The Problem of Suffering

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On numerous occasions I have listened to atheists present their list of arguments against God and, among these arguments, mention the problem of suffering as one of the more compelling and, as of yet unaddressed, arguments in their arsenal.

What I find juvenile in all this is that, although this is definitely a legitimate issue for theists, there are few questions that have received more attention throughout human history. Virtually every major world religion offers some type of explanation to this problem, so atheists are by no means the first ones to think of it. Atheists would do well to instead actually mention the various explanations to this problem proposed by the different world-views and explain why they find them insufficient rather than ignoring them altogether.

In this article, I will give a very brief description of the Christian answer to the problem of suffering. I must acknowledge that atheists are not entirely to blame for their flawed view of the Christian perspective since the Calvinist movement has stirred up an awful lot of confusion within protestant circles on this topic.

Christianity explains the problem of suffering as follows:

1) It starts with Free Will. (I understand that many atheists reject that concept but I will address that elsewhere if needed). By free will we mean that God was able to create beings that had their own individuality separate from his own and were capable of making their own decisions and choosing their own destiny.

2) God’s desire was to populate the universe with such beings and that these beings would coexist in harmony. However, free will meant that there would be a risk that they would instead choose a different course and some did.

3) God now had a choice of either putting a stop to this rebellion, then and there, and risk having it pop up again sometime later or, he could let it play out such that, when he does put a stop to it, no one will WANT to do that again ever after.

4) To us there might at times seem that certain types of evil or suffering are completely pointless and unnecessary but they are simply the results of this rebellion and, unless God actually lets it’s full effects play out, no one will ever fully understand how truly bad sin is which defeats the purpose of allowing it to exist to begin with.

In essence, our experience now is God’s way of inoculating His universe for eternity against the potential of evil rising up again. He did not CAUSE it to happen, but, when it happened, He allowed it to unfold so that when He finally deals with it, it will be for the last time.

That is obviously a highly summarized version of the Christian explanation but it is sufficient to give the bird’s eye view of the Christian perspective on why evil and suffering exist in a universe created by a loving God.



  1. Lausten North  December 5, 2013

    Welcome back Mike. Glad to see you are addressing issues more directly this time. I think that will work better for you.

    On this idea of the discussion being “juvenile”, I think you are seeing an anomaly of the Internet. We have at our fingertips most of the accumulated knowledge of human history, but each individual still has to absorb it. Most don’t research questions thoroughly, returning to the earliest positing theological questions by Socrates or Epicurus or for that matter how they are addressed by early theologians or even in the Bible itself.

    When discussing these issues with anyone, it is helpful to establish what research they have done then you can decide if they are juvenile. In some cases, this is due to lack of knowledge, other times it is due to a bad choice of how to act. If someone is simply choosing to act juvenile, despite their knowledge, then they aren’t worth the trouble.

    In your case here, you are providing a response that has been used for ages, and one that leaves some questions. In step #2, you say God had a desire but people choose a different course. This implies that God is less than all powerful. That’s fine, maybe he is, but then you haven’t solved the problem of why an all powerful God would allow suffering. Instead you’ve changed God. That’s fine too, maybe you know God better than I do, but you now have to stick with that. You have to explain how God can do all the other things He does, but he can’t prevent suffering because it’s the only way to show us how sin is bad.

    What “full effects” are you talking about? How bad is it going to get? How is this “bad” different from the suffering we already are experiencing? Suffering is the effect of sin right? Are there worse effects yet to come or what is it that needs to “play out”? I’m pretty sure everyone in the world does not want suffering, so I don’t see what God is waiting for.

  2. Unapologetics  December 5, 2013

    Thanks for stopping by Lausten. I don’t want to get caught up in a long discussion on this since I have a lot of writing to catch up on, but you have brought up some good points so I will address them.

    First, my frustration is not with the average atheist out there but with some of the more prominent Atheists like even Justin Schieber and many others in how they address this topic. I left an almost identical post on the RD blog but it was on an older post so not sure if anyone saw it. It would be so simple to just mention some of the more popular explanations for suffering and debunk them rather than pretend like they don’t exist. I think atheists would be equally frustrated if, for example, a Christian got up in a debate and said something like, ‘God must exist since we know of no other way for the animals and for humans to come into existence apart from a creator,’ completely ignoring more than a century and a half of evolutionary science.

    You mentioned that a God who allows us to choose a different course is no longer all powerful. I plan to write a post about God’s omnipotence and address this in more detail. For now, I think we have a different view of what All-powerful means. Being all powerful refers to what God CAN do, not what he MUST do. For example, if I claim to be strong enough to lift 1000lb it does not mean that I must be carrying 1000lb at all times. I am still strong enough to lift 1000lb even if for the moment I am carrying only 5lb. If I claim to be stronger than person X it does not mean that I have an obligation to prevent them from insulting me in public for example. My choice whether to use my abilities or not does not affect my possession of those abilities.

    There ARE things which an all-powerful God cannot do, mainly things which are logically contradictory. So if God were to create a square circle it would simply mean that he redefined the word ‘square’ or the word ‘circle’ and not anything meaningful since by the current definition, a square circle cannot exist. So coming back to the topic at hand, God cannot create beings with free will and yet determine their choices at the same time. That would simply be a redefining of the term ‘free-will’ and make further conversation meaningless. Thus we use the term all-powerful here to express the idea that God has the power to force created beings to do what He wants and not that he actually DOES force them. If He did, free will would cease to exist.

    If God wants to respect the individuality of created beings He has the option of educating and encouraging them to do the right thing. But, it is still their choice whether to listen or not. If they don’t listen, then there is still a chance that they (and others) might learn from their mistakes. But there is no way for Him to manipulate them into making only the right choices without compromising their individuality.

    For your last paragraph, people experience suffering not because they choose suffering but because they make choices that lead to suffering. It goes something like this:

    1) God creates free-willed beings. He creates large numbers of them and makes arrangements for them to live in community.

    2) Living in community requires that everyone assents to various common precepts. One person can exercise their free will in a way that robs others of their rights. So certain rules or standards must be observed in order for everyone to coexist in harmony.

    3) If an individual chooses to go against these standards, they or someone else will end up suffering as a result.

    So how long should God let this go on? Well, it’s a matter of sample size. If you are testing the effects of a drug, you want to have a large enough sample size to make sure your results are not just a fluke. If God allowed sin to continue for just a few years or a few decades, it would not be convincing enough an evidence that sin is a bad thing. Maybe it turned out badly in this situation but would turn out better in a different situation. Maybe, if given enough time the problems would work themselves out.

    God’s plan for His creation is to have a harmonious universe for the rest of time. If, in order to be sure that sin never rises up again it means allowing sin and suffering to exist for a few thousand years, it is worth it. Several thousand years might seem like a long time but no individual has to suffer more than one lifetime.

  3. jonP  February 1, 2014

    I thought I would mention a few things here that I have not seen you address.

    There is more to suffering than antisocial behavior. We are surrounded by pathogenic bacteria. There is almost no reason for bacteria to be pathogenic. Bacteria do much better when they don’t damage or kill the host. There are a few exceptions were the death is part of the bacteria life cycle (usually so that they will be taken into digestive tract of scavenger animals). God CAN make bacteria non pathogenic, but he doesn’t. Instead it’s a survival of the fittest death match.

    You can try to create an explanation for why this god would create bacteria that could kill us, and then cover us in it. But then I will just find another source of suffering. You would play whack-a-mole trying to knock down and explain all types of suffering.

    “Being all powerful refers to what God CAN do, not what he MUST do.”

    This limits what we can possibly know about god. We do not know if god can do anything that god did not do. From our perspective all powerful god is not distinguishable from not all powerful god.

    • Unapologetics  February 2, 2014

      There is more to suffering than antisocial behavior. We are surrounded by pathogenic bacteria…

      My take on this, and it could apply to other forms of suffering as well, is that these bacteria are a result of evolutionary processes. In other words, their current form was not the original intention. They might not have been pathogenic to humans originally but subsequently evolved that way. Kind of like a well-kept house that is suddenly abandoned for several decades.

      This limits what we can possibly know about god. We do not know if god can do anything that god did not do. From our perspective all powerful god is not distinguishable from not all powerful god.

      I don’t think there is any way an omni god could ever prove to finite beings that he actually IS omni.

      My point here is that god can control his powers such that if there was for example something he didn’t want to know, he wouldn’t HAVE to know it. This is yet another conflict with the omni definition, kind of like the stone too big to lift. If there is something god doesn’t know he would not be omniscient. But if he cannot choose not to know something, then he is not all powerful. There is no end to the nonsense you run into with the omni definition so I hate using it.

      This is another place where the Simulated Reality Model (SRM) comes in handy. It helps to illustrate a more tangible version of omnipotence. I, as the programer, can have absolute control of my simulated environment, as well as absolute knowledge, as well as omnipresence, as well as control over Time (limited). This is obviously only a limited illustration and I am not suggesting that it fully represents the Christian god, but it is a lot easier to think through issues using THIS model as opposed to the extreme positions philosophers like to argue about.


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