The world is filled with so much terrible suffering, anguish, and pain that it’s very common to ask difficult questions about God and the problem of suffering, most important of these “if God can stop all suffering, why doesn’t he?”
The most common answer as to why God doesn’t stop the suffering is “because he has a very good reason for allowing it, we just don’t know this reason.” This is perhaps a good answer, but it brings a much more difficult question for us;
Why should we work hard to stop the suffering if God is specifically letting it happen for a very good reason?
Wouldn’t that be working against God’s plan?
Many think that simply saying “free will” solves this issue, or laying the blame on consequences of human actions. But, even if we could (and there is not even one philosopher who does) conclude that (a) “all suffering is a result of human actions on the land, improper diet, etc” that would still not mean we should ignore the question (b) “if someone can instantly fix all the immense suffering our actions have caused, why doesnt he?”
As an analogy. If I get in a car accident and cause myself immense suffering, and Dr. Oz invented a magic button that cures everything at zero cost to himself, and yet Dr. Oz specifically chose to not use that button on me, it would be prudent to ask “why not?”
The original question assumed two propositions (a/b) that the vast majority of people do affirm and asked a follow up question (c).
a. God can stop all pain/suffering.
b. God doesn’t do it for a good reason.
c. If he doesn’t stop it for a good reason, why should we go against his good reason?
Most people challenge A or B, completely ignoring the actual question, C. Some say God cannot because of free will (which is absurd when it comes to natural evils like earthquakes and ebola, which are not connected with freedom.) Some try to give excessive repetitions of various theodicies that justify B, or that God is justified in not helping. In most cases people have ignored C.
In a few discussion some people have tried to get at one possible answer to C, that God doesn’t stop suffering because he wants to give us the experience and task of stopping it. In other words the good reason he doesn’t act in B is precisely so that we would act, for our sake, and this answers C.
It’s a good answer, and when I wrote this post I was wondering how long until someone thinks of it, however, it too has severe problems. If God does not alleviate suffering in order to give us the opportunity to alleviate suffering, here are the difficulties:
1. One person suffers intensely only for the sake of another to learn life lessons. This seems disproportionately unfair, as though one person’s involuntary suffering can be traded for another person’s gain. Would you intentionally allow one of your children to lose his legs in a fire to teach the other about charity and kindness? Is that fair to the child without legs that he only lost them for his brother to learn life lessons?
2. Most suffering is not ever alleviated. This theory would make sense if God alleviated the suffering that humans cannot, however, the majority of humans suffer excruciating pain and cannot be helped by others, nor God. If Gods point of allowing their suffering and not intervening was for us to help them, but we can’t or don’t, surely as the sole purpose of Gods non-intervention is now gone, and he would intervene, but we never see this. We see billions suffer and die with no intervention from God or persons. (And if we say, well for this subset of sufferers he has another good reason besides our intervention, we’re back to question C, so why should we interrupt?)
3. The temporal and geographical localization of suffering. If suffering exists for us to have the experience of alleviating it, then it seems unfair to different nations/epochs for suffering is not equally spread around. In the 15th century Europe millions died agonizing deaths from infections and no one could help them, in todays Europe immensely less people suffer pain, instead modern medicine/sanitation has taken away 95% of the potential cases of suffering through clean water, diet, medicine, and pain relievers. If suffering was a good experience created to give people the opportunity to learn good things by helping others, why are most of those opportunities being taken away by modern medicine? Isn’t it unfair that the average Australian has 1000x less opportunities to interact with the suffering than someone in tribal Africa?
4. The unavailability of suffering alleviation for most of history is another problem. For most of human history we did not have the ability to actually help suffering. In fact there are two sides to the suffering divide. (a) most of human history filled with excruciating suffering but no means of helping people avoid it and (b) recent advances in medicine which instantly alleviate suffering on a wide scale without personal involvement (for example water fluoridation has caused dramatic reduction of tooth decay for billions of people in our century, but it’s not a personal emotional learning experience). So it seems strange that 98% of human history was filled with immense suffering and humans had no ability to help, and 2% of history has seen a drastic decrease of suffering much of it because of massive projects and technological advances created by a tiny minority of humans that affect a large majority. If suffering is good because it gives us the experience of alleviating it, then for 98% of human history they could not alleviate it, and for 2% they can alleviate many types of it, but that simply makes it go away and future generations won’t have the experience of alleviating it. Once someone had discovered a vaccine for Polio future generations were robbed of the experience of alleviating suffering from Polio it simply went away.