Concerning the Question of Evil and the Problem of Suffering

To me there are three kinds of atheists, in a broad sense. First there are the lazy ones who simply want little certainty. The trouble with certainty is that, once it is manifest, you have to take a position. They prefer the vague and uncertain. Then no commitments are necessary and life can be pretty well lived as I see fit. If there is no God then I am god. I will do what I want to do and I will decide what is right and wrong. This is the lazy atheist.  They have little reason for their unbelief other than as a premise for doing what they please.

The second kind of atheist is the “intellectual” atheist who claims that there is no proof for the existence of God. They tend to be materialists  in that everything that is real to them must be physical, touchable and physically observable and measurable. Science, which is the study of the physical and measurable is therefore (for them) just about the only validator of truth. Thus when they claim that there is no evidence for God they usually mean scientific evidence. It seems to me that they live in a rather narrowly described world as the though the physical was all that was real. Even what most of us call spiritual, concepts like love, justice, appreciation of beauty, longing, conscience, desire. These too get reduced by them to phenomena of the brain, brain mapping, anthropological archetypes and the like.  But alas, their time may be running short as modern science and physics keep bumping up against and blurring the line between physics and metaphysics. Quantum isn’t as “clean” in its distinctions and is moving the discussion in very new directions. This second sort of atheist may be walking with his science into terra incognita very soon.

And then there is the troubled and dare I say, “thoughtful” atheist who does truly struggle with some aspect of God or religion and this struggle leaves them unsatisfied. All the answers of scripture and organized religions to their questions are somehow inadequate. The biggest single issue is the “problem of evil.” If there is a God who is omnipotent  and omniscient how can he tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent?  Where is God when a young girl is raped, when genocide is committed, when evil men hatch their plots? Why Did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?

The problem of evil cannot be simply answered. It is a mystery. It’s purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. The scriptures say  how “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes.” But how this is so is difficult for us to see in many circumstances. Anyone who have ever suffered tragic and senseless loss or observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask,  why? And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many for suffering is ultimately mysterious in many ways.

I have some respect for atheists of this third sort. I do not share their struggle but I understand and respect its depths and the dignity of the question. At the end of the trail of questions, often asked in anguish,  is God who has not chosen to supply simple answers. Perhaps if he were our simple minds could not comprehend them anyway. We are left simply to decide, often in the face of great evil and puzzling suffering, that God exists or not.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but little is forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind and He questions Job’s ability to even ask the right questions let alone venture and answer to the problem and presence of evil and suffering. In the end he is God and we are not. This must be enough and we must look to the reward that awaits the faithful with trust.

The final and most perplexing aspect of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America we suffer little in comparison to many other parts of the world. Further, even here, some skate through life strong and sleek, wealthy and well fed. Others suffering crippling disease, inexplicable and sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. It is a true fact that a lot of our suffering comes from bad choices, substance abuse and lack of self-control. But some suffering seems unrelated to any of this. And the most difficult suffering to accept is that caused  on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no penalty. Parents who mistreat or neglect their children, the poor who are exploited and used, caught in schemes others have made, perhaps it is corrupt governments, perhaps unscrupulous industries.

Suffering is hard to explain or accept simply. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. Perhaps when interacting with an atheist of this third kind, sympathy, understanding and a call to humility goes farther than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. Note,  these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Though we only get a brief glimpse of it, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of the garden.
  2. But even there the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and EVIL. So even in paradise the mystery of evil  lurked in minimal form.
  3. In a way the tree and the serpent had to be there. For we were made to love. And love requires freedom and freedom requires choices. The Yes of love must permit of the No of sin. In our rebellious “no” both we and the world unravelled, death and chaos entered in. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came  all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, by my reckoning that vast majority of it. Of the suffering caused  by natural phenomenon this too is linked to sin, Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than serve in the real paradise.
  4. This link of evil and suffering to human freedom also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely makes an abstraction of human freedom and thus removes a central pillar of love. But here too there is mystery for the scriptures frequently recount how God does intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, shorten famines and plagues. Why does he sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here too there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job and there God shows an almost shocking  lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit that Job’s faith be tested and strengthened. But in the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings in a kind of foretaste of what is meant by heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ  (1 Peter 1:6-7) In other words, our sufferings purify and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more need more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that a greater glory is waiting for them. For the Scriptures teach  Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison(2 Cor 4:16-17) Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. With this insight, those who suffer more, but with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal wherein many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), where the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exulted, where the rich will go away empty and poor be filled. (Luke 1:52-53) In this sense it is not necessarily an blessing to rich and well fed, unaccustomed to any suffering. For in the great reversal the first will be last. The only chance the rich and well healed have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim:6:17-18).
  9. Finally, as to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering we can only point to Christ who did not exempt himself from the suffering we chose by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.

To these points I am sure you will add. But be careful with the problem of evil and suffering. It has mysterious dimensions which must be respected. Simple answers may not help an atheist of this sort. Understanding and an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with this may be the best way. The “answer” of scripture requires faith but the answer appeals to reason and justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we see only a little. The appeal to humility before a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist of this sort than pat answers which may tend to alienate.

Here is the video which got me thinking all this. I saw it over at Patrick Madrid’s Blog. He posted it as a reason why you shouldn’t let you kids watch MTV. I agree, don’t let them! But the video is a kind of cry to God from an atheist who is struggling with the problem of evil. Not every charge leveled in the video is fair but overall it illustrates well the problem of evil and suffering from an atheist perspective. It is not a view I share, but has one who has struggled alongside with some who have experienced appalling suffering and evil I cannot simply dismiss questions like those asked in this video. Another disclaimer, I have no idea who XTC is and have heard none of his other works.  Posting this video amounts to no endorsement by me of any sort.  It is not an easy video to watch.

31 Replies to “Concerning the Question of Evil and the Problem of Suffering”

  1. I am glad u addressed this issue, many people can’t see God b/c they are blinded by their suffering,

  2. It is not an easy video to watch. No, it isn’t easy to watch, largely because it is an asinine piece of drivel.:)

    If my family were inclined to watch MTV, which we aren’t, my kids would look at that and scoff.

    1. Ah yes, not your cup of tea. I surely don’t agree with its contents but as I stated, I consider the topic of suffering and evil a worthy one over which to struggle. The anger at God in the video shows there is still hope. Simple indifference would be far more alarming.

  3. I was the troubled kind of atheist. I lost my faith when I was 12, when I became aware of the terrible evils in this world (Holocaust, Khmer, caste system atrocities, etc.) and the ones I witnessed closer to home. I cannot express the despair — I cried and cried when I could no longer believe in a God who would allow evil. I’d ask: Where are you? Why don’t you do something? How can you just sit and watch? I got no answers and after a while I stopped asking the questions and stopped praying. It was a terrible loss since I was used to turning to Him for everything. I never felt so alone as I did then because I felt that from that moment on I’d always have to fend for myself. No adults were able to explain things even though my family comes from a very religious background. My mother had such tremendous faith, she could not understand why a child of hers would question the mind of God. I gave her much grief. I was a terribly willful child and perhaps I had to experience this great loss in order to gain it again a hundredfold 30 years later.

    This is one of the reasons I am committed to reaching our children when they ask questions. If I am unable to answer, I will scour the books to help them understand through concrete examples. Yes, it is a mystery and we will not understand it fully until we are with God, but in the meantime parents must help their children grow and deepen their faith. Since our whole family went through RCIA together, we got into the habit of talking and discussing many issues, including the mysterious kind. We have been using some of C.S. Lewis’ books (his apologetics are even better than his Narnia books) to discuss the problem of evil with our children. Your blog is a great resource as well.

    1. THanks for this wonderful story and testimony and for committing to help your children grow in their faith and accept the mysteries that inevitably confront us.

  4. First, another fine post, Father Pope. As for the video, not so bad since it follows your post! Yet, how many of us have been where XTC is when he wrote this song? I don’t know who he is or his other songs but I have ranted and raved at God for something I thought was unfair and unjust. It was a long time ago but what a conversation it was! And you need two to have a conversation. I don’t rant and rave at Him anymore but that night was the beginning of my journey to loving Him. I still don’t understand many, many things but I know God loves me and us. Instead of ranting and raving, I now ask for his help to get through the tough times. Prior to saying the second mystery of the Sorrowful Mysteries, I remeber the phrase “Purity through suffering,” Perhaps XTC will get there one day. Let us pray for him and all who suffer and wonder “Why?”

    1. Yes, you’re right. God wants us to pray out of our anger and hurt. The psalms are filled with laments and struggles, even accusations against God. In a way the psalter takes every human emotion and experience and turns it into prayer.

  5. I commented on this when Patrick Madrid ran it. I love it, even though I am a faithful Catholic. I have felt this way so many times. It finally, for me, came down the the practical matter of not wasting any more energy on an unsolvable problem. Chuang Tsu said, “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.

  6. Throughout my life, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, I have always believed in God. Seldom have I struggled with belief personally, and my struggles were rather easily resolved to my satisfaction. None of the atheistic arguments or objections have really caused me to lose my faith, but they cause me to examine my faith. They make me realize that faith is a great gift, and I tell God often that I am grateful for His blessing. I find living in mystery is acceptable for me. It’s okay with me that I don’t understand everything.

    But, a few people near and dear to me, who were raised Catholic and had a Catholic education have lost their faith, if, indeed, they ever had faith, and that fact saddens me. One who them, now deceased, often asked me to pray for certain intentions, which I did. Yet, I thought it was odd for her not to believe but ask for prayers. I think she wanted to believe, but in all honesty couldn’t. I respected that.

    Your post is helpful the way you categorized the types of atheism. I recognize all of them in the various atheists I know.

    Watching that video was painful—very much so.

    1. Yes, I too am often thankful that my faith has never been a huge struggle. I know others who have struggled mightily to believe. There is something of a mystery here as to why some struggle and others do not.

  7. After reading your article I was reminded of Luke 13:1-9. Jesus tells us that those who perished were not any more evil than those who did not, but they also would perish as they did if they did not repent. He then goes on to explain the parable of a barren fig tree. Jesus seems to be telling us that to bear fruit one needs to repent. Therefore, to the atheists I say, believe what the Church says about ‘sin, righteousness and judgment’ or perish. It seems rather harsh but we come to Jesus and the Father in faith, not through our reasoning. We cannot make up our own spiritual laws to get into the Kingdom of God.

  8. A very thoughtful posting Father. Just a quick bit of info on the song Dear God. The song which you posted is actually by a band called XTC (XTC is not a person). They are a British band and I believe the song came out in 1986. I remember hearing it in highschool and thinking “that’s a dumb song”. I liked the band, but thought that particular song was just more clap trap from musicians who thought they had something clever to say about the existence of God. I consider myself fortunate to have never had any struggles with my belief in God, so perhaps that is why I rarely thought that songs such as Dear God would make people lose their faith. I see now that perhaps such songs could have that effect.

  9. I find it interesting that an article on atheism is written by someone who is obviously NOT an atheist. So how can you really know what atheist’s believe if you are not one?
    I myself am agnostic – while I am not sure if there is a ‘higher power’ – I believe that there is the possibility as just as there may not be enough evidence to support that there is, there also lacks substantial evidence to say that there isn’t…

    1. My reflections are based on personal interactions. I do not claim to represent atheists and make no claim “know what atheists believe” my article is a personal reflection on one aspect of atheism. I hope your agnosticism may one day give way to the certitude of faith. Ultimately, faith is a gift for which you can ask and I pray you will receive that gift.

  10. We suffer with Christ crucified, in order that we may also share in His glory. We must bear our own cross. We cannot attain glory except through the cross. There are no short cuts. To the atheist suffering is simply meaningless. To the faithful, suffering can be offered to God through Christ crucified. In this way suffering has a redemptive meaning. As Christ suffered on that rugged cross, He showed us the Way through his obedience. Christ is Good. Opposite to good is evil, with a “D” added it spells “Devil.” Good is always the primary subject, with evil being the contrary, or opposed to good. Evil by itself is never properly the main subject, only in that through evil is good deprived of its goodness. A deed killed by a cougar is deprived of its life. It is an evil to the deer, but a good for the survival of the cougar. Evil is simply the absence of good. Evil entered into the world through Adam. Thanks be to God for our victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57.
    The atheist in denying God admit to His existence, because how can a person deny something that doesn’t exist. Unbelief is opposed to faith, and according to St. Thomas Aquinas, unbelief is the greatest of all sin.

    1. Thanks for these additions. I am not sure I understand your last point though wherein you wonder how a person can deny something that does not exist. A square circle does not exist. I deny that it exists. How does it then in fact exist due to my denial. At any rate that is my basic puzzlement.

  11. if there is no God there is no Evil. All evil, big and small is a simple product of biochemical reactions within the brain and evolutionary biology.
    An individual, who commits an evil act cannot be responsible for this act as he does not have a free will that would let him decide about a course of action.An atheist should not wonder about evil because it does not exist. Reductive materialism needs to be followed to its logical conclusion.

  12. Interesting, but I think you missed a point that many, and I believe most atheists are those who cannot reconcile their own immorality with the belief in God. Atheism of convenience of lifestyle seems to dominate the culture, especially among the young. It is why, I suspect, that “The God Delusion” is so popular on college campuses.
    The form of dialectical atheism which you seem to be addressing has roots in the post-Shoah Jewish community. Many who suffer fall into this category. They certainly believe in God, but are just angry enough to refuse to acknowledge God. This form of shunning — an ancient Jewish practice — is a painful experience as it isolates people from the very source of their healing. Anger directed at God is certainly a reflection of one’s belief that God exists.

    1. Well I don’t think it is fair to say I missed it. I spent the whole first paragraph on what you describe. I chose however to focus on the last form for stated reason.

  13. First, I appreciate that the problem of suffering is discussed because in the last few days I was seeing a lot of them.And I thanked God that He answered it through you. There are a lot of reasons why problem exists theological , personal and etc. but it how you deal with it that’s important. Without God you’ll end up being with the atheist blaming and disbelieving God. And I agree it is a test of faith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a sixty years dark night of the soul cross but Padre Pio had lots of supernatural and preternatural experiences but still both of them suffered. How can you explain suffering in other aspects. Like how would you feel seeing people suffer living underneath the bridge or in shanty homes then meeting rich people enjoying life uncaring of what happens to other people. Some of them who put these questions in their mind end up being communist rebels here in the philippines.It true in beyond us to explain and understand but I guessed there is suffering if God is not the full sovereign Lord that He ought to be.So while were here in this life we will always suffer and when we suffer but are fully glad that we suffer then I think we reach (with all the credits to God) what God wants us to belong.

  14. Wonderful post. It brought to mind the number of people who have experienced horrific situations to only be confirmed in their faith. How do they do it? Truly blessed. It also reminds me that we can’t possibly know and understand God’s justice. His justice may be generations after the fact but it will be there. I read an Armenian author who wrote that the seeds of faith are “watered” with the blood of Martyrs.

  15. Something to remember about suffering, It is personal to each of us but it is not cumulative.
    The greatest suffering in any tragedy is that which one person suffers.


  16. This article is pretty clueless. I am an Atheist and I fit all 3 “types” of Atheists and so do most others that I know. This article is meant to comfort believers into feeling that they are right and lacks any intellectual grounding.

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