How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering?
I wonder how often this is asked in earnest. It seems to be a trump card, a get-out-of-thinking question, one that is played as unanswerable. The typical answers are something like either God is good but is powerless to stop the bad things, or he is powerful enough but indifferent (or worse), or there is no God and all things are without meaning.
This begs the question though, are pain and suffering necessarily incompatible with the existence of a good God? Is there any place for pain and good to live together? We could start by looking at some cases where pain itself could actually be considered enjoyable. Eating spicy food, for example. This causes mild physical pain in the mouth but is often desirable. Hunger itself or thirst is a kind of pain, or discomfort at least, but without it could we approach a meal with zest and delight, or even gratitude? Exercise also causes pain, but is considered a good thing that benefits both bodily and mental health. A hard day’s work is difficult and painful and if not done grudgingly can be very rewarding. Ah, but I see I’m beginning to stray already from pain itself as desirable to working in spite of pain toward some good end. Still, the pain in these kinds of activities is not altogether unpleasant, and may even be how we know the thing is working properly.
Let us then imagine some alternatives. Perhaps the world and all things are just as they are, but we can’t feel pain, physical or mental. This immediately reveals itself as not good. If we could not feel pain we would destroy ourselves. We would be cut or burned or crushed or shot and carry on as if nothing of consequence had happened. This is the problem with leprosy or Hansen’s disease. Something as simple as an unnoticed blister can turn into a limb or life threatening infection. The ability to feel pain in this case is good and necessary, alerting or drawing attention to injury so something might possibly be done to help or fix it.
So why is there even the possibility of injury, disease, decay and the like? Another alternative could be that the world could have been such a place where pain and suffering were not possible, or we could have been built in such a way that we would be invulnerable to any hurt whatsoever. Maybe this would be better. We would have no fear of danger, hunger, or death. War would be ineffectual. Murder and rape would be impossible. Sounds good so far, but what about the equally human counters to these evils? Without even the possibility of hurt or injury where would be the opportunity for courage or bravery or daring? If we have no want, where is compassion and charity and kindness? If we know we cannot be hurt, where is prudence and self-control? Where would be endurance and patience without the chance to overcome trials? With the loss of difficulties and trials that bring pain and suffering, we lose also the opportunity to be virtuous. Would this be a cost worth paying?
Even if this cost is acceptable, this still leaves room for mental anguish. In our lives, the greatest and most devastating cause of suffering is typically not physical. People can survive and even thrive through very difficult things. Nearly irrecoverable suffering comes from malevolence, or worse still, infidelity or betrayal. This is world shattering. This cannot be. We must eliminate this possibility also. How? What could it mean that there is no possibility of betrayal or malevolence? As is manifestly obvious by looking at ourselves, alone or in society, now and throughout history, no external law can keep us in line. Even when, by our own standards, we know what good ought to be done and even when we want to do it, we do not always do so. We can be lazy and apathetic, even toward doing things that would benefit ourselves. We don’t exercise enough, or eat the way we know we should, or take our medicine, or sleep or wake when we should, or any number of other things we know we ought to do. How much less do we look out for the good of others? But maybe this is jumping too far ahead. Perhaps at this point, the concern should be just not harming others. Even without the ability to cause physical harm, we could (do) invent ten thousand ways to inflict mental anguish on one another. Picking, nagging, fretting, belittling, arousing suspicion, lying—any place we know our own vulnerability, we can (will) use it to exploit the same in others. This is the cost; this is what we would have to get rid of to remove the ability to harm one another—our self-awareness, our knowledge of our own weaknesses. As long as we have self-awareness, we have the knowledge and means of exploiting weaknesses in another.
This is not to say that pain and suffering are a necessary part of existence. So much of it is caused by our own ignorance or poor decision making, or plain malevolence. But, so much of what is good in humans, what is true and noble and beautiful (and despite all the wickedness, there is tremendous good), is dependent on the possibility of choosing evil. If we didn’t have the option to do wrong, we wouldn’t really be doing good, only what we must. It isn’t the same thing. Doing good is knowing the difference between good and evil, rejecting the evil and choosing the good. Thus, Adam is given the possibility of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. After Adam ate, God acknowledged he has become like us, knowing good and evil. God knows and chooses the good. This is precisely what we are to aim at. This is what it means to have the mind of Christ, to be remade in his image, to become the sons of God. The telos that God has for his children is to be like him, to know good and evil and to choose the good always. This is the true and good elimination of suffering, the wiping away of every tear.