For free will to exist so must suffering

Adapted from a talk by Amy Orr-Ewing

Read Amy’s full biography

The question of suffering is of critical importance to life. As Christians we can turn to the Bible to discern how to answer the often-heard objection that a just and loving God would not allow suffering in his creation. When we turn to the Bible, we discover that it does not describe a fantasy world devoid of pain, rather it describes a world in which there is joy and love but also a world in which terrible and sad things happen to ordinary people. The Bible doesn’t ignore the difficult realities around pain and suffering. The objective of Christian faith is not to help you soothe away your troubles, not to pretend all is well when it isn’t, not to dull the pain but rather to see reality and grasp the root of our problem.

How do other worldviews answer this question?

Islam is a fatalistic religion teaching a transcendent God who is in control of the universe, human beings do not have free will. God is in complete control; it is utterly deterministic. There is only one will in the universe and that is Allah’s will and that can be surprising to confront.

In Buddhism, the distinction between good and evil is ultimately illusory since all of life is ‘one’; this ultimate impersonal reality, brahmin. The Buddha even life his wife and new-born child on the night his child was born to seek enlightenment into that reality that all life is ‘one’, away from emotional bonds, disconnection from everything except the realisation that all of life is ‘one’. And that one is both ultimate and impersonal. So, trying to make sense of suffering is a failure to understand that suffering is just an illusion. Suffering comes from a desire to want something at all. So, the answer is to expunge desire, to cease wanting things, to reach that state of enlightenment, that ‘nothingness’. It’s highly theoretical and impersonal, it is one approach, but it does not explain the ‘why’ of our suffering or really meet us in it.

What about ‘naturalism’? Atheists have often argued that, ‘if God is real, he wouldn’t allow suffering, suffering is real therefore God isn’t there. But isn’t the question of suffering and evil itself a moral question? The very question assumes a moral framework. God’s existence is called into question on the basis of moral judgements that suffering is bad and that God allows bad things to happen. But such moral judgement requires an objective moral law in order to contrast good and evil. Yet philosophers argue that if a moral law exists then by logical consequence there must be a moral law giver greater than us. Therefore, paradoxically, some would argue that the fact of the reality of evil in the world can be used to argue for the existence of God.

That may not help us in the dark watches of the night but it’s important that the very objection of atheism – that suffering and evil are a disproof of God – assumes the reality of the God it is trying to disprove. Can’t we behave morally without God? This is a question about the grounding and logic of morality. For naturalists, morality is not located objectively in God but subjectively in personal preference or societal taboo. Richard Dawkins famously said: “We supply our own basis for ethics.”

But when you look at the suffering of the world ask yourself if that answer is adequate. Don’t the Da’esh believe what they are doing in Syria is right? Who are we to say it is wrong? Don’t racists believe they’re morally right in their delusions of superiority? Racist societies have legalised such notions and who are we to say they are wrong? It’s only if there is a God that there is an objective moral law giver who transcends personal preference and character and can define good and evil in an absolute sense. For the naturalist, human life does not contain that essential sacredness. Life is an accident and so our outrage in the face of suffering can be questioned since human beings don’t have intrinsic worth.

Without God humans have no more value than any other animal and no more moral sense. Whatever the future holds it is likely to prove impossible to restore in full the ‘sanctity of life’ view. We can no longer base our ethics on the view that humans are a special form of creation made in the image of God, singled out from other animals. Our better understanding of our nature has bridged the gulf that was once thought to lie between ourselves and other species. So why should we believe that the mere fact that a human is a member of the species homo sapiens endows its life with some unique, almost infinite value? Peter Singer

Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics , Princeton University

Does human life have value?

Can you stand in the gates of Auschwitz and shrug in the same way you might in the doorway of an abattoir? If it is the case that there isn’t a God, why do we as human beings care about darkness? The massacres? The famines? The injustices or sufferings of other humans? Why does darkness hurt us? From where do we get the essential sense of our worth and dignity as human beings? Our outrage in the face of suffering speaks of our intuitive sense that there is more to life than atheism tells us. What does the Christian faith have to say about this question?

The Bible does not deny the reality of both evil and suffering, including in the lives of those who are believers in God. The pain of human experience is explored throughout the text of the Bible. We read questions like: ‘Why do bad people succeed?’ We read of the agonising question, ‘Why can’t I have children?’ We read of anxiety and aloneness; lamentation and grief over mass casualty in war. We read of grief over rape and tears at the deaths of close friends.

Why would God allow this? The Bible talks about human beings as being created in the image of God and that are lives are essentially valuable. The Bible’s response to that question ‘why?’ is rooted in our will as human beings. The Bible talks of a good God creating a good world and specifically making creatures who have the capacity to love and for love to exist freedom must exist. For true love to possible it must be freely offered and received.

Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. C. S. Lewis

Christian apologist & author of The Problem of Pain

Genesis tells us of a God of love, who made a world in which love is possible. That means a world in which there is freedom and, as human beings, we’ve exercised that freedom to harm as well as to love. And that is why there is suffering in the world. Genesis describes the impact of the choices humans have made, on ourselves, on other people and on our very environment.

The Bible doesn’t just address the question of why bad things happen, there’s a deeper answer in Christian faith and specifically in the person of Jesus. Because on the cross, God has entered the suffering world and he bears the darkness and the sin of the world. The God of love doesn’t observe our suffering and feel sadness or empathy, he comes to suffer with us. It is a God who loves to the extent that he himself would humble himself and take the dirt of the world upon himself in order to rescue us, without demanding anything from us, without forcing us into relationship but offering us the possibility of forgiveness and love through his own suffering.

John’s Gospel uses the metaphor of a shepherd to describes God’s loving interaction with humanity (John 10:11-18). He contrasts two kinds of shepherds: a false one, who is ultimately led by self-interest, whenever his own wellbeing is threatened he will endanger the sheep in order to protect himself; by contrast, the good shepherd leads his sheep out of harm, even to the point of laying his life down for the sheep.

Love is recognisable when we see it. Love puts the other first and doesn’t care who knows it. Self-interest dies in the presence of real love and Jesus shows us that in his death, even as he suffers, love pours out of him. The cross tells us of a God who comes to be with us in this suffering world and to take it upon himself. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” He overcomes the light. In Christ we receive encounter and rescue from the dark world.

The possibility of love leaves open the possibility of suffering but God doesn’t leave us there alone in explanation. He himself comes. Jesus demonstrates God’s love for us, offering us that relationship that we have been created for. God doesn’t necessarily explain suffering or give its cause. Instead, God’s solution is himself, giving his own life for us. There is no true answer to evil that can be offered but, as Christians, what we are offered is a vision of what James K. A. Smith calls – in light of Augustine – “a vision of the gracious action of God, who takes on evil.”

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