These are my notes from a BSOCS lecture, which will be
available as a download from:
The story of a conversation with a lady whose son has mental illness: "What did Charles do wrong? Maybe in a previous life?" He gave some philosophical answers, and received the reply: they don't speak to me as a mother. Sometimes people just need a hug.
Jesus waited to visit Lazarus. When asked, "Why did you not come?" Jesus did not give His reasons, as He could have done; instead He wept, bitterly and in anger. God weeps over the suffering of the world.
Some people need answers, but some need a shoulder to cry on. We can't talk to both groups of people at the same time, with obvious consequences. In anything we say, we will either appear to be uncaring, or not intellectually credible.
Dreadful things happen. Why does God allow it? Simone Weil: "There is no such proof of feebleness of faith as the way in which people, even including Christians, sidetrack the problem of affliction when they discuss it."
First, we have to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.
We will address concerns about the two most popular responses, then offer three promising lines of thought.
The terms 'evil' and 'suffering' are used interchangably here, as in much of the literature.
Otherwise known as the 'free fall' approach. This response attempts to shift responsibility for suffering off of God and onto someone else, usually by means of a cosmically catastrophic Fall of the first human persons.
Two problems: evolution, and shared responsibility.
Traditionally, we blame Adam and Eve and claim that suffering only started after the fall.
But Paul doesn't mention suffering entering the world: sin entered, and death through sin. (Romans 5:12)
Also, predation and violence were part of the world before humans according to evolution, as most Christians accept. Biological death is not the consequence of the fall, spiritual death is. If evolution is true, we can't blame Adam for suffering.
Responsibility for a consequence can be shared. Adam and Eve may be responsible, but God may still be responsible. He set up the situation in which the fall happened. He must be at least partially to blame.
This response accepts that the buck stops with God, but claims that God is justified: He only permits the amount of suffering that is necessary in order to justify a greater good.
An impressionist artist may paint many ugly blotches because the painter knows the painting as a whole is more beautiful if they are present.
Hick: the world is a tool for soul-making, and evil is a necessary part of this.
A ready made paradise would not allow for the creation of heroes.
Swinbourne says that evil is necessary for the existence of free will. We can't have a loyal friend unless the friend has ability to betray.
These are plausible for small and medium evils, but what about the big evils? How is the holocaust for the best? The holocause may have resulted in all kinds of good taking place, but this does not justify it.
Vitale finds it difficult to accept this position. Is the world really a better place because of all the suffering? It seems that very often the world is Soul breaking rather than soul making.
But even if suffering can be justified this way... who cares? Some things are just too evil to be accepted.
Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, developed many insights and virtues. He says that hHis mistreatment contributed to his later life. If he was right, does this change our understanding of his torturers? No. If this is the cost, then it is better not to pay.
Plantinga talks about the central Christian good of the atonement of Jesus Christ. You can't have the good of the atonement without the reality of evil and suffering. It would be overkill in a world of small evil.
This is no better than the other approaches. What sort of person does this make God to be? God is a utility fanatic - He will do anything to maximise His purpose. God requires suffering on our part in order to achieve His goal.
In the end, this approach presents us with a God Who is incompetent, reckless and a fanatic... is this really what God is like?
Story: his parents chose to have a child. Not a dog. They also chose not to adopt. His mother was willing to pay a high price in order to gain her child. As God also chose.
We picture ourselves in a world of less suffering, but if there was a world of less suffering, it would not be you or me. We could not have lived in another world: we would be different people. Part of who we are is our beginning and context. God loves us, not people who might have existed in a different world.
Why is there so much evil and suffering? Because God wished to create precisely the people we are. A loving person is not always concerned about being in a relationship with the nicest people.
Another story, about his father meeting his mother; his mother looked terrible at the time. So why go out with her? Reply: I was not looking for someone perfect, I was looking for someone I could love.
Maybe God just fell in love with us?
God chose us in Him before the creation of the world. Were we worth it? We doubt it. But God disagrees with us: you are worth it.
Remember the blind man Jesus healed: he did not sin, but he is blind so that the work of God might be displayed.
Not goodness explained, but goodness displayed.
We can trust Him. Our God is willing to suffer alongside us.
It is generally more acceptable to accept suffering if you yourself suffer.
The Greek gods justified human life by living it themselves "the only acceptable theodicy ever invented." (Nietzsche).
We can either try to explain God's goodness, or seek to display God's goodness.
God has done something so wonderful that we can be confident that He had good reason for creating the world as it is, confident that He is for us.
God has the power to ensure that things will turn out well in the end. The life of Jesus, the doctor willing to die for his patients, suggests He is loving and good and we can trust Him.
Should we expect more?
We are not that smart. God may have may reasons, and we may not be capable of understanding them. "My thoughts are not your thoughts..."
When I take my dog to the vet, he does not understand why he is suffering the injection. God is much further beyond us than we are beyond the dog. I am surprised by how much we seem to understand .
How does Hell fit into your scheme of thought?
Only people who have freely chosen it will be there; I do not believe it is a place of torture, other than self inflicted regret.
(This is the question I submitted, with others.)
Surely the first two 'promising approaches are just variations of the its for the best answer and suffer the same objections?
We were chosen, but how does that justify the holocaust? He could have chosen to love people who did not create or suffer it.
God's goodness being displayed also fails: He could have chosen to display less goodness and have us suffer less evil.
I don't see it that way. I don't take myself to be the best. Sure, there are better possible creatures.
This approach gets you to the heart of the gospel very quickly, which is an advantage!
The standard "It's for the best" argument seeks to justify evil by the greater good, but ignores the fact that we would not exist in the other world. You would not exist if the world were different.
He can't wrong the people who don't exist, and He did not wrong me by enabling me to exist, so who did He wrong?
What about Job?
Not a lot to say on this...
Job 40: will the one who contends with the almighty answer him? When God shows up, Job understand the goodness of God. It is the difference between explaining God's goodness and displaying God's goodness. He has good reasons, even if we don't understand them. We understand what was happening, but Job doesn't.
(This sounds like an idea that is worth exploring. The author of Job is playing the same trick on the reader as Tom Stoppard plays on the audience in The Real Inspector Hound, asking asking about our involvement in the play. Yes, you, like Job, are involved in the story, and like Job, you don't know everything that is going on.)
Why not just create dogs who can't suffer as much? After all, we can suffer deeply, but (like dogs) we do not understand the reasons why.
God is not withholding the answers; we are not capable of grasping them.
We can have a relationship with dogs which is deep and meaningful, but it canot be as deep and meaningful as with people. He could have made us greater and capable of more suffering, but He didn't.
How do we have choice if God has determined the future?
The solution offered here only works if you are a determinist. This is not the dominant position within Christianity, but it is not a small minority position, either.
A variation on the solution works if you are a libertarian. How it works out depends on our free choice.
Even if God can't aim at the specific individuals, He can aim at a type of person. The world has to look like this in order to create people like us. Our parents chose a child, not a dog. It is still a meaningful choice even if we don't know the details of the child to be created.
Why does God not answer prayers about suffering?
We don't know. He could step in more often, He would not get the people He has got. The more obvious He is, the less free we are to make meaningful choices.
(Another excellent point: it is not an either/or choice, it is a balancing act between competing goods.)
What do the curses in Genesis 3 represent?
There is more than one reasonable way to read these chapters.
It is consistent with the rest of scripture to read them in an evolutionary way. In which case, there is a first person, morally aware.
In this reading, the curses represent at least the separation which occurred as a result of the first sin.
Don't place a burden on unbelievers about disputable matters, such as this. Don't impose a single reading on them. Let them wrestle with these matters after they are saved!