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The Classic “Problem” of Suffering

I have indicated a bit in previous posts on why the Problem of Suffering is a “problem.”  Here I want to explain just a bit further, before going on, in later posts, with the question about how and why it became a problem for me personally, in my movement away from Christianity to agnosticism.   Here is what I say about “the problem” as it is classically understood, by philosophers who wrestle with the issue of “theodicy,” in my book God’s Problem.


Theodicy is a word invented by one of the great intellectuals and polymaths of the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wrote a lengthy treatise trying to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all powerful and wants the absolute best for people.   The term is made up of two Greek words: theos, which means “God,” and dikē, which means “justice.”  Theodicy, in other words, refers to the problem of how God can be “just” or “righteous” given the fact there is so much suffering in the world that he created and is allegedly sovereign over.

As philosophers and theologians have discussed theodicy over the years, they have devised a kind of logical problem that needs to be solved to explain the suffering in the world.  This problem involves three assertions which all appear to be true, but if true appear to contradict one another.  The assertions are these:

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Why Not Believe in a Different Kind of God?
Two Unsatisfactory Solutions to the Problem of Suffering



  1. Prokopios
    Prokopios  June 30, 2017

    Dr. Erhman,

    Long time reader of your books, and at last a contributor to your blog here. Grappling with the Problem of Suffering was what eventually got a friend of mine into agnostic territory as well. He was one of my assigned roommates in college, quite bookish, with a keen interest in doing good, political philosophy, and Christianity, though mainline Protestant, not evangelical.

    I myself grew up not at all religious, in a non-religious part of the county and remained that way. But for reasons I won’t go into here, I had the opportunity and interest to learn Latin and Ancient Greek beginning in middle school. I have been quite interested in the Early Christian Mediterranean ever since, though from a historical rather than religious perspective.

    Anyway, this means I would talk to my Christian roommate about Christianity a lot (he was interested in learning Greek to read the earliest NT we have, and here was me, a guy who could do that), and this would inevitably get down to our religious beliefs, and ultimately why I didn’t believe. It was never the many authorial or translational questions, or Church history issues or textual inconsistencies, or theological issues that really gnawed at him, but were, as someone who didn’t grow up in to, enough to be a non-starter.

    Sure they would bother him, but they didn’t cut deep—except for the Problem of Suffering. Despite my interest in the period and decent Latin/Greek it was and remains a hobby; I ended up in biomedical research (go figure), and it was always my examples of severe congenital diseases and the like that bothered him the most. He admitted he had no satisfying answers and was trying to do more religious study to figure it out. Talking years later, he said these were the sorts of dilemmas that shifted his traditional, personal, loving God concept to something more pantheistic, then eventually more agnostic.

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  June 30, 2017

    Jesus answers this question by saying look to eternal life not this short earthly life.

    Luke 13:4-5
    Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2017

      I’ve never seen any suggestion of eternal life in this passage.

  3. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 7, 2017

    My all-time favorite statement of and upon the dilemma is from J.B. by Archibald MacLeish:
    “I heard upon his dry dung heap
    That man cry out who cannot sleep:
    ‘If God is God He is not good,
    If God is good He is not God;
    Take the even, take the odd,
    I would not sleep here if I could
    Except for the little green leaves in the wood
    And the wind on the water.’”

    I used to think the last two lines were silly and sentimental (in a bad way), but as an older individual, I see it as a choice to live with the unanswerable because the only other option is not to live. The “wind on the water,” it just now occurs to me, may also be a reference to the experience of God’s presence in our reality, however inadequate that may seem.

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