The Problem of God and Suffering

Christians and Jews have long debated the question of how a God who created and sustains the universe could allow the level of suffering we observe. This month, I am giving several talks on God and Ebola and I wanted to post on the varieties of responses I see in Christianity.

As a starting point, I’ve listed eight words which represent eight possibilities.  For each one, I’ve given Biblical support, but also a Biblical critique. In brief, I will argue that the first six (God is partial, angry, unaware, just, unable, or constant) fail to satisfy me.  The last two (God is subtle and/or unknown) work for me, but only with certain caveats.

Note that this is meant to provoke thought and discussion.  All eight have precedents in scripture, tradition, and reason. It is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. Nor have I made a full argument for the positions I hold. Rather, I hope you will see why the different positions may be appealing to different people and where each one faces challenges.

IS GOD PARTIAL? (Does God take sides?)

Some Christians have proposed that God favors some people at the expense of others. (I have no doubt that there are “chosen people.” The question at hand is whether this idea of a chosen people can be used to explain why some people suffer – presumably the non-chosen suffer so that the chosen do not have to.)

Proponents might cite:

Ecclesiasticus 36:4-14

As you have used us to show your holiness to them,
   so use them to show your glory to us.
Then they will know, as we have known,
   that there is no God but you, O Lord.

James 4:4

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

I am an opponent because of:

Matthew 5:43-45

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Jonah

Really the whole book, but in particular God’s great care for the Ninevites, expressed in chapter 4).

I am reminded of a line attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

I think there is no doubt that God favors Israel and the Church, but that is not the same as saying that God is favors them at the expense of others. Indeed, we see God favoring both as a blessing to the nations.

IS GOD ANGRY (AT HUMANITY)?

Some Christians have argued that God is mad, perhaps justly mad, at everyone. Mercy is the exception. This idea comes up frequently in Reform Christianity and has been tied to particular interpretation of original sin and total depravity. We should be thankful to for the small mercies that are the exceptions to God’s wrath. A great example can be found in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

Proponents might cite:

Exodus 32:9-10

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

Mark 10:26-27

They were greatly astounded and said to one another,* ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

I am an opponent because of:

Exodus 34:6-7

the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

I John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

God may be angry, but it seems unhelpful to view God’s anger as exceeding mercy and love. I think we would have to view it as a dominant personality trait if we wanted to explain human suffering through disease. Neither the Old or the New Testament suggests such a picture. God’s default is love. I’m not sure I believe in wrath (as excessive anger) or punishment (as retribution), but insofar as I do (wrath as swift balancing and punishment as rehabilitation), I see it as the exception, not the rule.

IS GOD UNAWARE (OF HUMAN SUFFERING)?

This argument is made less frequently by modern Christians, but was popular in Antiquity and Middle Ages. Perhaps God attends to the big picture and does not (for dignity or efficiency) or cannot (through purity or scale) attend to details. The Muslim theologian Ibn Rushd, for instance, has argued that God has no knowledge of particulars. A strand of Neoplatonist Islam and Christianity has held that God knows only perfect ideals. More recently, some Deists have argued that God set things up well but no longer attends to the universe.

Proponents might cite:

Isaiah 55:1-9

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I am an opponent because of:

Jonah 4:11

(Then the Lord said,) And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Matthew 10:29

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.

I cannot imagine a Christian theology incompatible with God’s ability and desire to attend to details.

IS GOD JUST (AND SUFFERING IS GOD’S JUST PUNISHMENT OF THE WICKED)?

Many Christians have argued that all suffering results from human evil. Sometimes it is wicked people inflicting suffering on others. At all other times it is God inflicting suffering on wicked people. Just this past year, we can cite the statement of the Liberian Council of Churches which blames the plague of Ebola on God’s anger at Liberia for “corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism, etc.).” Another recent examples would be a view of Hurricane Katrina as God’s judgment.

Proponents might cite:

Psalm 1:4-6

The wicked … are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Hebrews 12:5-6 (Proverbs 3:11-12)

My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
   or lose heart when you are punished by him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
   and chastises every child whom he accepts.

I will first note that Hebrews presents this not as judgment, but as correction. God teaches the accepted, rather than punishing the rejected. Thus, even under this interpretation, one should view those who suffer as being favored and invited by God into a deeper relationship, not as ignorable, having been turned away.

Once we view suffering in this way, it’s a short step to suffering as God’s prod.  Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) as theologian and economist argued thus.

“Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.”

His economics of scarcity but not, I think his theology of scarcity, influenced Darwin in developing his theory of evolution by natural selection. Malthus’ theology influenced Social Darwinism in the belief that competition is both necessary and desirable in the production of productivity and morality. Such thinking is hard to find (if present at all) in Darwin and clearly rejected in evolutionary biology after the 1930s.

Social Darwinism makes suffering God’s punishment of the weak.

I cannot speak strongly enough against this kind of thinking in Christian theology, as I find it utterly foreign to the Gospel.

I oppose both versions because of:

Job

Eliphaz the Temanite says (in Job 5:17), “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” Note that this is bad advice rejected by God in his vindication of Job (Job 42:7), “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Matthew 5 and Luke 6

blessed are the poor … blessed are those who suffer for righteousness sake

It is not ours to attribute God’s punishment, but to respond to suffering with kindness. God is just and God does cause suffering in the wicked, but we cannot assume that God’s justice explains suffering in any particular case, much less in all cases.

IS GOD UNABLE (TO HELP)?

Some Christians have argued that a higher power prevents God from acting. Prominent examples have included: logical necessity (Aquinas) or God’s dignity (Anselm) or the Deep Magic (Narnia) or God’s previous action.

I find this inconsistent with the concept of God as Creator; however, it is experiencing a popular and theological resurgence in the interpretation of several Biblical passages.

Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

John 1:3-5

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Several theologians interpret this to mean that the formless void and the darkness are co-eternal with God. Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and process theologians such as John Cobb and Catherine Keller emphasize God’s limitations and argue we can only view God in the context of God’s relationships with other things. God cannot unilaterally determine events.

I am an opponent because of:

Isaiah 44: 6b, 8b

I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

Revelation 22:13

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

I Chronicles 29:11-14

Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. ‘But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill-offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.

And, if we are to cite tradition as well, the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty… (Almighty is pantocratora, “source of all” in Greek)

If God is subject to some law, even a law previously set by God-self, then we must admit of some alternative standard of goodness and order in the universe. We must think in terms of an equal of God. When we do this, we must be either uncertain of God’s final victory (in which case we lose hope) or certain based only on God’s superior strength (in which case God becomes a bully). I am unwilling to accept either option.

IS GOD CONSTANT (VALUING ORDER OVER SPECIFIC CARE)?

Some Christians have argued that God chooses consistent and universal justice and mercy over specific justice and mercy. The whole holds together, though the pieces don’t appear to.

Proponents might cite:

Isaiah 55: 8-9

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

John Polkinghorne has called this the “Free Process Defense.” Natural Laws must be consistent or else we would have no comfort; we would then despair of ever knowing reality well enough to make choices. Suffering often occurs because we run up against the constancy of Natural Laws such as gravity (falling), radioactive decay (fallout), and natural selection (extinction).

I see this as simply a more roundabout version of God as UNABLE. God is unable to be both generically good and specifically good and so must choose one or the other. I’m going to reject it for the same reasons I rejected the last explanation.

IS GOD SUBTLE?

Many Christians have argued that God has an ineffable long-term plan, a higher purpose, which – when revealed – will render all suffering understandable.

Proponents might cite:

Romans 8:19-33

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

I’m also reminded of Leibniz notion that this must be “the best of all possible worlds,” for God has made it. Our inability to appreciate it comes from our lack of knowledge and perspective.

I’m beginning to see this as a possibility, but I think we need to be careful not to slip into some earlier errors. This can turn into a UNABLE argument (God must use present suffering to achieve future good), an UNAWARE argument (God’s eye is on the Big Picture), or worst of all an UNCARING argument (“you have to break a few eggs”). Thus the God as subtle argument is frequently received in a very unhealthy way, no matter how we intend it.

For me the God as subtle argument must come with the curiosity (Why, God?) and genuine willingness to communicate (Don’t you dare) evidenced in the Bible. Along those lines, I would recommend thinking about:

Job asking God for an explanation (Job).

Abraham negotiating with God about the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-33).

Moses arguing with God to be merciful (Exodus 32, Numbers 14:13-20).

Jesus asking the Father to spare him from the passion (Matthew 26:39, Mark14:36, Luke 22:42).

The Syrophoenician begging Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).

We can claim that God is subtle, but it must come with some serious skepticism and commitment to getting to the truth. It cannot be a way to avoid dealing with real problems or a way to blame others for their lack of understanding.

IS GOD UNKNOWN (MYSTERIOUS AND UNKNOWABLE)?

Many Christians have claimed that suffering makes sense, we simply have not the ability to make sense of it. We lack the knowledge or perspective. Note that this sounds like God as CONSTANT, but places the failure with us (not understanding) not with God (preserving the whole but losing some details).

Proponents might cite:

Psalm 139:5-6

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Mark 14:36

(Jesus) said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’

Like the last argument (God is SUBTLE), I think this argument has possibilities and challenges. It can turn into a PARTIAL argument (I understand, but you don’t or I have faith but you don’t) or a STATUS QUO argument (God must want it to stay the way it is). Both of those are horrible (and common) attempts to justify injustice, inequality, and negligence. Thus the God as unknown argument is frequently received in a very unhealthy way, no matter how we intend it.

Having said that, I favor the God as unknown argument when it comes with the humility (I may never know) and genuine willingness to act (“Here I am; send me”) evidenced in the Bible. I recommend:

John 9:1-4

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

The cause is unknown, but the response is clear.

SUMMARY

I cannot say why there is suffering but, given that suffering exists…

I believe that God is the best way to understand the universe: God is with us in the suffering.

I believe that my response should be one of faith, building relationships of trust and service.

I believe that the church as an important role to play in wielding all the tools of memory, reason, and skill to these ends. That includes the best scientific knowledge we have, as well as the wisdom of the church in empowering people and binding them together.

We can’t always conquer that which destroys the body, but we can conquer that which destroys body and soul. We can conquer apathy, fear, and hatred, with faith, hope, and love. Christianity shifts our attention from the unanswerable—how to live without struggle and suffering—to the answerable—how to live fully. No creature can be my enemy without first and finally being my neighbor.

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