Does Suffering Disprove God? (3 of 4)

14. Does Suffering Disprove God (#3 Philosophy)THE ARMCHAIR: A Wounded Traveller Visits a Christian Philosopher

Moving to the second leg of my journey, suppose this wounded traveller is ready to ask some tough questions of the Christian faith. I’m disillusioned with the alternative answers I’ve explored. And yet, being an educated person, I know too well that suffering doesn’t just provoke questions of the heart; there are intellectual objections that need to be answered. So, before being willing to listen to some pastor explain suffering through the lens of the Bible, I stop in to the office of a Christian philosopher to ask whether this faith can even hold water; are there enough answers to warrant my attention?

As best as I can I blurt out to this philosopher how, in my thinking, it seems that suffering disproves the notion of the Christian God. Take Epicurus’ infamous trilemma for instance. In poetic prose, this ancient Greek materialist was perhaps the first to pen the intellectual problem of evil and suffering,

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

I mean, common sense tells us that, as one insignificant speck of dust in the vast universe, surely the magnitude and seemingly gratuitous nature of suffering on this earth disproves any notion of a loving and powerful Creator. To me, suffering is the final nail in God’s coffin. So why does my philosopher friend stare back at me un-phased?

After first acquiescing to the rhetorical force of Epicurus’ trilemma, my friend then begins to point out some problematic assumptions that lurk beneath the surface of his argument. Addressing three in turn, he reveals how each one either crumbles under scrutiny or ironically ends up pointing towards the existence of the very God Epicurus was seeking to disprove.

ASSUMPTION #1: An All-Powerful God Can Do Anything

Apart from schoolboy theologians, no one seriously believes that omnipotence has no logical boundaries. Doing what philosophers do best, he starts to point out the flaws in my thinking by asking questions: When the Bible declares that all things are possible with God, what do you think it means by “things”? Can God create a square-circle? Can God create a rock so big he cannot lift it?  Myself having heard these sarcastic quasi-questions before, the philosopher explains that they describe abstractions that are not really things. Each one denies the very thing they describe, such that their actualisation would require creation to collapse into absurdity. Being logically contradictory, these are not things, they are nonsense, or what CS Lewis describes as intrinsic impossibilities.[1] Although God’s omnipotence means he can overcome natural impossibilities, like raising the dead or calming the storm, no amount of appeal to divine omnipotence can translate nonsense into the realm of reality. The logic of God’s mind shapes the boundaries of omnipotence and the nature of God’s character shapes the exercise of his omnipotence. God cannot create intrinsic impossibilities like a square-circle, nor will he sin by betraying his own character. Simply by defining omnipotence, then, the philosopher has shown me that Epicurus’ first assumption is proven false.

Assumption #2: An All-Loving God Would Choose A World Without Suffering

It seems axiomatic that a loving God would not want his creatures to suffer. In my thinking, surely Epicurus’ second assumption is solid! Again, though, the philosopher ask questions. What reasons could a loving God have for choosing a world with suffering? Staring me straight in the eye, my ad hoc tutor asks, “What if suffering is the cost for you to exist? After all, what kind of beings would we be if we lived in a world where we either had no choice, or where there were no consequences to our choices?

Let’s talk about a world without choice. Alvin Plantinga, the eminent Christian philosopher, argues that perhaps suffering is an inescapable consequence of creating creatures with the capacity to love. God is for love, but to create beings that can love he must give them significant moral freedom. Love requires choice. Imagine a world where, rather than me wooing my wife such that she fell in love with me freely, instead I put a gun to her head and forced her to say marriage vows. Such an act of coercion would instantly remove the meaning behind her choice. This kind of a relationship would be merely an empty shell. What if it is that God doesn’t want robots or automatons? Perhaps he wants people capable of experiencing the blessing of love, even at the cost of suffering. It seems to me that a life without choice is devoid of any love or meaning, so we wouldn’t truly choose that world either. Plantinga calls this the Free Will Defence.[2]

What about a world where there are no consequences to our choices? Imagine a world where every time you made a choice that would result in suffering for you or another, God intervened. You’re about to hit the pavement, and it turns into a marshmallow. You’re about to fall into the fire and it transforms into fairy floss. I mean, in this kind of world it’s impossible to see how God intervening to save one from suffering would not bring suffering on another. What would happen to some poor car sharing the pavement that turned into a marshmallow? What would happen to those people being warmed by the fire? It seems to me that a neutral world operating with law-like function provides the necessary medium for us to relate as individuals in community. CS Lewis called the Natural-Law Theodicy.[3]

There is a deeper problem, though, with this hypothetical no-suffering world. You’re not in it! Think about it. If people hadn’t bumped into each other as they had; if suffering hadn’t played out exactly as it did; not only would people not end up forging their character and courage through the flames, but you would never have made it onto the stage of planet earth. The events of world history conspire to bring you to a point of being able to hear and weigh these words. Without suffering, your parents would never have met as they did or have conceived you when they did. Why did a loving God choose a world with suffering? Perhaps it is because he wanted to love YOU! He wanted to pursue relationship with the very person reading these words, with all your complexities, experiences, and quirks. The very reason you can ask If God, Why Suffering, is because God chose you; he intended you; he loves you. You are no accident. Oxford philosopher Vince Vitale calls this the Non-Identity Theodicy.[4]

Handing me a giant tome the philosopher says, “These are only three of the many plausible reasons why a loving God might choose a world with suffering. But can I ask you a question… Should you expect to have all the answers?

If God is all-wise and all-loving and all-powerful, could he not have reasons that we are unaware of? Just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there. Even in our own lives, retrospect allows us to see at least some ways that suffering can serve a meaningful purpose. When a parent inoculates a child, does not the allowance of momentary suffering produce a greater good for the child, even when from the child’s limited perspective they don’t understand why the parent allows their suffering? Could it not be that we are simply not in an epistemic position to know whether God has morally sufficient reasons to choose a world with suffering?[5]

Assumption #3: Suffering is evil or wrong for humanity to experience

Sitting there with my head reeling from all this intellectual stuff, the philosopher asks if he can try and simplify it down. I nod thankfully. Then he points to one final assumption in Epicurus’ trilemma… “Suffering is evil or wrong for humanity to experience.”

As I listen he unfolds something I’ve never noticed. Why do we question justice when those who seem good to us suffer, and those who seem evil thrive? Why do we call it evil when the weak are oppressed and suffer at the hands of a political regime? Why do we describe suffering in moral terms of good and evil, or right and wrong? Does not this reaction betrays our expectation, not of an atheistic world, but of a Christian one. Why?

If we believe good and evil exist then we must posit a moral law by which we distinguish good from evil. And yet to posit a moral law we must posit a moral lawgiver, which leads us to God. Without God there is no moral lawgiver; without a moral lawgiver there can be no moral law; and without a moral law there can be no good or evil. The argument, then, that evil disproves God’s existence self-destructs.[6] Epicurus’ assumption borrows from a world of God’s existence to try and disprove God’s existence. Furthermore, why, in the face of immense suffering, are we convinced that this is not the way the world should be? Where does this belief come from? This seemingly innate response—that this is not how things ought to be—betrays the Christian expectation that suffering is not how things were originally created, nor is this how things will be in the future. Only a Christian world makes sense of these innate expectations.

THE FINAL HURDLE: From Philosophy to Faith

The philosopher’s answers give me a lot to think about. Although my sceptical argument that suffering disproves Christianity seemed convincing at first, it crumbled under further examination. So why do I still reject Christianity? Why are the answers of the philosopher, which make some sense intellectually, still so existentially dissatisfying? Perhaps the driving reason why my suffering has led this wounded traveller to reject is not so much a logical one, but an emotional one. Do I not, in my darkest moments of confusion and frustration, cry out, “WHY?”

As I’m leaving his office with more to chew on, my philosopher friend’s final words to me strike that scary balance between enlightenment and confrontation… “To whom are you asking WHY? It seems to me that we rarely question or get angry at a non-existent being; we get angry with a real one whose actions we do not understand. Perhaps your true dilemma is one of trust. What would it take for you to move from philosophy to faith?”

Check out next week for the final chapter of the journey.

Dan Paterson is director of operations at Traverse, and a Pastor at Ashgrove Baptist Church.


[1] Lewis, C S 1940, The Problem of Pain, Great Britain, Collins Publishing, 16-21.

[2] Plantinga, A 1965, “Free Will Defense”, in Philosophy in America, M Black (ed), Ithaca, Cornell University.

[3] Lewis, C S 1940, The Problem of Pain, Great Britain, Collins Publishing.

[4] Vitale, V 2011, “Non-Identity Theodicy”, Unpublished Thesis.

[5] This is a position known as skeptical theism.

[6] See Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig for a defense of the Moral Argument for God’s Existence.