Thursday, August 29, 2013


I live in the upper Midwest, and I suppose we have our fair share of natural disasters.  There can be bitter cold and an occasional blizzard in the winter and tornados and flooding rains in the spring and summer.  But we seem to escape the truly massive disasters--the earthquakes in California, the hurricanes of the Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, and the brutal tornados common to the Plains states.  

Again and again, in interviews the victims of major disasters make comments such as the following:  “We lost everything, but we still have each other.  We were praying to God and He must have been watching over us.”  Undoubtedly, those individuals were fortunate not to have suffered injury or loss of loved ones, but it is also clear that the disaster had been devastating in terms of their personal loss of property and the disruption of their lives.  That suffering is written plainly on their faces. 
Other cases involve those who have been rescued from other disasters, such as a fire or building collapse, and even though they may have been injured, they are often eager to give thanks to God for leading others to their rescue or for sparing their lives.

I find these interviews very troubling.  I realize that the survivors are grateful just to be alive.  I know I would be too.  But I do not understand the logic of giving thanks or praise to a God who is presumably omnipotent and could have prevented the disaster in the first place.  God seems to be getting all of the credit but none of the blame.  And by the way, those who have suffered the loss of loved ones are often not the ones getting interviewed.  In their grief they may not feel as thankful.

And this brings up the question of why suffering exists at all.  If God designed and created the world and is in fact omnipotent and omniscient, then why did he create a world filled with so much suffering.  Couldn’t he have used his omniscience to foresee how his world would turn out and do what needed to be done from the outset to avoid pain and suffering?  Alternatively, assuming God could see down the road, why couldn’t he intervene as needed to prevent such suffering on an ongoing basis?  Indeed, anyone who believes in miracles is asserting that God does in fact intervene from time to time to avert such suffering.  In a sense, that is the essence of a miracle.  So why doesn’t God just routinely intervene to eliminate suffering?

Following are some of the reasons given for God’s allowing pain and suffering to occur:
  1. God’s plan is beyond human understanding.  God has a great plan for us and in the end the plan will work out for the best.  We just don’t have the understanding or intelligence to comprehend it.  Sometimes bad things have to occur for even better things to happen down the road.  We simply have to trust God on this.  This argument is essentially irrefutable.  It is saying that we don’t know and we aren’t smart enough to figure it out.  All I can say is that this approach to understanding the world is incompatible with mine, which relies on using the scientific method and our best rational thinking to understand the world and do something about it.
  2. The Devil did it.  Many Christians see our human condition as a battleground between God and Satan and assign to Satan all of the evil/misfortune/pain/suffering that occurs in the world.  That might work for some manmade disasters, such as wars, car accidents, chemical spills, but I don’t think it works for natural disasters, for example, the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami that took the lives of over 200,000 people.  Such disasters are built into the fabric of our physical world.  They are a natural product of natural forces.  They are going to happen because that is how the world works.  No one is saying that tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes are contrary to the laws of nature.  So if God is responsible for creating the world, then presumably he is responsible for setting up these natural disasters.  Moreover, perhaps as a side note, since God created the world, couldn’t he have omitted creation of the Devil or evil?
  3. Freedom of choice.  One of the better arguments for suffering is that it is an unavoidable concomitant of freedom of choice.  Essentially this argument states that God could have created a world without suffering but this would have required that we not have freedom of choice.  In effect, he could have created us simply as automatons--robots or computer programs--that would carry out whatever instructions we were coded to perform.  Suffering would not need to be a part of that world.  Presumably, robots and computers don’t have a sense of pain.  Moreover, since they don’t think about the future in the way that we do, they are not subject to disappointment when that future is disrupted.  One of my problems with this argument is that it assumes that there is freedom of choice, something that I don’t accept.  This argument also seems to sell God short on the ability to devise a world that includes choice but avoids suffering.  And for those who believe in heaven, aren’t they saying that in heaven we will presumably continue to have choice but without any suffering?  So if God could do it for heaven, why couldn’t he do it for earth?
My view on pain and suffering is that it is simply part of the natural world.  Pain is the way that our bodies signal that something is wrong and that we need to take action to correct the situation.  An example is touching something that is hot enough to burn us.  By registering pain, our body is telling us to do something--stop touching the hot object--to avoid injury or further injury. We evolved the ability to experience pain because that ability gave us an evolutionary advantage over our competitors.  Our ancestors who could experience pain were more likely to do whatever was needed to eliminate the pain and to stay healthy.  As a result, they were able to have more offspring carrying that genetic trait who, in turn, perpetuated the ability to feel pain through genetic transmission.

Suffering is more complex.  It includes not only an ability to feel pain but also a recognition of the implications of that pain for us and others going forward.  It is really directly related to our ability to plan and represents a disruption of whatever plans we may have had.  But I think the source is the same.  Just like our ability to experience pain, our ability to plan has evolved because planning provides us a competitive advantage.  And those that possess it are more likely to have progeny.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. "And for those who believe in heaven, aren’t they saying that in heaven we will presumably continue to have choice but without any suffering? So if God could do it for heaven, why couldn’t he do it for earth?"

    If you follow the Bible account...that was what earth was like, and heaven, until evil (selfishness) entered Lucifer's/ satans mind...leading to war in heaven...mind wars...who's ways are just and fair. satan accused God of being arbitrary.

    Until Adam and Eve believed the lies of satan about God everything was perfect...they were developing character, and had a choice to believe and trust God ( then all would have remained the same) or satan and all chaos broke loose. satan now controlled the world, he almost had every human on his side. The only one left to continue the blood line to Jesus birth was Noah...he followed God's plan to be saved from destruction, and carried it out....He trusted God. Many think that the flood was God's idea...i think is was the consequence of evil. I also think there was a dramatic change of nature at that time...the dome of vapor that encircled the world, keeping the climate even and supporting life like dinosaurs was radically changed. the world was turned upside down.

    That thing that you fail to mention above is that God's character has been in question...the universe is watching planet satan is allowed to develop his idea of a "just" world. And yes, God does intervene at times, to protect from evil...but the Bible also says that the full force of satan is still to be revealed. God has held him in check so that we can at least have the opportunity to come to Him , to see that He is the only source of salvation, the way that leads to life... When Jesus was here, he restored...healed , working against the carnage satan inflicted on people, he even controlled nature...stilled the storm...God is about peace...peace be still.

    1. When you say that the flood was "the consequence of evil," are you saying that it was not God's idea or God's doing? That is not what my Bible says. See Genesis 6:17, 7:4, & 7:23, for example.

      You also say that "there was a dramatic change of nature at that time...the dome of vapor that encircled the world, keeping the climate even and supporting life like dinosaurs was radically changed. the world was turned upside down." I assume you are saying that there was a flood, like that described in the OT and that the flood (or what caused the flood) also resulted in radical changes to climate, etc. The "world was turned upside down"? Really? Frankly, there is not a shred of credible scientific evidence, from geology, paleontology, or biology to support a worldwide flood claim. The only support comes from the Bible and those who would defend the Bible on this point, irrespective of the evidence. this is what I am talking about when I talk about reliance on authority rather than on scientific investigation.

      I'm not sure what your comments about Satan have to do with the problem of pain. As I have said in the essay, it really doesn't do to blame it on Satan. First, natural disasters are the result of the laws of nature. Geological science tells us that earthquakes are going to happen as a result of the application of the laws of physics and chemistry to the geology of the earth. Similar statements can be made about tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Second, even as to manmade disasters, per your understanding, God set the whole thing into motion, knowing the outcome, including Satan, man's fall, etc. It just doesn't work to try to take God off the hook here.