Suffering and Human Responsibility

Some atheists believe that the problem of suffering is a devastating argument against belief in God.  If there is a God, why does he allow so much suffering?  Even Christians wrestle with these things.

The easiest response is with regards to human evil.  God sees human freedom as valuable and the natural result is that some people will choose to do bad things.  Most atheists do not try to argue against that one.

The harder response is what to do with natural suffering such as disasters and disease.  Why does God allow such things?  I do not want to make light of people’s suffering by giving easy answers.  But I do want to look at this in perspective.  Natural disasters do take place and they are horrible things.  But where do most of the deaths and tragedies take place?  Most often they are in the third world or in poorer areas of the western world.  The reason for this is that due to poverty and corruption, third world nations are not prepared for disasters even if they are in areas prone to them.  Houses are not built properly, warning systems are not in place and relief is not available.  What if we put our financial, mental and time resources away from developing the next iPhone or other gadget and toward making sure that structures are in place to help nations prone to disasters and thus avoid at least the large scale of suffering?

What about diseases?  Is this all God’s fault?  Why are the cancer levels so high today as compared to a hundred years ago?  What choices do we as a society make with regard to pollution, diet and habits that lead to this?  Why do we allow AIDS to continue when if we as a society made the right choices it could be practically eliminated in a couple of generations?  Why do we allow poor people, in whatever nation, go without medical care?

It is true that we wonder why God allows suffering.  However, I suspect that God looks at us and wonders why we allow suffering.  There is enough water, food, intelligence and financial resources to create a paradise on earth.  Instead, because of our materialistic and selfish desires, there is suffering all around us.  Instead of pointing our finger at God, perhaps we should point our finger at ourselves.

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11 thoughts on “Suffering and Human Responsibility”

  1. Stephen, what are your thoughts on acts wrought by God, like the flood or S&G? I’m thinking you might say that God did it because of their free choices to be wicked. Is that right? If so, it would seem God places obedience to him above free will. If that is the case, then you could again raise the argument of why didn’t God simply create us to use our freedom within the confines of good?

    I look forward to your response.

  2. I think the Flood is in a different category than the general suffering that people normally see as an argument against God’s existence. It was a special and unique event of judgment. Regarding freedom within the confines of good, is that even freedom? It is like the old Ford cars, where you could have them in any color you wanted as long as it was black. The point of our freedom is not that we have a few choices within goodness, but that we have the choice to choose the good.

  3. I agree that would not really be free. But my point was that it doesn’t seem that God values freedom over obedience to his will. So the good from obedience would supersede the good from freedom.

  4. I am not sure that is a valid comparison. God values both freedom and obedience. Obedience can only happen in the context of freedom. Obedience is only possible if disobedience is an option as well. My chair cannot be said to be obedient to the purposes I have for it because it does not have the choice to disobey.

  5. I would say disobedience need only be metaphysically or logically possible to still make sense of obedience. It doesn’t have to actually happen. Imagine if God had set his will in place like a natural law. We orbit around the sun in a nice, habitable zone, but think about if the effects of gravity could be breached. We would go zooming into deep space and quickly all die. This scenario is both metaphysically and logically possible, yet there will be no violation of the laws of physics. If we lose our orbit, it will be because of some other acting force. You could say that all objects are obeying the laws of gravity and it still makes sense without the antonym actually occurring.

    So, I think your response is incorrect as it’s stated, but I think perhaps you meant something slightly different. You may have meant that God wouldn’t value obedience as much if disobedience weren’t an option.

    God values both freedom and obedience, but apparently not in the same amount, as I’ve said. You can’t make sense of ending life wrought directly by God and still say that freedom is valued in the same amount as or more than obedience. Perhaps an analogy will help show my reasoning.

    I have a son who is seven months old and just started army crawling around the house. I really enjoy this activity and I think it’s good as it gives him a chance to explore, learn, and develop. At the same time, I have a baby gate at the top of our open stairs to the basement. My concern for his safety trumps my concern for his free exploration. There is a limit to my allowance of his freedom based on my greater concern. So, I value safety over freedom.

    If something is a greater good, then I don’t find it problematic to compromise on the lesser goods; we do this all the time. For example, if God were to ensure humanity only engaged in activities that did not dishonor him, we would still have a wide range of things available. Think of what we could still do – read, write, play music, etc. This wouldn’t be like the existence of a chair at all. Perhaps this conception would be like heaven, where I assume disobedience is either metaphysically or logically possible (after all, didn’t Satan rebel?), but no one does it due to the presence of God or some such notion. This is a place/state people strive to be, so it wouldn’t make much sense to say this form of existence is bad.

    (P.S. Your option to notify people of follow-up comments does not work. I thought you’d like to know)

  6. By the way, the flood and Soddom and Gommorah fit perfectly within the argument, in my opinion. You covered suffering brought about by humans and suffering brought about by nature or chance. Is suffering brought about by God not more powerful than human-to-human? Consider these two arguments and which one is stronger:

    1. If God is all loving, then he would not let us cause each other suffering.
    2. If God is all loving, then he would not kill us.

    I think the natural suffering is the best argument, but number 2 above seems clearly stronger than number 1, which you included in your post.

  7. When you say God would not kill us, are you including natural disasters in that? Because I do not see natural disasters as God’s attempt to kill people. An interesting conversation, but the main point I was trying to make is that before we start blaming others, we as a human race must answer for the suffering that we allow. I hope you agree.

  8. I’m referring to direct acts by God, such as Soddom and Gommorah or sending down fire to destroy the worshippers of Baal (I think I’m remembering that one correctly). I think natural disasters and disease are separate.

    I agree that humanity can do more to to reduce suffering. I was merely commenting on your treatment of the first argument – I don’t find your dismissal of it convincing. To your second point in the post, I agree as I’ve said, but it doesn’t really answer the objection since it only takes us so far. I think you probably realize this response to the second argument is not fully successful.

  9. Actually God did not send down fire to destroy worshippers of God. There was a contest to see whose god would send down fire to consume a sacrifice. Baal did nothing but God did send the fire. Elijah then ordered to prophets of Baal executed (there had been widespread persecution of the followers of Baal against the followers of God).
    The direct killing of people by God is very rare in the Bible. In fact it has nothing to do with the original post. One is free to disagree with acts of God. However, I would still affirm that God values freedom while at the same time there are consequences to bad choices.

  10. I’m not looking to be a troll, as they say, or sustain a prolonged argument, so I’ll just make a brief comment and be on my merry way.

    The reason my point is relevant to the post is because it is demonstrable that God does not value freedom full stop, if the bible is a true historical account. We can and do sacrifice things that we value and so does God. For example, if you completely disagree with me then you think God sacrifices obedience for freedom. So it’s not implausible for God to make such a sacrifice.

    If you still don’t find that relevant, then I’ll comment on your treatment of the natural suffering. This may be compelling as a call to arms, but is not successful against the philosophical argument from suffering. There are many reasons why but I promised to be brief.

  11. I agree that there is probably not much more that we can say on this topic. I also agree that God does not value freedom to the exclusion of everything else (including obedience). I still maintain that freedom is the context in which obedience is expected. Thanks for the discussion!

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