If God is All Good and All Powerful, Why Does Suffering Exist?

A lady with a sad face


Philosopher Alvin Plantinga called the problem of suffering “the only good objection to God”.

The often quoted argument goes: 
“if God is all good (all benevolent) then God has the desire to end suffering, and if God is all-powerful (omnipotent) then God has the ability to end suffering. Therefore if God does not end suffering, then God is either not all good, or is not all-powerful, and is therefore not God”.
As Christians, we need to be able to answer this objection to God, to enable us to “give a reason for the faith that we have in Christ Jesus” (1 Peter 3:15). To this end, I want to try and answer this question to help anybody who finds the problem of suffering to be a sticking point or an obstacle in their faith (an argument to explain the problem of suffering is called a “theodicy”).

To begin with, I want to go back to the beginning of it all and look at God. Who is God and what is God like? It is worth noting here that this argument takes as given the fact that God exists (specifically, the God revealed in Christianity as all powerful and all good), therefore this is not a discussion about the existence of God. Rather it says “if God exists, how do we overcome this problem?

Then I want to look at the three main reasons for suffering, these are will, world, and war.

But First a Disclaimer

When I told my friend that I was writing a post on the problem of suffering she said to me “no offence; but what do you know about suffering?”.

There is a big difference between an intellectual discussion around suffering and God, and between someone in the midst of deep suffering and pain who is trying to make sense of it.

For someone in the midst of suffering, trotting out a neatly packaged theodicy with 3 points all beginning with W is probably going to do more harm than good. What is needed in these situations is an incredible amount of empathy and patience.

Therefore this discussion is for people who are struggling intellectually with the problem of suffering, rather than emotionally.

What is God Like?

God; from the painting "The creation of Adam" by Michelangelo
Existent

God exists.

God is outside of time and has existed eternally. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

If God is all good, and God exists, then it follows that existence itself is preferable to non-existence.

Loving

Love is the will to good (for example loving your children or your spouse is not a feeling, rather it is wanting good things for them i.e. their happiness, peace or security etc). And will is un-bodily personal power. God wills the good of all that he has created.

Triune

God is love (1 John 4:8).

God cannot be love without there being something that is loved.

God is love for eternity, unchanging. The universe has not been in existence for eternity, therefore the universe and all that is in it cannot constitute the extent of His love. From this we can see that there must be something else that is loved, something that exists eternally. The answer to this is that the love of God is found within Himself as the Godhead.

God is a triune God. Not three gods, but three persons sharing one substance.

Therefore God is a relationship The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all commune with one another in a perpetual relationship of love (often called perichoresis). They delight in one another.

Therefore again it follows that relationship is preferable to isolation. God is a relational God.

Creative

All things that exist have their existence because God has willed them to exist. All things that exist continue to exist because God is constantly pouring forth and sustaining creation (Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:3).

God is a creative God.

Again, this means that, as God is all good, and God is creative, that to create is good.

All powerful

God is omnipotent,all-powerful”. This means that God can do all things.

However, we need to stop at this point and look at what the historic faith means when it uses the word “omnipotent”.

Many people have come up with logical objections to this claim of omnipotence. One often quoted example is “can God create a stone that is so heavy that he can’t pick it up?”. Or “can God create a square circle?”.

To answer these objections we need to look at what we mean by omnipotence.

The examples above are examples of logical impossibilities. They are impossible because they are illogical.

The other type of impossibilities are physical impossibilities. For example, creating something from nothing, or suspending the physical laws for a period in any way.

When theologians speak of God as omnipotent, it is this second type of impossibility that they are talking about. God is not illogical.

This is a very important point further along in the argument.

What are we like?

Adam; from the painting "The creation of Adam" by Michelangelo
We exist

We exist because God exists. Our existence stems from His existence.

We are created in His image

God created us to be like Him (Genesis 1:26).

God is creative, God is relational, and God is love.

These things are good because God is good, and these things are found in God. Therefore God wills that we also are creative and that we also form relationships with Him and with others that come from a place of love (will to good).

Now we have a sketch of some of the basic parts of existence and the motives from which existence springs we can begin to look at the three explanations for suffering.

Will (or why free will is preferable to automatons)

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West
To create and to be in a loving relationship requires free will.

To create something we need to be able to bring our own will to bear upon it, and we need to see the vision of what we want to bring about (for example if I want to build a boat, I see the vision of the boat in my mind before I start to create it).

To be in a relationship requires a movement of will on our part to respond to the invitation of relationship (if someone has been forced into a marriage we say that the marriage is "against their will").

And to love, which is the ideal of relationships, we need to have a will of our own to enable us to will good upon the recipient of our love.

We need free will to do all the above.

The problem comes in what we do with our free will. If we are free agents, then there is always the possibility that we will choose to do what is evil (the corruption of what is good).


It is worth noting that because God is good, all that comes from God is good (and God saw all that he had made and said that it is good Genesis 1:31). Therefore anything that is evil does not exist independently, but rather is a corruption of what is good. This can be seen for example in emotions. God created all emotions, therefore emotions are good. The problems comes with the corruption of those emotions, for example where we become angry for the wrong reasons, or when sexual desire becomes lust etc.


Here is where someone may respond that if God is all powerful then he can give us free will AND ensure that we only do what is good. But looking back on our definition we can see that this falls into the logical impossibility definition of omnipotence. To be totally free is to be able to choose evil.

Then we may say “why create us at all? And why give us free will if God knows we will use it for evil”. Again, looking back on our list we can see that existence is preferable to non-existence, to will is better than having no will, and relationship is better than isolation.

So God is faced with a choice, and He chose will as the best good.

Now we can create and love and turn towards Him.

When we take a look at the scope of evil and suffering in the world, we can see that much of it is the result of human free choosing what is wrong.

When we think about the greatest atrocities that have taken place we can see that they stem from our choice (the Holocaust, the Rwandan massacre, the Cambodian killing fields etc.)

Equally one might argue “why does God not reveal himself in a tangible way that would make all believe in Him?” the answer again here is free will. Free will is good, and God wants us to be able to choose Him, rather than be forced to acknowledge him.

How much free will do we really have?

One of the consequences of so many wills in a limited time and space is that free will is limited by other wills and physical limitations. In other words, we do not all experience the same level of free will.

A natural consequence of free will is that we have the ability to take away or limit someone else’s free will by reducing the number of choices that they have.

Equally, the physical world also limits free will. We are not disembodied wills. We have bodies that allow us to carry out our wills in the physical universe. The physical laws limit our ability to carry out our will.

Finally, as people who exist in physical reality, we are subject to the laws of causation in nature to a certain degree. This is carried out to the extent that our will is strengthened or weakened. When we have a weakened will we are more susceptible to influences of society and culture on us.

Education, for example, increases our choices and thus our free will.

Therefore whilst it cannot be said that we have total free will, we have enough free will to be able to make significant choices.

World (or why natural disasters happen)

Scottish Lake Landscape in front of Mountains
As we have seen above, God is creative. God is also a God of order, bringing order out chaos.

God created the universe and all things that are physical and non-physical (Colossians 1:15-16).

Because God is creative and has a will, He gave us the desire and ability to be creative and have a will.

To create things we need constants. Physical reality must be ordered in such a way that when we do something, the consequence of that action is consistent. For example, when we chop down a tree. The tree falls, and it falls in a way that is governed by the laws of physical reality.

If we had no idea what was going to happen every time we did something because causes were random then we would be unable to create anything (for example, if every time we attempted to cut down a tree it did something random, i.e. turning into candy floss one time, then refixing itself another time, then disappearing the next time, then melting and so on).

Therefore God has created the universe in such a way that it is deeply ordered and is fixed by laws (i.e. gravity, thermodynamics, relativity etc.) allowing us to create things. (it is worth noting that the universe did not have to be ordered, it is one of the curiosities of existence from a scientific perspective).

Equally, to allow us to exist, matter takes on the form of solid, liquid and gas depending upon set parameters.

To create we need all these things. Therefore we can chop down a tree, and we can use the wood to make tables and chairs using tools. But equally, because of physical laws, a tree can be felled, or blown down and land on someone’s house. And this principle applies to all laws of nature on all scales, leading up to hurricanes and tsunamis (and even greater up to solar flares, collapsing stars and beyond).

An objection to this could be that God could continue to allow us to create, but stop all the bad stuff from happening. Here C.S. Lewis has a good analogy. He asks us to imagine two people playing chess. Whilst they are playing there may be certain points where one player allows the other player to undo one of the moves that they have just done. But if the players allow each other to do whatever they want in the game then the game ceases to be chess and instead becomes something entirely different. There are times when God intervenes within physical reality (through miracles), but if God intervened consistently every time the consequence would be negative then the laws of nature would no longer be laws and our creativity and free will would be stifled.

War (or why is evil so severe and prevalent)

Death on the pale horse by Benjamin West
Previously we have looked at the fact that we as human beings are made in the image of God. We have wills. Our wills exist outside of physical reality. We can see this by looking at God. God has a mind but does not have a brain. God is not physical. Therefore it is possible that we have minds and wills that are separate from our physical brains. I do not want to draw a straight line through these things, I think that our minds and brains are intimately linked, but are not the same thing.

It is this separation from physical reality that allows us to escape the closed causality of physical reality.

Thus as humans, we walk the line between physical and non-physical reality.

We have looked at the purely physical aspect of suffering (world) and we have looked at our own part in suffering as between physical and non-physical (will). Now we can turn to look at the part of suffering played by the purely non-physical realm.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians explains that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against all the rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).

In other words, we are in a war against the spiritual forces of evil led by Satan.

The bible is very clear that there are other created entities that are not physical: angels. The bible is also very clear that some of these spiritual entities are good and some are bad. I do not want to make more of this than the bible does so I won’t attempt to explain origins etc.

All we need to say for these purposes is that as spiritual entities they deal primarily in spiritual causes. In relation to us, as stated earlier this concerns our minds and wills.

In other words, Satan deals very much in ideas and ideologies.

It is Satan who first spreads the idea that humanity would be better without God (Genesis 3:4-5). The war is a battle for our wills and the enemy seeks to reap destruction by feeding us ideas that pander to our inherent weaknesses for example, for money, sex and power.

This is partly why the extent of suffering and distance from God is so bad.

Conclusion

I hope that if this is a question that you have been wrestling with then this is a satisfactory answer.

As Christians, we have the hope that this is not the end of the story. Rather we must take into account God's own response to suffering; to come and to die on a cross. Jesus took on all of the evil that the world had to offer, absorbed it into Himself and overcame it through his resurrection.

We believe that God will sort out each of these three points. That through the love of Christ, our wills will be transformed as we choose him, the world will be remade, and the war will be truly over.

Please share this post with anyone that you feel it will help.

Main Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash
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Comments

  1. I applaud your clear explanations here. You may also want to address that there are three kinds of good; Experiential, moral, and spiritual. These may not all be possible at the same time to achieve a given goal.

    Also consider how we treat a youth who can't make change in a store (we give him the answer) versus how we treat a son who can't make change (we teach him the algorithm and then have him work problems). God is making sons and daughters of us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment :-) lots of food for thought for me

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  2. Mental gymnastics, that's all you have mate, sorry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. I would be very grateful if you could point out which parts of the argument you felt were less than adequate

      Delete

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