The Problem of Suffering

The problem of suffering—why a good, powerful God would allow pain and misery—is one that has troubled many, at least since the time of Voltaire. In his book Candide, the atheist Voltaire tries to demonstrate that the horrors that can occur, ranging from war to earthquakes, the death of children from disease and famine, is incompatible with a belief in a God who is benevolent. The Deists tried to escape Voltaire’s conclusion by assuming that God created the universe but that he then stepped away from it as a painter might step away from his completed canvas and never touch it again with his paintbrush.

Either way—a God who starts the world up and then ignores it, or no God at all—results in the same sort of world: one lacking the hand of God. So, assuming then, that our world were devoid of God what would it be like? Would it be the world we actually experience, in which case Voltair or the Deists have reality nailed, or would it be something different?

The difference between Voltaire’s or the Deist’s world and a world in which God intervenes, in a certain respect would be subtle—because I believe that God’s involvement in our world is subtle. But subtle does not necessarily mean the differences between the two possible worlds would be small. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” So goes the old proverb. For lack of God’s movement among us, the world would be a much darker place than the one we find ourselves in.

If one assumes a benevolent, powerful deity, then one would reasonably also assume that he would create the best of all possible worlds. And by “best” we mean one that maximizes pleasure and minimizes suffering. As a Christian, I would argue that God involves himself only to the extent that it maximizes good and minimizes evil without unduly encroaching human freedom and free will.

Consider a free market economy operating according to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market. God, to follow the analogy, is essentially the “invisible hand” of the universe. John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University has pointed out that most economists believe that “simple economic exchanges that are beneficial to people become entrenched and then gradually modified as they become part of larger systems of exchange, while those that are not beneficial die out. They accept that Adam Smith’s invisible hand brings about the spontaneous order of the modern economy.” Paulos explains that thanks to the free market, you can walk into any store that sells clothing and find something that fits you in a style you like—or if that particular store lacks your particular and peculiar interests, then you can go to another store and another until you do find what you want. Consider a box of corn flakes and the complex process that gets it into your hands at Wal-Mart. Farmers grew the corn; they used modern chemical fertilizers, perhaps used irrigation to water the crops, used machinery to plow and later harvest the fields—machinery that someone else manufactured through its own complex process. Meanwhile, another corporation made cardboard from trees harvested by a lumbering company, shipped the cardboard to a box making company that printed the labels on the cereal box that had been designed by a marketing department somewhere else, using inks purchased from some other company, using printing equipment made by still another…and then the cereal company took the farmers corn, processed it, cooked it and made the flakes which were then put into the boxes, which were then ordered by stores all over the world, some of which made their way by boat, train, plane or truck to your particular store to be tossed unceremoniously into your shopping cart.

No one central planning committee, no single individual, could make that happen. It is a hard for many to accept: that random and free exchange can produce order. It is counterintuitive. But centralized planning and centralized economies always and without exception fail. Instead, it is the counterintuitive free market that gives us everything that the centralized economies would want but always fail to provide.

Counterintuitively, order comes from freedom, while stasis and anarchy grow from attempts to impose control. I believe that God maximizes the order of his universe and the order on our particular planet by ensuring the free will of his creatures. God’s sovereign will is expressed as a consequence of our free will.

But taking this to an extreme gives us the universe of the Deists, with an uninvolved God. Just as too much government is bad, none at all is likewise a disaster.

With zero intervention by God things could get really bad, really fast. His light and mild hand on our throttle keeps things from getting any worse than they otherwise might. His gentle touch creates a world that is the best possible, given our free will.

So for instance, where was God during the Holocaust? In the armies of the allies. He was bombing the stuffing out of Nazi Germany. The Holocaust is disturbing, but think how much more disturbing it would have been had the Nazis won. With no God, that would have been a possibility. Instead God intervened—perhaps less intensively than we might wish—to limit evil, to put boundaries around it. But he minimizes his interference so as to leave us our freedom.

Consider a totalitarian government. It can control the means of production, what appears on television, what people read, what people say, who they associate with, how they worship, where they go. Minor crimes are punished severely: blasphemers are stoned, thieves have their hands hacked off, adulterers are hanged, and so on. Such a society is ordered and everyone is forced to be “good” and very little “bad” ever happens.

Do you want to live there? A free society is messy: criminals get away with things and are not always punished as severely as we might like. People say and do things that annoy others. People litter. But I think most people would much prefer a free society to a dictatorship.

God apparently thinks that way too. He prefers our freedom. The Bible story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden illustrates that point. God told them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. And yet they did.

If good behavior were what mattered most to God, he would not have given them the opportunity to disobey, nor ever allowed them to do so. All the mess of human history grows from the bad decision Adam and Eve made. Clearly, the God we see revealed in the Bible thought freedom was worth that price.

So, in conclusion, if God did not intervene in the world at all, the Nazis could win, slavery would endure, and evil might never be thwarted. Since God does intervene, good ultimately triumphs. God does prefer good; but he has decided that the best way to get it is by means of, metaphorically, a lightly regulated free market rather than either a command economy or sheer anarchy.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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