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  • Writer's picturePatrick Prill

Pain & Suffering Disprove God

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

“In the language of science, the empirical fact of unnecessary suffering in the world is inconsistent with a god who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.”[i]

- Victor Stenger

Does pain and suffering in the world disprove the existence of a knowing, powerful and good God? Would a God like that allow or possibly even design pain into the universe? It seems the answer depends on what the objective was for creating the universe and the people in it. If the objective was for everyone to be comfortable and happy, then the answer is no. However, if pain is a tool or a by-product rather than the objective, the answer could be yes. The freedom to fail Let’s start by looking at people. People aren’t puppets. We have the freedom to make good and bad choices. We can be wise or foolish. We can be selfish or generous. We can be kind or mean. We can even rescue or kill. Freedom is important. Without it, you wouldn’t really be you. You would be a like a puppet or a machine. Given this, it isn’t difficult to see why a loving God would grant us genuine choices. Without genuine choice, love isn’t love, gifts aren’t gifts, and friendship isn’t friendship. Without genuine choice, these are merely programmed responses. Perhaps a God who wanted us to have the genuine capacity to love would give us the freedom to make genuine choices and, with it, the freedom to fail. If that’s the case, pain is allowed to achieve the ultimate objective of creating free, relational, independent beings.[2] The parent analogy To assert that pain and suffering in the world disproves God is sort of like saying it disproves parents. Parents don’t want their children to suffer. However, they have bigger goals to consider than their children’s momentary comfort. Parents want their kids to become mature, wise, compassionate, responsible and creative adults. When they look at the bigger objective, they realize not all pain and suffering is bad – sometimes it’s a tool. Here are a few examples: - Consequences – When kids make choices, they ultimately encounter consequences. To insulate them from every consequence of their decisions is to insulate them from reality and deny them the wisdom and motivation that consequences provide. So, sometimes, we let them feel the pain. - Challenges – Parents allow their kids to play sports, even though they can get hurt. Climbing mountains can be painful too. They’re painful but the enjoyment from the challenge is greater than the dread of pain. After all, what would life be like without challenges and adventure? - Compassion – Parents know problems create compassion. Children become more compassionate, protective and patient when they or their loved ones experience adversity. We don’t enjoy the pain, but the fruit is compassion for others. - Creativity – Need, scarcity and problems fuel creativity. Builders, mathematicians, engineers, doctors and artists are creative problem solvers we gain from their endeavors. - Humility & relationships – Need also causes us to see that we don’t have everything under control and we need other people. We might even need God. Shared need helps facilitate relationships, teamwork and friendships. The bottom-line to all of this is parents know not all pain and problems are bad for our children. In fact, parents intentionally cause their children discomfort from time to time. Even extremely loving, wealthy and highly educated parents do this. They do it all the time. Why? - To Equip – Parents send their kids to school, make them do their chores, and insist that they practice the trumpet. This preparation and work can be difficult. However, the short-term inconvenience is paled by the long-term reward. It prepares them for life. - To Discipline – Whether a parenting philosophy includes time-outs, spankings, adjustments in privileges or a combination thereof, loving discipline is good for children. Though children may not enjoy it, parents love them enough to correct them so they won’t grow up to be spoiled and hurtful adults. Okay, now back to the question of whether pain and suffering in the world disproves the existence of God. Does it? It obviously doesn’t disprove the existence of parents, who are generally loving though finite beings. If there is a God, it seems that he also could have good reasons for allowing us to experience hardships. What about extreme pain and evil? Okay, the parent analogy is easy to understand. Now what about big pain and big suffering – holocausts, tsunamis, world wars and the like? This is the kind of pain and suffering that Victor Stenger would likely deem to be “unnecessary.” Would a good and powerful God not intervene in situations like this? Perhaps not. - Natural disasters – If God were to continually intervene in the natural order, there wouldn’t be one. If the laws of nature weren’t reliable, the effect on our ability to live could be worse than the occurrence of storms and earthquakes. Besides, most of us know that living near a volcano can be a bad idea. - Crime, wars and genocide – If God took away our ability to do evil, we would also no longer have the freedom to do good. Unfortunately, people choose to do evil. That’s not God’s fault. Theologians say the most loving way for God to have made us was to make us free.[3] Otherwise, we wouldn’t really be human beings. We would be pre-programmed human-looking machines. - Disease – A few years ago, a wealthy hedge fund manager gave $100 million to help find a cure for a rare blood disease afflicting his daughter. His love for his daughter spilled over into the lives of other people going through the same plight. Would he have been so compassionate and giving had his daughter not been suffering? I don’t know. But if this is the fruit of suffering, it’s logical that God might allow it. Is this the best possible world? Some people ask, if God is real, is this the best world he could have made? Could he not have made people who wanted to do good all the time? Yes, but they wouldn’t really be free. Could he not have made a world without hurricanes? Yes, but without prevailing winds and pressure systems, the world wouldn’t cool properly. Could he not have made people healthy all the time? Yes, but the compassion that results from sickness may make the world a better place than without it. Is this really the best he could do? Perhaps. The answer depends on what God’s objective was in making the world and people. If his objective was to make a problem-free world, it seems that he could have done a better job. However, if his objective was to create intelligent, conscious, relational people with genuine choices and a world for them to live in that fosters their growth and choices to love, create, assume responsibility, and be moral, then it seems like he did a really good job. Besides, maybe he has more things planned for the future. Will there be a future state? Christianity states that God allows evil, but that there will be a future state of heaven and a new earth where evil is no longer present. This is obviously too big of a subject for us to explore here – it could fill several books. However, a future state where those who have chosen to do evil are separated from those who have responded to God and received his forgiveness, would be a pretty cool place for the forgiven. In this future state, those who have chosen to follow God would be helped by God to live morally. So, why wouldn’t God just skip to the future state and avoid all of the pain and suffering? It’s possible that the messiness of choice is needed for us to freely choose to respond to God. Does pain and suffering disprove God? Antony Flew, once one of the world’s most vocal atheists, long pondered this question of pain, suffering and evil. This was the big issue that had caused him to become an atheist in the first place. However, fifty years later, his conclusion was “the existence of God does not depend on the existence of warranted or unwarranted evil.”[4] In other words, the existence of extreme pain and suffering in the world does not prove or disprove God. So, where does this leave us? It seems a good God could have good reasons for allowing pain and suffering. The existence of pain and suffering doesn’t disprove God. Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill

This blog is an edited chapter from Things Atheists Say – that simply make no sense. (Nashville, TN, Fidelis Publishing, 2021)

[1] Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 214. [2] Since created beings would ultimately be dependent upon God for existence, their independence would not be unlimited. [3] Various religions state that, though God has provided moral precepts for us to follow, we still choose to disregard them. Christianity further teaches that God entered the world to: 1) demonstrate how we should live, 2) atone for our moral failures and 3) provide us with help (through is indwelling presence) in how to live morally. [4] Antony Flew, There is A God (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007), 156..

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