In my previous post I began to talk about how thinkers in the Jewish and Christian traditions have wrestled with the problem of suffering. I indicated that the technical term for this “problem” is “theodicy,” and it is often said to involve the status of three assertions which all are typically thought to be true by those in these two religions, but if true appear to contradict one another. The assertions are these:
God is all-powerful.
God is all-loving.
There is suffering.
How can all three be true at once? If God is all powerful, then he is able to do whatever he wants (and can therefore remove suffering). If he is all loving, then he obviously wants the best for people (and therefore does not want them to suffer). And yet people suffer. How can that be explained? As I pointed out some thinkers have tried to deny one or the other of the assertions: either God is not actually all powerful, or he is not all loving, or there is no suffering.
But as I explain in the introduction to my book God’s Problem (Oxford Press, 2008) …
Most people who wrestle with the problem want to say that all three assertions are true, but that there is some kind of extenuating circumstance that can explain it all. For example, in the classical view of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, as we will see at length in the next couple of chapters, God is certainly all powerful and all loving; one of the reasons there is suffering is because his people have violated his law or gone against his will, and he is bringing suffering upon them in order to force them to return to him and lead righteous lives.
This kind of explanation works well so long as it is the wicked who are the ones who suffer. But what about the wicked who prosper while the ones who try to do what is right before God are wracked with interminable pain and unbearable misery? How does one explain the suffering of the righteous? For that other explanations need to be used (for example, that it will all be made right in the afterlife – a view not found in the prophets but in other biblical authors) (there are, as I’m suggesting, other explanations as well in the Bible and in popular thinking).
Even though a scholar of the Enlightenment – Leibniz – came up with the term “theodicy,” and even though the deep philosophical problem has been with us only since the Enlightenment, the basic “problem” has been around since time immemorial. This was recognized by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment themselves. One of them, the English philosopher David Hume, pointed out that the problem was stated some twenty-five hundred years ago by one of the great philosophers of ancient Greece, Epicurus:
Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered:
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?[i]
As I was teaching my course on biblical views of suffering at Rutgers, over twenty years ago (well… thirty-five now!!), I began to realize that the students seemed remarkably, and somewhat inexplicably, detached from the problem. It was a good group of students: smart and attentive. But they were for the most part white, middle-class kids who had not experienced a lot of pain in their lives yet, and I had to do some work in order to help them realize that the problem of suffering was in fact a problem.
This was the time of one of the major Ethiopian famines. In order to drive home for my students just how disturbing suffering could be, I spent some time with them dealing with the problem of the famine. It was an enormous problem. In part because of the political situation, but even more because of a massive drought, there were eight million Ethiopians who were confronted with severe shortages and who, as a result, were starving. Every day there were pictures in the papers of poor souls, famished, desperate, with no relief in sight. Eventually one out of every eight died the horrific death of starvation.
That’s some two million people, starved to death, in a world that has far more than enough food to feed all its inhabitants, a world where American farmers are paid to destroy their crops, a world where most of us in this country ingest far more calories than our bodies need or want. To make my point, I would show pictures of the famine to the students, pictures of emaciated Ethiopian women with famished children on their breasts, desperately sucking to get nourishment that would never come, both mother and children eventually destroyed by the ravages of hunger.
Before the semester was over, I think my students got the point. Most of them did learn to grapple with the problem. When the course had started, many of them had thought that whatever problem there was with suffering could be fairly easily solved.
The most popular solution they had was one that I would judge most people in our (Western) world today still hold on to. It has to do with free will. According to this view, the reason there is so much suffering in the world is that God has given humans free will. Without the free will to love and obey God, we would simply be robots doing what we were programed to do. But since we have the free will to love and obey, we also have the free will to hate and disobey, and this is where suffering comes from. Hitler, the Holocaust, Idi Amin, corrupt governments throughout the world, corrupt humans inside government and outside of it – all of these are explained on the grounds of free will.
As it turns out, this was more or less the answer given by some of the great intellectuals of the Enlightenment, including Leibniz, who argued that humans have to be free in order for this world to be the best world that could come into existence. For Leibniz, God is all powerful and so was able to create any kind of world he wanted; and since he was all loving he obviously wanted to create the best of all possible worlds. This world – with freedom of choice given to its creatures – is therefore the best of all possible worlds.
Other philosophers rejected this view – none so famously, vitriolically, and even hilariously as the French philosopher Voltaire, whose classic novel Candide tells the story of a man (Candide) who experiences such senseless and random suffering and misery, in this allegedly “best of all worlds,” that he abandons his Leibnizian upbringing and adopts a more sensible view, that we can’t know the whys and wherefores of what happens in this world, but should simply do our very best to enjoy it while we can.[ii] Candide is still a novel very much worth reading – witty, clever, and damning. If this is the best world possible – just imagine what a worse one would be.
I will continue my reflections on the matter starting at this point, in the next post.
[i]. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (the sentiments are those expressed by his fictitious caracter named Philo). Xxx?
[ii]. Voltaire. Candide: or Optimism. Tr. Theo Cuffe (New York: Penguin, 2005).
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