The Challenge from Suffering: Logic, Love, and Free Will

 

The Ultimate Survival Guide

The following is an extract from ‘The Ulimate Survival Guide: How to talk about God, the Bible, and stuff‘.

The Problem of Evil is something that has gripped the attention of many of the brightest minds throughout history. If God loves us, cares for us, wants our best, then he wouldn’t want us to be in pain, right? And if God is all-powerful, and can do anything that he wants, nothing is too big for him, then he can make sure that we don’t suffer, right? And if God is all-knowing – he knows the future, he knows the choices you are going to make, he knows the ideas and thoughts and intentions of those you interact with – then he knows what will happen and, coupled with his great power, will intervene to stop our suffering, right? This problem, a Trilemma (a three-part problem), needs to be given due thought.

For many people who are in the midst of suffering there might not be much immediate relief given from dealing with the logic of the problem. People in pain want comfort. But this is a two-sided problem, and if we don’t want to give shallow, trite, empty hope to hurting people we need to spend time dealing with the philosophical problem of pain. So here are some reasons to suggest that belief in God, and specifically the Christian God, doesn’t have to ignore this problem, but actually stands strong in the face of it and provides a true hope for all of us.

When we look at one part of this problem, the idea that God is all-powerful, we can take it to mean that God can do whatever he likes. But hang on a moment. Is this true? Would we want to, for example, say that God is a good God if he could lie? The Bible itself states that this isn’t something that God can do.[1] Or would it be possible for God to make a square circle?

It would seem that there are some things that we would want to suggest that God couldn’t do, that nonetheless don’t make him anything less than the greatest being imaginable. Not being able to lie or cheat doesn’t make God less great. In fact, some might argue that this attribute adds value.

How, we might ask, does this begin to answer the problem of pain? On the face of it there’s nothing seemingly illogical about ending the suffering of someone. That’s not making a circle square. These good objections need to be remembered as we continue to dig further.

As well as saying that God is all-powerful, the Christian alongside this will say that God is all-loving. The Bible states it rather simply: ‘God is love’.[2] When we say that God loves us, what do we mean? That he wants our best? Yes. That he doesn’t will any bad thing to happen to us? Yes. Well, if God doesn’t want us to be in pain and God has the power to prevent pain, then the question remains, ‘Why evil?’

It is at this point that the Free Will argument helps us to see through the confusion. To illustrate this, let me share a story from my own life.

When I started going out with Helen, now my wife, it was a slightly nervous time for me. You see, we were friends for a couple of years and the thought of making that transition from good friends to something more was both something that I wanted yet couldn’t be absolutely, 100% sure she wanted. I had a pretty good idea, of course. Helen didn’t strike me as someone who would lead me on!

But the value of our friendship was at stake and in my wanting to transition the relationship to something romantic I had to weigh the risk of losing that state of friendship that we were in. It wasn’t a debilitating problem, and it didn’t stop us from dating. But never did I once think to make absolutely sure that Helen felt the same way I did before making that jump. Helen is an independent, clever, deep-thinking woman. And I love this about her. I wasn’t going to wait until I knew for absolute certain how she felt, and nor was I about to do anything weird to ensure she felt the same way about me. There were no drugs involved in our getting together!

It had to be Helen’s free choice. It had to be this way if there was going to be real, meaningful love between us. I couldn’t force Helen into loving me – even if I had wanted to – it had to be freely offered by her. In the same way for God to truly love us, and to want to be in a meaningful relationship with us, he had to leave the choice for us to love him up to us. I suppose he could if had wanted made a world of robots that were programmed to respond to his love. But would we say this was love by our standards?

Free love, selfless love, is the only true love and God would have to make us this way if he truly loved us. Of course, with this freedom comes choice and responsibility. If we are truly free to love God, then we are truly free to not love God. Both must be true. In this freedom of choice God is not going to overrule our decisions, even if our decisions result in pain and suffering for ourselves and others – what the Bible simply refers to as sin.

This, the Free Will argument offers an explanation for why an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering in this world. At this point however, you might be thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t sound very good. I’m sure there must be some other way God could have created this world.’ But hold on just a moment. What do we mean when we say ‘good’?

The argument will be extended in our next article.

[1] Numbers 23:19

[2] 1 John 4:8

  • Jon Saverton

    Fantastic and fascinating article – I await the next one eagerly as it is something that I sometimes struggle to articulate – “why does God allow that to happen?” or normally “why does YOUR God allow that to happen?”

  • Thanks Jon! The next bit will be out this coming Friday (20th).

  • johnturnip

    As Chesterton puts it. The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.
    But I am not sure it is a good enough argument anymore as it seems good of him to allow her a head start.
    I am not sure we ever act out of free will as we are always limited by the impact of our actions on those around us, unless we are truly sociopathic.
    Surely real freewill is the “stop I just want to get off option” That, yes I am keen to avoid hell but not sure about getting to heaven. Really, happy just to stop right now and not take part any further, to never have existed.
    A bit nihilist, but it seems a forced choice this freewill.

  • Thanks John – I’ve talked a little bit more about the concept of good in the follow-on article, here: http://www.cvm.org.uk/blog/demolition-squad/the-challenge-from-suffering-what-is-good/

    ps. nice Chesterton quote!