As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day (Saturday 27th January), how do we tackle the difficult topic of suffering? Philosopher Dr Vince Vitale shares a number of approaches
In one of the first significant conversations I had on the subject of suffering, my Aunt Regina expressed to me how difficult it is to see her son Charles – my cousin – struggle with a serious mental illness. When I started spouting some of my abstract, philosophical ideas about why God might allow suffering, Aunt Regina turned to me and said: “But Vince, that doesn’t speak to me as a mother.”
Suffering is very real and very personal, and since that conversation with my aunt I am always hesitant to address it briefly. Here I will try to provide a few starting points for further thought and prayer, but please forgive me if anything I say comes across as if I am not taking seriously any real life suffering you are dealing with.
Let me begin to sketch four approaches to thinking about the challenge of suffering:
1. The limits of human knowledge
One of the assumptions smuggled into the thought that suffering disproves the existence of God is this:
If God has good reasons for allowing suffering, we should know what those reasons are.
But why think that?
When parents decide to move their family from one city to another, this can be very difficult for a young child. In the moment, the child might be certain that all happiness is behind him, that his parents hate him, and that for all practical purposes his life is over.
And yet even such outrage on the part of a child does not mean that the child’s parents are wrong to make the move, and it does not mean that they don’t love him. In fact, it’s very likely that it was precisely the good of their children that weighed heavily in the parents’ decision. You can see the analogy: If parents’ reasons are sometimes beyond what a child can fully grasp, why then should we be surprised when some of God’s reasons are beyond what we can fully grasp?
This general approach is referred to as ‘Sceptical Theism’ in academic philosophy. But it’s not a new idea:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.”
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
If God is as great as Christians claim he is, then sometimes not fully grasping the fullness of his reasons is exactly what we should expect. And if it’s exactly what we should expect to find if God does exist, then our finding it can’t be strong evidence that God does not exist.
2. A response of freedom
What kind of world God would have made depends on what God values. According to Christianity, what God values above all is relationship. But for relationship to be meaningful, it must be freely chosen; for relationship to be freely chosen, there must be the possibility of it being rejected; and wherever there is the possibility of rejecting relationship, there is also the possibility of pain and suffering.
The Bible affirms this truth from its very first pages. We find a story of the first people who are in intimate relationship with God but then they sin, which starts them down a path. First, we’re told that they felt shame, then they hid from God. Next, they begin accusing each other. Adam pointed at Eve and said: “She did it!” From temptation to doubt to disobedience to shame to hiding to finger-pointing to suffering.
But here’s the most amazing part of the Fall story. The first persons have rejected God. They’ve decided they’d rather be their own gods. And how does God respond? He goes looking for them; he pursues them; he calls out to them: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
Then we’re told that God “made garments of skin for Adam and [Eve]”. In an ancient Middle Eastern culture, this is the exact opposite of what should have happened. Their clothes should have been torn to symbolize their disgrace. Instead, God made garments for them. And not only that, but the text gives this beautiful detail: “…and [He] clothed them.”
God dressed Adam and Eve himself, so that they would not be ashamed, foreshadowing that one day he would clothe us in Christ (Galatians 3:27), with the best robe (Luke 15:22), with power from on high (Luke 24:49).
Right from the very beginning, it is in God’s response to suffering that we see the love of God most clearly, a love that refuses to give up on us even when we use our free will to cause great suffering.
3. What it takes to be you
It’s typical to think of the problem of evil like this: we picture ourselves in this world of suffering; then we picture ourselves in a world with far less suffering. And then we wonder: “Shouldn’t God have created us in the other world – the world with far less suffering?”
That’s a reasonable thought. But I think it’s a thought that relies on a philosophical mistake. It relies on the assumption that it would still be you and me who would exist in that other world. And that is highly controversial. Let me explain.
There was a pivotal moment early on in my parents’ dating relationship. They were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the picturesque New York City skyline, and my dad noticed a ring on my mom’s finger. So he asked about it, and she said: “Oh, that’s just some ring one of my old boyfriends gave me. I just wear it ‘cause I think it looks nice.”
“Oh, yeah, it is nice,” my dad said, “let me see it.”
So mom took it off and handed it to him, and my dad hurled it off the bridge and watched it sink to the bottom of the East River! “You’re with me now,” he said; “you won’t be needing that anymore.”
And my Mom loved it!
But what if she hadn’t? What if she had concluded my dad had lost it and ran off with her old boyfriend instead? What would that have meant for me?
I might be tempted to think I could have been better off. I might have been taller. I might have been better looking. Maybe the other guy was royalty. That would have been cool! I could’ve lived in a castle! But, actually, that’s not right. There’s a problem with wishing my mom wound up with the other guy, and the problem is this: ‘I’ never would have existed.
Maybe some other child would have existed. And maybe he would have been taller and better looking and lived in a castle. But part of what makes me who I am – the individual that I am – is my beginning: the parents I have, the sperm and egg I came from, my unique combination of genes.
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Asking “Why didn’t God create me in a world with far less suffering?” is similar to saying “I wish my mom had married the other guy”. I’m sure my mom and her old boyfriend would have had some very nice kids; but ‘I’ would not have been one of them.
Why didn’t God create a very different world? Well, it depends on what God values. And what if one of the things he values – values greatly and unconditionally – is you, and the people you love, and every person you see walking down the street.
When we wish God had made a different sort of world, we unwittingly wish ourselves out of existence. And so the problem of suffering is reframed in the form of a question: Could God have wronged you by creating a world in which you came to exist and are offered eternal life, rather than creating a different world in which you never would have lived?
My family has had quite a bit of disability in it. Some people would say that, because of the suffering caused by their disabilities, it would have been better if my cousin, Charles, or Uncle John, had never existed. There would have been less suffering overall; the world would be better off.
I adamantly disagree. It’s because I knew Charles and John intimately that their suffering was so frustrating. But I also believe in a God who loved them so deeply, that allowed them to have life and to be offered eternal life.
There is a strong analogy here between divine creation and human procreation. We know that intentional human procreation will result in serious suffering, because even the most fortunate of human lives includes serious suffering and will end in death.
Why, then, do we think that having a child is morally okay, and even can be loving and courageous? Because the child who comes to exist would not have existed otherwise. In human procreation we risk great suffering, but in doing so we give to someone the gift of life.
What I am suggesting is that in creating and sustaining this world rather than some very different world, God gave each of us the gift of life and the offer of eternal life with him.
Here is the result of this reasoning: if you think it would be in principle evil to bring children into a world that you know will produce serious suffering in their lives, you will not only need to call God evil, you will also need to call evil anyone who decides to have a child. What follows is that if there is good reason to think that human procreation can be an act of love, there is also good reason to think that God’s creation could be an act of love.
4. The God who suffers with us
A fourth response to the objection from suffering I take, somewhat ironically, from Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote:
“The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory [response to the problem of suffering] ever invented.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy)
Nietzsche is actually writing of the ancient Greeks here, and in his bias he doesn’t make the connection to Christianity! But as a Christian, I am very pleased to agree with him and then point emphatically to the cross where Jesus died.
At the cross, we see the absolute uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering. In Islam, the idea of God suffering is senseless – it is thought to make God weak. In Buddhism, to reach divinity is precisely to move beyond the possibility of suffering.
Only in Christ do we have a God who is loving enough to suffer with us. And because of that unsurpassable love, we can trust the Bible when it says that one day “[God] will wipe every tear from [our] eyes,” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
This article was originally published on the Solas website.
Dr Vince Vitale was educated at Princeton University and the University of Oxford, and has taught philosophy of religion and served as a faculty member at both universities. It was during his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Princeton that Vince took an unexpected journey from sceptic to evangelist. He has now commended the Christian faith on the campuses of many universities, including UC Berkeley, West Point, Columbia, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton and Oxford. He has also had the privilege of speaking at Google Headquarters, Amazon, Brooklyn Tabernacle and Passion City Church. Vince is married to Jo and they have two sons.
“Non-Identity Theodicy” in Philosophia Christi, Volume 19, No. 2 (2017) by Vince Vitale
Why? by Sharon Dirckx
The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis
A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
Encountering Evil, a New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy by Stephen T Davis (Editor)