evil.
Therefore God (an all-powerful, all-good Being) does not exist.
This is only one of several ways to frame the Problem of Evil. To be a bit more technical, this is the logical Problem of Evil, concluding it is not logically possible that God exists, given the reality of evil. There is also what is know as the evidential Problem of Evil, with the weaker conclusion that, given evil, God most probably does not exist. In this series I’ll address both forms.
Five responses may be offered to show the existence of evil should not lead one to the conclusion that God does not exist, or most probably does not exist. Next week I’ll begin discussing the first response.
Until then, grace and peace.