Many Christians are aware of these theodicies but, if asked about the problem of pain, they may well focus their answers on other Christian beliefs.
1. The crucifixion
The central symbol of the Christian religion is the cross, an incredibly cruel device designed to execute criminals over an agonisingly long period of time. Over the last 2000 years this image has provided people with a powerful symbol of suffering. It also often gives people hope in terrible situations. Right at the heart of the Christian religion is a moment of extreme agony and cruelty. The recent film The Passion of the Christ attempted to show the full horror of the suffering endured by Jesus. The film begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah:
‘But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.’15
The crucifixion of Jesus is interpreted in different ways. However, most Christians believe that somehow his suffering gives all humanity hope, no matter what they have to endure on this earth. One of the names given to Jesus was Immanuel (God with us). Many people find great comfort in the belief that the God of Christianity is somehow involved in the suffering of the world.
2. Life after death
Dostoevsky’s novel The Brother’s Karamazov ends with the sad death of a small boy, Ilyushechka. Alyosha oversees the burial and spends time with the boy’s friends, offering them some advice on their future lives:
‘Oh, young children, oh, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good is life, when one does some good and upright thing!’
He then enthusiastically tells the boys that maybe there is another life beyond this one:
‘Karamazov!’ Kolya cried, ‘is it really true what religion says, that we shall rise up from the dead and come to life and see one another again, and everyone, even Ilyushechka?’
‘Without question we shall rise, without question we shall see one another and joyfully tell one another everything that has happened,’ half-laughing, half in ecstasy, Alyosha replied. ‘Oh how good that will be!’ burst from Kolya.
Alyosha, although troubled by his brother Ivan’s rejection of God, never loses his own conviction that God must exist. His firm belief in the afterlife, in a time when all pain and suffering will stop, appears to sustain his faith. If God does exist then at least there is the possibility that there will finally be something better for those who suffer.
Many religious people may want to point out that if God doesn’t exist then suffering is all there is. The child starving to death in an African famine, the mother in an emotional agony as she tries to come to terms with the cruel death of her child, the terminally ill cancer patient, the little girl unsure why her parents are treating her so badly, the soldier about to die on the battle front … If there is no God then some may suggest that there is nothing but despair for those who suffer. For those who believe in God there may be no fully adequate answer to the problem of evil but, like Alyosha says, there is at least hope that one day all the pain and suffering will be over and once again all who have experienced suffering will then experience a new and better existence.
The Biblical writer called St John the Divine expresses this hope clearly in his Book of Revelation.
‘And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away.’16
‘Without belief in God and the possibility of the afterlife there can be no hope for those who suffer.’
Summary – Does evil and suffering show that there is no God?
A theodicy is an attempt to explain why the existence of evil and suffering doesn’t necessarily show that God doesn’t exist.
Most Christian responses to suffering and evil are rooted in the story of Adam and Eve.
The free-will defence explains that suffering results from human choice and action. It is better that humans were created with real freedom to act and think than to have been created like a puppet.
People who believe in God may point out that if God doesn’t exist then there is nothing but despair and hopelessness for those who suffer.
Some people suggest that the Christian idea of the crucifixion gives hope to people who suffer.
Some people suggest that belief in the afterlife means that there is always hope for people, no matter how bad their suffering is.
1. What is a theodicy?
2. Try to write a short explanation of some of the ideas taught in the story of Adam and Eve.
3. Explain in your own words the theodicy known as the free-will defence.
4. St Thomas Aquinas said that humans have fallen short of their true nature.
(a) Try to describe what you think a truly good human being is like.
(b) Try to describe what you think a truly bad human being is like.
(c) Do you agree with Aquinas that humans have fallen short of their true nature? Explain your answer.
5. Look at the following two viewpoints:
(i) ‘Humans were created to be absolutely free. We are who we choose to be.’ This means that sometimes humans freely do good things (leading to happiness) and sometimes freely do bad things (leading to suffering).
(ii) ‘Humans were created to be like puppets. We have no freedom to choose our own destiny. This means that we cannot suffer but nor can we choose our own path in life. Which viewpoint do you prefer? Explain your answer.
6. Do you think that the free-will defence successfully explains why God can still be called omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent? Explain your answer.
7. The Christian cross
(a) Copy the quote that appears at the beginning of the film The Passion of the Christ (Isaiah 53:5)
(b) Why do some people suggest that the crucifixion helps people who are suffering?
8. Belief in life after death
(a) Copy the famous quote from the Bible that often gives hope to people when they suffer (Revelation 21:4).
(b) Why do some people suggest that belief in the afterlife helps people who are suffering?
(c) Do you think that the possibility of life after death means that you can still believe in God and accept the reality of evil and suffering? Explain your answer.
9. As well as the free-will defence there are many other theodicies. The best known ones are known as the defence of:
• moral responsibility
• personal maturity
• strength of character
Try to find out about these ideas and write a short summary note about them. Appendix 3 will get you started.
When you write your notes make sure that you explain whether or not they provide a good defence for the existence of God.
10. Do you think that the existence of evil and suffering means that God doesn’t exist? Explain your answer.
Does God exist?
‘The balance of probabilities, therefore, comes out strongly against the existence of God.’17
J L Mackie
‘Still the question remains whether there is any more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that Elvis lives. Are those who believe in God any better justified? The answer, perhaps, is that they are not.’18
‘The faith position is an altogether more positive and optimistic one than the assertion of meaninglessness. It maintains that although evil is a terrible reality it can be overcome and one of our main tasks as human individuals is to fight against it.’19
‘Were there no other evidence at all, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.’
Sir Isaac Newton
‘I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in the world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity to commit all kinds of sins.’20
Opening line in the novel Hey Nostradamus!
‘Do you not think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years to perfect your world, you could produce better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the fascists?’21
‘There is some force of nature that’s larger than me … it’s the thing that sustains my being, that sustains my life … I call it God.’
Sir Anthony Hopkins
‘I don’t believe in an old man with a grey beard.’
‘In the Southern Ocean, because it’s such a wild open place, you do feel that there’s someone there.’
1. From the foregoing, choose any two quotes that you agree with.
(a) Copy them carefully.
(b) Explain why you agree with them.
2. Choose any two quotes that you disagree with.
(a) Copy them carefully.
(b) Explain why you disagree with them.
3. Do you believe that God exists? Explain your answer in detail.
Make sure that you:
(a) Carefully define God.
(b) Discuss the issues raised in the cosmological argument.
(c) Discuss the issues raised in the teleological argument.
(d) Discuss the issues raised by the problem of evil and suffering.
Aristotle’s four causes
Before you look at Aristotle’s ideas try to think about what they might have been. To help you with this have a look at a picture of the Statue of Liberty. There was obviously a point in history when the statue didn’t exist. In order for it now to exist a number of causes were needed.
Can you identify four separate things (causes) that were needed before the statue could possibly come into existence?
The author Brian Magee uses an example of a marble statue to explain what Aristotle meant when he talked of his four causes.22 In order for a statue to finally exist there must be:
The material cause – Without the existence of marble we could never have a marble statue.
The efficient cause – The marble itself is obviously not the marble statue. For the statue to come into being it needs to have been carved out of a block of marble by a person using a hammer and chisel, and a substantial measure of skill and artistry.
The formal cause – Random hacking at a piece of marble will not make a statue; therefore we need a further cause. To be the thing that it is, the statue needs to take the shape that it does, that of a horse or a man or whatever.
The final cause – The only reason that all the other causes take place is because a sculptor has set out to make a statue in the first place. All three of the other causes have been called into operation in order to realise an intention: the overall reason for the statue’s existence is that it is the fulfilment of a sculptor’s purposes.
Aristotle’s notion of a final cause is the key idea behind the teleological argument. This cause is one which doesn’t push things into effect from behind, but works in advance by drawing things to a goal or an end. The teleological cause of a thing is therefore the goal to which it is drawn. The artist has a painting or a statue in mind and he works at it until he completes the idea that he has in his mind. The goal of the artist is his work of art. The goal that you have been considering in our attempt to try to look for evidence for God is the existence of amazingly complex things within our universe, things that appear to suggest a final cause, or in simple terms things that appear to have been designed. In the same way as the statue is the artist’s work of art, everything that exists, including you, is thought to be God’s work of art.
The anthropic argument
Often people assume that the more scientists discover the less likely it is that they will believe in God. This is not always the case. The universe works because it is ruled by natural laws. Maybe the best known of these is the law of gravity. Scientists tell us that there are many ways that these laws could be set. The chances of them being exactly as they are in our universe are incredibly small. If they were even slightly different then you simply wouldn’t exist. For example, if the law of gravity had only been a little stronger then the universe wouldn’t have got started at all. In fact, it would have lasted only a few seconds. It is really so ridiculously unlikely that the universe should be governed by laws that allow for the accidental creation of intelligent, conscious beings like us that many people say that this is another good reason to believe that God must have deliberately fixed these laws exactly as they are.
Not everyone is convinced by this argument. The simplest response to it has been called the lottery fallacy. The chances of winning the lottery are so ridiculously unlikely that buying a ticket is really rather a silly thing to do. However, someone always wins! The problem you face is that you won’t live long enough to stand a reasonable chance of winning. If you had an infinite amount of time you would win eventually. The same principle applies to the universe. It is extremely unlikely that a finely tuned universe like ours should exist, but, given enough time there is no reason why it shouldn’t. Maybe there have been countless failed universes before, eventually, ours came to exist.
Moral responsibility, personal maturity and strength of character
The traditional free-will defence puts the blame for suffering squarely at the feet of humans and the evil choices we make. This alternative approach implies that God is actually responsible for suffering. The origins of this theodicy began with the early Church Father Ireneus (AD 130–202). In recent years the theologian John Hick followed in the Irenean tradition by suggesting that suffering is a necessary condition for the development of human souls. He argued that human beings were created as imperfect creatures that had to be brought to perfection by a process of development and growth. It is suggested that the natural world with all its dangers and challenges is not the result of the ‘Fall of Man’ so much as a situation designed by God so that humans can grow and develop moral responsibility and personal maturity. The demands and problems of life are an essential part of this process.
Religious believers often argue that suffering can lead us away from our self-centred lifestyles and help us to focus on others. It seems also that communal suffering in particular brings people together. This message is well illustrated in a famous poem found scribbled on a wall of Ravensbruck, one of the Nazi death camps in World War Two:
Remember not only the men and women of good will,
But also those of evil will.
But do not remember all the suffering
they have inflicted on us;
remember the fruits that we have borne
thanks to this suffering –
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart
which has grown out of all this;
and when they come to the judgement,
let all the fruits that we have borne
be their forgiveness.’
The traditional view of creation sees Adam and Eve as basically good but through their bad choice corrupting themselves and the world. This approach sees them rather as immature, as being like children that have to undergo a long period of spiritual growth and development before they could reach the state which God had intended for them. The ‘Fall’ never literally happened. Human beings are seen as being part of a process of creation and on the way to becoming more mature and perfect. Suffering is somehow a necessary part of creation.
Bryson, B, A Short History of Nearly Everything, London: Black Swan Books, 2004
Davis, R, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (2nd edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993
Dawkins, R, Climbing Mount Improbable, London: Penguin, 1996
Dostoyevsky, F, The Brothers Karamazov, London: Penguin, 1993 (first published 1880)
Law, S, The Philosophy Gym: 25 short adventures in thinking, London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004
Magee, B, The Story of Philosophy, London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998
Russell, B, Why I am not a Christian, London: Routledge, 2004 (first published 1957)
Vardy, P, The Puzzle of Evil, London: Fount Paperbacks, 1992
Vardy, P, The Puzzle of God, London: Fount Paperbacks, 1995
Warburton, N, Philosophy: The Basics (3rd edition), London: Routledge, 1999