One Reason Why a Compassionate God Permits Suffering

Crying on a couch

Why does God’s world contain pain and suffering? If there is a more challenging, painful question in Christian apologetics, I don’t know what it is. It is viscerally compelling for anyone who has ever suffered a loss, or watched another do so (which would be all of us). And it is logically compelling as well; why would an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving deity allow the sort of sadness and pain we see around us?

Ultimately, the best and most complete answer to the problem of pain comes at the cross, where our Father, as he so often does, answers us with a picture rather than a treatise. God may not fully explain why he permits evil to burn through his creation, but two thousand years ago he stepped into those flames with us and gathered the coals into his own arms. The mutilated hands and feet of the Son of God do not explain why suffering is permitted, but they do promise that there is a sufficient reason. And the empty tomb he left behind promises something else as well: an ultimate end for every sort of evil, whatever the reasons for its existence today. Like Job, the Bible’s other great picture-answer for suffering, the cross calls us to trust even when we cannot fully explain.

But our inability to comprehensively explain the problem of evil does not mean we are without any answers at all. In fact, the Bible offers many pieces of an explanation which may be too deep and multifaceted for us to grasp in its totality. Today I want to explore just one of those partial explanations.

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A bit of theodicy from alien-invasion sci fi

I went to see Edge of Tomorrow yesterday (that sounds more confusing than I expected) and thought it was one of the better movies I’ve watched recently. The movie is set amid an alien invasion during which, for rather obscure science fiction-y reasons, Tom Cruise’s character finds himself trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over. Every time he is killed, his life resets back to the day before, which he then re-experiences until he’s killed again, because that’s what happens in an alien invasion. (Edge of Tomorrow is basically Groundhog Day if the groundhog was millions of aliens trying to exterminate all human life.)

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In defense of the Free Will Theodicy

I recently read Winfried Corduan’s No Doubt About It and was surprised by his argument that the Free Will Theodicy is invalid. (In a nutshell, this response to the problem of evil argues that moral evil exists in the world because God granted human beings the freedom to make significant moral choices.) Corduan argues, “The idea of freedom prohibits God’s directly influencing our choices, but there is another way of making sure of the desired outcome, namely by limiting the circumstances within which we choose.”

Corduan begins his argument by making the legitimate point that we do not have absolute freedom because our choices are constrained by external circumstances. “I cannot sensibly choose to be a world-class oboe player or the olympic gold medalist in butterfly swimming; I just do not have what it takes. I cannot reasonably choose to spend next semester on Mars: the laws of the universe and the policies of my university will not permit it. In short, pure unbounded freedom of choice does not exist. If we do choose freely, it is still within the limit of options given us.”

Because our choices are constrained by our situation, Corduan argues that God “could have arranged our available choices in such a way that we would be free but would only freely choose to obey Him.” As an example, he suggests that God could have created the Garden of Eden without the tree of temptation, thereby avoiding giving Adam and Eve the opportunity to rebel against him.

I believe a twofold response to these assertions is possible. First, Corduan misses a significant element of the Free Will Theodicy. The emphasis should not only be on moral freedom as intrinsically good, but also on free moral choices rightly made as a means for spiritual development. As James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Can courage come in the absence of danger? Patience or hope in the absence of trials? Forgiveness without sin? Even love itself is best cultivated when directed towards one who has wronged us (Matthew 5:43-47).

The decision to choose the right when confronted with a genuine choice is the only way to cultivate many of the greatest virtues. For a perfect being – God – such moral development is not necessary. However, God in his wisdom chose to create mankind capable of moral growth, and such growth appears to only be possible in the presence of real temptation.

This is not to say that sin is necessary for moral development. One need not ever play the coward in order to be courageous, but courage in the absence of danger is no great virtue, nor will it create a more courageous creature. Adam and Eve did not need to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to grow morally, but they did need to be able to choose not to eat.

With this in mind, it seems that a universe so arranged that mankind was free to choose, but only from an array of virtuous choices, would miss the point of free moral will. Further, however, I believe Corduan’s position has a second and even more fundamental flaw, because the possibility of evil is inherent to the creation of a morally free, self-aware being.

Satan did not need a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to fall. All he needed were two things: himself and God. As soon as a being with free moral will is aware of itself as not-God, it can choose to value itself above God. And that is evil. If God’s only act of creation was to craft a disembodied mind floating in nothingness, that mind could not not be capable to sin if it was (1) morally free and (2) aware of itself (3) as not-God.

Because the nature of evil makes it logically impossible for a morally free, self-aware creature to exist in any set of circumstances without the possibilty of sin, even an omnipotent, omniscient God could not create such a situation. (See “Things God Cannot Do”.) God could choose not to create. He could choose not to create a self-aware creature. He could choose not to grant that self-aware creature free moral will. But he could not choose to create a self-aware creature with free moral will that could not sin, any more than he could create a circle that was square, or an inanimate object that was alive.

Because the real possibility of sin is necessary for true moral freedom, and because creation of a morally free, self-aware being necessarily makes evil possible, Corduan’s response does not adequately refute the Free Will Theodicy.