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Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering?

April 4th, 2011 by Matt

Christchurch's Cathedral after the earthquake22 February 2011 “may well be New Zealand’s darkest day”; these were the words of Prime Minister John Key in the aftermath of the earthquake which devastated the South Island’s largest city Christchurch. The death toll is expected to be over 200, many more have been injured, have lost property and now live in fear of the next big one. Inevitably a question is posed to those, like me, who have faith in God. Where was God that day? Of course the person who asks this is not literally asking where God physically was, he is asking, why did God not prevent this from happening? Why does God allow people to suffer? God clearly, as an all powerful being, can prevent suffering so why doesn’t he?

The question is ambiguous. Taken one way it is simply a question which assumes that God exists and asks for God’s reasons for allowing a particular event. Taken the other way it is a rhetorical question which hides an unspoken argument that the existence of disasters, like the Christchurch earthquake, is evidence that God, most likely, does not exist. In “God, Evil and Suffering” Daniel Howard-Snyder notes,

[T]he theoretical “problem” of evil is often expressed in the form of a pointed question. God is able to prevent evil and suffering and He would know about them before they happened, right? Moreover, since He is unsurpassably good, surely He would not permit them just for the fun of it. So why doesn’t He prevent them?

The sceptic notes two things; first that God knows about and is able to prevent suffering. Second that God, being perfectly good, would prevent this suffering unless he had a good reason for allowing it, which Howard-Snyder defines as “a reason that was compatible with his never doing wrong and his being perfect in love”. This is the implicit background to the question.

The rhetorical force of this argument is powerful and its emotional appeal has a strong pull, particularly on the back of an horrific disaster. Nevertheless, many philosophers have found that when examined rationally it has an important flaw. The argument establishes that if God exists then He must have a good reason for allowing suffering. The sceptic is asking for an account of these reasons. The assumption is that if a believer cannot give a precise account of God’s reasons then there probably are none. It is this assumption upon which the argument hangs or falls.

The problem is that this assumption is questionable. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga illustrates,

I look inside my tent: I don’t see a St. Bernard; it is then probable that there is no St. Bernard in my tent. That is because if there were one there, I would very likely have seen it; it’s not easy for a St. Bernard to avoid detection in a small tent. Again, I look inside my tent: I don’t see any noseeums (very small midges with a bite out of all proportion to their size); this time it is not particularly probable that there are no noseeums in my tent—at least it isn’t any more probable than before I looked. The reason, of course, is that even if there were noseeums there, I wouldn’t see ’em; they’re too small to see. And now the question is whether God’s reasons, if any, for permitting such evils as [the Christchurch earthquake] are more like St. Bernards or more like noseeums.

In his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller notes “we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our mindcan’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order.”

The sceptic suggests that if a finite human being with limited factual knowledge, limited perspective in time and space and an imperfect moral character does not know of any reason for why suffering occurs then it follows that an all knowing, perfectly good being cannot have any such reasons.

Philosopher William Alston has noted that the sceptic’s argument is like the person with no background in quantum physics who, when he could not understand why the world’s best physicist held a particular view, decided that the physicist obviously had no good reasons to hold it.

However, suppose this is the wrong approach; suppose that the failure to provide an answer does mean that it is improbable that one exists and from this that it follows that the existence of God is improbable given the fact of suffering. What follows from this? Nowhere near as much as you might think because even if the existence of God is improbable on one fact it does not mean that it is improbable per sé.

Plantinga notes that there are many beliefs that we hold to which are improbable on some body of facts we acknowledge. If I was playing poker and was dealt four aces in one hand I would know that this was highly improbable given the number of cards in the pack and number of possible combinations that I could have been dealt yet I would still be rational in believing that I was dealt four aces as I have other grounds for accepting this; I can look down at the cards in my hand and see that I have four aces in front of me.

It is well known that a belief can be improbable on one sub-set of facts a person knows and yet highly probable by everything that that person knows. For example, if I know my friend is French and if it is a fact that most French people cannot swim then my belief that my friend is a swimmer would be improbable given the facts I am aware of. On the other hand, suppose I know that my friend is a life guard by profession and that all life guards, even French ones, can swim. Then despite the fact that a belief is improbable on the basis of one set of facts, it is not necessarily improbable on the whole.

In addition, the question needs to be raised as to how well Christianity performs regarding the existence of suffering relative to alternative views. Some Philosophers have suggested that the existence of suffering might also make the non-existence of God improbable. Here are some reasons why.

First, in order for suffering to exist sentient life forms must exist. However, there have been discoveries in contemporary physics which establish that a universe evolving life is extremely improbable. For life to evolve there are around 15 constants necessary, each must have precise values and if they were off by a million or even one in a million, life could not evolve. Even if some of these constants had differed by 1 in 10 to the power of 60 then life could not evolve.

Second, some of the worst forms of suffering have a moral element. We experience suffering as evil, bad or unjust. But this requires the existence of moral norms. Some raise the question as to whether the existence of objective moral principles is likely on a secular view of the world. Is it likely that in a universe composed entirely of matter and energy that objective principles or rules could exist independently of any mind?

Finally, suffering can only exist if there is a universe; questions have been raised as to whether it is likely for a universe to come into existence out of nothing or for a universe which is radically contingent to exist without something eternal and non-contingent sustaining it.

My point is not to endorse or reject these lines of inquiry; I simply note it is not obvious that the typical secular view is any more probable given the existence of suffering than belief in God is. Even if we grant the argument that the existence of suffering makes God’s existence unlikely, it does not automatically follow that a secular perspective on the world fares any better. It could be that the existence of suffering is improbable on both views. To reject Christianity because of the existence of suffering and in its place embrace a secular view of reality which faces the same intellectual challenge would be arbitrary. Just as Christians have to face the sceptical challenges that suffering presents to their beliefs, secularists must also. Secularism is not true by default.

In conclusion, my response to the argument that suffering makes God unlikely is as follows: first, the argument relies on an assumption that is false or at any rate, an assumption that no reason is forthcoming as to why a Christian should accept it. Second, even if evil does make the existence of God improbable, one would need further argument to show that this meant Christianity was irrational. One would need to show that God’s existence was improbable on all the relevant evidence – not just the mere fact of suffering.  Finally, even if the sceptic could do this it does not follow that a secular view of the world is correct. It could be that the existence of evil is also improbable on a secular view and hence, secularists are in the same boat with regards to the existence of suffering.

Given this, Christians can contend that a perfectly good God was there during the Christchurch earthquake. They can believe that he allowed the devastation for an ultimately good reason, even if that reason remains opaque and mysterious to us; their doing so is not an obvious case of cognitive dissonance or wishful thinking. This answer leaves many questions unanswered; it does not remove the anguish or the pain but it does address one very real intellectual question that people ask precisely because of such suffering.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the April 2011 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:
editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com

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Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
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Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

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  • He allowed suffering for the purpose of making us more mature. As the book of James instructed us, “Consider it pure joy whenever we face trials”.

    Trials are not intended to destroy us but to strengthen us.

  • Matt

    It’s not entirely clear to me what exactly you argue for. Is it that God needn’t have any reasons for allowing evil and suffering or that He has such reasons but that we may not be in a position to know them or that there is so much evidence for God’s existence that with respect to it the problem of evil is simply irrelevant?

    If you assume that God needn’t have any reasons for allowing suffering, then the fact that a believer cannot give an account of God’s reasons could indeed mean that there are no such reasons. If you assume that God must have good reasons to allow suffering but that we may not be in a position to know them, this fact, according to philosopher Stephen Maitzen has a devastating effect on our ordinary sense of moral obligation, as is explained in the following article:

    http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/tl_files/sites/philosophy/resources/documents/Maitzen_STMO.pdf

    In the following thread I have presented arguments that may avoid the effect Maitzen points to.

    http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/morality-test-for-god.html

  • Patrick,

    I don’t think it does effect our sense of moral obligation. We can’t know what sufficient reason God may have for a being such as Himself not to intervene, but I don’t see how that makes a difference the obligations we observe upon ourselves when confronted with an instance that demands action on our part.

  • “The sceptic suggests that if a finite human being with limited factual knowledge, limited perspective in time and space and an imperfect moral character does not know of any reason for why suffering occurs then it follows that an all knowing, perfectly good being cannot have any such reasons.”

    The theist suggests that if a finite human being with limited factual knowledge, limited perspective in time and space and an imperfect moral character knows of a reason for why suffering occurs (i.e. assumes the existence of God and pulls a theodicy out of their *ss) then it follows that an all knowing, perfectly good being has such a reason.

  • I am aware of the kind of response Maitzen makes. I can’t really do it justice in a short combox. But I think the argument assumes a parity between (i) what human beings have a duty to do in a situation and and what (ii) a perfectly good omnsicent being would do in a situation.

    I don’t accept this partity. I think humans have deontological duties to do certain things which are not overridden by utilitarian considerations. But God having no duties does not have such duties and so there is no deontological constraints on his pursuit of the good.

  • “The theist suggests that if a finite human being with limited factual knowledge, limited perspective in time and space and an imperfect moral character knows of a reason for why suffering occurs (i.e. assumes the existence of God and pulls a theodicy out of their *ss) then it follows that an all knowing, perfectly good being has such a reason.”

    Actually I didn’t say that, but even if I had I am not sure what the problem here is, if I know X then it follows an omnscient being knows X.

    On the other hand, if I don’t know X it does not follow that an omniscient being does not know X.

    So the situations seem to me to be quite different.

  • Matt, if the unimaginable amount of suffering that occurs daily throughout the world does not convince you of the existence of the Judeo-Christian god, nothing will. After all, your god is a “noseeum” and so are his reasons for allowing all of that suffering.

  • Should have typed “non-existence” but perhaps my slip was accurate: the Judeo-Christian god existsbut is infinitely evil.

  • Matt, if the unimaginable amount of suffering that occurs daily throughout the world does not convince you of the existence of the Judeo-Christian god, nothing will.

    TAM, you don’t defend an argument from a critique by repeating it and then adding claims to the effect that its obviously correct and those who don’t accept it are just dogmatic. You actually have to respond to the critique.

  • TAM, most of the suffering is the result of human choices and actions [ often not on the part of the person suffering] how much of your ability to make choices and self determination are you willing to forgo in order to prevent suffering?

  • I would like to see you comment on Brian Edwards blog on this issue. See “God is weeping with those who weep” – Peter Beck. I beg to differ. Posted by BE on March 5th, 2011

    http://brianedwardsmedia.co.nz/2011/03/god-is-weeping-with-those-who-weep-peter-beck-i-beg-to-differ/#more-4896

    Brain expresses his disillusionment with Peter Beck’s, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, response to the question :Where is God”,and states: “The theological answer is that God can’t intervene, because He has given us free will. We’re on our own, free to get it right or get it wrong, to make good choices or bad choices. Not terribly comforting really, since it means that prayer is totally pointless, because to answer a single prayer would require God to intervene in the natural course of events, thus breaching the free will principle. That sort of god is less likely to be weeping with those who weep than saying, ‘Told you so!’

    Brian needs to be challenged in his thinking by those who are more than equal to the task.

  • Brian assumes the free will theodicy is the only response people make to the problem of evil this is patently false.

    Moreover, he seems to have an all or nothing understanding of the free will theodicy. He thinks it means that God never intervenes at all out of respect for free will. But of course, the defender of a free will theodicy does not need to hold this, he could hold that God does not always intervene out of respect for free will, and allow that sometimes he does.

  • Blair

    I’ve read the post to which you refer. I don’t see that God answering prayers breaches the free will principle as long as one assumes that God only intervenes in the lives of those who have surrendered their lives to Him. Moreover, I think the second comment in the thread is worth considering. This also applies to Tess’s comment. There may be more useful comments there but I haven’t read them all up to now. Maybe some of the comments I made in the following link are of use to you as well:

    http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/morality-test-for-god.html

  • Stating that it is more probable that god exists without giving us the math is so often rolled out it should be a fallacy on its own. It is not a valid claim and definitely does not prove the existence of god.
    Matt you seem to finish with the same question you started and as such I can’t figure out what you’re trying to get at. A secular approach won’t give a higher cause for the Christchurch earthquake and god hasn’t told us the reason so what is gained?
    While the reason isn’t given in this case it is given for the flood sodom and Gomorrah etc which must have included scores of innocents and I still don’t understand the reasons given for those.

  • Also maybe there should be a ‘fine tuning ‘ fallacy as well. if the values of the ‘magic ‘ constants was different we may still have evolved – just differently

  • John, you write Stating that it is more probable that god exists without giving us the math is so often rolled out it should be a fallacy on its own. actually its not. Suppose we are asking whether John shot Sally on Monday, you point out that John was in Indonesia on Monday, that means that it’s improbable that John shot sally. To suggest one can’t rationally draw this conclusion until they show the math is obviously mistaken.

    Similarly, if on the other hand we know John was scene of the crime and his prints were on the gun, then we know that this makes the claim that John shot sally more probable. Again, we know this whether or not we can show the math. People engage in probabilistic reasoning like this all the time without having to make recourse to Math.

    It is not a valid claim” claims aren’t valid arguments are

    and definitely does not prove the existence of god.
    that’s correct, a probabilistic argument is not a “proof”. That is of little consequence however, because there are very few thinks we know which one can “prove”. If the fact that something is a probabilistic inference but not a proof makes it irrational to accept the conclusion, then people could never believe any conclusion based on probabilities.

    But you seem to miss my point because nowhere in this article do I purport to be offering a proof of Gods existence. I am rebutting an argument against Gods existence. Thats not the same thing.

    Matt you seem to finish with the same question you started and as such I can’t figure out what you’re trying to get at. A secular approach won’t give a higher cause for the Christchurch earthquake and god hasn’t told us the reason so what is gained?

    The absence of a “higher cause” is not what’s decisive, here, what’s important is how likely is it that suffering would occur if there is a God, and how likely it is that it would occur if there was no God. If there is no God the presence or absence of a reason is irrelevant, what matters is how likely it is that that a contingent universe would come into existence out of nothing, stay in existence, evolve sentient life and have objective moral prescriptions and values. This is not a straight forward answer by any means, and one can’t default to it simply because one does not know what Gods reasons for allowing suffering are. You don’t get to demand answers to probabilistic challenges when its theism and not answer similar challenges when its atheism.

  • Also maybe there should be a ‘fine tuning ‘ fallacy as well. if the values of the ‘magic ‘ constants was different we may still have evolved – just differently. There seems to be a spate of people who misuse the word fallacy recently, it does not refer to any claim sceptics happen to disagree with. It’s a term for a common mistake in inferential reasoning.

    But to your comments, my understanding, which came from Robin Collins sources (Collins is one of the foremost experts on the fine tuning argument) is that if the constants were slightly different then sentient life would not evolve. You can see some of his sources in the above mentioned site.

  • I suppose I would have used the term ‘I believe it is more likely’ instead of probable. But maybe it’s just semantics.
    I think atheists seem to accept the astronomical probabilities involved but do have ways of explaining this.
    I was being a little loose with the term fallacy. :-) my apologies.

    Im not familiar with the author you refer to but will look him up. I just dont understand the line of reasoning. Have you read cs Lewis’s trilogy? He postulates beings on other planets with different gravity and body structure. What I’m driving at is that god could have made us work for any sort of set of natural laws. We wouldn’t be like we are now but would still exist. How is that any different from the argument that given different conditions we would have evolved differently…. who knows. Maybe with totally different chemistry or otherwise. It seems like were fine tuned but that is not to say beings wouldn’t have existed if the parameters were otherwise – they just wouldn’t be anything like us. But maybe I read too much science fiction.

  • Hi, really enjoyed this piece, especially the tent illustration and the Alston quote, I hadn’t heard them before, they’re really good.

    Still just seems to be a really long winded way of saying ‘His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways’.

    If I could paraphrase you, would the following be an accurate summary?

    ‘If we had the ability to prevent the earthquake but knew no more than we know now, we would have chosen to prevent the earthquake. Given that God does exist, and the earthquake happened, means that He allowed the earthquake to happen. So God must know something we don’t.’

    If so, nicely done.

  • There is just one problem I have with this post.

    “And now the question is whether God’s reasons, if any, for permitting such evils as [the Christchurch earthquake] are more like St. Bernards or more like noseeums.”

    You are comparing God to something that exists (dogs/bugs).

  • In a hypothetical universe in which God did exist, and if the historic events of this universe to date were exactly the same as in this universe to date, I wonder what reasons this hypothetical God could possibly have had for allowing the holocaust and pol pots regime to happen. I guess his he would have his hypothetical reasons. Nah, he probably just didn’t give a hypothetical shit.

  • There is just one problem I have with this post.

    “And now the question is whether God’s reasons, if any, for permitting such evils as [the Christchurch earthquake] are more like St. Bernards or more like noseeums.”

    You are comparing God to something that exists (dogs/bugs).

    Well of course you can start you argument for Gods non existence by ruling out that he exists. But that would be circular wouldn’t it.

  • I wonder what reasons this hypothetical God could possibly have had for allowing the holocaust and pol pots regime to happen.

    So Sam G, i assume you think these were bad things and that a good God if he existed would/should have stopped them. But what if that same God doesnt like a lot of what you do, what if God sees you sin and Pol Pots sin as just differences of degree rather than fact. Should God stop you doing all the things you like that God considers sin? Or do you only think God should intervene directly over things you dont like.

  • Yeah I understand the concept of if you break the smallest of Gods law, you’ve broken the whole thing. Similar to where Jesus says (you’ll tell me if i misquote) that lusting after a women in you heart is just as bad as fornication and adultery, so it’s meaningless to try and rank sins according to there seriousness. If he were to stop Pol Pot from sinning then yeah I’d say he should probably stop me from sinning as well, in the name of fairness.

    But I’m not sure if he would, because he’s pretty consistent in not doing what our sense of expected behaviour says he should, which is kind of what I was getting at.

    I was referring the suffering of the victims, not the sin involved. In our other conversation we’re talking about golden rule which is generally at the foundation of both atheist and religious ‘good’ behaviour. The claim that God could easily have stopped this suffering but chose not to seems to violate this golden rule. If a person did that, then according to the values of the society I live in, that person would be disgusting. Or if it was myself, I would feel extremely guilty. I understand I’m judging God by my own standards, but why shouldn’t I? Are you really suggesting I should choose to worship a God who appears to be in such extreme violation of my own sense of right and wrong? Why is he above the moral standards that he has set for us? That’s called hypocrisy, but he probably doesn’t care about that either.

  • “The claim that God could easily have stopped this suffering but chose not to seems to violate this golden rule. ”

    But now you are assuming that human suffering is somehow independant of human choice , freedom and sin.

    You need to think this through logically. What would God need to do to make sure no Bangladeshis sufferred in the extreme flooding they so often experience.

    Over history He would have had to stop all deforrestation upstream the rivers that flood, and/or prevent people from settling the lowland floodplains and deltas. Next he might have to stop the industrial revolution incase anthropogenic global warming is actually contributing to sea level rise and increasing the likelyhood of lowland flooding in upstream rain events.

    Now sure none of the people currently drowning are responsible for deforrestation, settling on flood plains or AGW but these are human choices. So even to demand God prevent human sufering is to demand that God take away human freedom. God has placed us in a world where we have freedom of action and where actions have consequences . Some of the consequenses are good, some are bad. Take a very old fashioned example. Sex. God placed it inside a commited and exclusive marriage. We like to use sex almost as entertainment, however chastity, monogamy and fidelity would mean there was no such thing as STD’s. The transmission, spread, pain, heartache and suffering of STD’s is a direct result of choices we make. Same with the drug culture, same with drunk driving.
    The innocent usually suffer but it is the actions of other humans not the inaction of God that causes the suffering.

  • Jeremy. God can do anything. He doesn’t need to stop what is happening, he can just make it so the things that are happening that cause harm to the world don’t cause harm anymore…hell, he can just give infinite electricity, water, food.

  • Michael, a world without consequence, what a wonderful idea, can you suggest how it might work?
    Would it mean i could do all the stupid moronic things i can think of and never get hurt? Like a computer driving game? Of course it would also mean i could do all the good things i can think of but would never achieve anything, no satisfaction, no pleasure, no joy, no progress. Yep that kind of world really appeals.

    Why on earth would you think God can do anything?

  • A more concise and systematic presentation of my view of the Problem of Evil can be found in the follwing link.

    http://randalrauser.com/2011/05/stephen-maitzen-theism-and-moral-duty/

    The idea that there are degrees of punishment in the afterlife, which is an integral part of my view of the Problem of Evil, is very well explained in the following link.

    http://www.pleaseconvinceme.com/index/Are_There_Different_Degrees_of_Punishment_in_Hell

  • [...] Pacifism and Just Wars Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering? Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage [...]