“Why God?” This is the question that arises during times of sorrow and loss. I recently did the funeral for a cousin on my wife’s side of the family. She was only 32 and left two wonderful children at her passing. The funeral was in West Palm Beach, Florida. All around us were gated communities, with high HOA fees, and all the niceties that come with it. From the houses, to the grass, the air conditioning, and not to mention the awesome waterparks attached to various housing communities. The modern world has a way of causing us to forget about death. Well, at least until it comes close to us.
When death strikes, the pain unmasks our wealthy poverty. Grief is present and powerful. The relationship of daughter, mother, cousin, and more become so close that modernity itself comes to a crashing halt. What are we to say of suffering and God?
We cannot and should not blame suffering on the devil. This gives him too much power. Moreover, we cannot and should not blame all suffering on “sin,” although the Catholic Catechism is right to say that it acts like an air pollutant, and thus is part of the problem. Moreover, it does not ‘feel’ right to blame all suffering on God. We know he is good and just and merciful. So, how shall we answer the question of pain and suffering?
A quick aside. If you are in the middle of grief or suffering right now, philosophical answers tend not to go so far in the moment, even if they are true. I recommend, spending time with a friend or counselor to walk you through the pain.
The truth is that God is in some sense on the ‘hook’ for the suffering that we see in this world, because he set the world up to work and operate the way that it does. However, in another sense he is off the hook, because if he was going to create a good world, he has limitations on the kind of world that he can create in the first place. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that God could end all suffering right now if he was prepared to take away several of the most important and good attributes that this world has to offer in the first place. For instance:
- God could end all human evil, and hence the suffering that comes with it, if he took away free-will. Namely, he could have stopped Hitler’s action, he could stop the lies that happen in marriages, he could stop all the racism. However, for God free-will is a valuable and good thing, despite the consequences that it has for evil. Without free-will there would be no love, and hence there would be no Mother Teresa’s in this world or Ghandi’s etc. God considers the enshrining of free-will a greater good, that presupposes the possibility of incredible evil. If asked “why?” about a murder, the answer is that someone used their free-will to kill someone else. Free-will answers the question of human (moral) evil. But, what about the natural suffering in the world?
- God could end all suffering if he took away the natural laws that operate this world/universe. Remember, that the natural laws are things like gravity. With repeated experiments and observations scientists (and humans in general) have figured out the way much of the world works. Let’s use an example that is used in the Philosophy of Religion. It’s really simple; water. Water has the capacity to bring health to our bodies. One drink on a hot and dry day can greatly aid us. At the same time, water has the ‘power’ to drown us. Unless God is willing to change these properties in each circumstance we are in (and he is not willing in 99.9999999 (imagine seeing 9’s to infinity here) % of the time), then we will see the natural consequences that they bring. Namely, if we jump off of a building, we can know (that without a net or some other safety device) that we will crash into the pavement below in ways that destroy our bodies. Therefore, when we are asking “Why someone died?” we can simply answer by highlighting the natural circumstances of their condition or situation. So, in the case of a drowning, we can say that a given person drowned, “because water filled their lungs and they were unable to breath until they died.” The natural answer really is good enough here, as harsh as it may be sometimes.
Moreover, it would be a very strange world indeed if God did jump in to mess with the trillions and trillions of possible circumstances by changing the natural laws. Natural laws are a good thing. They help us to know that when we walk out of our houses in the morning, gravity won’t switch at random and we go up into space never to come back again. They help us to know and interact with the world that we live in.
Therefore, God sees that the natural laws are the very rules and tools for humanity to get to know the world. Having an orderly world means that we can use our reasoning in such a way as to make decisions. Without the natural laws, the concepts of free-will and reason (both of which God highly values) cannot exist in any strong or valid way.
A littler further reflection on Natural Evil
I myself think that natural evil does not make any sense. In the philosophical literature, moral evil is the kind of evil that humans do. I answered that above in a short paragraph on free-will. However, that is only one half of the equation about ‘evil.’ Very often we are asking questions that have no free-will attached to the apparent evil done. Examples of what are called ‘natural evil’ abound, such as, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, tsunami’s, cancers, and much much more.
Why are these things taking place? Again, my answer is that these things are not actually “evil.” They just are. They are destructive for sure. They cause lots of pain and sorrow. No one will deny this. But, to call that “evil” seems to be attributing to a non-rational agent (let’s say an earthquake) moral power and capacities. However, natural events have no moral power whatsoever. They happen without intention or moral force. We cannot say, “That evil tsunami” because a tsunami is not evil. It is just a force that takes place in the ocean that impacts the land that humans and other living things abide.
Therefore, my answer to the question about the problem of evil is really that we only need answer the moral problem of evil. Once that question is answered with free-will, we simply need to understand that the natural laws are a prior good. Sure, they can cause much destruction, but ‘on the whole’ they set up the possibility of a better world than one without them. Again, if there are no natural laws, anything can happen at any time for no reason whatsoever, and that would be much more destructive than the world that we live in.
The universe that we live in, although set up by God, is set up for the good and long-range goals God has, such as giving people free-will, building an orderly universe, gifting human creatures with reasoning capabilities, and more. This means, that when events happen, God is not to blame in the sense that he did a given act in the moment. Instead, the moment can be explained in natural terms. Cancer takes lives. Lions eat antelope. Earthquakes hurt populations that build their societies near fault lines, etc.
Suffering and evil take place because the kind of things that make for learning, stability, love, and more are enshrined by free-will, natural laws, and the power of reason. These are great goods, which all the while allowing for great evil or destruction. We might say, for clarity purposes, that if God wants the incredibly important categories of free-will, natural-laws, and the powers of reason, there are certain possibilities that can always happen. Hence, suffering.