Wednesday, 20 October 2010

the problem of suffering

As part of my Monday evening philosophy course we have to write a couple of hundred words each week in response to the week's lecture. It can be just a restatement of what we've learnt, reflections on what we've learnt, what it's made us think about or whatever really. I thought it might be good to kill two birds with one stone and to do it as a blog post. So here are my thoughts on last week.

The first couple of weeks of the course have been looking at whether we can still believe in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God, given the fact that evil exists. This can be broken down into two problems. Firstly, how could this God create the world that exists today, given that he knew (else he isn't omniscient) that it would turn out like it has, was presumably able to create it another way (else he isn't omnipotent), and is good (and thus would want to create the best possible world, which it seems he hasn't?). Secondly, how could this God, given that the world now exists, not intervene in some of the terrible situations?

Last week we looked at the first of these issues. To sum up the argument, the question basically being asked is 'Why didn't God create a better world than the one he created?'

The argument given by Dan Dennis, the lecturer, is that he couldn't. He argues that of all of the different possible permutations and combinations of universes that could be created, this is the best one. Scientists have observed that the world works in an incredibly fine tuned way, and that only if the embryonic universe that came in to existence were identical or very very similar to how it is now would there develop a universe that would sustain life. He quotes Robin Collins:

"If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded to rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible (As John Jefferson Davis points out, an accuracy of one part in 10^60 can be compared to firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target.)"

We have, he argues, no basis for thinking that any other created universe would be better than this one - in fact they may not even sustain life. He argues, therefore, that this means that the existence of evil does not prove that God is not good, omnipotent or omniscient. Effectively, the argument is that God did the best he could.

I guess I have a few fundamental problems with this:

  • I appreciate the incredible complexity, degree of fine-tuning and interdependency that the various laws of physics, original conditions etc must have had to create the life-sustaining universe that exists today.

    I find my problem with this somewhat difficult to articulate. Basically, my problem is that, if we're talking about an all powerful, all-knowing God, then surely he could have come up with something better? Yes, given the laws that exist now he couldn't have, be he too created these laws, and could have created other laws (that we simply cannot comprehend, their being so fundamentally different to the laws we observe now) that made a world without the moral and natural evils that we observe today. Just because we can't comprehend it surely doesn't mean it's not possible - if it is God we're talking about, there are going to be plenty of things that we, the creatures, cannot comprehend about the creator?

  • I hold the Bible to be true - I do this not just because that's what I've decided (though it is), but on the back of the evidence that points to it being true. This includes the vast swathes of early manuscript evidence that point to it's reliability, how it seems to ring true - you read it and it accurately diagnoses and speaks of the realities of life, the historicity of the resurrection (thus giving weight to what Jesus claims, including that the Bible is true), the archaeological evidence that points to it's truth, and so on. Given this foundation, I cannot accept that God was unable to make the world better than it is. In fact, he did. He created a perfect world in which humans performed no moral evil, and in which there were no natural evils. In this I'm not claiming that all points of the creation narrative are necessarily to be taken as literal - no doubt there are aspects of it which are symbolic. Nevertheless the Bible holds on to the fact that, even given this, the world was originally created perfect. Let me quote from Marcus Honeysett's blog post on this issue:

    "[The Bible] teaches that all suffering – the kind caused by people, but also natural disasters – is the result of moral evil and rebellion against God. It is a huge claim – the world is not as it should be, because the relationship between God our creator and the people he created is shattered. People carry the scars of it and Creation carries the scars of it. According to the Bible suffering is a massive demonstration that all is not right with the world. It should not be like this.

    So this gulf between God and rebellious Mankind - the guilt of imperfect people in the face of God’s perfection - is the cause of suffering. The whole world is mucked up and tainted by that guilt. In a world in tune with the God of love there would be no greed. If everyone had a relationship with God as the best and most loving of fathers there would be no child abuse or domestic violence."

    The Bible doesn't say 'God did the best he could so deal with it, it's not his fault' (that might be a slightly harsh summary!). It says something far more satisfying. Suffering is real - the fact that to you it doesn't feel right is because it isn't right. You weren't created that way.

    If Christianity is true then it can deal with the problem of suffering, and it deals with it in the person of Jesus. I quote Marcus Honeysett again:

    "The consistent claim of the Bible is that the crucifixion of Jesus is precisely about God dealing with suffering and evil...

    That is what the cross is dealing with – the guilt that separates. It is where God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, says “I will pay the cost of that. I will tear down the wall of guilt that separates you from me. I am instituting a way, through my suffering, this crucifixion, for the thing to start to be put right.” On the cross Jesus bore the weight of sin, decisively took it away and provided forgiveness for those who will receive it. It was the ultimate horror that speaks to human horror. He says “ultimately I am going to wipe away tears from the eyes of all who come to me because of that event.”

    ... when the Bible confronts the issue of suffering it doesn’t conclude either that God doesn’t exist or that he isn’t good. Instead it says “this loving Father has worked and will finally conclude the work of dealing with suffering by coming and suffering right in the middle of it with us. As he did so, Jesus suffered the shame of being thought illegitimate, the horror of being a refugee, homelessness in an occupied land, misunderstanding, betrayal and torture. Don’t tell me that God is ambivalent to suffering. He is neither aloof nor distant."
  • The underlying assumption is that what is best for humanity is complete comfort and lack of suffering - that this is the goal, that this is what life is all about. But I don't think this is true. I think the Bible says that we are created to be in relationship with God. The Bible teaches that God created the world so that we can be in relationship with him, so that we can know him and (as the natural consequence of this) worship him. Now this may sound egocentric and selfish, but it is only these things if God isn't worthy of the praise. If he is, then it's absolutely the right thing to do. In fact, the Bible teaches that God is completely perfect, and that the best thing we can have - the thing that will bring most joy, fulfilment and meaning - is relationship with God, knowing him. Relationship with him is the best gift that God could give to us, as he is the best thing that exists, and so that's what he created us for. If he didn't give us that gift, then he wouldn't be good, because he wouldn't be giving us the best thing.

    C S Lewis says:

    "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world".

    Suffering is a consequence of rebellion against God, yes. In part. But God also uses it to alert us to what we're missing out on, and if it can (which often it does!) lead to relationship with him, then perhaps we could say that the suffering is worth it for the consequence that it brings.

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