So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.
Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?
(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)
Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?
There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.
The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.
There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.
Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.
We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.
Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!
- An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
- A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
- In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.
If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.
Does prayer influence God’s actions?
The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.
Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.
There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.
- God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
- God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
- God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.
The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.
It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.
This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:
The Unloving God
- A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
- If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
- Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
- God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
- A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.
The Unhearing God
The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.
I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.