Chapter Six

The Problem of Suffering: It’s Worse than You Think

David Johnson


Justin highlights suffering as the atheist’s greatest objection. It is hard to say which is the most powerful. There are many dramatic disconfirmations of the Christian god. Any one of them stands alone as sufficient. Here are just a handful that come to mind:

       The problem of evil

       Divine hiddenness

       Unanswered prayers

       Extreme amounts of church division

       Moral confusion among believers

Justin is right to highlight suffering as a problem for Christians. While it is good he acknowledges the problem, he dismisses it too easily. It is a much bigger problem than he has credited. Apologists present solutions to the problem. But those solutions don’t go far enough.

All Christian attempts at solutions leave the problem of suffering intact. The tactic is not to solve the problem, but to give Christians just enough of an answer so that they stop thinking about it. Here is why those answers leave nonbelievers unconvinced:

Intuitively Wrong


One of the best tactics of the Christian is to so confuse the issue with philosophical high-speak that no one can be certain of anything. Making a thing philosophically possible is like saying in the vast world of quantum physics, anything is possible.

You don’t have to be a physicist to know that in the part of the world we inhabit, anything is not possible. No matter how confused someone attempts to make you with talk of physics, you know that when you step out of bed, you are not going to fall through a swirling vortex of time-traveling tachyons, and find yourself whisked into another world.

The same is true for philosophical doublespeak. When the apologist is done talking, you might not be entirely sure of what they said. But you still know that suffering is bad. And there shouldn’t be so much of it, if any.

This is one of those times when the Christian does not carry the emotional argument. The emotional argument is against them. But it is not just emotional. It is intuitive. god is supposed to be a loving father. If you are a loving father, or have had a loving father, you know that loving fathers do everything in their power to limit the amount of suffering experienced by their children.

Since god is all powerful, everything in his power should be quite sufficient to keep suffering at a minimum. The fact that suffering is what it is means that there is either a problem with his power, or a problem with his parenting skills. All of the Christians responses are attempts to deal with these two intuitive observations. Here are the responses, and why they fail:

The Fall


The idea behind the fall is that because of original sin, everything quite literally went to hell. Everything good about creation was tainted by a sin miasma that hangs over the universe to this day like a cosmic smog.

Suffering is just a byproduct of the evil that was unleashed into the ecosystem. Original sin wasn’t god’s fault. It was our fault. We have only ourselves to blame. For the Christian, this gets god completely off the hook for everything that has gone wrong since his perfect creation. But that is only because the Christian stops asking questions much too soon.

1.      Why was anything forbidden in paradise? Eden should have been like a playpen for babies. Nothing is forbidden because everything is safe. Imagine one of those pens full of balls. The balls are too big to swallow and too strong to pop. There is too much air between them to suffocate. Dive into them, and the landing is too soft. You don’t put hot coffee in a playpen and blame the baby for the burn. To do so is either neglectful or malevolent.

2.      Why was the serpent in the garden? The brand new humans were deceived by a beast cleverer than they. But why did god create such a beast in the first place? Even if he didn’t create the beast, why allow the beast into the garden? That is like allowing a sex offender into a playground, then blaming the children for being molested. Again, not their fault.

3.      Why are all humans punished for what the original sinners did? I didn’t eat the fruit. Neither did you. So why should we have to eat by the sweat of our brow? A child takes a cookie from the jar. And the father curses the child so that all her descendants are born one-handed. That’s hardly fair.

4.      Why did the fruit contain poison? I have been told by Christians that god didn’t create birth defects and disease. Those things were the result of our sin. But you don’t get changes in DNA from eating a bite of fruit unless that fruit was highly poisonous in a somewhat magical way. Even if god didn’t want us to eat the fruit, why would he fill it with poison?

6.      What explains the rest of the problems? The fall tries to explain too much. The Bible describes the punishments that were handed out. So we can explain why snakes crawl instead of walk, and why labor pains exist, and why farming is hard. But that hardly covers the suffering that exists in the world. So giving the fall its full due, it does nothing to explain the type and scale of suffering experienced on this planet.

It is clear that using the theodicy of the fall as an explanation for sin and suffering does not work. Nothing about the fall pins the blame on humans for the world we live in today. When the fall utterly fails, the Christian transitions to free will.

Free Will


One of the most popular answers to why we suffer is that we only have ourselves to blame for the bad choices we make that cause our suffering. I have some sympathy for this response because we have all caused a few self-inflicted wounds over the course of a lifetime.

Skydivers who pack their parachutes poorly, and who do not follow instructions really have no one to sue, provided they survive. Mountain climbers cannot exactly blame the mountain for the crime of simply being there. Russian roulette? No one put a gun to your head. Well… you get the idea.

But not all of what appears to be self-inflicted suffering is really self-inflicted. It is one action that is a part of a chain that we didn’t start, and are helpless to avoid. If someone runs into you while you are carrying a hot cup of coffee, you will spill it on yourself and be burned. But you actually had very little to do with the accident that caused your self-inflicted burns.

The one who is a drug addict or alcoholic by age 12 had a lot of help getting there. We pity the abused child for the suffering visited upon her. But we despise the crack whore for the bad choices she made. We lose track of the fact that she is the same person we pitied a few years ago.

We have something that functions a lot like free will. But we are also highly suggestible. We are easily influenced. Eden didn’t just contain two humans with free will. It also contained a hypnotically clever creature with the sole mission of influencing the humans to perform a certain action. They were not alone with their free will.

If a baby falls down a flight of stairs, do we blame it on her free will? Or do we blame the parent for not putting up a baby gate? If we left small children to their free will, none would survive to adulthood. God left the innocent humans in a dangerous place with poison fruit and wicked creatures and blames the predictable outcome on their free will.

What part of free will is responsible for birth defects? Did our free will cause the tsunami that killed millions? Free will cannot explain a fraction of the human suffering we see in this world.

What about the free will of the criminal? If a man brutalizes a woman, he is just acting on his free will. Even if we discount the fact that his free will may have been influenced by factors beyond his control, we still can’t lay the act at the feet of free will.

The god of the Christian is an interventionist god. He can see the violent act coming before the participants are even born. He can manipulate circumstances to keep harm away from the innocent. Just think of Mary: the mother of Jesus. She was fire-walled from sexual assault and brutality.

She was also presumably kept from drug addiction, disease, and mental retardation. So it is clear that god can protect anyone he chooses. When a rapist is thwarted, Christians say that god intervened. When a rapist is successful, they say that god does not intervene in the free will of even rapists.

But if he has ever intervened once, he can intervene anytime it suits him. So the suffering we face at the hands of others is not a product of free will. It is a product of god being suited by our suffering. The free will argument simply cannot bear the burden Christians need it to support.

Birth Defects and Disease


We move to a category of human suffering that cannot possibly be laid at the feet of human will or sin. Eating fruit made by god cannot possibly cause disease. And we did not design disease. We did not invent viruses.

Nothing we did caused sickle cell anemia. And while human behavior might be blamed for the rapid spread of AIDS, we most certainly didn’t create it. It fails to say that AIDS is a punishment for homosexual behavior. The larger group of homosexuals is lesbian. Their activity is almost completely immune from this targeted punishment.

When children are born with disease and defect, we can hardly blame them for their suffering. There are only a couple of explanations for birth defects and disease. And they both implicate god as the architect:

       The original creation wasn’t very good. And the human genome was fouled up from the beginning. It just took a while before the effects were apparent.

       God slipped in an even worse punishment than he mentioned at the time, and rewrote the human genome so that it would create birth defects and disease.

Outside of the blind forces of evolution, god is the only one who could do such a thing.

A secondary issue is what god does about the problem of disease after the fact. Christians seem to vacillate wildly between hope and resignation. One moment, god heals illnesses and watches over pregnancies so that babies are born healthy. On the other hand, god is quite satisfied to work within the confines of our weakness. His grace is sufficient.

It all depends on which circumstance the Christian wishes to explain at any given moment. If a Christian gets better after praying for healing, god is sovereign over disease. He wants us to be healthy. And he has the power to make us so. If we remain sickly for our entire lives, god wanted us to be sickly to show his power through us in other ways.

The fact that he seems to heal some and not others only tells us that this god is capricious. It also tells us that he could heal disease, but just chooses not to. Notice that Jesus only seemed to heal people who managed to get his attention. What he never did was remove an illness from the earth. He healed a handful of lepers. But he left leprosy intact for others to contract it.

So what we have is a god who caused birth defects and disease (as no one else could have), while doing nothing to remove it or protect the general population from it. When it comes to human suffering, the god of the Christian has much more to answer for than the Christian is asking. Those that deny that god caused birth defects must answer the question of who did if not god? If the devil does, then everyone would have birth defects.

Acts of God


When the weather turns violent, we call it an act of god. That is because, like birth defects and disease, there is no way to pin the blame on humans. We don’t have the technology to cause ice ages. We can’t even manage a tornado.

But god has cooked up all kinds of unnatural systems – unnatural in a world designed specifically for humans, that is. We have tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, blight, pestilence, wildfires, volcanoes, and more.

Far from a paradise, this earth is a death trap. And it is really good at killing its occupants. But the earth doesn’t just kill us. It makes us suffer. Most of it is water in which we cannot breathe. Large portions of it are too hot and sandy, or too cold and icy.

The parts of the surface where we can live are full of sharp edges that are hard and unyielding. Have you seen a human body? It does not hold up well when thrown against sharp, hard, unyielding surfaces.

Many of the animals want to kill us. The foliage wants to prick us or poison us. The sky wants to burn us or give us cancer. At higher climates, the thin air wants to suffocate us. In many populated parts of the world, the land wants to starve us. It is a wonder any of us survive.

No matter how the Christian argues it, from the fall, to free will, to disease, to nature, God is the sole author of our suffering. And though he could lift it, he is content to watch it unfold before him. The only question that remains is why. Again, Christian answers undersell the problem:

Parental Guidance


Christians often place god in the role of a parent. The parental analogy is used to exonerate god for suffering in the following ways:

       God punishes us when we need it

       God allows us to suffer for a higher purpose like character building

While these are indeed features of human parenting, Christians fail to fully grasp the implications of placing god in this role, and using it to explain away suffering. Even a casual glance shows why these arguments don’t work.

To begin with, human parents have human limitations. We parent the way we do precisely because we do not have the resources of a god. We are not very good at behavior modification. Just consider some of the barbaric means we have attempted in the past.

We are also not particularly good at building character. We use crude methods because we have no other methods available to us. It is somewhat self-defeating to say that the god of the universe is limited to the same tools of parenting as us. With that in mind, here are the other reasons why this argument fails so spectacularly:

God Loves You to Death


It is said that a parent punishes a disobedient child because of love. But I do not believe in punishment as we typically understand it. You do something bad, something equally bad must be done to you. That is where we get the notion of an eye for an eye.

But even if you subscribe to traditional notions of punishment, god takes it to extremes. He punishes his children with death. A dead child cannot be taught a lesson. To determine how often god loves his children to death, just survey the Old Testament for all the punishments under the law that require death.

Some of the punishments required his children to be conquered by their enemies, and brutally enslaved. What parent would punish their children in this way? As punisher, god is a psycho-parent who should be locked away in a padded cell. At the very least, there should be some inquiries from the Department of Human Services and the Child Protection agencies.

Building Character


I have always questioned the character building argument. In this life, we need character because this is a harsh and unforgiving world. We need to learn the value of honesty, hard work, and social responsibility. This life requires all of these things in spades.

But why do we need character building for the next life? Is heaven also going to require honesty, hard work, and social responsibility? If it is, what makes anyone think that suffering in this life will prepare us for it?

There is not a single person on this planet who has enough character for an eternal existence. If heaven is depending on us to manage society with what we have learned on earth, heaven will be a fallen mess inside of the first week. If we will receive new personalities and perfect minds when entering heaven, then why all the useless character building here?

Human parents are also very careful about the type and amount of suffering they will intentionally allow their children to endure for any reason. No parent purposely allows a child to break their arm or leg. They do everything in their power to teach their children how to manage dangerous activities without injury. Most of the suffering endured by children are due to our human limitations.

God has no such excuse. He designs the swing set to break so that the child will break her arm. God wants her to experience pain. God is the parent who gives his child a sick pet so she will experience the maximum grief. God is the parent who lets his child get beat up by bullies so she will learn helplessness and humility.

Again, god is a psycho-parent.

For His Glory


Some get lost in the debate over whether god causes suffering for his glory, or allows suffering for his glory. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. The fact that god derives anything positive for himself through your suffering is monstrous in and of itself.

There was the time when Jesus and his disciples happened upon a man who was blind from birth. The disciples wanted to know if it was from his sin, or the sin of his parents. As an aside, Jesus did not dispel the notion that blindness is not the result of sin. He only said that in that particular case, sin had nothing to do with it.

According to the passage in John 9, This man was born blind so that god’s power could be shown in him. The implication is that god made this man blind so that he could be healed at this time by Jesus. That is not an inspirational story. That is a hideous story.

Recast the story as an optometrist who causes a baby to be born blind, only to show how good of a doctor he is by fixing it decades later. The suffering of the blind child up to that point is just a necessary evil that brings the doctor glory. That is god in this story. We hardly notice the lifetime of suffering by the blind man. All is well as long as god gets to show his power.

Beyond this horrid tale, there is something tone deaf and sinister about a person who uses the occasion of your suffering for his benefit. Sorry about you being quadriplegic. But on the bright side, my dancing looks so much better when compared to yours.

Paul tells us that god is strong in our weakness. Why would we praise that? Why can’t god be strong when we are strong? The god of the Bible would rather us be timid stutterers so that we can’t take any credit for a powerful speech.

God may allow some small amount of praise to come our way if there is enough left over once his appetite for praise has been satisfied. Even what little praise we are allowed to have must be recycled back into god’s glory. We must remain weak so that god can always be the strong one. Christians serve a god who looks at their suffering, and sees opportunity for himself. That’s sick.

You Deserve It


Perhaps the worst argument Christians make in defense of suffering is that at the end of the day, you deserve it. You deserve every lump you took, every moment of sickness, every injury you endured, every moment of fear you experienced, every loss you took.

From the moment you were born, god knew the kind of filthy, no-good subhuman you would turn out to be. And you deserved every second of suffering you received. You probably deserved even more.

Because god is just, he knows the true condition of your heart, even if you don’t. He knows what you would have done had you not been confined to that wheelchair. He knows what you would have looked at had you not been born blind. And he knows what harm you would have done to others had you not been mistreated as a child. Blessed be the name of the lord. You deserved every bit of it.

You are incapable of judging the situation. God can see all of time before it unfolds to us. He also sees all of the alternate timelines. You think this universe is bad? Had you not been forced to endure so much suffering, it would have been worse.

But this argument simply ignores the scale of human suffering. As humans, we would all agree that there are limits to any deserved suffering. Even criminals do not deserve maximum suffering, regardless of their crime.

But god knows no limits. Death wasn’t enough for humans to bear. We also have to suffer from cancer long and miserably before death comes. We have to suffer in the fire before life is burned away. We have to drown in fear and pain before the lungs full of water take us. And in some versions of the afterlife, suffering goes on at infinite levels for all eternity.

The Christian insists that god is just. And if that is so, then our suffering is fair. For that suffering to be fair, we must deserve every sadistic moment of it.

Worth It in the End


By the time the Christian gets to this argument, they have almost given up. They are just special pleading and grasping at straws by saying things even they don’t believe.

According to this argument, the suffering you go through today will be forgotten in eternity future. Heaven will make it all worth it. When you get there, you will laugh at what you thought was suffering. Heaven will be so good you will be glad you had to suffer for it.

That means the sexual abuse some kid is experiencing right now in some dark, stinking alley is totally worth it. Did you just take a bullet from a drive-by that will leave you a shadow of the human being you were yesterday? Worth it. Were you born spastically retarded? You don’t know how lucky you are.

This argument is so nauseatingly bad, I would not even repeat it were it not featured in the Bible. Remember Job? god allowed him to unjustly suffer unspeakable physical torture, as well as allowing his children to be murdered. The god of this story admitted that the suffering was for no reason.

Here is how this god made it all better:

The Lord blessed the last part of Job’s life even more than the first part. Job had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand teams of oxen, and a thousand female donkeys. Job also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first daughter Jemimah, the second daughter Keziah, and the third daughter Keren-Happuch. There were no other women in all the land as beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father Job gave them land to own along with their brothers.

After this, Job lived one hundred forty years. He lived to see his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Then Job died; he was old and had lived many years. Job 42: 12-17

See how pretty his new daughters were? Besides an even better bunch of kids, Job was given even more land, and lived a long happily ever after. I guess we can laugh about those torturous boils from head to foot now that Job has sexually attractive daughters. This is how the god of the Bible justifies suffering. That many Christians do this today is even worse.

Conclusion: He Has His Reasons


And with that argument, the Christian has completely given up. It doesn’t matter that we intuitively know that the fall utterly fails, or that free will is not a free pass. It doesn’t matter that we have no explanation for birth defects and disease, or reasons why acts of god are not really god’s fault.

So what if god is a bad parent who loves us to death with brutal punishment and failed attempts to build character. It doesn’t matter that god’s glory is not a convincing enough reason, or that you really don’t deserve it. And it doesn’t matter how offensive the argument is that it is all going to be worth it in the end. None of that matters because god has his reasons. And unnamed reasons trump any and all objections.

In his book, Justin acknowledges there are some things for which he has no answers. I suspect the ultimate explanation for suffering is one of them. But his faith is so ordered that he doesn’t need a reason. The Christian has a built-in defense mechanism embedded into their doctrine: When in doubt, god has his reasons.

God’s ways are above your ways, and his thoughts are above your thoughts. Even if he told you the reason, you couldn’t possibly understand it. Be thrilled that you can understand anything about god. And let the rest stand as the glorious mystery that it is.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to faith. You either believe god is good, loving, and able to save you, or you don’t. So even if god does things that seem completely immoral to you, your perspective is insufficient to judge the situation. In those cases, you just have to trust that god is doing the right thing. He has his reasons. And that should be good enough for you.

I have listened to these kinds of explanations for the past ten years of programing. And I have become less satisfied with them as time progressed. I can no longer drown out all the suffering by closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, and crying Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!