An acquaintance of mine once asked how Christians deal with the question of suffering. She wondered, if God is all-knowing and sees all the suffering in the world but can do nothing to alleviate it, does he deserve to be worshipped? On the other hand, though he is all-knowing and all-powerful and sees all the suffering of the world but chooses to do nothing to alleviate it, does he have any right to be worshiped? When told that some suffering was necessary or had purpose, she claimed that, even if that were true, some suffering was completely gratuitous and unnecessary. Anyone who has watched a loved one die a painful death would know the futility of the ‘benefits’ of suffering. How do we answer this? Is there an adequate answer?
What this dilemma reminds me of is that of Epicurus’ “Four Propositions” which he used to try to show there was no God. The difference is, where he would put evil my acquaintance would put suffering.
Epicurus’ Four Propositions
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
I believe Epicurus’ four and my acquaintance’s two propositions failed to take a number of things into consideration when speaking of God.
First, this kind of puzzle fails to consider that the benevolent God, because he does not act, shows he is in control. That is, while the problem of suffering/evil does exist, it is not more than mankind is able to tolerate. On the face this may sound cruel, but not if one takes in all necessary considerations and the consequences of what would ultimately occur if God took suffering/evil away.
Second, the puzzle fails to take into consideration that the Hebrew/Christian understanding of God is true when we claim that God has given man freewill (to a point). The freewill of man would account for much of the evil/suffering that exists. We endure much more than would have been our lot, had Adam and Eve never rebelled against God, but that is another story. Nevertheless, much of the blame God endures for suffering/evil is caused by man, but God is expected to alleviate it or cause circumstance to occur so man is not held responsible for what he does, or that evil intent would be automatically corrected by God. The whole concept would arrest God’s plan for mankind and force him to prosper man’s will whether or not what we do would hurt others—and at the same time prevent that hurt from taking place. Under such a proposition, either man wouldn’t have freewill if God prevented his evil or hurtful activity or God wouldn’t have freedom to carry out his plan if he had to endorse man’s desires and clean up after him to boot.
According to the Christian understanding of God, we (through Adam) have made some bad choices that brought upon mankind – all generations – unnecessary suffering. If God would prevent all suffering, man would become an automaton and have no real responsibility for his acts. God would control all the stings, and we, like puppets would perform the will of the Puppeteer. If this were true, we wouldn’t have suffering, but neither would we have strength of character. There would be no heroism or real human leadership. All of these things come through real life experiences of loss and suffering in one’s life.
It is like the story of the butterfly. It struggles to get out of its cocoon. If I would help it, it would still be a beautiful creature, but it would be unable to fly. ‘Helping’ would destroy its potential by eliminating its struggle (suffering?).
I conclude, therefore, that some suffering is necessary, but we have brought upon ourselves much more than was ever intended by God. Nevertheless, if we are to have freewill at all, God cannot eliminate evil or suffering carte blanche. Rather he holds us responsible for how we treat our fellow men and women. There will come a day when all things will be made equal, but that day is in God’s hands. Man’s freedom of choice is an important matter and cannot it be taken out of the way, even to eliminate suffering or evil in this world. To do so would destroy who we are and what God intends us to become.