Why Would a Loving, All-Powerful God Allow Suffering?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Satan pours on the plagues of Job in William Blake’s The Examination of Job  (Wikimedia)

The theodicy tangent to our series on religious choice continues with several more eloquent emails from readers. To reader John, the problem of suffering leads him to think that “God is a human construct, and somebody needs to send god back to rewrite.” He looks to the ancients for consistency:

The question of theodicy, for me (an atheist), is not so much “why does god allow so much suffering?” as it is “what is the nature of this god you believe in?”

The real contradictions I see are between the realities of the world, supposedly created and overseen by god, and the descriptions of their god by the faithful. They don’t mesh. The ancient Greeks were much more honest, I think, in their depictions of their gods. Greek gods were petty, arbitrary, powerful and mean-spirited. As such, they fit the world we live in.

Christians, Muslims and Jews all describe a god that is benevolent, just, omnipotent, and omniscient—which doesn’t fit our world one bit. If you’re determined to believe in a god, Zeus makes a lot more sense than the supposed Christian “heavenly father.”

Another reader, Jonathan, questions the omnipotence of God even further than John but doesn’t think it necessarily negates God:

When it comes to theodicy, I wish we could avoid trapping ourselves in ideas of perfection and infallibility.

I know far too many people who don’t bat an eye at the idea that the literal physics of the universe are relative and even probabilistic, yet the moment God is mentioned, they suppose this divinity must be capable of anything we can possibly imagine or it is not really God.

Why can’t we interpret “All-Powerful” as (merely?) having all the power that’s actually employable, and “All-Knowing” within the confines of things that can actually be known? We’ve got a greater handle than ever on the limits of power and knowledge. It’s only in the context of medieval theology’s untenable concepts of perfection that theodicy becomes an issue.

If, instead, we consider that God has to take energy-expending actions to perform miracles (from spitting in his hands to dying on a cross) and that predicting the future might be as much of a speculative (though better informed) act for God as it is for us, then it seems to me the old stories become much easier to parse.

Christ didn’t hang on that cross as part of some cosmic game he designed in the first place, sure of the outcome. Rather, he did so because self-sacrifice out of love is the epitome of Goodness and a core aspect of the act of Creation. That this is as true for the most powerful and knowledgeable being in the universe as it is for the typical bumbling human is practically the moral of the story. God’s Work takes, y’know, work. That idea shouldn’t make God any less impressive.

Another reader, Mike—in response our previous note citing Andrew Sullivan’s thoughts on theodicy—questions the idea of God as benevolent:

Oh, how I loved reading Sully again on this. The journey is always the most interesting part, isn’t it? How someone arrived probably tells you more than the destination.

I arrived to a similar destination as the reader who volunteered in Central America, but without the travel abroad. My family was never religious, so I basically got a chance to try on religions as a teenager. I was intrigued with Catholicism, then Judaism, then—for a much longer spell—Buddhism. I ended up at Zen-as-practical-philosophy after finding too much of the usual follies in Buddhism-as-religion (you don’t have to search far for dogma).

Years earlier, George Carlin had been my introduction to atheism. I was sympathetic to his views, but I couldn’t find it in myself to take them on. But sometime in my early 20s, I remember running the typical come to Hitchens thought experiment:

OK, so God is an all-powerful, omniscient being who created everything, and made man in his image. Well, God created humanity, and therefore created a capacity for evil within humanity. Since God is omniscient, God knew humanity would use this capacity for evil. Despite being all-powerful, God doesn’t seem very interested in interceding to stop this evil.

Put less kindly, if God isn’t a murderer, God is at the very least an accessory to murder and manslaughter (as well as being the architect of disease, famine, strife, war, etc.). That’s actually quite an impressive resume, but not one I find particularly worthy of worshiping.

Take away all logic of the scientific method explaining the universe. As a moral matter, I couldn’t really get behind the idea of God as a benign father figure anymore. I can’t be 100% certain of the lack of a supernatural creator, but doubt is always more interesting than certainty. I suppose that would make me an atheist-of-doubt (whereas Sully might be a believer-of-doubt). However, the universe fills me with the type of awe and wonder that I used to describe as marveling at God’s creation.

We are dead stars. You don’t need religion to find rebirth; it’s already here. It’s in each of us. We are the universe made sentient. If that doesn’t give you an empathy and connectedness with your fellow humans, I don’t know what will.

I’d argue I feel more of a “link to something bigger” now than I ever did before, a sort of secular Brahman. Letting go of a belief that humanity is blessed by the divine and of a special class? It doesn’t cordon you off into some moral-less shadow world. It opens you up to being part of something unimaginably bigger.

Another reader, Paul, touches on free will and the relative nature of suffering:

On the proposition that the presence of suffering rules out the existence of a benevolent God, I’d ask what humanity would be if God didn’t allow suffering. The only answer, it seems to me, is that we’d be much less free than we are.

To prevent suffering, God would have to remove from us our ability to make evil choices. Actually, God would have to take away our ability to make anything but the very best choice, since over time choices that were anything less than optimal could, and probably would, snowball right into evil.

Our species has an ability to know good from evil (indeed, to see suffering as an evil presupposes that ability) and make choices in one direction or the other. A world without suffering would be a world without a humanity free to choose between good and evil. I can’t help but think that such a world would be less a utopia than a form of totalitarianism, where humans act in lock step with an unyielding divine will.

One more reader for now, Elizabeth:

First, I want to express my gratitude for your thoughtful and nuanced engagement with this question. I appreciate The Atlantic’s reporting on religion, and that you create a space for serious discussion. Thank you.

When it comes to the issue of theodicy, there aren’t really any easy answers, are there? Perhaps that’s as it should be. Faced with the tearing crimson and black of pain and grief and evil, a tidy formula seems somehow profane.

I’m a Christian (spoiler alert:) and a missionary, and so the goodness of God in the light of pain and injustice is a tension that I am regularly confronted with. And it hurts.

My church’s Good Friday service is quite simple, consisting mainly of a reading of the Passion, with different members of the congregation reading the dialogue of the various persons in the story. This year, I was struck with the immediacy of the situations—situations that are happening all the time, everyday, all over our world: A friend who screws you over for personal gain. Another friend who chickens out and doesn’t stand with you. Police brutality. Religious hypocrites who avoid the smallest speck of dirt while engineering terrible things to protect their own little kingdom. A corrupt justice system that is more interested in keeping the status quo than in real justice. Mobs. Torture. Execution.

Take off the Ben Hur costumes and add a couple thousand years … and you’ve got Hell’s Kitchen, or Syria, or maybe your own backyard.

And there, in the midst of it all, is Jesus. He’s walking (though with dread) right into the middle of the maelstrom of all our gigantic and garden variety meanness. As N.T. Wright says “Jesus doesn’t explain why there is suffering, illness, and death in the world...He doesn’t allow the problem of evil to be the subject of a seminar. He allows evil to do its worst to him. He exhausts it, drains its power, and emerges with new life” (Wright, Simply Good News).

He’s the God who suffers with us. And I love Him for it.