If God Exists, Why is There so Much Suffering?

Just the other night my 1.5 year old daughter must have suffered the worst teething pains imaginable. She was completely inconsolable, kicking and screaming if anything so much as touched her. And this is just my story. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 crushed or burned to death roughly 50,000 people. All across human history, people have suffered and died from debilitating diseases, natural disasters, and at the hands of other people. A natural question arises: if God exists, why is there so much suffering? Most of it seems pointless.

God is traditionally defined as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But if God is all-powerful, then surely He has the power to prevent pointless suffering. If God is all-knowing, He knows, infallibly, when suffering will occur. And if God is all-good, He will protect His children from pain and suffering (as any loving parent does). So, why is there so much suffering?

Skeptical Theism

Theists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) have been wrestling with the question for millennia. A very popular response [1] is “Skeptical Theism”. Perhaps God has a reason for permitting the suffering in the world, but this reason is beyond our comprehension. We are limited in knowledge and intelligence. Anything that would justify the degree of suffering in the world must be incredibly complex. So perhaps there is a reason for the horrible suffering in the world, but, given its complexity, we can’t even comprehend it.

Some atheists try to turn this question into an argument against God’s existence. The skeptical theist responds by saying, “Our inability to think of a reason God might have for allowing the suffering in the world, doesn’t give us any reason at all to suppose there is no reason.” In other words, not seeing a reason God might have for permitting the suffering in the world doesn’t support the claim God couldn’t have a reason [2].

Soul-Building Theodicy

Perhaps you are not satisfied with the skeptical theist response. It seems too much like a cop-out. You still want to see a reason. Fair enough. Theists have been offering theodicies, reasons God has for permitting the suffering in the world, for a very long time. In what follows I will briefly lay out one such reason, though there are many more on offer [3]. This is called the Soul-Building Theodicy.

The basic idea is that suffering is necessary to achieve the best goods. And since we’ve already granted that God is all-knowing, He is going to know that which is best. So what are the best goods? Here it will help to consider some examples. Consider the case of Saint Damien of Moloka’i. He spent 16 years in the Hawaiian islands serving lepers before succumbing to the disease himself. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Next, consider Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe. He was eventually taken to Auschwitz by the Germans for sheltering thousands of Jews. While in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take the place of a man being lead to his death in a pit through starvation [4]. Look these men up if you have never heard of them, incredibly inspiring.

The goods represented in these examples are love-manifesting virtues. The participation of suffering in their lives was integral to the production of virtues, like self-sacrifice, courage, empathy, and so on. They did not wish away their suffering; they embraced it. In this way, their suffering was defeated. We often say things like, “The past made me what I am today.” Suffering builds character; it makes us who we are.

What about those that die prematurely and aren’t able to recognize the value of suffering? The answer is that the Christian story entails an afterlife. It is in the afterlife that most come to recognize what the men in the examples above recognized. One shouldn’t wish away trials, for they build character. They make us more like Christ. If the problem of suffering can be defeated in the afterlife, we’ve thus reached the complete defeat of evil and suffering and the problem disappears.

There is obviously much more to say on the subject. However, I hope this has at least opened the aperture of your mind. Even if we can’t think of a reason God might have for permitting the suffering in the world, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Moreover, suffering builds character. Courage, compassion, empathy, perseverance, etc., cannot be produced in the absence of significant trials.


[1] The response is popular in the literature (see Bergmann, Hudson, et al).

[2] Skeptical Theism is not without serious criticism. Many (including theists, like Dougherty) argue that skeptical theism entails global skepticism (skepticism about all of ones beliefs, including the commonsense belief that I have hands). This is sort of where the debate currently sits: whether or not Skeptical Theism entails global skepticism. I currently lean toward no; the theist that holds skeptical theism can be rational and warranted in holding commonsense beliefs.

[3] This is one I personally find plausible, mostly due to Dougherty’s book The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small. There are, however, other theodicies I find plausible. Most notably the Free Will Defense and Supralapsarianism.

[4] “According to an eye witness, an assistant janitor at that time, in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer to Our Lady. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. “The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection.”

About the Featured Image

Another shot of the inside of St. Peters Basilica. Pictures simply cannot do it justice. I tend to forget, despite how big that place is, no one is really allowed to talk. All one hears is the shuffling of hundreds of footsteps.
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1 comment

  1. I love this post. Mainly because I feel like this is one of the main reasons people give to “not believe in God”. I think we all have heard someone say at some point “if there is a God then why do bad things happen to good people”. I actually am looking forward to the next time I hear someone say that so that I can send them the link to this post, haha!

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