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.