The Problem of Suffering

It felt both a little cliche and a little inaccurate to give this post the more predictable name: "The Problem of Evil". That's how it's generally written in Christian apologetic literature, but I think that, strictly speaking, "good" and "evil" are fairly abstract and often arbitrarily defined religious terms. "Evil" seems to work fine for things like murderers, rapists, child molesters, fascist dictators, and other behavior of generally unsavory characters in human history, but I think the acts of humans against each other could be (and generally is) theologically dismissed as a mere consequence of free will. "Evil" seems much less appropriate a descriptor when the subjects are things like natural disasters, cancer, disease, famine, and other natural occurrences that inflict great suffering on people indiscriminately – that is, cancer does not seem to care if you are a good person or whether you go to church. Bad things do happen to good people, and in their grief the faithful can only naturally wonder why a loving, all-powerful God would allow such things to happen. For these things, I think a better question than "Why is there evil in the world" is "Why do people suffer?" I don't think "evil" is what concerns most people; rather, it is suffering that makes believers question the view that somehow, God is a god of love and justice. How could a loving God allow children to suffer and die of starvation, cancer, or disease? How could God allow thousands of people to die in an earthquake or tsunami? I don't claim these questions as my own (obviously of course, since I am an atheist!), but these are precisely the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with often, and questions I too struggled with in my days as a Christian.

I am going to examine some prominent theologians' explanations for these issues, and explain why I find them unpersuasive. Then I will describe a secular, naturalistic explanation for suffering – a scientific view of why bad things happen to good people. But first, I think it's important to describe the issue in detail, and really drive home just how deep and powerful a problem for believers this really is.


Part I: Defining the problem

Religion's belated entrance in the history of suffering

Ponder, for a moment, humankind's emergence in the great time span of evolution. Homo Sapiens first appeared on this planet some 250,000 years ago in Africa. Consider conversely that few if any modern religions can be dated back to more than 8,000 years ago. During those first 242,000 years or so, people lived in mostly indigenous tribes. Some were nomadic, others not, but few had contact with each other – it was not until the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago that people began living in larger communities, trading, and so forth. During those first hundred millenia of humanity's existence, lifespans were short – maybe 30 years, give or take. People died from exposure to the elements, from viral disease and bacteria-borne illness, from cancer, from famine, from predators. They had no understanding of germ theory, no knowledge of cell differentiation, no knowledge of meteorology, and little knowledge of proper nutrition beyond what was poisonous and what wasn't. Miscarriages and infant mortality were high, because people did not know how to properly care for unborn and newborn children.

I don't feel it is a point to gloss over that religion – at least in the well-ordered, organized institutional and doctrinal structure (in which the development of writing no doubt played a pivotal role) which we still see today – emerged so incredibly late in humanity's existence, and that it emerged with such disparity. While one might expect certain broad traits of supernatural belief to be common to all humans, there is an utter absence of theological or doctrinal homogeneity across indigenous cultures. Judaism, the root of Christianity, can be traced back to a mere five or six thousand years from the present day. It's worth asking proponents of modern-day religions unwavering in the truth claims of their faith what their God was doing for the first couple hundred thousand years before he decided it was an appropriate time to intervene. Suffering has been intertwined with humanity's history in a way that no religion can claim to be.


The suffering of animals

I have a pet python, named (creatively) Monty. There is a certain caveat with owning a predator that eats its prey whole – it's impossible to go to the store and buy a can of conveniently ground-up rodents for snake food the way people buy meat for cats and dogs. Recently I fed Monty a live rat after he had been off his feed for some time (a common occurrence in some snakes). I've always fed him live rats, because snakes are not scavengers (they recognize patterns of goal-oriented movement far more readily than patterns of inanimate objects) and so he's had trouble with pre-killed rats. He usually strikes at me and bonks his head on the glass, because he smells the prey but sees me moving. Normally, he patiently waits for a good strike, and grasps the prey's head in his jaws. He then quickly wraps a couple of coils around the rodent and asphyxiates it. This particular time though, Monty was unusually hungry and wasted no time waiting for the perfect strike. He grabbed the rat's hindquarter's in his jaws and coiled around him backwards. The rat squeaked and struggled. I could literally hear and see his heart pounding in his chest. As an animal lover, it was heartbreaking to see the poor thing suffer so greatly; yet I knew that this was a part of nature's design – a design indifferent to suffering. The snake was not trying to make the rat suffer; it was trying to survive, and it just so happens to survive by efficiently killing and eating rodents.

Surely this is but one small example – many animals suffer much more grisly fates in nature. Like primitive humans, they may die of disease, famine, predators, natural disasters, and many other unsympathetic forces of nature. We've all seen nature television shows in which we watch wild predators stalk and kill their prey. Predators predate human beings by hundreds of millions of years, as do natural disasters, disease, famine, cancer, and disability; nature's indifference to suffering did not emerge with human beings.

It may be tempting to suggest that animal suffering is a non-issue. But considering that animals predate humans by hundreds of millions of years, God clearly had a place for them as well. Why would God create predatory animals? In evolution, predators are necessary to prevent overpopulation of certain species. But couldn't God just make all the species reproduce just the right amount? Of course he could. To say otherwise would be to deny the concept of an omnipotent creator. Consider also that animals, like people, experience a range of emotions that are intimately associated with our concept of "suffering". Rats make a fine example. I've actually had pet rats – a pair of girls we (my family and I) named Itchy and Scratchy. Rats are very social, gentle animals. They love people (provided they are not mistreated), are very cooperative with each other, and are surprisingly intelligent. Rats have been shown in controlled experiments to show empathy for each other, refusing to eat when a food-dispensing mechanism delivered a shock to a visible companion [1]. Such experiments have been duplicated in primates as well [2]. It may be tempting to assume that while animals feel pain, they do not have an emotional cognition of suffering; clearly, this is not the case – humans are far from being alone in this phenomenon.


We have to recognize then, that the burden of explaining suffering is not limited to explaining why humans die in a tsunami or why children die of cancer. We must ask why suffering is an intimate, and indeed integral, part of the world in which we inhabit. And we must ask why a loving, just God would create such a world. Let us turn now to theological explanations of suffering.


Part II: Theological explanations of suffering

Diverse theological explanations

In the DVD compilation Root of all Evil: The Uncut Interviews, Richard Dawkins interviews Alister McGrath, a fellow Oxford professor who is a popular Christian apologist and one of Dawkins' most outspoken critics. Dawkins asks McGrath why God would create a world in which people suffered, and McGrath responds thus:

"I think Christian theologians, in looking at natural disasters, suffering and so forth, have tended to take two approaches – one is to say, 'Let's try and explain this', and that I think doesn't really get us very far, because we can't really make sense of these things; maybe that is just the way things are. But the other approach they have used, which I think is much more important, is to say that we need to cope with suffering. In fact the real issue is not so much how I make sense of this, but given that people are suffering, what may be said, what may be done, to actually make that more bearable?"[3]

I cannot help but feel that McGrath's answer is a bit of a dodge, because "making sense of it" is precisely what people try so desperately to do. McGrath goes on to describe Christianity as a call to relieve the suffering of others, but doesn't answer the question. This is disappointing given McGrath's prominence as a theologian, but it illustrates the fact that people of faith aren't necessarily quick to try to explain such things. Other theologians, however, are a bit more bold.

R.C. Sproul, a popular Christian author and theologian, offers the following explanation for suffering in his book Now, That's a Good Question!:

"We find our first answer, of course, in the book of Genesis, in which we're told of the fall of humanity. God's immediate response to the transgression of the human race against his rule was to curse the earth and human life. Suffering entered the world as a direct result of sin."[p.30]

Lee Strobel, another popular apologist and author of such books as The Case for Faith and the The Case for Christ (not to be confused with C.S. Lewis' The Case For Christianity), seems to agree:

"When we human beings told God to shove off, he partially honored our request. The result? Creation was marred. We no longer live in the world as it was originally designed."[4]

The above answers detail what seems to me to be the most common Christian response to this question, and indeed in my youth as a devout Christian that is precisely how I understood the question to be best answered. However, today I find these responses every bit as unsatisfactory as McGrath's non-explanation because they ignore the fact that suffering was present in the world prior to humanity's emergence in Africa 250,000 years ago, as well as the extraordinarily belated emergence of religion in human history. These answers also beg the question of why a loving God would "curse the earth and humanity". They also raises a more pressing question: why would God, who is supposedly omnipotent and outside of spacetime (and thus knows our future), create creatures that he knew would rebel against him? And why curse all of the earth, animals included, for humanity's sin? It's not merely nonsensical (since animals predate humans by hundreds of millions of years), but it portrays God as petulant, petty and spiteful rather than loving and just. And perhaps God, if he exists, is all those things, but that isn't a god most people seem willing to believe in.

Tim Keller, in The Reason For God, spends a fair amount of time on the subject. He doesn't try to answer the question, but rather asserts that God's reasons are beyond our capability to understand (perhaps a position more congruent with McGrath). He then references C.S. Lewis, and argues that our outrage at the injustice of nature is actually evidence for God's existence, because without God, we wouldn't have concepts like "just" and "unjust".

"People, we believe, ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust? The nonbeliever in God doesn't have a good reason to be outraged at injustice, which, as Lewis points out, was the reason for objecting to God in the first place. If you are sure that this natural world is unjust and filled with evil, you are assuming the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgement." [p. 26]

Keller's argument makes a litany of assumptions and logical errors that I don't have the space to debunk in full here. He assumes, without evidence, that "justice" – a socioculturally developed concept – has a divine origin, when indeed our senses of empathy and sympathy (the building blocks of our social concepts of justice) have their roots in our biological evolution, to which the emotional experiments with animals I mentioned earlier bear testimony. He also mistakenly assumes that the atheist views the natural world with outrage and cries of injustice, when as I will soon explain the atheist view is absolutely nothing of the sort. This is a classic straw man. It is only the believer – who must reconcile nature's blindness to suffering with their belief in an all-powerful, all-loving, "perfect" creator – who struggles with the apparent injustices of nature.


It's part of God's plan

I've tried to include some more unusual theological responses, but I've heard many more. We've all heard the statements that "It's God's will" or "It's part of God's plan." Indeed Sproul reiterates such a position in the book referenced above, just one page later:

"The Bible makes it clear that God lets these things happen and in a certain sense ordains that they come to pass as part of the present situation that is under judgment... The only promise is that there will come a day when suffering will cease altogether."[p. 31]

I've often heard the analogy that understanding God's plan is like looking at a giant tapestry, so giant we can see only a small part of it. We are unable to see the completed whole. We have to have faith that God does have a plan, that our suffering does mean something, and there will come a time when God rewards our faith by allowing us to experience a world without suffering. In Strobel's book The Case For Faith, Dr. Norman Geisler comments on our eventual return to paradise:

"God did not appoint animals to be eaten in paradise, and animals weren't eating each other. The prophet Isaiah said someday God will 'create new heavens and a new earth' where 'the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox'"
[p. 126]

I object to Geilser's comment for the same reasons as above (age of humanity and suffering's presence throughout evolution), as well as the peculiar scripture suggesting a "straw-eating lion". Lions are evolutionarily adapted in every respect to be efficient predators, from their claws and teeth to their speed and digestive systems. A vegetarian lion would, frankly, look nothing like a lion at all.

But these musings reflect an odder assumption: that it will all work out in the end. This view essentially argues that we are correct in feeling a sense of injustice over the child who dies of famine or cancer, over the thousands killed in an earthquake or tsunami, and that we have only ourselves and our species' rebellion from God to blame. But none of us could have chosen to be "born into sin". It would be thrust upon us, indeed a "curse" as Sproul describes. The very idea of being born into sin should provoke believers to equal cries of injustice – for why should all of humanity be cursed to suffer because of the "original sin" of two people who most likely didn't even exist? Why should any child be cursed with the sin of their parents? These problems are impossible to avoid if one wants to believe in an omnipotent, loving creator.


Theological Incongruity

Part of the difficulty I have with the theological responses to suffering is that they are so disparate, even by people of the same religion. One would think that, given this pivotal issue has caused many to turn away from their faith, God might have made himself more clear about it. But as it happens, asking ten different theologians about this issue will likely yield ten different answers. The answers above are all certainly unique, if nothing else. Fairly, the same might be held true of scientific explanations for suffering to some extent, but science at least is founded on the ability to empirically examine ideas rather than cast them under dubious the light of mere assertion.

It is to the secular explanation of suffering to which I will now turn.


Part III: Secular explanations for suffering

Nature is blind to suffering

One of my favorite quotes by Richard Dawkins concerns the apparent cruelty of evolution. In his book The Devil's Chaplain, Dawkins describes nature thus:

"Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent."

In other words, the secular explanation for suffering is that there's nothing special about it. When a child dies of cancer, it is not anybody's fault. It is not because humans rebelled against a petulant and spiteful God who decided to curse all humanity, children included (and don't forget the animals). Rather, the evolution of genetic information has been a flawed process, because natural selection confers advantages to survival relative to other species, not perfection within the gene pool. Some people have genetic defects that cause them to need eyeglasses. Others are partially or fully blind. Others still have severe mental retardation, and some truly unfortunate souls have a greater likelihood than most of developing terminal cancer in childhood.

These are not the qualities of a world one would expect if the world were indeed designed by an all-loving, all-powerful creator. Indeed, theologians seem to be inexorably dragged into the future by the revelations of science, struggling in the midst of our enlightened scientific modern view to reconcile the true nature of reality with a God whose qualities were initially described by primitive people who had no knowledge of these modern things.

At the end of Leviticus, God warns the Israelites what terrible vengeance he will bring upon them if they do not obey him:

"But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you"
[26:14-17]

The threats don't stop there; they continue all the way through verse 39 [5]. Clearly these primitive people had some notion that God was going to reward them for their faith and obedience, and punish them for their indiscretions. This view hasn't dissipated from modern culture either; notable demagogues like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on what they perceived as the immorality of our culture [7, 8]. But the secular view of the world does not blame anyone – suffering is a simple consequence of our world, nothing more. Living things have always suffered, and always will. Ironically, on this matter I find myself in agreement with Alister McGrath; I do not feel the need to mull over the reasons why people suffer – instead, I can focus on what I can do to relieve the suffering of others. I profess that personally, I believe strongly that when we are confronted with suffering and death, a secular view aids the grieving process. Instead of wondering who to blame, instead of feeling mad at God or outraged at the injustice of the world and trying to justify our irrational faith with convoluted, unanswerable theological conundrums, we can nobly spend our emotional energy mourning the tragic loss of those we love and comforting those who grieve with us.


The Blind Watchmaker

Our world looks just as one would expect it to if it were not designed by some morally perfect being who loves everyone and doesn't really want anyone to suffer but lets it happen anyway; rather, our world looks just as it would if, as Dawkins suggests, it is designed only by the "blind watchmaker" of natural selection. Suffering occurs capriciously and indiscriminately. Famine, disease, natural disaster, crippling genetic defects, and all other manner of nature's wrath strikes the young and old, the faithful and unfaithful, the callous and the caring. Ponder, for a moment, the fact that when natural disasters strike, it is not the strong and wealthy who are most likely killed, but the poor and meek. Tsunamis wipe out entire populations of people living in straw houses, but those living in more sophisticated modern buildings weather out hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and all other manner of disasters. Nature simply does not care whether one is rich, poor, good, evil, young, old, or anything else; nor do our flawed genes possess any notions of faith and justice. We are the evolutionary products of an indifferent natural process – nothing more, nothing less.

Dawkins, in an article for Scientific American, expounds further:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." [8]


Theists always work backwards – they first assume that God exists, then try their hardest to explain evidence in a way that supports their belief. In science, belief follows evidence, not vice-versa, and scientists are always required to possess a measure of indifferent skepticism, for our knowledge of the world is fluid rather than fixed and absolute. A natural explanation for suffering does not, of course, disprove the existence of God; nor does it disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is does, however, is render theological explanations for suffering both superfluous and irrelevant. There is simply no need to invoke God to explain why we suffer or to aid us in our grief. And if we don't need to believe in God, then what good is God, even if he does exist?




1. Emotional reaction of rats to the pain of others

2. See Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal.

3. Root of All Evil: The Uncut Interviews, DVD. Clip viewable here.

4. "Why God Allows Pain and Suffering" Lee Strobel. Online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVD5-fF_VmA. See also leestrobel.com.

5. Leviticus 26:14-39

6. Pat Robertson: "Terrorist Attack on America"

7. "God Gave U.S. 'What We Deserve,' Falwell Says". Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2001.

8. Scientific American, November 1995. p. 85

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