If you have ever struggled with the problem of suffering—why an all-good and powerful God would create or allow pain—then I have a solution for you. You can start by reading the Bible.
These days, whenever I begin a Bible study with people curious about Christianity, I begin with the problem of suffering, because I have found when looking at the biblical narratives—whether Abraham and Isaac, or jolly ol’ Job, or Christ and his Apostles—that God’s allowance of suffering can not only be seen as morally acceptable but in fact elevated to something of unbelievable allure. This sounds strange, of course, which is why I call it unbelievable (most people don’t believe me). How could so many abominable things in everyday life—from genocides to sickle cell anemia—be redeemable? I argue: in the Bible at least, they are redeemed, even the worst of them, and that is what gives us hope.
However, to understand what possible (read: morally sufficient) reasons God could have for allowing suffering into creation, we cannot consider pain entirely in the abstract nebulous atmosphere of philosophy. Rather, we must enter into what Eleonore Stump calls second-person biblical narratives to truly understand and more fully appreciate the depths of a pain-ridden individual’s heart, and how, through their often exceedingly backbiting trials, they are not only brought to an objectively higher state of human perfection, but also given, in a real sense, their deepest and most intimate desire.
Abraham wants to be a memorable patriarch—God permits that, but only after Abraham is taught to trust fully in God’s goodness, and to stop being so double-minded in his faith. Job, on the other hand, wants to be a man of outstanding righteousness—again, God grants it, but in a way that might not have been possible previous to the afflictions that God allowed Satan to render unto him, an event, Stump argues, which shows considerable attention on God’s part to Satan, too, if only to demonstrate to Satan that his cynicism is unwarranted and thus to possibly prevent him from falling even more deeply into a narcissistic pit of self-isolated despair. (If this is true, then Satan and Job are, fascinatingly, both instruments for one another while being ends in themselves.) And so on.
Because God is love, God wants only what is best for us, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, God desires we have union with himself, the highest good. There is nothing of more ontological worth than obtaining the Beatific vision of the supreme Godhead. God wants to give us himself because that is the most God can offer, the perfection of unrestricted Being itself. Eternal bliss, sharing in the divine life. Bada-boom, bada-bing.
Subjectively, on the other hand, God cares about what we care about, because we care about it. Parents can think about it this way: My daughter once asked if I loved crocodiles, which (just try to understand) are her favorite animal. I told her, quite sincerely, that I love crocodiles because she loves crocodiles, and that I love what she loves, because she loves it. In other words, I care about the desires of my daughter’s heart, precisely (and sometimes only) because they are the desires of my daughter’s heart, just so long as those desires are not detracting from her objective flourishing.
So, if we love what our children love because we love our children, how much more must God love what we love because we are God’s children? And for what it’s worth, it is no mere philosophical speculation that God cares about what we care about, but we can find examples to support this claim throughout Scripture. We can see it stated explicitly in the psalms: “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4).
Now, as for those who believe the presence of suffering logically disproves the existence of God, I should like to say that arguing the problem of evil as a philosophical objection cannot even be coherently formulated unless God’s existence is at least first implicitly affirmed. For suffering and evil require conscious beings having objective moral experiences within a contingent universe. In reverse order, contingency demands necessity (God), the notion of anything either attacking or falling away from goodness (evil) demands that goodness is objectively fundamental (God), and consciousness being trans-physical could never arise from a mere cobbling together of disparate, unconscious material parts, but is, instead, rather just the sort of thing we’d expect if mind were at the very foundation of reality (again, God).
Contingency, consciousness, and goodness itself can only be made adequate sense of if God exists, and each element of which affirms that God exists. The problem of suffering then is asymmetric: There would be no problem of suffering if there were no God, because there would be no contingent order, conscious beings, or objective moral experiences. Thus, suffering is not really a philosophical problem but a theological mystery. The question, then, is not how evil and suffering is compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God (it obviously is) but why God allows it.
On the philosophical level, one plausible but emotionally unsatisfying response to the problem of suffering is this: God will allow suffering and evil if, and only if, suffering and evil are the best or only available means to deliver an outweighing benefit primarily to the sufferer. A starting analog of such moral permissibility would be the parent who permits the suffering of their child for the outweighing benefit of receiving a critical inoculation against some life-threatening disease. The parent, of course, does not want the child to suffer the pain of the inoculation, but is morally permitted in allowing or even willing that suffering to occur, because of the outweighing benefit. In very fact, the parent who does not allow their children to suffer the inoculation would (arguably) be acting immorally, since parents have a binding obligation to do what is really good for their children, even if that involves the infliction of suffering. It is better to allow the child to suffer, in some cases, then not.
The difficulty, here, of course, is we cannot extend finite examples to the universal providence of omniscient Being. We not only do not see what God’s ultimate plans are, but we should not expect to see it. After all, we’re not God, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that existence is suffused with unsolved mystery, where specific answers to pressing questions may be frustratingly unavailable to creatures of limited intellect—specifically, creatures like us. So, we cannot really say why God allows this terrible thing to happen, or that atrocity to occur, or mosquitoes or bunions, because we are not God, but certainly neither can we say, no matter how atrocious such atrocities may be, or just plain annoying, that God could not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting them. Because God’s ways are not our ways, and we simply cannot see how everything connects. Humility, then, is the appropriate response. Stick to what we know, and, best we can, use what is clear (God’s goodness) to illuminate the fog (evil and suffering).
God hasn’t left us completely unaided, after all. As Catholics argue, God has definitively revealed himself; Christ Jesus has shown us God’s heart—given us the literal human portrait of the unrestricted and benevolent Creator—who is not only not indifferent to our suffering and sin, but was willing to assume the full brunt of human depravity upon himself, even to the point of an excruciating death, prior to which God was mocked, tortured, and humiliated in front of his own mother. The result from this literal human act of deicide? God somehow, and indeed miraculously, swallowed up all that tremendous evil and transformed the worst treachery into the greatest treasure: human salvation. I mean, holy mudcats! Because if God can bring that much good from that much suffering, imagine what he can do with everything else, even if we can’t see or predict how it’ll happen. Again, who saw or predicted Christ’s Resurrection?
Salvation history thus shows that God is and has long been responding to the problems of suffering, evil, and sin. Of course, this response has been on God’s time, which can cause us to overlook the fact there has been a response, given that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the present. But just because we cannot always see God’s response doesn’t mean that we see God has no response. The Bible shows us that there has been, and not seeing is not seeing not.