[This was originally supposed to be a single article but it ended up growing uncomfortably long. There is a series of follow-up articles that consider various objections to this line of reasoning.]
The question of why God allows evil and suffering is, not surprisingly, a question as old as the hills upon which people have committed evil and have suffered. To presume that I can answer the question in any kind of final authority would be the highest form of a delusion of grandeur, but hopefully this little article may shed some light on the fact that a world in which moral good is even possible must be a world in which evil and suffering are also possible. In fact, challenges of some sort must exist for certain virtues to even possibly exist. Of course God’s reasons for making this world are probably infinitely more complex than we can imagine, but I hope I can unpack one of his countless reasons for certain features of our world. Even if I succeed this will hardly be an exhaustive account of God’s intentions for our world.
As you may know from my recent blog posts, my wife spent some time in the hospital after her cardiac arrest in April. For a few days we weren’t actually sure she was going to make it at all. The experience was terrifying as we watched her on the brink of death followed by weeks of recovery from brain damage. During our time in the hospital I got a glimpse of the various other medical challenges that people face. I saw part of the face of suffering; by no means all of it. It was personal. Given all my years of experience in Apologetics, and given the virtually constant barrage of “God is a horrible monster because people suffer” message that I’m used to hearing, I had that context floating around in the back of my mind the entire time. I was expecting to have to deal with a serious crisis of faith as I began facing, in a deeply personal way, the very feature of our universe that so many Atheists claim makes belief in God inherently irrational. I have to admit that I kind of assumed that my relatively sheltered and comfortable life had insulated me from the harsh realities of the world and that faith could not stand in the winds of real life.
Instead, I found a completely different response. The suffering that our family went through, and the suffering that I saw other people go through, made me realize something very important. For all my talk with other people about the subject of suffering, I hadn’t really faced a lot of it. It was easy to speak of suffering in abstract terms, but once I was actually in it – once it became a real part of my life – the entire picture changed. I saw suffering, yes, and it was horrifying. But I saw something else that is virtually never discussed when folks dialogue about evil and suffering. I saw something so beautiful that was born out of suffering that it stunned me that I’d never noticed it before. Something that not only happened to come out of suffering, but could only, even in theory, come into being through suffering. I saw a flower once I stopped staring at the dirt. A hypothetical world devoid of any hardship of any kind would mean losing a very magnificent baby as we threw out with the bath-water.
So let’s put our thinking caps on. Let’s start by imagining a world without one of the most common causes of suffering; pain.
No pain, no gain
Surely a pain-free world would be better than a world with pain, wouldn’t it? Imagine if you stubbed your toe and you didn’t feel any pain? I stub my toes a lot so I have to agree that, at first glance, a pain-free world sounds pretty good. What possible reason could there be to maintain the reality of pain in our world? What possible good could it serve?
To answer that question we can ask those with congenital insensitivity to pain, a condition that prevents some people from ever experiencing pain. Wouldn’t that be nice?
While at first the inability to feel pain may sound like a gift, the opposite is true. When babies grow, they experiment with their surroundings. When they feel pain, they learn that something is bad for them and stop doing it.
Not these children. Examples for what these babies/kids do to themselves include biting themselves deeply, breaking bones without feeling they did, poking their eyes with their fingers, biting their own tongues.
Oh my. That doesn’t sound so good after all. As I explored this subject on the internet I also discovered some further drawbacks to a lack of pain sensitivity. If people with this condition survive to adulthood (most don’t) and if they also happen to contract some other disease they probably will not know about it until it is too late. For instance, if a person gets cancer they may know that something is wrong because they feel an unusual pain in a certain place on their body. If caught early enough – in other words if they experience the pain early enough – many forms of cancer can be treated. Somebody with no ability to feel pain would never know they had cancer until it had spread too far to be treated.
When we pop some pills to alleviate pain what we do, practically speaking, is temporarily silence the alarm that is telling us that something is wrong. Silencing the alarm is a very good thing, but if we never had that alarm in the first place then we would never be aware that something was wrong. Indeed, a great deal of medical diagnosis involves questions like, “where does it hurt?” and “can you describe the pain?” The types and magnitudes of pain all mean something; they are like instruments in our body. Lacking a pain alarm would be (and for some people, it is) catastrophic. Generally speaking, pain is something we should be grateful for, not something we should want to get rid of. When pain functions properly it both enhances and lengthens human life.
Imagine if, tomorrow morning, every human on the face of the earth stopped sensing pain. Children would rarely grow to adulthood. Adults would die off far more rapidly than we presently do. Civilization as we know it would cease to exist in one, may be two generations. Should we dream of a pain-free world? Not if we have any moral sanity. Wave good-bye to the very prospect of octogenarians and, eventually, the very prospect of the human race in any form. No, a world lacking any pain of any kind (assuming it is still possible to be harmed) is an objectively horrifying world relative to our present world.
Pain, it turns out, is an unexpected blessing. More unexpected results ahead…
But, it could be objected, what if we never felt pain AND we never got diseases and could never be hurt and could never die? No starvation. No gunshot wounds. No suicides. No decapitations. In other words, what if we were invincible? In that case there would be no need for pain and we would also never be injured or die. That sounds like a pretty good alternative, right?
Indeed a world in which we could never be even slightly injured does sound appealing. As well as the advantage of a total lack of self-inflicted (and nature-inflicted) suffering there is the added advantage of a total lack of evil-inflicted suffering. So many human tragedies come to mind. If humans could neither be injured or killed we would have had no holocaust. There would be no 9/11. No terrorist attacks. No murders, rapes, mothers drowning their children, boyfriends beating their girlfriends, abortions or any other of a host of evils that plague our day and age. Indeed it would be absolutely impossible for any person to harm another person.
This all sounds like an unqualified blessing until we consider that we have been stripped of our moral freedom. You see, moral evil is but one side of the two-sided coin we call moral freedom. If I follow the logic of Henry Ford who once quipped that his customers could have a car in any color they wanted so long as it was black, and I say that people can make their own moral choices so long as they are always the morally right choices, then I have, practically speaking, eliminated their choice. Without the ability to do moral wrong we would not have true moral freedom.
Thus, in a world devoid of pain, harm and death, moral evil is impossible. Without the possibility of making a morally evil choice, morality itself is rendered meaningless. The upside to that, of course, is that there would be absolutely no moral evil. But is there a downside?
[There is another element to all this I’m skipping over for this article; the ability to emotionally / psychologically harm a person. I am only considering the physical aspect of this for now, but a similar line of reason would apply to non-physical forms of moral choices.]
Evil-free world – the fine print
Surely we can all agree that an inability to do moral evil would be fabulous, right? I mean honestly, if we could only ever be kind to each other wouldn’t that be a good thing? Indeed, in such a world everything we ever did would be good because bad could not exist, even in principle. Perhaps we should gladly hand over moral meaning if that would result in a complete avoidance of evil. Indeed the very concept sounds like a blissful utopia until we think a little further about the implications of all that.
Would it be morally evil to withhold food from a person? Of course! They could starve. Feeding them, though, is a moral good. What about in a world where starvation was impossible? Not only was starvation impossible, no person could ever, even theoretically, experience the discomfort of hunger. We would neither feel the need to eat, nor would there be any consequences if we did not eat. You could either withhold food or you could shower them with food; either way your actions are irrelevant. Is it possible to be evil? No. Is it possible to be good? Also, no.
Or suppose you shoved a blind old woman in front of a moving vehicle. What a heinous act! Instead of shoving them in front of a moving vehicle you should help them cross the street so they do not accidentally get struck by a careless driver. But in a world without danger or death would it matter either way? You could push as many people as you wanted in front of vehicles, there would be no consequence. And if you helped the blind person avoid a collision that would serve absolutely no purpose; it’s not like they could ever be injured.
In a world where I am unable to physically hurt somebody (moral evil) then nothing I do could physically benefit them either (moral good). In a world without danger or death we lose the ability to hurt somebody, but we also lose the ability to help them. Without moral meaning we lose not only evil, we also lose good. Vice is gone, but so is virtue.
Where have all the heroes gone?
Let’s take a closer look at the concept of moral good. What are some characteristics that people intuitively recognize as virtues? Love, courage, kindness, patience, self-sacrifice, integrity, a passion for justice, personal discipline and many more. These are the kinds of things that define people of honour, of dignity. In many cases we call people who exhibit these traits “heroes.” They often sacrifice their own comfort, resources and sometimes even their safety and life for the sake of others facing personal hardship. In other cases a “hero” is somebody facing personal hardship themselves who endures that hardship with honour; their head held high and their dignity in tact. They grab life by the horns and make the most of whatever hand they have been dealt. These are the people we look up to, that we respect. These people represent the pinnacle of what it means to be human. They are role models for the rest of us.
These heroes, I came to realize, are the people who saved my wife’s life. The 9-1-1 operator who coached my wife’s colleagues through CPR. My wife’s colleagues who were scared out of their minds but dove in and administered CPR on their colleague, their friend! The paramedics and firemen who responded to the call. The doctors and nurses in the ER who dedicated the better part of an hour doing everything they could to restore her heart functioning. Other doctors and nurses who worked to restore her to full health.
I cannot imagine the picture that my wife’s colleagues stared at as they pounded on the chest of their technically dead friend. Fear must have gripped them, but they heroically muscled right through the fear and horror. The medical staff and paramedics have accepted careers with lousy hours (shift work), insufficient pay in some cases, high stress, emotional trauma associated with watching people die on a regular basis and a host of other difficulties and hardships. But they chose these careers. They signed up. They go to their jobs day in and day out, sometimes sacrificing their personal sanity for the benefit of others. Can any reasonable person look at these magnificent people and not agree that they represent the best of what it means to be human? These people, dozens of them, who saved my wife’s life have characters of nobility and beauty. These are the flowers that sprout from the dirt that was my wife’s cardiac arrest.
The thing with heroism (being a person of virtue) is that we are not born with it, we grow it over the course of our lives. Indeed it would be logically impossible to be “born a hero,” it simply takes time and experience. Let me illustrate. Enduring personal hardship is the only logically possible means by which one could develop the virtue of perseverance. One does not “persevere” in a setting of absolute bliss, the very idea is irrational. Courage is only possible in a world occupied with real dangers that one might fear. Personal discipline is impossible if everything we desired was available without any effort at all. It is logically impossible for a person to become the kind of hero who places themselves in harm’s way in a world absolutely devoid of harm. These are simple definitional matters; no fancy philosophy here. Many virtues are logically impossible in the absence of any challenges or hardships.
A world without moral good – a world without danger or suffering as I described earlier – is also a world without heroes. It becomes a world without honour, without dignity; a world within which no human possesses any of the virtues that represent the pinnacle of human potential. In what some might consider to be the “perfect world” (I’ll take a closer look at this concept in one of the objection articles) no human could possibly ever develop any character of any kind, good or bad. Everything that makes the human experience a rich, meaningful, experience would be absolutely impossible in such a world.
We would have no epic tales of soldiers defending their homeland in the face of insurmountable foes. We would never be inspired by the bravery of our police as they face a lone gunman with deadly aim. We would have no folklore of brave knights and damsels in distress. Romeo and Juliet? Gone. War and Peace. Never heard of it. All the great dramas of the world – indeed much of what makes the human experience a rich tapestry – would be completely absent. I’m not terribly well versed in the arts, literature and music but a friend of mine more acquainted with these assured me that many of the finest examples of human expression would never have been expressed in a world devoid of evil and suffering. The richest examples of human imagination become conceptually impossible.
Even the more every-day examples of self-sacrifice on a smaller scale – spouses that commit to relationships built on compromise (i.e. it’s not always about me anymore), and parents that feed, bath and clothe their children to keep them alive, healthy and warm – would all be rendered either pointless or would disappear altogether. After all, if a newborn infant could not possibly starve to death, contract a disease due to unsanitary conditions, or freeze to death – indeed the child could not even possibly experience discomfort – what’s to stop a parent from abandoning their child? Indeed, what possible motive is there to “care for” the child in the first place? Every possible form of heroism, even down to the overlooked heroism of parenting as we understand it, would become logically impossible in such a world. As a world without lines cannot possible have triangles, so a world without challenges cannot possibly have heroes.
At an even more basic level no human would have any need whatsoever to go to work. If I eat or if I do not either way I experience no pain and I never die. If I have a house or if I do not, either way I will never freeze to death in winter nor overheat in the sweltering summer. In fact, I would never even feel discomfort from hot or cold. Followed to its logical extreme it would be unfathomable that human civilization as we know it would possibly have emerged. Even if some small handful of humans felt unusually inspired to study science, for instance, who would be bothered to build their scientific instruments? The entire infrastructure of science, medicine, art, economics, governments, literature, education, nations and so one would be completely absent. Humanity would be reduced to a featureless blob of homogeneous inactivity.
Those who would rid the world of pain, suffering and the possibility of evil – those who demand that God should have made the world a “better” place – are implicitly seeking a world without heroes. A virtue-free world. But is that really better? Maybe they never realized that before, but now that the costs have been laid on the table, surely we all instinctively understand the gaping absence that would characterize such a world. Moral good, after all, is not merely an abstract concept, it is a life-defining experience. Hopefully we all know people in our lives, usually the elderly, who are profoundly mature. They are the deep souls, the sages. They have a maturity about them that is not measured in years and a beauty in their being that defies their wrinkles. Talk to such a person. Ask them about their lives. Many of them have faced hardship. Many of them have made a life of helping others. Ask them what the most formative events in their lives were and you will probably hear stories of difficulty and challenges. They have faced the ugliness of life and have turned that external ugliness into an inner beauty that outshines its source. Like a fire that burns brighter than the spark that ignites it, the tragedy of all that is wrong with the world is easily surpassed by the magnificence of those who have become the greatest souls our race has ever seen. You can be one of these honourable pinnacles of humanity too if you choose the right attitude toward the hardship you see in your own life and the lives of those around you. Will you rise to the occasion or descend into self-pity? Tragedy can make a person better or bitter, but a total absence of hardship of any kind, even an unwillingness to dedicate yourself to helping others through their hardship, binds you in a state of existential irrelevance.
In a “perfect world” you could never grow into what these heroes have become. In a “perfect world” these heroes of our race could not possibly have become the honourable sages they are. Sit down with such a person, treat them to coffee and learn about their lives. Really get to know them. If you say the world is better off without evil and suffering then you are also saying that the world is also better off without them. I cannot bring myself to say that.
Thus we find:
- A world where humans have the opportunity to become heroes is superior to a world where heroism in humans is logically impossible.
- Heroism, and moral good in general, is only logically possible in a world where moral evil is logically possible.
- Moral evil is only possible in a world where harm and suffering are possible.
- In a world where harm and suffering are possible, pain generally improves and protects life.
Thus it seems to me that pain, suffering and evil must all necessarily be real possibilities in a world where moral virtue, and moving toward the fulfillment of the human potential for heroism, is logically possible. Though there may be some who believe God, in his divine omnipotence, can just get rid of pain as easily as we pop a couple of pills, such dream-worlds are inherently simplistic. God certainly could do that, but getting rid of pain – though it seems trivially simple – entails a wider array of unintended consequences that would reduce the entire human experience either to an unimaginable horror or utter irrelevance. Those who make such demands are inadvertently asking for a world devoid of any real significance or meaning. No civilization. No work. No virtues. No character. No dignity. No honour. Nothing but the most horrifying display of unadulterated hedonism we could possibly fathom. It comes down to a choice between heroism or hedonism. Selflessness or selfishness.
The wisdom of G. K. Chesterton comes to mind, “Meaninglessness comes not from being weary of pain, but from being weary of pleasure.”
Or, in the wisdom of Pixar, perhaps this is your dream world,
[In researching this article a fellow Apologist pointed me to John Hick’s book Evil and the God of Love. In it was found the concept of “soul making,” an idea obviously similar to what I have described. While he and I arrive at a similar conclusions, I think the phrase “soul making” makes the entire process sound like a manufacturing factory instead of the awe-inspiring and deeply spiritually rewarding process it really is. Also, I should point out that I deeply disagree with Hick on various other issues (like Universalism) so this may be one of the few places where our thoughts overlap.]