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Why does God allow suffering?

27 March 2013, 07:09

Evil has always been a thorn in the side of those - of whatever faith - who believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in 1776: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Faced with this question, Archbishop of York John Sentamu said he had "nothing to say to make sense of this horror", while another clergyman, Canon Giles Fraser, preferred to respond "not with clever argument but with prayer".

Perhaps their stance is understandable. The Old Testament is also not clear to the layman on such matters. When Job complains about the injuries God has allowed him to suffer, and claims "they are tricked that trusted", God says nothing to rebut the charges. Less reticent is the American evangelist Pat Robertson. He has suggested Haiti has been cursed ever since the population swore a pact with the Devil to gain their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th Century. Robertson's claim will strike many as ludicrous, if not offensive. And even were it true, it wouldn't obviously meet the challenge.

Why would a loving deity allow such a pact to seem necessary? Why wouldn't he have freed the Haitians from slavery himself, or prevented them from being enslaved in the first place? And why, in particular, would he punish today's Haitians for something their forbears putatively did more than two centuries before? So what should believers say? To make progress, we might distinguish two kinds of evil:

•the awful things people do, such as murder, and

•the awful things that just happen, such as earthquakes.

Would those hailed as brave still exist in a Magical World?

St Augustine, author CS Lewis and others have argued God allows our bad actions since preventing them would undermine our free will, the value of which outweighs its ill effects. But there's a counter-argument. Thoroughly good people aren't robots, so why couldn't God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? However that debate turns out, it's quite unclear how free will is supposed to explain the other kind of evil - the death and suffering of the victims of natural disasters. Perhaps it would if all the victims - even the newborn - were so bad that they deserved their agonising deaths, but it's impossible to believe that is the case. Or perhaps free will would be relevant if human negligence always played a role. There will be some who say the scale of the tragedy in natural disasters is partly attributable to humans. The world has the choice to help its poorer parts build earthquake-resistant structures and tsunami warning systems.

 But the technology has not always existed. Was prehistoric man, with his sticks and stones, somehow negligent in failing to build early warning systems for the tsunamis that were as deadly back then as they are today? The second century saint, Irenaeus, and the 20th Century philosopher, John Hick, appeal instead to what is sometimes called soul-making. God created a universe in which disasters occur, they think, because goodness only develops in response to people's suffering. To appreciate this idea, try to imagine a world containing people, but literally no suffering. Call it the Magical World. In that world, there are no earthquakes or tsunamis, or none that cause suffering. If people are hit by falling masonry, it somehow bounces off harmlessly. If I steal your money, God replaces it. If I try to hurt you, I fail. So why didn't God create the Magical World instead of ours? Because, the soul-making view says, its denizens wouldn't be - couldn't be - truly good people. It's not that they would all be bad. It's that they couldn't be properly good. For goodness develops only where it's needed, the idea goes, and it's not needed in the Magical World.

In that world, after all, there is no danger that requires people to be brave, so there would be no bravery. That world contains no one who needs comfort or kindness or sympathy, so none would be given. It's a world without moral goodness, which is why God created ours instead. But there is wiggle room. Even in a world where nothing bad happens, couldn't there be brave people - albeit without the opportunity to show it? So moral goodness could exist even if it were never actually needed. And, anyway, suppose we agree moral goodness could indeed develop only in a world of suffering. Doesn't our world contain a surplus of suffering? People do truly awful things to each other. Isn't the suffering they create enough for soul-making? Did God really need to throw in earthquakes and tsunamis as well?

Suffering's distribution, not just its amount, can also cause problems. A central point of philosopher Immanuel Kant's was that we mustn't exploit people - we mustn't use them as mere means to our ends. But it can seem that on the soul-making view God does precisely this. He inflicts horrible deaths on innocent earthquake victims so that the rest of us can be morally benefitted. That hardly seems fair. It's OK, some will insist, because God works in mysterious ways. But mightn't someone defend a belief in fairies by telling us they do too? Others say their talk of God is supposed to acknowledge not the existence of some all-powerful and all-good agent, who created and intervenes in the universe, but rather something more difficult to articulate - a thread of meaning or value running through the world, or perhaps something ineffable. But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we've seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn't he prevent this?

God made man as his greatest creation. In order for humans to be all they can be we must live in a world like this one. Moral courage can't just be a potentiality, it must be an actuality in all it's complexity for it to mean anything. Also, in order for the world to be able to create and sustain the complexity of life that it has, the crust of the earth must move, must regenerate itself. Thus, earthquakes, tsunamis. All religious people can do in the face of a catastrophe is to do what we can to alleviate the suffering and possibly create a world where these sorts of things have much less impact. Isn't the real tragedy of Haiti the poverty that has blighted the island, that lead to substandard buildings and poor infrastructure? This is as much a man-made disaster as divine.

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