God and Suffering

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Aug 18, 2014

Isn't human suffering proof that a just, all-powerful God must not exist? On the contrary, says Boston College Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft. How can "suffering" exist without an objective standard against which to judge it? Absent a standard, there is no justice. If there is no justice, there is no injustice. And if there is no injustice, there is no suffering. On the other hand, if justice exists, God exists. In five minutes, learn more.

Without God, objective morality—the idea of right and wrong—crumbles.

  • Objective moral values are rooted in a moral lawgiver—God. Without an objective standard, there is no such thing as true justice or objective meaning.View Source
  • Without God, moral sentiments are mere evolutionary adaptations and subjective opinions.View Source
  • WATCH: Prof. Peter Kreeft on God and suffering.View Source
  • Related reading: Evil and the Justice of God - N.T. WrightView Source
  • Related reading: Making Sense Out of Suffering - Peter KreeftView Source
  • Related reading: God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason – Thomas V. MorrisView Source

People doing evil does not disprove God’s existence. It just proves that humans have free will.  

  • Theologians and philosophers have long wrestled with the “logical problem of evil”: If God is perfectly good, how can He create or allow evil?View Source
  • One answer: Evil done by humans stems from free will, through which God gives man the freedom to choose between good and evil.View Source
  • WATCH: Prof. Peter Kreeft on God and suffering.View Source
  • Related reading: Making Sense Out of Suffering - Peter KreeftView Source
  • Related reading: The Problem of Pain - C.S. LewisView Source
  • Related reading: Evil and the Justice of God - N.T. WrightView Source

If you say there’s such a thing as good and evil, you’re also saying there’s a God. 

  • If God does not exist, morality is just a human convention, as subjective as any other opinion. Without an absolute standard there is no basis for calling an act “evil” or “wrong.”View Source
  • WATCH: Prof. Peter Kreeft on God and suffering.View Source
  • Related reading: The Problem of Pain - C.S. LewisView Source
  • Related reading: Making Sense Out of Suffering - Peter KreeftView Source
  • Related reading: God, Freedom, and Evil - Alvin PlantingaView Source

Without God, morality is just a personal opinion—as subjective as what your favorite flavor ice cream is. 

  • If God does not exist, morality is just a human convention, as subjective as any other opinion. Without an absolute standard, there is no basis for calling an act “evil” or “wrong.”View Source
  • WATCH: Prof. Peter Kreeft on God and suffering.View Source
  • Related reading: God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason – Thomas V. MorrisView Source
  • Related reading: Love Is Stronger Than Death - Peter KreeftView Source
  • Related reading: Evil and the Justice of God - N.T. WrightView Source

All good people are appalled by the sufferings of the innocent. When an innocent person is struck by a painful disease, or tortured or murdered, we naturally feel sadness, helplessness, and often rage.

Many people have claimed that such suffering is a proof that God does not exist. Their argument goes like this:

God is all good and all powerful. Such a God would not permit unnecessary suffering. Yet, we constantly observe unjust suffering. Therefore, at least one of the premises about God must be false. Either God is not all good or He is not powerful. Or He just doesn’t exist.

What’s wrong with this argument?

First, let’s examine what we mean when we say that God would not permit unjust suffering.

There are two categories of suffering: Suffering caused by human beings, which we call moral evils, and suffering caused by nature, for instance earthquakes or cancer. 

Free will explains how God could be good and allow moral evil. Because God has given people free will, they are free to behave against God’s will. The fact that they do evil does not prove that God is not good. 

In addition, if there were no God, there would be no absolute standard of good. Every judgment presupposes a standard.  And that’s true of  our moral judgments, too. What is our standard for judging evil to be evil? The most we could say about evil -- if there were no God -- was that we, in our subjective taste, didn’t like it when people did certain things to other people. We wouldn’t have a basis for saying an act was ‘bad’, only that we didn’t like it. So the problem of human evil exists only if God exists.

As for natural suffering, that poses what appears to be a more difficult question.

We see an innocent child suffer, say from an incurable disease. We complain. Understandable. We don’t like it. Understandable. We feel it is wrong, unfair, and shouldn’t happen. Understandable, but illogical, unless you believe in God!

For, if you do not believe in God, your subjective feelings are the only basis upon which you can object to natural suffering. OK, you don’t like it. But how is your not liking something evidence for God not existing? Think about it. It’s just the opposite. Our judgments of good and evil, natural as well as human, presuppose God as the standard. If there’s no God, there’s neither good nor evil. There’s just nature doing what it does. 

If nature is all there is, there is absolutely no need to explain why one person suffers and another doesn’t. Unjust suffering is a problem only because we have a sense of what is just and unjust.  But where does this sense come from? Certainly, not from Nature. There’s nothing just about nature. Nature is only about survival. 

What, in other words, does it mean for suffering to be ‘unnecessary or wrong?’ How is that determined? Against what standard? Your private standard means nothing. My private standard means nothing. We can talk meaningfully about suffering being ‘unnecessary’ or wrong only if we have an underlying belief that a standard of right and wrong objectively exists. And if that standard really exists, that means there is a God.

Moreover, the believer in God has an incomparably easier time than the atheist psychologically as well as logically in dealing with the problem of natural suffering.

If you accept that a good God exists, it is possible to also believe that this God somehow sets things right, if not in this world, then in the next. 

For the atheist, on the other hand, no suffering is ever set right. There is no ultimate justice. The bad win and the good suffer. Earthquakes and cancer kill. End of story. Literally.

If nature is all there is, how can a sensitive person remain sane in a world in which tsunamis wipe out whole towns, evil men torture and murder innocent victims, and disease attacks people indiscriminately? The answer is: it’s not possible. 

Is that how you want to live?

I’m Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, for Prager University.

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