Explaining the classic problem with a simple analogy

Let’s say you’re passing by a bathroom door and you happen to look in and see a young child fall and slip under the water. Nobody else is around. What should you do? You’d probably reply that you should run in and save the child from drowning in the bathtub, right? After all, not saving the child will mean suffering and maybe death for the child, and that would be on your conscience because you had both the knowledge that it was happening and the power to change it.

And if you heard of anybody who chose not to run in and save the child – if, for example, the child’s body was later found in the tub and security camera footage showed a person at the door who saw it happen and did nothing – what would you think of that person? My bet is that you’d be outraged. You’d call that person evil for not helping. The passive nature of the crime wouldn’t stop you calling it a crime. You’d want that person locked up for merely standing and watching as a child suffered and died.

The classic “problem of suffering”, which philosophers of religion have struggled with for millennia, is that if God exists, he is in the position of the person standing at the door. He has both knowledge of the suffering on this planet and the power to change it. Yet, in the case of all the suffering and death that you see around you, he has chosen not to change it. He watches as children die in bathtubs and in wars and from leukemia, as people are tortured and murdered, as tornados rip through towns, as severe anxiety and depression set in, as people bond with others and are torn from them, as grandmothers are raped and killed, as this and this and this happens.

The above is basically it in a nutshell. An all-knowing, all-powerful God cannot be considered benevolent, or good, in the face of all the suffering in his universe. And so theologians have developed responses – fixes – for the problem.

One response to this is to say that God has allowed his people free will, and that they will suffer the consequences of doing sinful things with their free will. But it should be obvious that most suffering is not the result of the poor exercise of free will. For a start, plenty of innocent people suffer and die at the hands of selfish or evil people, often depriving them of the ability to exercise their free will at all.

And even if we can somehow imagine that God would be justified to treat us as a collective, and judging all of us by the sins of the worst of us (though that doesn’t sound very just to me), human sinfulness would still not account for all the suffering and death caused by bad genetics, natural disasters, inclement weather, animal attack, bacterial infection, disease, economics and so much else. It just isn’t an adequate response to the problem.

(A further problem with blaming the sinfulness of humanity for suffering and death is that we’re discovering more and more about the nature of human beings in science, and most of the things we’ve traditionally called ‘sinful’ are actually natural human traits that evolved along with us for our own survival. These things include selfishness, coveting, idolatry, hubris, boastfulness, hatred, lust, pride, deceit and the myriad of sexual behaviors that come so easy to us yet are branded sinful. Why would God give humanity these traits – or permit him to evolve with them – and then, upon pain of suffering and death, demand we abstain from exhibiting them? Why wouldn’t good, moral actions be easy and pleasurable, and bad, sinful actions repulsive? Because that’s not how it works, we’re told. Why not? Doesn’t God have the power to decide all of this? And so our analogy is enhanced to make the problem even starker: God not only finds himself standing in the door of a random bathroom; he is also the architect of the entire scene and had the power not only to save the child but to prevent the historical circumstances of the event from even occurring.)

Another response is to say that God is not actually standing at the door of the bathroom, or, in other words, he does not have knowledge of suffering and death. If he did, he would change it, but he doesn’t. This certainly solves the problem, because who can save the child if they don’t know it is suffering? However this changes the classic definition of God as all-knowing. A god who doesn’t know everything that happens is not God, by most definitions of God. (Deism, which holds that God created the universe and then left it to its own devices, may be more compatible with this definition.)

A variation of that response is to say that God is standing at the door of the bathroom but cannot take action to change what he sees, however badly he may want to. In other words, he does not have the power to change suffering and death. However, this changes the classic definition of God even more! If God is not all-powerful, then why do we call him God? Such an entity may be described as something more like an advanced species rather than an all-powerful creator. Most religious people reject this solution, for obvious reasons.

Someone else might reply that suffering is essential for spiritual growth. But why did God create a world where suffering is essential for spiritual growth? Moreover, most suffering does not appear to lead to spiritual growth, but rather dishearteningly breaks a person’s spirit in a very destructive way. Furthermore, there is no evidence that most suffering befalls people in anything more than a random way. Although one or more categories of suffering can be self-inflicted, both spiritually mature and spiritually immature people suffer, and there is no pattern to be discerned in the largest category of suffering. It seems quite random. (I know very few people who would blame someone’s debilitating disease, for example, on their sinfulness or their lack of spiritual growth, but it has been done.)

A further response is to say, ‘Don’t worry, God will make it all right in the afterlife. If things are bad now, they will be compensated in Heaven.’ The inadequacy of this argument can be well understood by placing oneself once again in the door of the bathroom and watching as that child slips in the tub. Would anyone consider it perfectly justifiable to watch as the child flails, inhaling water and choking and suffering pain – refusing to do anything – all because at some point later you intend to revive them and buy them an ice-cream?

Some people have responded to the problem of suffering by concluding that there is no God at all. The reason suffering exists, they say, is because there is no God with knowledge of that suffering and the power to change it. The reason the child was found dead in the bathtub, they say, is that nobody saw it happen in the first place. If they did, they would have saved the child. The fact that they didn’t is proof enough that they weren’t there to begin with. The resulting belief is atheism. This certainly solves the problem, but maybe raises others (particularly if the person considering the problem believes in God for other reasons they find compelling).

Another position is taken by some religious people, who embrace the problem of suffering, agree that it is an insurmountable problem and treat it as an unsolved mystery – a question that they hope will be answered eventually – yet their faith in God survives the existence of the problem. Many such people are sure of the existence of God for other reasons, and the problem of suffering remains problematic but does not cause a crisis of faith. Others still will grapple with the problem on and off throughout their lives, never quite resolving the question and experiencing some theological angst about it. I include myself in that category.

That is the problem of suffering in a nutshell. When it is fully understood, it presents a problem that is not easy to overcome.