Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering?

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 March 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:

Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage
Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus


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