Theodicies: do some goods require, risk, or result in suffering?

Reasons given for answering "Yes"
  • Free agency in a “moral arena” is good

      It is good for us to make free choices which result in deliberate courses of action, courses that really matter for ourselves and others (especially in the context of eternity). This is relevant because, to the degree to which we are free and empowered, there is also a corresponding risk of our making effective choices which permit or bring suffering on ourselves and/or others.1, 2

      So what if a moral arena is good? Maybe humans could be created who would always freely choose the right? [See Response]3

      1. Side-note #1: Free choices can result in deliberate courses of action or not. It is better for us for our choices to matter. However, even a world in which God simply prevents the choice's harm from coming to fruition (e.g. turning all lethal bullets into marshmallows), the direct consequence will soon be the snuffing out of the free choice itself. Sane individuals would no longer be able to choose to cause harm, for the same reason you cannot sanely choose to be a mosquito or a square-circle.
        Michael Murray (Philosophy professor at Franklin and Marshall): “I intend to pull the trigger to shoot you but suddenly find that my finger is paralyzed, or that the bullets have all vaporized, or … I intend to steal the car but when I rear back to throw the brick at the car window to gain entry I suddenly fall asleep, or I find that windows are unbreakable when struck during attempts at theft, etc. Would this suffice? In one sense it would. Were the world so configured, I would not be able to bring about any evil beyond my evil choices. But it is further true that in such a world I would not be able to make evil choices at all since the totality of my experiences will make it evident that doing evil is impossible.” [Nature: Red in Tooth and Claw (Oxford, 2008), 137.]
      2. Side-note #2: It's true that the good of a moral arena is not sufficient to justify all suffering, but that fact is irrelevant to this article, which is only asking whether some great goods require and/or risk suffering.

        Richard Swinburne (Philosophy professor at Oxford): “the more freedom and responsibility we have, of logical necessity the more and more significant are the bad consequences which will result (not prevented by God) from our bad choices; and so the more probable it is that many such will result. Every slight addition to our freedom and responsibility increases slightly the probability of sadness and pain; every slight diminution of the probability of sadness and pain resulting from human actions diminishes slightly our freedom and responsibility.” [Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, 1998), 165.]

      3. Note: Even if saintly humans who would always freely choose the good could be created, there are additional reasons God might prefer those who do freely choose to sin. For example, fallen creatures who are redeemed can be admitted to a greater degree of intimacy with God, and this is an eternal good if there is an afterlife. It is certainly not a crime for God to create creatures who will of their own free will act wrongly towards others; every parent chooses to have a child despite knowing they will do this. It seems a mistake to think persons who will never freely choose to sin are more valuable as persons, any more than persons who act wrongly more in the actual world here are less valuable than those in the actual world who do not. The Biblical God at least has always had a heart for those who the world would deem less valuable.
  • Forming our own character is good

      The cultivating of our own morally significant character is good (especially in the context of eternity). This is relevant because some of the most important character-forming features we can develop are built through choices in our response to suffering (for example, being compassionate, persevering) or that which risks/results in suffering (for example, choosing to steal without regard for others, and/or forming a character that is inclined to steal).1 So it both requires and risks/results in suffering.

      James 1:2-4 -- “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.2

      1. John Hick (Philosophy professor at Cambridge, etc.): “If, then, God's aim in making the world is ’the bringing of many sons to glory,’ that aim will naturally determine the kind of world that He has created. Antitheistic writers almost invariably assume a conception of the divine purpose which is contrary to the Christian conception. They assume that the purpose of a loving God must be to create a hedonistic paradise; and therefore to the extent that the world is other than this, it proves to them that God is either not loving enough or not powerful enough to create such a world. They think of God's relation to the earth on the model of a human being building a cage for a pet animal to dwell in. If he is humane he will naturally make his pet's quarters as pleasant and healthful as he can. Any respect in which the cage falls short of the veterinarian's ideal, and contains possibilities of accident or disease, is evidence of either limited benevolence or limited means, or both. Those who use the problem of evil as an argument against belief in God almost invariably think of the world in this kind of way. … But if we are right… The question that we have to ask is rather, Is this the kind of world that God might make as an environment in which moral beings may be fashioned, through their own free insights and responses, into ‘children of God’?” [Evil and the God of Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 256-258.]
      2. Hebrews 12:11 -- “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
        Romans 5:3-5 -- “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
        Douglas Moo: “The two OT occurrences both denote the process of refining silver or gold, and this is the way James uses the word. The difficulties of life are intended by God to refine our faith: heating it in the crucible of suffering so that impurities might be refined away and so that it might become pure and valuable before the Lord.” [The Letter of James in The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 54.] We see this at work in the account of Job, where he lost everything and the quality of his fath became evident. Though he could not understand God's purposes, he confessed “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” (Job 1:13-19; 2:7-8; 23:1-10)
  • God's atonement for people like Paul is good
  • Worldly people turning to seek God is good

      Seeking fellowship with God is a great good (especially in the context of eternity). This is relevant because, with less suffering, fewer would seek God. Indeed,
      • “Religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises.”[2005 WIN-Gallup International poll]1
      • Studies confirm that Christianity grows most rapidly during hardships.2
      • It is intuitively clear that suffering would lead us to turn to God.3

      Eleonore Stump (Philosophy professor at Saint Louis): “Natural evil—the pain of disease, the intermittent and unpredictable destruction of natural disasters, the decay of old age, the imminence of death—takes away a person's satisfaction with himself. It tends to humble him, show him his frailty, make him reflect on the transience of temporal goods, and turn his affections towards other-worldly things, away from the things of this world.” [“The Problem of Evil” Faith and Philosophy, 2 (1985): 409.]
      1. The quote here (from the 2005 WIN-Gallup International poll) continues, “While the results for nations as a whole are mixed, individual respondents within a country show a revealing pattern. If citizens of each of the 57 countries are grouped into five groups, from the relatively poor to relatively rich in their own countries, the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself.” [RedC Research pdf]
        This seems to echo verses like:
        Matthew 19:23-24 -- And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
        Matthew 5:3 -- “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
      2. William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland: “A reading of a missions handbook such as Patrick Johnstone's Operation World reveals that it is precisely in countries that have endured severe hardship that evangelical Christianity is growing at its greatest rates, while growth curves in the indulgent West are nearly flat. Consider, for example, the following reports:
        China: It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977 the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30-75 million Christians by 1990. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history."
        El Salvador: The 12-year civil war, earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee, the nation's main export, impoverished the nation. Over 80% live in dire poverty. An astonishing spiritual harvest has been gathered from all strata of society in the midst of the hate and bitterness of war. In 1960 evangelicals were 2.3% of the population, but today are around 20%.
        Ethiopia: Ethiopia is in a state of shock. Her population struggles with the trauma of millions of deaths through repression, famine, and war. Two great waves of violent persecution refined and purified the Church, but there were many martyrs. There have been millions coming to Christ. Protestants were fewer than .08% of the population, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population.
        Examples such as these could be multiplied.” [Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldivew (IVP Academic, 2003), 545.]
      3. This is not to say God causes suffering, or even that that God permits suffering to bring this about. It only says the world is better to at least some degree for God's not preventing it for a time, and God's knowing that could factor into overriding his reasons to prevent suffering. For example:
        Peter van Inwagen: “If God did what is proposed, we should all be satisfied with our existence--or at least a lot closer to being satisfied than most of us are now. And if we are satisfied with our existence, why should we even consider turning to God and asking for His help? An essential and important component of God's plan of Atonement—this constitutes an addition to our theodicy—is to make us dissatisfied with our state of separation from Him; and not by miraculously altering our values or by subjecting us to illusion or by causing us suffering that has no natural connection with our separation, but simply by allowing us to ‘live with’ the natural consequences of this separation, and by making it as difficult as possible for us to delude ourselves about the kind of world we live in: a hideous world, much of whose hideousness is quite plainly traceable to the inability of human beings to govern themselves to or order their own lives. Let us expand our theodicy: An essential part of God's plan of Atonement for separated humanity is for human beings to perceive that a natural consequence of human beings' attempting to order their own lives is a hideous world—a world that is hideous not only by His standards, but by the very standards they themselves accept.” [“The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy” Philosophical Topics Vol XVI, No. 2 (1988): 174.]
        Peter of Blois: “You could say that tribulations are unnecessary to induce this remembrance of him, for God by conferring benefits gives us sufficient warning, as Augustine says, that God's kindnesses are nothing other than reminders that we should proceed to him. So it should be enough for God to convey warnings by conferring kindnesses, for such warnings befit God more than those delivered with canings. To this a possible reply is that though kindnesses recall you to acknowledge him, on occasion an uncontrolled love for those very kindnesses holds us fast, and the Creator, the highest unchangeable God who bestows eternal blessings, is then forgotten.” [Commentary on the Book of Job . He sets out ‘Twelve Advantages of Tribulation’ (PL 207.989). Trans. in J. Walsh and P. G. Walsh (eds.), Divine Providence and Human Suffering (Michael Glazier, 1985), 141–62: 149.]
        Paul Moser (Philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago): “We can make some sense, in Paul’s wake, of why a perfectly loving God would allow certain kinds of pain and suffering. This God, as perfectly loving, would be after something more valuable than human sensory pleasure and the satisfaction of worldly human wants. God would hope that people be liberated from deadly idols in virtue of trusting God as the authoritative Lord who provides genuine human security and contentment, come what may in this world. This divine hope could thus make good use of allowing pain and suffering among us rather than protecting us from all pain and suffering. This would be part of God’s redemptive judgment of human idols, by bringing them to noticeable futility, for the sake of reconciliation of humans to God in volitional fellowship with God. It would be judgment intended, at least characteristically, to correct humans from their reliance on futile idols and to restore them to their creator and sustainer in volitional fellowship.” [The Elusive God (Cambridge, 2008), 42.]
        Psalm 119:71 -- It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes.
        Philippians 4:12-14 -- I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
        On the other hand, sometimes God is the cause of suffering:
        Hosea 5:15-6:3 -- I will go away and return to My place Until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face; In their affliction they will earnestly seek Me. “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. 2 “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him. “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; And He will come to us like the rain, Like the spring rain watering the earth.
  • Love-bonds forged in suffering are good
  • Solidarity with Christ in suffering is good

      Intimately knowing Christ in suffering (as mutual empathizers) is good. This is relevant because one cannot have/enjoy this particular eternal relation with Christ if no suffering existed.

      Laura Ekstrom (Philosophy professor at William & Mary): “suffering itself is an experience that one shares with the divine agent, and so it may serve as an avenue to knowledge of, and intimacy with, God. Viewed in this light, human suffering might be taken to be a kind of privilege in that it allows one to share in some of the experience of God, thus giving one a window into understanding his nature. For the Christian, in particular, occasions of enduring rejection, pain and loss can be opportunities for identification with the person of Jesus Christ. Intimacy with Christ gained through suffering provides deeper appreciation of his passion. I understand the notion of intimacy or identification with Christ in a sympathetic rather than a mystical sense.” [“A Christian Theodicy,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2013), 279.]

      1. One might ask here, “Why then do non-believers suffer? They won't make use of Christ.” First, this issue is irrelevant to the current question. Second, on the contrary, it is through suffering that people regularly come to first confess Christ as Lord. Thirdly, if everyone saw that only Christians suffered, then this could be an overwhelmingly strong deterrent against non-believers coming to faith (and against new believers staying in the faith) and so a reason for God not to prevent either from suffering.
  • True evil-conquering stories are good

      Certain true stories which essentially involve evil are great goods (especially in the context of eternity).1 This is relevant because true stories like this require evil to exist.

      1. There is an experience-sharing that will go on for eternity through narrative; we will be the valued eternal story-tellers in the afterlife, tellers of our own experience and lessons.
  • A knowable natural order is good

      A Universe evolving through time in a regular/predictable/intelligible way is good (especially in the context of eternity). This is relevant because it is not clear that there exist possible universes which unfold so elegantly, in accordance with scientifically intelligible laws, which do not also result in occasional harm to creatures born into it.1

      But wait, couldn't God maintain the elegance and simply “cancel” all nature-caused horrors by constant miraculous interventions? [See response.]2

      1. The idea here is that natural evils are plausibly necessary by-products resulting from the creation and conservation of a physical world which operates in a regular or law-like manner.
        Michael Murray: “Could the laws which govern our physical universe have been configured to yield a substantially better overall balance of good? It is hard to know how to begin answering such a question. To show that such a world is possible the critic would need to describe a nomically regular world which (a) contains goodness of the sorts (either the same sorts or equivalent or better sorts) and amounts found in the actual world and which (b) contains substantially less natural evil than the actual world. This task seems hopeless.” [Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (Oxford, 2008), 147.]
      2. Couldn't God maintain a nomically regular world, with the exception of interventions where life-forms (or at least humans) are saved from suffering? (E.g., creatures which stumble off a cliff are mysteriously levitated back up mid-fall, and creatures about to be overwhelmed by an avalanche are protected by force fields; perhaps even their vacant homes and cars are protected by God this way as well). Perhaps. However, such cancellations would black out a significant portion of the scientifically intelligible world, frustrating the good in question to a significant degree. (E.g. What would otherwise happen to creatures which drank too much alcohol, or cyanide, without God's tamperings?) Most of the other goods discussed on this page would be frustrated to significant degrees as well.
  • Sacrificing to promote the good is good

      Sacrificing (dying, donating, etc.) for a good cause is good.1 This is relevant for two reasons: because sacrifices can involve suffering (emotionally and physically) and the greatness of many of our would-be acts depends on how much we sacrifice and how much better we made things, especially how much suffering we prevent with our sacrifice.

      1. Making sacrifices for the good is itself a good. It is a free agent expressing him or herself in a morally significant way, making a difference in the world, and adding extra meaning to their lives.
        Richard Swinburne (Philosophy professor at Oxford): “Suppose that you exist in another world before your birth in this one, and are given a choice as to the sort of life you are to lead. You are told that you are to have only a short life, maybe of only a few minutes, although it will be an adult life in the sense that you will have the richness of sensation and belief characteristic of adults. You have a choice as to the sort of life you will have. You can have either a few minutes of very considerable pleasure of the kind produced by some drug such as heroin, which you will experience by yourself and will have no effects at all in the world (e.g. no one else will know about it); or you can have a few minutes of the considerable pain of childbirth, which will lead to the existence of a new human being who would not otherwise exist. Because the latter human being will never exist unless you choose the childbirth alternative, you are under no obligation to bring about his or her existence: no one is wronged if you make the other choice, for there is no one to be wronged. (The celibate wrong no one by not procreating.) But you seek to make the choice which will make your own life the best life for you to have led. How will you choose? The choice is, I hope, obvious. You must choose the second alternative.” [Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, 1998), 248.]
  • Being of use to those in need is good

      Helping and being of use to others in need is good.1 This is relevant because we are of most use to others when others most need our help (emotionally and physically), and others most need our help in the midst of suffering or a real danger of it.

      1. Being of use to those in need is good for multiple reasons:
        a) It's good for the helper: See Acts 20:35 -- “you must help the weak and remember… that He [Jesus] Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
        It's intrinsically good for the helper:
        Richard Swinburne (Philosophy professor at Oxford): “That helping is an immense good for the helper … is especially hard for twentieth-century secularized Western man to see. … It would have been our misfortune if there had been no starving to whom to give; life would have been worse for us” [Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, 1998), 107.]

        It's eternally good for feeling important/useful:
        Robin Collins (Philosophy professor at Messiah College): “Many people have a great desire to contribute positively to the world and only feel satisfied with their lives if they have made significant contributions; they gain great satisfaction from having contributed, even to the extent of thinking that their life was worthwhile even if they endured more suffering than happiness. Often this sense of value goes beyond the value of the contribution itself, but crucially involves a perceived value of having been the means by which the contribution occurred; thus, for instance, if God directly provided for the welfare of others, this value would be lost. The CBT [Connection-Building Theodicy] claims that this value does not merely end with the actual act of contribution, but continues as an ongoing reality into the future–assuming that we will eventually become fully aware of our contributions to others, as this theodicy hypothesizes. Since contributing to the welfare of another often produces a sense of an intimate interconnection between contributor and recipient (e.g., each becomes a ‘part’ of the other’s life),” [“The Connection Building Theodicy” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)]

        It's good for the helper's virtue-building: The helper is better off in character as a result of opportunities to help those in great need.

        b) It's good for the world (i.e. makes for a better world).
        Intimate bonds formed through helping those in need make for a better world.
        —Honorable acts of heroism, etc. make for a better world.
        —True evil-conquering stories make for a better world.
  • Appreciating heaven (no suffering) is good

      Appreciating (or more appreciating) the absence and elimination of evil and suffering is a great good (especially in the context of eternity).1 This is relevant because we can only become acquainted as we are with suffering and its elimination if such suffering occurs.2

      Justin McBryer: “And there is something plausible about the principle: it is very hard to see how we would ever fully appreciate health without illness, wealth without poverty, love without hate.” [“Counterpart and Appreciation Theodicies,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2013), 202.]

      1. It's a great good for the appreciator, particularly in his quality of life. Insofar as this is an eternal life, the good of better appreciating the absence of evil and suffering is arguably unmatchable.
      2. At the most extreme, it has been suggested that we would not even have the concept of suffering:
        J.L. Mackie (Philosophy professor at Sydney etc.): “…if everything were red we should not notice redness, and so we should have no word for “red”; we observe and give names to qualities only if they have real opposites.” [“Evil and Omnipotence”, in Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 64 (1955): 205.]
        On the other hand, some have suggested that God could ensure we become fully acquainted with suffering through art, literature, or mere dreams.
        Peter van Inwagen (Philosophy professor at Notre Dame): “An omnipotent being could, for example, so arrange matters that at a certain point in each person's life—for a few years during his adolescence, say—that person have very vivid nightmares in which he is a prisoner in a concentration camp or dies of some horrible disease or watches his loved ones being raped and murdered by soldiers bent on ethnic cleansing. ... And it is indisputable that a world in which horrible things occurred only in nightmares would be better than a world in which the same horrible things occurred in reality,” [The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), 69.]
        Michael Martin (Philosophy professor at Boston): “If God is all-powerful, it would seem that He could create us in such a way that we could appreciate and understand good to a high degree without actually experiencing evil. . . . God could have created all humans with a high degree of empathetic ability. God has already created some humans with the ability to produce imaginative art and literature that depicts evil. By viewing art and reading literature about evil, people created with highly sensitive empathetic ability could empathetically experience what is depicted and thus learn to appreciate good without experiencing evil.” [1990, 450.]
        By way of response, however, these experiences are still sufferings, and to the degree that they are not, they could not yield full appreciation.
        Justin McBryer: “In a world in which we dealt with illness only in our dreams or in literature, it seems unlikely that we would fully appreciate the fact that we were healthy.” [“Counterpart and Appreciation Theodicies,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2013), 202.]
  • TOGGLE MENU