Any theology that does not offer healing, liberation, and guidance for human beings who must face suffering and evil would not be worth the effort. So many efforts to do so seem to offer superficial reflections that are unwilling to face the ocean of evil and suffering that confronts humanity. Trivial reflections simply make one weary and increase the sickness of the heart. We would be better to remain silent.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1 and Mark 15:34) The silence of the Father at this moment in the life of Jesus is a parable of the silence of the Father to all human suffering. In many ways, suffering reminds us that we are little more than small, trembling, and weak animals that decay and die. In recent history, the horror of September 11, 2001, the devastation of the tsunami in Asia in December 2004, and the evil perpetrated in the name of Islam by terrorists become graphic examples.
 He wants us to take a step of faith in affirming that even suffering and monstrosities are part of order, or a pre-established harmony that only God knows. In some cases, I can imagine such devotional reflections providing help. Yet, I cannot imagine anyone writing on this topic in such a way that the reader no longer has a problem with evil and suffering. We will not have a comprehensive or rational explanation on the stage of human history. In addition, even if we can arrive at a worldview in which God redeems the suffering and evil of this life, we will not have an explanation for the suffering that comes upon this person at this time. For many persons, the presence of suffering and evil is a deal-breaker when it comes to the possibility of meaning and purpose. Such a nihilistic approach has its problems as well, but I get it. Yet, something about that conclusion seems like it lacks intellectual courage. In spite of suffering and evil, humanity awakens in the morning and expends much energy fighting against it. It seems to me worthy of some intellectual and spiritual energy to understand why we might do so. We do not simply give up. We engage a world that contains many good reasons to run away, hide, and give up. Yet, most of us do not.
For those of us who believe in God, the quite real question arises as to why the God who created life would also allow, within that creation, forces that oppose creation and life and that therefore seek to deface and destroy what God has created. In fact, I think it quite likely that any notion of suffering and evil suggest a pre-existing order. This may well suggest that what we think of as suffering and evil is an entropic force. Stability and instability co-exist, so to speak.
Something inside us recognizes the alien character of such suffering. It revolts us. People who commit such evil acts puzzle us. The presence of such evil and suffering makes us puzzle about whether life is meaningful and purposeful. We struggle for a reason or design. For some people, it helps if such suffering and evil are the result of the will of God, for then it would fit into a divine plan beyond our comprehension. If we can find no such plan or purpose, the alternative seems to be that life is a set of meaningless and random acts that have no point or purpose. Our moral sense suggests that somehow, this universe ought to be better than it is. We have an idea of what such a better universe would be like. The fact that we have such ideas suggests the existence of God, according to Descartes.
We puzzle how human beings can do such monstrous things to each other. Socrates (Gorgias and Hippias Minor) thought it arose out of the ignorance of good. All human beings need is education in the good and its connection to happiness. Yet, such a rationalistic understanding of evil does not seem to explain the overwhelming nature of the evil human beings perpetrate upon each other. Some evil and suffering seem beyond the pale. In the modern era, we might think of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and radical or political Islam. Such persons seem to have a distortion of mind and will so severe that no among of education could correct it. How do you explain the suffering and evil innocent children experience? The X-Files in Season 7, Episode 11, called closure, has Mulder standing at the site of a massive grave where a mass murderer has buried the little bodies of child victims. Ivan Karamazov refers to the innocence of children, even while they suffer horribly, often for the sins of their parents. He refers to Turks in a war in Bulgaria who disemboweled children from the womb. He refers to another Turk who put a gun in the face of a baby. The baby giggled and played with the barrel until the Turk pulled the trigger, blowing off the head of the baby. A Russian officer had a pack of dogs attack a boy and tore him to pieces in the presence of his mother. He wants to understand reasons, “But then, there are the children. What am I to do about them?” Regardless of the reason, it would not be worth the tears of one tortured child. Albert Camus has a priest protesting the death of an innocent child due to plague. He refuses to love a scheme in which children receive torture. Children have not crossed the threshold from innocence to guilt. All adults have taken a bite of the apple, so to speak, and know good and evil. We must not make trivial the shadow side of reality. Such suffering and evil cries out for justice, and thus, for overcoming it. The unredeemed and incomplete present will always make this world a moral riddle and offense. Human beings torment each other and they torment themselves. If we were to focus upon this, we might wonder why we continue to desire life. Such reasoning from effect to cause might even lead one to think of the divine as finite, for a finite being, even if much greater than human beings, might end up making a world like this.
I will make no attempt at a theodicy in the traditional sense. The presence of such evil and suffering, especially its absurdity, will always provide reason enough for some to accept atheism. Their presence will always call into question the holiness, love, goodness, justice, and power of the divine. It would not appear that good and evil must coexist, that we need evil in order to advance goodness, or that the universe is better with some evil to overcome, or that evil is due to human free will. As to the latter, we simply need to think of the natural evils of this world and the sufferings they cause. Yet, if we reflect upon the precious qualities of freedom and independence, one could make an argument that they open the door for both good and evil actions. If God creates a world in which freedom exists, then God also creates a world in which suffering and evil exist. God created a world in which free persons are finite centers of creative activity. It would not be genuine freedom if the only choices such finite creates could make would be good choices. Their finitude will mean some choices intended for good will result in suffering and evil. We can grant that some of the things we experience as evil and suffering may serve the purpose of teaching us the difference between good and bad choices. A certain kind of life, such as one intemperate with food, one given to drugs and alcohol, will lead to suffering for oneself and for others. We can learn morality through such consequences. In that sense, some suffering and evil would serve a higher purpose. The presence of evil calls forth a desire on our part to avoid it and remove it. Our moral imagination moves toward the goal of its removal. The skeptic cannot imagine God making a good world with evil in it. Yet, one could reasonably conclude that a world with at least some suffering and evil is better than a world with none. In such a world, God will suffer with the creation God has made. For one who believes in God, the goodness of God and this world does not depend upon the removal of evil and suffering. Yet, for the believer in God, none of these considerations absolves God of the responsibility for evil and suffering. God took the risk of the suffering and evil by making a world in which freedom and independence are realities. God created a world in which suffering and evil were possibilities. For some people, their experience teaches them that they could not get through the difficulties of life, they could not oppose the evil they see, without their belief that God was at their side.
Lactantius, an early Christian author (ca. 240 – ca. 320) who wrote in Latin, in his On the Anger of God, 13.19, refers to the argument of Epicurus in the following way.
"God, he (Epicurus) says, either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot,
or can but does not want to,
or neither wishes to nor can,
or both wants to and can.
If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god.
If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature.
If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god.
If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"
The longest treatment of suffering in the Bible is the story of Job. The account is courageous in many ways as it questions the traditional notion of the righteous receiving blessing and the evil receiving curses. God seems to attack the innocent Job. The innocent sufferer questions the moral order of the world God created. The friends of Job seem to have a view of the world in which everything has a pat answer. Thus, the book seems to accept that we have no answer to expect in this world. The suffering of Job and the evil done to him become a test of the character of Job. It may well be, however, that this is the best any of us can do. In the midst of the reality of suffering and evil, we could become bitter and angry people.
When we contemplate history, we can hardly avoid sorrow at its universal stain of corruptions. We see this corruption in the display of the passions and the consequences of their violence, the unreason that is associated not only with them, but even with good designs and righteous aims. We see arising from them the evil, the vice, and the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms that the mind of human beings ever created. Since this decay is not the work of mere nature, but of human will, our reflections may well lead us to a moral sadness. Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simple, truthful account of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest exemplars of private virtue form a most fearful picture and excite emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consoling result. However, in contemplating history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed, a question necessarily arises: To what principle, to what final purpose, have these monstrous sacrifices been offered?
Let us consider another way of viewing suffering, evil, and death. When humanity focuses upon the finitude and temporality of this world, clinging to it as if it will yield ultimate meaning and purpose, it will lead to the sins, evil, and desperation of human life. It leads to rupture from the world and thus to the unhappiness and misery of humanity with itself. Humanity is not now its destiny. Humanity is not now, what it ought to be. Nor is it satisfied in the world. Our unhappiness can drive us back to ourselves. For religion, finite live is like a desert. It becomes meaningful and purposeful only in light of the Infinite and Eternal. Finitude and temporality are transitional toward the Infinite and the Eternal. In that sense, God incorporates finite life into divine life. The bliss of the promised future radiates life here and now. Thought of the divine lifts humanity out of its finite life. For Christianity, this weak, fragile, finite human life is a moment of divine life through the Incarnation.
I wonder if the spirit of age is not something like what Thomas Hardy expressed in a poem. It appears that if God made this earth and God made human beings, God has long ago forgotten and dismissed it. Here is his poem, “God-Forgotten.”
I towered far, and lo! I stood within
The presence of the Lord Most High,
Sent thither by the sons of earth, to win
Some answer to their cry.
--"The Earth, say'st thou? The Human race?
By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay: I have no remembrance of such place:
Such world I fashioned not." -
--"O Lord, forgive me when I say
Thou spak'st the word, and mad'st it all." -
"The Earth of men--let me bethink me . . . Yea!
I dimly do recall
"Some tiny sphere I built long back
(Mid millions of such shapes of mine)
So named . . . It perished, surely--not a wrack
Remaining, or a sign?
"It lost my interest from the first,
My aims therefor succeeding ill;
Haply it died of doing as it durst?" -
"Lord, it existeth still." -
"Dark, then, its life! For not a cry
Of aught it bears do I now hear;
Of its own act the threads were snapt whereby
Its plaints had reached mine ear.
"It used to ask for gifts of good,
Till came its severance self-entailed,
When sudden silence on that side ensued,
And has till now prevailed.
"All other orbs have kept in touch;
Their voicings reach me speedily:
Thy people took upon them overmuch
In sundering them from me!
"And it is strange--though sad enough -
Earth's race should think that one whose call
Frames, daily, shining spheres of flawless stuff
Must heed their tainted ball! . . .
"But say'st thou 'tis by pangs distraught,
And strife, and silent suffering? -
Deep grieved am I that injury should be wrought
Even on so poor a thing!
"Thou should'st have learnt that Not to Mend
For Me could mean but Not to Know:
Hence, Messengers! and straightway put an end
To what men undergo." . . .
Homing at dawn, I thought to see
One of the Messengers standing by.
- Oh, childish thought! . . . Yet oft it comes to me
When trouble hovers nigh.
We come again to the question of whether any God worthy of worship would make such a world. If God has done so, then the suffering and evil we experience is redeemable. We might even hesitatingly suggest that the world is a better place through its encounter with evil and suffering. A sane person might receive such encounters as a gift and at the same time fight against it. If we come to such a worldview, it will not be because we have reasoned our way there by philosophical propositions. It will happen because we can tell the details of the story of our lives in a form that has narrative beauty. Such a narrative will intermingle heartbreak, joy, and love. It will do so because of the narrative of relationships one has with other people and with God. Such a story acknowledges that suffering and evil undermine the potential for human flourishing, but that God has a way of defeating it in such a way that human beings flourish. The providence and power of God reveal themselves precisely in overcoming evil with good. Such a story could be beautiful, remembering that beauty is part of the road to truth. Can we bear any sorrow as long as we tell a story about them? If so, all the story can do is invite us to look at a life in a certain way. It will invite us to consider the possibility of living in the actual world in the way the story recommends. I grant that such a view requires that we look beyond the truths of math, logic, or science. The story or narrative suggests the value of personal relationship. We can have “knowledge about” persons, places, and things, but this does not mean we “know” them. This is true particularly of personal relationships. If so, love will play a central role. Love will desire the good of the other and union with the other. We would then have story in which God desires human flourishing and thus our good and union with us. Forgiveness will arise out of this love. Such love will mean mutual closeness, significant attention offered to each other, and psychic integration around goodness. This will mean that lack of personal integration will inhibit genuine attention and closeness with others. Our alienation from our true self will lead to frustration of our hunger for flourishing. Fragmented persons full of shame and guilt will resist the love needed in developing the narrative of a human life that ends with the redemption of evil and suffering. All persons face this lack of personal integration. They must make choices that resist isolation and lead to cooperation with others and with God. We can think of the prevenient grace of God as cooperating with the will of the person toward the highest good for that person. Such a process will deepen love and resist the disintegrating forces of shame and guilt. If we are to tell a story of our lives, it might be helpful to read other stories in which the narrative assumes a worldview of God making a world in which suffering and evil exist. The Bible is full of such stories. However, to immerse oneself in such stories is to accept the invitation the story extends to immerse oneself in such a worldview. Such stories will lead to a simple conclusion. God is justified in allowing suffering because what God gives to the sufferer is something so precious to the sufferer that they are willing to trade their suffering in order to receive it. God may well have willed a world without suffering and evil in creation (antecedent will of God), but in creating the independence of creatures the possibility of suffering and evil for which God would need a separate plan (consequent will of God). In such a world, the worst possible form of existence would be alienation from others and from God. Suffering and evil in this case would have medicinal purpose in warding off the worse evil, isolation from people and from God. Our view tends to be toward short-term pleasure and power to the longer term thinking of the greater goods. Our suffering, in such a world, would be toward our good, purging us of the obstacles we have constructed toward loving union with others and with God. If suffering is like medicine, then it will not always be pleasant for us to receive, but its intent is toward our good. The loving presence of God would encompass all suffering. The complexity of a human life means we will never have sufficient knowledge to describe the ways suffering and evil are redemptive. Our grief and our inability to explain particular suffering is a sign of our humanity. Yet, this particular suffering is compatible with a world God created, especially when we understand its goal as loving union with God and with others. To think of this subjectively, we have desires of the heart, such as love for a parent, a child, or even a project. To extinguish such desires would make us less human, although some parts of the spiritual tradition suggest we do so. Yet, such desires of the heart seem to be what makes us human and elevate us to our best. Yet, such connection at an emotional level can lead us to thinking and acting as if a finite thing can fill a place in our lives that only God can fill. They will never satisfy. Such feelings, such desires of the heart, are a subjective a hint of the true desire of our hearts, loving union with God. God as creator endows every created thing with goodness, truth, and beauty. Yet, it cannot fill the place only God can fill in our lives. The broken nature of our desires of the heart, which often involve suffering and evil, will find transformation and fulfillment in loving union with God. I stress that such a narrative is only a possible world in which God and human suffering coexist. It seeks to undermine the idea that no morally sufficient reason exists for omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God to allow suffering in the world. It suggests that suffering is pointless. We have seen that we can narrate a possible world in which suffering allows persons to flourish and fulfill the desire of their hearts. If so, suffering has a medicinal and healing purpose in the actual world we inhabit. The desire of our hearts must interweave with the desire for God. We might know God intimately without having intellectual truths about God that is the result of revelation. If any form of theodicy is “bad faith,” then the person whose life includes serious suffering is not good for him or her. Such a person would have been better off ot have died at birth. In fact, we might say this over the life of every human being. By the time of death, the life of every person could be pointless. Does this not seem wrong to you? For such a reason, the narrative of our lives may not end at death. Our lives may well find their redemption in life with God in eternity. Suffering can lead to learning and wisdom. Grace comes violently. Yet, in our weeping and in our singing, we have sought God. Grace and wonder are along the journey of life, but they hard to see and embrace for those who wander in darkness.
In this matter, a point comes when an explanation becomes so comprehensive that it ceases to explain anything. Determinism is like that. The journey toward continued belief in God through the experience of evil and suffering is a difficult journey. From a philosophical perspective, the journey involves reconsidering the notion of the Infinite and the Eternal. Without this philosophical notion, we run the risk of grasping at finite things and events as if they are ultimate. Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich are particularly good on this point. We run the risk of becoming bitter and angry people. If we believe in the God of Christian teaching, then we know that God is not the author of evil. Even if God created a world in which evil is possible, evil is not an object of the divine will. Suffering, evil, grief, and mortality are contingent realities of this created world. Such a world is valuable because it respects the freedom and independence of the things God has made. The free play of love we find in the Triune God of Christian thought sought the free play of love among the things God made. Thus, along with this freedom and independence is the possibility of suffering, evil, and death. The risk was always the turn from the one who created them. This self-assertion would lead to entropy. Those who cannot take on new energy and thus transcend themselves come under the neutralizing sway of entropy. Finite creatures are interdependent. They live off of and for each other. They build on the existence of others and others build on them. They are not the final word. God may make them the occasions of redemptive grace and incorporate them into providential ends. Their presence calls forth from us actions of justice, love, and compassion. Belief in God holds out the hope of eventual reconciliation and redemption of the tensions created by the shadow side of creation. Religion arises out of the antinomy created by this darkness of reality. Something seems strangely out of joint and wrong with this world, so much so that it needs salvation. Religion generally seeks a healing, liberating, and guiding word in the midst of suffering. It seeks a hope in a world that often gives us little reason to do so. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the protest against suffering, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions, as Marx so well expressed it. Humanity becomes a partner with God as God overcomes evil, suffering, and death. They are the enemy of God and therefore the enemy of humanity. Humanity cannot have peace with them. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus announces this victory. God brings salvation and redemption. Even evil, suffering, and death can become occasions of grace, even when we do not have answers for their presence. The world has a degree of independence from God. In the rebellion of humanity, humanity turned from God and sought autonomy. God permits the shadow side of our reality, thereby respecting our finitude, temporality, and independence. Such an understanding of God is consistent with omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time. If God is the source and end of all things, nothing is completely alienated from God. Turning from God, we also turn from ourselves. Estranged from God, we estrange ourselves from ourselves. We are in exile as long as we persist in this condition. The grace of God we experience by virtue our formation in the image of God means that we have an insatiable hunger for God. God has already overcome evil, suffering, and death in the resurrection of Jesus. The end of the story of humanity, with all its evil, suffering, and death, is victory and triumph that God accomplishes. If God is love, the consummation of the story of humanity and the rest of the created order is love.
The praise of God while living in such a world as we see and experience presupposes dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. Any theological approach to the presence of suffering and evil needs eschatology and its hope for victory over evil. The works of God in creation, reconciliation, and redemption embraces the universe. Creation finds its completion in the reconciling and redeeming work of God in the world. This means humanity has an ally in God in the battle to overcome evil, as well as reduce and heal suffering in the world. The importance of eschatology is that only in the end of the story will we find the demonstration of the goodness, holiness, and justice of God. One can offer praise of God through creation only in anticipation of this eschatological consummation. Finite life does not have its ground or foundation in itself, but in another. Such eschatological consummation will bring definitive proof of the existence of God and the final clarification of the character of God. The believer can only acknowledge that freedom, independence, the absurdity of suffering and evil, will always provide reason enough for some to argue that such a world in incompatible with a loving and wise creator. Eschatology reminds us that the future of the world and the end of the story reveals the glory of God. Such a future will reveal the love of the creator for the creatures God has made. Any this-world eschatology will sacrifice the individual for the general vision of the end, with Marxism being the supreme example. Our attention needs to focus on the need for a history of reconciliation that focuses upon the future of the world as an end that embraces the individual and experiences transfiguration of both the individual and the collective.
Hegel, G. W. F. Letures on the Philosophy of Religion. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1827, 1988.
—. Philosophy of History. New York: Dover, 1956, 1830.
Stump, Eleeonor. Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
 Leibniz On the Ultimate Origination of Things (1697).
 F. M. Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880) Book 5, Chapter 4.
 Albert Camus, The Plague (1947) Part 4, 3 & 4.
 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1776, 1779, Parts 10 & 11.
 J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, Volume LXIV, no 254 (1955)
 Alvin Plantinga, “The Free Will Defense,” Philosophy in America (Englewood-Cliffs, 1965, 205); The Nature of Necessity, Chapter IX, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
 Nelson Pike, “God and Evil: A Reconsideration,” Ethics, Vol. 68 (1958), 119.
 Dewey Hoitenga, “Logic and the Problem of Evil,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. IV, no 2 (1967).
 Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, Chapter 11, revised edition, 1979, 1991, 2004.
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(Hegel 1827, 1988)).
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(Stump 2010), Kindle edition, p.
 Isak Dinesen.
(Stump 2010), p. 25-7.
(Stump 2010), p. 40-62.
(Stump 2010), p. 65-82.
(Stump 2010), p. 85-107.
(Stump 2010), p. 109-128.
(Stump 2010), p. 130-150.
(Stump 2010), p. 152-172.
(Stump 2010), p. 176-372, where
she examines Job, Abraham, Samson, and Mary of Bethany.
(Stump 2010), p. 371-418.
(Stump 2010), p. 418-450.
(Stump 2010), 451-482.
(Tillich 1951), Part III, ID.
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