The question of why God allows suffering is one of the most enduring and complex theological issues. Many people struggle to reconcile the idea of a loving, all-powerful God with the reality of pain, suffering, and evil in the world. Despite centuries of debate and discussion, there is no easy answer to this question. However, there are several arguments that attempt to address this issue from different perspectives. In this entry, we will explore what I think are the three of the strongest, and most common arguments for why God allows suffering: free will, soul-building, and the greater good.
Free Will: One of the most common arguments for why God allows suffering is that humans have been given free will. This argument is based on the idea that God created humans with the ability to choose between right and wrong, and that this freedom is essential to our moral development. According to this view, God allows us to make choices, even when they result in pain and suffering, because He values our freedom and the moral growth that comes from it.
Soul-Building: Another argument for why God allows suffering is that it can lead to spiritual growth and character development. This argument is based on the idea that difficult experiences can help individuals become stronger, more compassionate, and more resilient. In this view, God allows suffering because it can lead to positive personal growth and transformation.
Greater Good: A third argument for why God allows suffering is that it can lead to a greater good. This argument is based on the idea that sometimes, people must endure suffering in order to achieve a greater goal. For example, a person may endure pain and discomfort in order to help others who are experiencing similar difficulties. In this way, suffering can lead to acts of kindness, generosity, and selflessness that would not have been possible without it.
We’re going to look a bit deeper at those three arguments, however, I think an analogy undercuts all three. I call this the False Teeth analogy.
Imagine a person named Tim who has false teeth. Tim's poor dental hygiene and overconsumption of sugary substances over the first twenty years of his life have caused him great pain and potential life-threatening conditions. As a result of neglecting his oral hygiene, Tim has lost several teeth and is now dependent on painkillers and alcohol to temporarily alleviate his pain. Additionally, he can no longer enjoy tough or chewy foods due to his dental problems.
After years of suffering, Tim finally decides to get dental surgery to remove his old, broken, and decaying teeth and replace them with false teeth. The surgery successfully eliminates his pain and allows him to eat his favorite foods again. Furthermore, Tim can smile proudly with his new teeth, which has improved his confidence and love life.
Fast forward ten years, and Tim now has two children, aged nine and seven. One day, Tim's children refuse to brush their teeth, and they even argue with their parents about it. Frustrated and desperate to get his children to understand the importance of good oral hygiene, Tim sits them down at the dinner table and asks them why he and their mom force them to brush their teeth. The children respond with the typical "because you're mean" or "you don't like us" excuses.
Tim shakes his head and says, "No, that's not why we force you to brush your teeth." He then removes his false teeth and places them on the table between the children. "This is why we do it," he says. "If you don't take care of your teeth, they will decay, and you will end up like me." Tim's children are shocked by their father's revelation and immediately understand the importance of good oral hygiene. They start brushing their teeth regularly and without complaint, knowing that neglecting their teeth can lead to painful and potentially life-threatening consequences.
The analogy illustrates that important lessons can be taught without causing unnecessary suffering. If God needed Jesus to be the redeemer, Jesus' suffering could have been used as an example of the consequences of sin, without the need for additional suffering to humans and animals. The idea that suffering is necessary for moral growth or spiritual development is not supported by the fact that unnecessary suffering exists in the world, including natural disasters, diseases, and personal tragedies. While naturalism can explain the existence of suffering, theism requires the use of theodicies and rationalizations to justify it. Without these justifications, it is difficult to reconcile the existence of unnecessary suffering with the concept of an all-loving deity.
I argue that the concept of free will does not fully explain or justify the existence of suffering in the world. While it is true that humans have the capacity to choose between right and wrong, and that freedom of choice is essential to moral development, it does not necessarily follow that God must allow the level of suffering and evil that exist in the world in order to preserve our free will. Ultimately, the argument of free will for why God allows suffering is not sufficient or convincing for those who do not believe in a higher power or who hold different beliefs about the nature of morality and human choice.
I counter the argument of soul-building by questioning whether the suffering caused by events such as natural disasters, disease, or genocide can truly lead to positive personal growth and transformation. I argue that the extreme and senseless nature of much of the suffering in the world can cause trauma and psychological harm, rather than spiritual growth and character development. Furthermore, I contend that the concept of soul-building relies on the assumption that suffering has inherent value or purpose, which is never justified and is not supported by evidence. Suffering is a natural phenomenon that occurs as a result of the laws of the universe, rather than a deliberate mechanism for personal growth. Suffering, especially needlessly is what we would expect in a world without god, and extremely unexpected in a world in which a god does exist.
Moreover, some may question whether the idea of soul-building justifies the level of suffering that exists in the world. It could be argued that an all-powerful and benevolent God could find alternative ways to promote personal growth and transformation that do not require immense suffering and tragedy. Finally, I argue that the concept of soul-building is subjective and dependent on individual perspectives and beliefs. I do not find that suffering leads to positive personal growth, while others almost certainly do. As such, the idea of soul-building does not provide a compelling explanation for the existence of suffering in the world. In conclusion, while the concept of soul-building may be a compelling argument for some believers as to why God allows suffering, it is not persuasive or sufficient for those who do not believe in a higher power or who hold different beliefs about the nature of suffering and personal growth.
As for the issue of the greater good, I raise several counterarguments to the greater good argument for why God allows suffering. First, this argument assumes that the suffering in the world is balanced by an equal or greater good. However, there may be many cases in which the suffering does not lead to any clear benefit or outcome, or where the benefits are not worth the immense cost in terms of human lives and well-being. Well-being is the basis of my moral framework, thus that is always a primary concern for me. There are many examples of why that argument is unsupported such as: Natural Disasters: Natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis can cause immense suffering and loss of life, but it is difficult to see how these events lead to any greater good. While humans can respond with acts of kindness and generosity to help those affected, it is hard to argue that the immense suffering caused by these events is necessary or justifiable in any sense.
Disease: Diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's can cause immense suffering for patients and their families, but it is unclear how this suffering leads to any greater good. While medical research and treatments may come as a result of studying diseases, it is hard to argue that the immense suffering caused by these illnesses is necessary or justifiable in any sense.
Senseless Violence: Acts of senseless violence such as mass shootings or terrorist attacks can cause immense suffering and loss of life, but it is difficult to see how these events lead to any greater good. While humans can respond with acts of kindness and compassion to help those affected, it is hard to argue that the immense suffering caused by these events is necessary or justifiable in any sense.
Personal Tragedies: Personal tragedies such as the loss of a loved one or a serious illness can cause immense suffering for individuals and families, but it is unclear how this suffering leads to any greater good. While individuals may be able to find strength and resilience in the face of such difficulties, it is hard to argue that the immense suffering caused by personal tragedies is necessary or justifiable in any sense. In all of these cases, it is difficult to see how the suffering caused leads to any greater good, and it is often easier to view such events as being the result of natural or random forces, rather than as part of a larger plan or purpose. Thus, it is more probable that these things would happen under naturalism, and highly improbable that they would happen under theism.
Second, I contend that the greater good argument relies on the assumption that God has a specific plan or purpose for the suffering in the world. However, there may be many instances of suffering that seem to serve no clear purpose or plan, such as the suffering caused by natural disasters, diseases, or random acts of violence. Third, I argue that the greater good argument is based on a narrow and subjective definition of what constitutes a greater good. The idea that suffering can lead to acts of kindness, generosity, and selflessness may be true in some cases, but it does not necessarily justify the immense level of suffering and tragedy that exists in the world. My final contention that the greater good argument relies on the assumption that the end justifies the means, even if that means causing immense suffering and harm to individuals. However, this idea conflicts with many people's deeply held ethical beliefs, which prioritize the well-being and dignity of individual human beings over abstract notions of the greater good. In conclusion, while the greater good argument may be a compelling explanation for some believers as to why God allows suffering, it is not be sufficient or persuasive for those who do not believe in a higher power or who hold different beliefs about the nature of suffering and the value of individual human life.
Overall, I think suffering is the biggest dilemma that any theology faces, as it drives at the very heart of the human experience. I do not find any of the arguments for suffering that I have encountered to be successful, in the sense that they are not compelling, and lack the explanatory power that the should. Suffering is something that is easily explained by, and expected on atheism / naturalism. Suffering is not expected under theism, and his wholly incompatible with a god who's very nature is said to be love. Moreover, the False Teeth analogy illustrates why there is no need for billions of life forms to suffer as they do, if there is a loving creator deity.