In my previous posts I discussed a class I once taught at Rutgers University on how the various biblical authors deal with the problem of suffering – the problem of how there can be such horrible suffering in a world that is said to be controlled by an all-loving and all-powerful God (who therefore wants the best for people and is able to provide it). Many of my students, as I pointed out, think that there’s an easy answer: we suffer because of “free will.” If we weren’t free to love and hate, to do good and do harm, we would just be robots or computers, not humans. If God wanted to create humans, as opposed to machines, necessarily we have to be free to hurt others. And many people do so, often in horrendous ways.
Does that solve the problem? Naturally we dealt with that issue in my class. Here is how I discussed those conversations in my book on suffering, God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (Oxford University Press, 2008).
It was, in fact, fairly easy to show my students some of the problems with this standard modern explanation that suffering comes from free will. Yes, you can explain the political machinations of the competing political forces in Ethiopia (or in Nazi Germany or in Stalin’s Soviet Union or in the ancient worlds of Israel and Mesopotamia) by claiming that humans had badly handled the freedom given to them. But how can you explain drought? When it hits, it is not because someone chose not to make it rain. Or how do you explain hurricanes that destroy New Orleans? Or tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands overnight? Or earthquakes, or mudslides, or malaria, or dysentery? And so on.
Moreover, the claim that free will stands behind all suffering has always been a bit problematic, at least from a thinking perspective. Most people who believe in God-given free will also believe in an afterlife. Presumably people in the afterlife will still have free will (they won’t be robots then either, will they?). And yet there won’t be suffering (allegedly) then. Why will people know how to exercise free will in heaven if they can’t know how to exercise it on earth?
In fact, if God gave people free will as a great gift, why didn’t he give them the intelligence they need to exercise it so that we could all live happily and peaceably together? You can’t argue that he wasn’t able to do so, if you want to argue he was all powerful. Moreover, if God sometimes intervenes in history in order to counteract the free will decisions of others — for example, when he destroyed the Egyptian armies at the Exodus (they freely had decided to oppress the Israelites) or when he fed the multitudes in the wilderness in the days of Jesus (people who had chosen to go off to hear him without packing a lunch), or when he counteracted the wicked decision of the Roman governor Pilate to destroy Jesus by raising the crucified Jesus from the dead — if he intervenes sometimes to counteract free will, why does he not do so more of the time? Or indeed, all of the time.
At the end of the day, one would have to say that the answer is a mystery. We don’t know why free will works so well in heaven but not on earth. We don’t know why God doesn’t provide the intelligence we need to exercise free will. We don’t know why he sometimes contravenes the free exercise of the will and sometimes not. But the problem is that if in the end the question is resolved by saying it is a mystery, then we no longer have an answer. We are admitting there is no answer. The solution of free will, in the end, ultimately leads to the conclusion that we can’t understand, even though we imagine we are giving an answer.
As it turns out, that is one of the common answers asserted by the Bible. We just don’t know why there is suffering. But other answers in the Bible are just as common — in fact, even more common. In my class at Rutgers I wanted to explore all these answers, to see what the Biblical authors thought about such matters, and to evaluate what they had to say.
Based on my experience with the class, I decided at the end of the term that I wanted to write a book about it, a study of suffering and biblical responses to it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t ready to write the book. I was just 30 years old at the time, and although I had seen a lot of the world, I recognized that I had not seen nearly enough of it. A book like this requires years of thought and reflection, and a broader sense of the world and fuller understanding of life.
I’m now twenty years older [OK, with this blog post thirty-five years older!], and I still may not be ready to write the book. It’s true, I’ve seen a lot more of the world over these years. I’ve experienced a lot more pain myself, and have seen the pain and misery of others, sometimes close up: broken marriages, failed health, cancer taking away loved ones in the prime of life, suicide, birth defects, children killed in car accidents, homelessness, mental disease — you can make your own list of your past twenty years. And I’ve read a lot: genocides and ethnic cleansings not only in Nazi Germany but also in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Darfur; terrorist attacks, massive starvation, epidemics ancient and modern, mudslides that kill 30,000 Columbians in one fell swoop, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis.
Still, even with twenty years of additional experience and reflection, I may not be ready to write the book. But I suppose in another twenty years, with the horrible suffering in store for this world, I may still feel the same way. So I’ve decided to write it now.