A reader tells us why God allows suffering

May 20, 2022 • 7:30 am

I love the amateurs who engage in theodicy, though, to be sure, they don’t give palpably worse explanations for earthly suffering than do the Sophisticated Theologians®

Reader “Travis”, a true believer, attempted to put this comment on my May 4 post, “Why should nonbelievers pray and go to church?

The “solution” to the “problem of evil” (at least in the sense of unjust suffering), by my thinking, is this:At the end of the proverbial day all suffering will either be the just punishment  of those who reject God or will be suffering which those who love God will be grateful to have suffered for the accomplishment of God’s good purposes.

Note several things, not least the assurance with which Travis claims to understand God’s plan.  Also, this explanation fails to explain important aspects of suffering, like why infants who die of cancer or other afflictions—before they even know about God and therefore can’t love him—nevertheless suffer.  Further, who would be grateful for earthly suffering, unless that suffering is somehow a prerequisite to being with God?

And what about the suffering of people who accept God, like (honorable) priests, rabbis, and imams? They certainly don’t reject God!

The fact remains, and nobody can explain it, is that there is a huge amount of gratuitous suffering on this planet that God could have prevented had he chosen to, and the explanation above says nothing about suffering as the price of having “free will.” (That explanation, as readers have noted, makes little sense, and at any rate doesn’t explain physical evil: stuff not resulting from human action but from diseases, microbes, or catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis.)

Reply to Travis (politely), if you wish, and I’ll inform him/her of the thread.


56 thoughts on “A reader tells us why God allows suffering

  1. Why is punishment just because one doesn’t believe in God, which is presumably what Travis means by ‘reject’? Why should I be punished for sincerely not believing in God, which surely is no different to the sincerity Travis has in his belief?

  2. Perhaps entirely wrong of me, but I do find it hard to take seriously someone called Travis. But I shall try to answer seriously. If a wrongdoer suffers just punishment and a good Christian suffers also, but in the service of God’s ends, then both have suffered equally, yet are very different people, who have led dissimilar lives with different motivations. This would suggest that Travis’s God has no sense of justice or fairness. And here was I, given to understand that He was supposed to be the ultimate judge and administrator of true justice? Another one of those mysteries, I suppose.

    1. See how no matter what, Travis’ form of theodicy is affirmed. No evidence will undermine his … thesis, and that is not the frame of mind to have if one seeks to approach the truth.

  3. The most disturbing thing lurking under the murky waters of the explanations provided by the god addled to rationalize the horrific behaviour of their invisible friend is how little empathy they seem to have for their fellow humans, blithely consigning multitudes of innocents to terrible suffering and death while actual monsters, many arrayed in priestly garb, go scot free.

    1. “… is how little empathy they seem to have for their fellow humans …”

      That’s how it looks, sure.

      But I think there is a intimidation at work, from religion – and a remaining exasperation that one is impotent to stop these terrible things.

      What do we do? We can’t simply in the moment stop a host of things that we’d like to. Certainly, in antiquity, there was very little depth of understanding to life, such that confidence in the available tools that take a long time – such as research, medicine, etc .? – that everything probably seemed always in the moment, for a reason.

      So I (I’m not suggesting anyone is) do not _blame_ Travis, here – I do not _accuse_ him of being an empathy-less villain.

      Nevertheless, Travis has some thinking to do.

    2. I have a darker take than just a lack of empathy.

      These are just mean people enjoying their meanness.

      Imagine being a sadistic pig. Not a very pleasant thing to have to face about yourself, so you want to find a way to rationalize it. Along comes Christianity, which tells you that not only are you NOT a sadistic pig, but you are a loving human being who wants to see people suffer so that they will come to Jeebus and then have eternal life.

      People who are not basically mean see meanness as some kind of character flaw because they can’t relate to it, and think that mean people are being mean out of unhappiness. Yes, those people do exist, and some of them find a way to grow beyond that.

      But the fact is that there are mean people who see their meanness as strength. There are many who actively enjoy being mean, and don’t see it as a problem. There are a lot more of them than we’d like to believe.

      Christianity attracts mean people because it gives them a way to rationalize. I like the Adam Serwer quote about their cruelty, that the cruelty is the POINT.


      1. “But the fact is that there are mean people who see their meanness as strength. There are many who actively enjoy being mean, and don’t see it as a problem. There are a lot more of them than we’d like to believe.”

        One of these “mean is strength” people was POTUS for 4-years and still heads the Republican Party. And we know that millions of MAGAs worship him. Trump created a cult of mean. And it’s no coincidence that the majority in his cult are religious.

        1. Twenty-eight states in this country have religious exemptions to child-abuse laws.

          If Christianity were not inherently violent, why would those people need exemptions?


          1. ” He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

            — Proverbs 13:24

            Chalk it up as another thing religion poisons.

  4. To quote Sam Harris: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

  5. …though, to be sure, they don’t give palpably worse explanations for earthly suffering than do the Sophisticated Theologians.

    Right. The progress theologians have made on the issue is well summarized here.

  6. Yeah, the psychology is thick and calcified in this one. To explain it – the mind reels.

    I wrote three paragraphs just now and deleted it.

    Long story short, Bible stories offer some insight to this big ball of nothing. They get really into suffering and death. It is damn weird, by modern lights.

    So good for Travis. We do not have a simple answer for you – but neither do we owe anyone an answer, and you don’t either.

    Like Sean Maguire ( Robin Williams ) said to Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in the movie Good Will Hunting :

    “It’s not your fault.”
    “It’s not your fault.”
    “It’s not your fault.”
    “It’s not your fault.”

    1. Want to add :

      My readings of Bible stories – not original in detail but the same stories – suggest God is never in detail – he is always a voice, an idea, or the destruction of a town is evidence of god.

      As such, the reader begins to visualize and internalize god as their own customized god – I wonder if the tendency is to impute everything one thinks is good, everything one is missing in their life, into god.

      As such, god becomes entangled in one’s own mind – hard to get rid of.

  7. To quote Sam Harris: “either god can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God ie either impotent, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.”

  8. If God exists and loves us so much and wants us to be with him, why didn’t God just create us with him and forego this charade of a world full of suffering? If he loves us why does he see the need to torture us or test us? I have no desire to spend an eternity with an entity who would treat me that way. But I do not even worry about that, because this line of discussion just lends more support to the conclusion that the God of the bible does not exist.

    1. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” — Shakespeare, King Lear (4.1)

  9. At the end of the proverbial day …

    Days are “proverbial”? Pretty sure they’re based on one full rotation of the earth on its axis.

  10. Travis,
    Please consider having more empathy towards the suffering of your fellow humans. To imply that the Holocaust, cancer, earthquakes and other similar suffering must be deserved is to be unfeeling towards the pain of others.

    I’m not asking you to give up your religion. I’m asking you to consider that your answer to the theodicy problem is probably not correct, since it implies such people must be ‘deserving what they get,’ when that is both facially wrong and incredibly callous. An “I don’t know” or “its inexplicable to me” is surely better than “that five year old Hindu cancer patient deserves it.”

    1. Maybe someone could help. I remember having read an article several years ago, and can’t track it down. It was a thought experiment written from the perspective of a monotheist who believes in – and worships – an evil god. He was trying to resolve the dilemma as to why god allowed good and happiness in the world (‘the Problem of Good’). Can anyone find and post the link? Thanks!

  11. Here is a summary of Travis’ explanation: God exists. Suffering exists. Therefore, suffering is part of God’s Will. Blessed Be the Lord! Thy Ways are Great and Mysterious!

    Such circular “logic” clears up the question for believers. It leaves the rest of us shaking our heads. Until we get angry.

    I am live and let live if people want to believe this stuff. But that is not where many of these folks stop- they want to embed their beliefs into the law of the land, controlling our bodies, our life choices, and mis-educating youth in public schools. They want to embed superstition- something I believe promotes needless fear and bad decision making- into our political and intellectual culture. The nonsense is dangerous.

  12. If we are living in a simulation, is God part of the simulation or the simulator? Thankfully, we don’t have to answer this question because God doesn’t exist.

    1. Sometimes I struggle with the question of whether there are zero gods numerically, or a null set of gods logically, insofar as godhood itself is an unclear and rhetorically useless concept. The simulation hypothesis adds an extra annoying layer of complexity; presumably, humans this century could program a simulation that includes a well-defined god (probably not omnibenevolent) who then creates a pocket universe or sub-simulation with human-like entities. That spins us into Clarke’s Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.) and Star Trek aliens-as-gods scenarios. This is why I wish bookstores filed ‘Religion’ under ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’.

      1. “This is why I wish bookstores filed ‘Religion’ under ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’.”

        It isn’t? I guess I don’t ever go to the bookstore looking to learn about religion. 😉

  13. In “The Enemy Of God” (1996) by Bernard Cornwell, the author examines this question through the story of the legend Arthur – he of “The Round Table” and “Camelot”. It’s fascinating! The tale takes place around 495AC. The Christian explanation/rationale for mass murder and evil is mind blowing. Furthermore it appears that in the subsequent 1527 years – not much has changed.

    1. Furthermore it appears that in the subsequent 1527 years – not much has changed.

      The book was written in 1996. Does Cornwell claim that the Christian attitudes he describes in it are authentic to the fifth century? Or is he projecting more modern views onto the period to make a good story?

      That’s a serious question: I know he tries to make the Sharpe books as historically accurate as he can within the constraints of producing a good novel, but I haven’t read any of his Arthurian books.

  14. “… all suffering will either be the just punishment of those who reject God or will be suffering which those who love God will be grateful to have suffered for the accomplishment of God’s good purposes”

    The above statement is an attempt to come to terms with death.

    An all-powerful god would not need to require suffering. But I often hear Christians contort themselves into another mess by saying that we have limited capacity to understand why god would need us to suffer for his plan. Therefore, the explanation is that WE are NOT all-knowing. The issue is us, not god. An all-knowing god can make us suffer for his perfect plan. Gunmen murdering children? Rape? Cancer? All part of god’s all-knowing plan for the world. But then somehow god evades the blame for these things because, in his all-knowing plan, he’s either not responsible (we are just too dumb to see it) or these things aren’t suffering when viewed as part of the “plan.”

    There is some truth in this thinking. It’s true that stepping on ants and thousands being covered alive by ash in Pompeii are equally meaninglessly part of some “plan”: Both are bad luck and determined. Once dead neither we nor the ants will dwell on the injustice. The sense that there is “plan” for the universe is merely the latent understanding that there is no god, that our ultimate destiny is death. We are in this alone, like the ants. Coming to terms with this is one of the most powerful arguments for reducing suffering in the world. It’s on us to learn how to recognize volcanoes and when they might erupt. Unlike the ants, we can try to avoid being stepped on and senselessly burnt to death. We have this one life to live. The game is to get ourselves and others out of harm’s way as much as we can until we no longer know anything: until we are dead. Not knowing anything is a lot like knowing everything. Theodicy boils down to a half-cooked recognition of the certainty of death: the “plan” we are destined for. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). This statement is only true when the ultimate “plan” is accepted: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving death that takes us all.

  15. He/She needs to call into Matt Dillahunty’s podcast (The Atheist Experience) when it’s live on Sunday afternoons and get the real scoop.

  16. Has anyone ever explained why animals suffer? Right now, countless animals around the world are being eaten alive by other animals and suffering horribly. How does this fit in with God’s plan?

    1. Yeah, is he on the side of the gazelle or the cheetah? The giraffe or the lion? The ichneumon or the caterpillar? The rat or the cat? The salamander or the bullfrog? (www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvBi5Wv8-qg )(I left out the https:// in order not to embed).
      As the GOAT footballer ever (IMMO), Johan Cruyff noted: “In Spain all 22 players make the sign of the cross before they enter the pitch. If it works all matches must therefore end in a draw.”

  17. The problem of theodicy is a contrived problem for it is founded on a notion of god which is ill founded anyway. We can make all kinds of silly problems for ourselves; the theodicy problem seems to be a popular one.

  18. As I have mentioned before, the 13th century Cathars had a perfectly logical solution to the theodicy problem. Their views was that God was omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, all right, but just not in this sphere. These o, o, and b qualities are manifested in His sphere somewhere beyond the sky, while down here the man in charge is Satan. Pope Innocent III (who served as Vice Provost for DEI in those days) thought the Cathar theory was offensive and might make people feel unsafe. So he took measures to deal with it.

  19. I’ve never understood why God should care if I believe in him or not. Maybe I’m just sincerely mistaken. How does that make me worthy of punishment?

  20. Jerry posted a great clip of George Carlin a week or two ago. There’s a particular passage in that video which reveals the (il)logic of Travis’s thinking better than any theologian ever could:

    Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want You to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time……….


    That’s how much sense your views on suffering make, Travis.

  21. Having interacted/debated with countless Christians over the years….

    It really is little more than a larger cult in terms of the reasoning. Just as a cult member will bend over backwards to ignore or justify the cult leader’s obvious human characteristics and exposed depravities, the Christian does the same for their bible’s God. It’s like trying to interact with Ted Bundy’s groupies. You point out all the women Bundy killed; the groupies emphasize things like “but look at these flowers and sweet notes Ted sent ME. He makes me feel so loved!”

    I was listening to a podcast recently where an evangelical Christian was explaining why he is called to “save souls” and try to spread God’s word. He, like many of his fellow Christians, saw it as his responsibility to proselytize so as to save people from missing out on heaven and going instead to eternal torment.

    It never seems to cross their mind how utterly irrational it would be for a God who purportedly cares about the eternal fate of all his creation, to leave the job to fallible human beings, and the absolute crap-shoot that entails for soul-saving. For any non-believer, being sold on Christianity will depend very much on the character and proselytizing capabilities of any fallible Christian they encounter!

    One person encounters a William L. Craig, another encounters “Fred” who can’t make a coherent argument at all for Christianity, someone else is buggered by their Priest as their introduction to God’s representatives…

    And then of course…all those people through time who were never even in a position to hear “The Good News.”

    No matter what angle you look at it, in any sort of expanded picture, Christianity is insane.

  22. I assume that God allows suffering because to mitigate it would reveal His Presence, and that cannot be allowed. To God, credulity is the highest virtue. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.

    1. Yes, rather like the dilemma faced in WW2 by Allied military planners: use the intel from decoded Enigma messages to prevent their own casualties, or don’t, to prevent the Germans realizing Enigma had been cracked. Note how extending the metaphor to a deity requires it and humanity to be enemies, in which the modes of interaction are either assault or deception.

  23. The most parsimonious explanation is that there is no benevolent and omnipotent God, no God at all.
    As many have pointed out above, there is nom simple dichotomy between sinners being punished and righteous suffering the same punishment relishing later.
    – God is omnipotent, but not really interested, the aloof, callous God. Not malevolent, just ot interested This comes close to the Deistic position,
    – God is benevolent but not omnipotent, powerless. The kind of God that you would not be asking for company in eg. a war.
    – God is positively -whether omnipotent or not, positively malevolent. I think most religious wold eschew that view.
    – There are many Gods, with varying degrees of power and benevolence, The Abrahamic religions have reduced this to two: a benevolent God and a malevolent Satan. a
    And there are. of course some even more arcane possibilities.
    but I would seriously consider the most parsimonious solution: there is no God other than between our ears.

  24. The precise nature of the “suffering” is peculiar.

    At first, it is “unjust”. OK, then later, just general suffering, from god downwards. OKaayy..

    So – I get the story how “Jesus suffered” for us, that we must suffer sometimes to make it to an ostensibly good point. Perhaps exercise->diffuculty->health, or more seriously and complex, war-> suffer->peace.

    Well then how about “giving up” things for Lent? Is that suffering? Maybe not, but how about hammering my thumb with a hammer – does that count?

    Because if really, truly, what is generally accepted as “suffering” is provably shown to improve everyone else’s livelihood, I’d have to consider it! Everyone would have to! Maybe stubbing my toe every Thursday. Putting cash in the church collection plate every Sunday. Making women bear children they cannot support. Etc. What suffering, precisely, counts, and how would we know it?

    And “suffering” is not selflessness – selflessness is a very difficult endeavor!

  25. God’s Will is suspiciously indistinguishable from the random occurrence of events, regardless of their effects on humans.

  26. This description of gods’ motivation Travis sounds suspiciously like a dismissal of earthly beings in one broad sweep.
    It’s a flowery worded middle finger with a chuckle at a believer’s expense by the saps who wrote it. I’d add, to smother yourself under it is the greater self-inflicted suffering going on here… what’s worse is you don’t know it and probably never will.

  27. Travis. I was sexually abused as a child by my pious Sunday school teacher. I am still suffering from that. I had no opportunity to exercise my own free will, yet he did and I am the one suffering. Where was god, he could have called 000 or given the guy a heart attack or stopped him from being a pedophile in the first place. But he didn’t. Your god and belief in evil as part of his plan is morally and intellectually bankrupt

  28. Christians are quick to praise God when they survive a disaster, recover from a dreadful disease, or are delivered from a violent threat, because they know the obvious meaning of being cared for. They abandon, however, this understanding as soon as they experience natural or human evil. They thank God for his mysterious purpose in extreme suffering or death. I remember watching a local news report regarding a neighborhood of 300 homes that had burned down. The on site reporter was interviewing a family whose house had been “miraculously” spared. In the background you could see the houses in the immediate vicinity that had not been “spared”, with people picking through the ruins and crying. Hearing the family praise God for their (capricious) good fortune was sickening.

  29. 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami:
    “Communities along the surrounding coasts of the Indian Ocean were devastated, and the tsunamis killed an estimated 227,898 people in 14 countries, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.” Approximately, one-third of the victims were children, many ripped from their parents hands.

    1. I’m not even sure that tsunamis were known to residents of the middle east regions where the stories of the bible were developed.

      There’s the “parting of the Red Sea”, explained by plate tectonics, but that is not a tsunami.

      My question is : which natural disasters were known to writers of the bible? Not anything of maritime nature, I think.

  30. Sophisticated Theologians’ arguments often end up with an abstract, philosopher’s God that contradicts the picture of God presented by Jesus or reasonably assumed by ordinary human beings when they speak of love. Jesus taught that his heavenly father cares for people (or at least Jesus’ followers) just as he feeds “the birds of the air” and nurtures “the flowers of the field.” (Matthew 6:25-34) Yet, we know that birds starve, are preyed upon, smash into windows, and are infected with parasites. Flowers are consumed by insects and burn in wildfires. Christians pray because they believe God will intervene on their behalf. But given the theodicies, supplicants can never be confident they will get the protection they long for.

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