The Challenge from Suffering: What is ‘Good’?

‘What possible good reasons would God have for permitting evil?’

This is a question often voiced when an explanation of why God might allow suffering is presented. The Free Will argument goes some way to providing an explanation for why a good God might allow suffering. To add to this line of thought it’s worth thinking about the nature of ‘good’ itself. What do we mean when say something is good?

The ancient Greeks were known for their deep thinking – and, thanks to 300, their incredible abs – had some ideas about this. They may have been around a long time ago but I think that they’re not so different from you or I.

One of these Greeks, a chap by the name of Epicurus, decided upon a definition that what is good is that which is pleasurable. If it feels good, it is good. We’re not a million miles from that today in our society. In this way of thinking, a good thing is an event or action that results in pleasure, whereas, correspondingly, a bad thing is a something that results in pain.

There is some truth to this. It is undeniable that many pleasurable things are good. A fun night at the pub with friends that leaves us feeling good, can be truly good! Likewise, breaking an arm when mountain biking is painful, and it is bad! But this definition isn’t large enough to describe the whole picture.

So we then ask, ‘Are there things that are good that aren’t pleasurable?’ Well, what about selfless acts of bravery that risk life to save others? The parents, for example, who are badly injured after running back into their burning house to rescue their young child? We would all want, I think, to say that this is a good act.

Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and one of the top philosophers of religion in the last 50 years, acknowledges that the problem of pain in relation to a world comprised only of pleasurable goods would be a very big problem.

“My suffering would be pure loss for me if the only good thing in life was sensory pleasure, and the only bad thing sensory pain; and it is because the modern world tends to think in those terms that the problem of evil seems so acute. If these were the only good and bad things, the occurrence of suffering would indeed be a conclusive objection to the existence of God.”[1]

Swinburne is saying that because there are some things which are good, which are not pleasurable, we can allow for the painful alongside the good without contradiction. The painful moment never, ever feels nice, but there can exist a deeper element to the moment which is truly good.

In a me-centered culture, where my happiness is king, pain can be a terrible thing. When my felt-happiness is the most important thing for me then I will do all I can to avoid pain.

Perhaps this is why so many people ask ‘Why?’ when the pain comes. As Swinburne observes, the ‘acute’ nature of pain when we’re living for pleasure is a shock to us. It’s a jolt that awakens us to reality that our self-centredness has obscured. In this way, some pain is not without its (valuable) uses, as C. S. Lewis observed[2]:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

[1] Richard Swinburne, Is There A God?, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 89
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Harper, 2001, p. 91

This is an edited extract from The Ultimate Survival Guide, available for sale now from CVM.
This is an edited extract from The Ultimate Survival Guide, available for sale now from CVM.

  • johnturnip

    Using the mountain bike example speaking from experience. There is a true sense of peace in that moment as you fly through the air with only the thought, well this is going to hurt. Only broke a few ribs. It is the pursuit of high that you get because you know if you fail it will hurt.

    A less palatable route is the one Kierkegaard observes “Now, if obedience directly followed suffering, it would be easy to learn. But learning obedience is not that easy. Humanly viewed, suffering is dangerous. But even more terrible is failing to learn obedience! ”

    He goes on “And if he does not learn this, then he may learn what is most corrupting: to learn craven despondency, learn to quench the spirit, learn to deaden any noble fervour in it, learn defiance and despair.”
    Which would suggest that it is not really freewill.

  • Thanks John! Sounds a bit like a ‘soul-making’ theodicy – that we are made better through our painful experiences etc., choosing virtue as a result.

    I think Kierkegaard highlights some of the weaknesses of that argument, but without dismissing the Free Will defence that would say that we are given Free Will, by God, in love, and out of the Free Will we chose something other than God as the source of identity/love etc.

    The situation now, post-Free Will choice, may limit our options – in this ‘fallen state’ – but this is the very result of having Free Will in the first place, not a sign that we don’t have it all.


  • johnturnip

    I am not sure you would dismiss Origen so lightly.

    To quote Douglas Adams “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

    “The situation now, post-Free Will choice, may limit our options – in this ‘fallen state’ – but this is the very result of having Free Will in the first place, not a sign that we don’t have it all.”

    I think this is the point I was making, though not in the way you use it, in that we do not have freewill as it has already been spent. So it is a choice that you are forced to make, in the apparent guise of free will without the option to stop, get off and refuse to take part’

    So we start with the question over agreeing to take part? I suspect that there are some who would choose not to exist but without a knowledge of what is to come do you have a choice. Going on, the factors that that guide the choices I make are generally nurture/nature (Parents, economic, opportunities etc). So, although I am making a choice, were the decisions I did not take ever available.

    So we can start to view this as determinism, even if from God. In which Epicurus’s other best known quote comes into play, I know it is a comment on Zeus and the propensity for Greek gods to dabble.

    As an example, I was happily going to the chip shop when I got the nudge to knock on someone’s door whose wife had just died from alcoholism and whose life had fallen apart and was suicidal. As part of the long conversations we have had, we have come to the why did it happen and have been down the line that it is a choice she made and that he did his best. But talking more about her history and upbringing I am not sure she had a choice or the strength to make a choice.

    His life and outlook has changed, he is a different person, he has been on the Alpha course, it has improved relations with his wider family.

    The trouble is that I do not disagree with your premise, it is more that I do not agree with God anymore, not a crisis in belief or faith. Which means there is probably a special room for me in the downstairs cupboard.