The Problem of Suffering: Further Arguments

When one engages in debates over the problem of evil, the deficiencies of several standard arguments become obvious. Perhaps, with further refinement, these arguments might become more useful. In the meantime, Christians should be aware that their opponents have some ready comebacks. Frequently, in a free-for-all discussion (such as in a college dorm room or an introductory philosophy class), there is no opportunity to press each line of reasoning, or to improvise “on the fly.”

Also, there is a real temptation to flee from theodicy to theodicy (a “theodicy,” literally, is a justification of God). The dynamic of the argument tends to go along the following lines: the atheist makes his charge, you make a defense, the atheist counters, and then you resort to another defense. This can keep going, but only for so long. Eventually, you may find yourself bringing up the first argument. Your opponent repeats his criticism, and you are back to where you started.

My feature article represents an attempt to break out of this cycle by making what is, in the atheists’ view, an illicit move (i.e., insisting that the entire content of faith has everything to do with sorting out an alleged contradiction within that faith). However, this is not going to stop the atheist from bringing up the usual theodicies only to criticize them, and so we should be aware of how this debate often proceeds.

For example, a popular theistic argument rests on the concept of free will. The idea here is that suffering came into the world through the bad choices of Adam and Eve. Their resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden forced their descendants to face a hostile world “red in tooth and claw.” Humans continue to make the wrong decisions, which brings further suffering. Victims of drunk drivers are the classic examples of people who suffer for the wrong doings of others. Despite these terrible consequences, a world populated by free moral beings is supposed to be better than a world in which there is less evil, but which is populated by creatures who have little or no choice.

This argument is attractive because it has a biblical basis in the Fall, and because it seems highly intuitive. Most of us have a strong sense that we are free to choose, and that uncoerced people of sound mind are responsible for the choices they make. If we want to blame anybody for our woes, it must be ourselves, not God.

John Mackie’s well-known challenge against this view is to pose the following question of God: “Why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?” (1990, p. 33). In this alternative world, there would be moral beings just like us, except they would choose to do right on every occasion.

The first reaction is to think that this demands a logical impossibility of God. If God creates beings who cannot sin, then He has created beings without free will. But this is not what the critic is asking: he thinks it is possible for an all-knowing, all-powerful God to create beings who could sin, but would not. If the Creator had made us in such a way that we could sin, and would sin, then this makes it seem as if we were destined to sin. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, eventually one of their descendants would have made the wrong choice. So, contrary to the intentions of the free-will argument, skeptics believe that God still must bear the brunt of the blame for suffering.

The critic may try to support this line of reasoning with what Christians claim for the life of Christ. After all, Jesus could have sinned, but did not. It is tempting to respond by pointing out His divine nature. However, if that nature shielded Christ from making the wrong choices, then it cannot be true that He was “in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). No doubt, Jesus had some special advantages, such as knowing God’s will perfectly. This could have helped Him avoid the sins of omission, or sins committed out of ignorance. Even so, there are times when we fail to do what we know is right. From a biblical standpoint, it is better to view the sinless life of Christ as an example (Philippians 2:5-8) and a prerequisite for His sacrifice on the cross (Hebrews 9:12-28), rather than proof of His deity.

Even if we can get past these doctrinal issues, the atheist will bring up the old philosophical debate between freedom and determinism. Traditionally, at least, critics of theism have allied themselves with some version of the latter view. This article is not the place to rehearse that debate, but anyone who wishes to use a free-will theodicy must be able to defend the notion of free will itself.

Given these sorts of difficulties, perhaps the reader can begin to see why I take the approach presented in the accompanying feature article. Notice that Mackie’s challenge is one of those “why” questions directed against God. It may be a good question, but that is not Mackie’s intent. In his view, God’s “failure to avail himself” of the possibility of creating free beings that would choose always to do right “is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good” (Mackie, 1990, p. 33). But how do we know that this was a possibility open to God? Could God not have some good reason for creating a world in which evil might become a reality (Plantinga, 1977, pp. 26-28)? It seems that we are not in a position to discern that reason. Anyone may wish that God had been able to create a different kind of world, but to insist that God does not exist because we think He should or could have done otherwise is quite another matter.

Another argument, made famous by John Hick, takes as its starting point a statement by Irenaeus (a second-century “church father”): “the creation is suited to [the wants of] man; for man was not made for its sake, but creation for the sake of man” (Against Heresies, v.xxix.1). Hence, the creation has a human-centered purpose that, according to Hick, includes the molding and making of our souls in the fiery trials of pain and suffering (1992, p. 492). Borrowing a phrase from John Keats, he sees this present life as a “vale of Soul-making.” Individuals perfect their souls by responding appropriately to the evils of this world.

Again, this approach seems attractive at first glance. God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). As we see in the case of Job, how we respond to the trials of life matters a great deal to God. Yet even committed theists have questioned whether suffering is the most important ingredient in spiritual growth—important enough to create a world specifically for that purpose (e.g., Adams and Adams, 1990, p. 19; Frame, 1994, p. 164). In reality, some people respond negatively to suffering, and would rather “curse God and die.” Then there are those people who seem blessed beyond measure, yet have no interest in serving God. Other individuals seem incapable of deriving any benefit from suffering, such as the child who dies at an early age. And what do we say of the faithful Christian who never has experienced intense pain or deep sorrow? Has this blessing made him or her woefully imperfect? As far as the apostle Paul was concerned, his own sufferings meant nothing as long as he might “gain Christ and be found in Him” (Philippians 3:8-9). Clearly, a world with surplus evil or, for that matter, a preponderance of good, is not the crucial factor in perfecting one’s soul.

At best, the soul-making theodicy is a partial answer, but in no way does this compromise the Christian position. A critic may want to suggest that without Hick’s account we lack an explanation for why God placed man in a world with so much suffering. Here is that “why” question again: it assumes that our ignorance of God’s reasons reflects badly on Him, which it does not.

Finally, some theodicists have argued that this is not a perfect world, but is the best of all possible worlds. If God has the attributes we think He has, then apparently the world has to contain significant amounts of evil.

This view really serves as an umbrella for many of the other arguments. We could draw on the free-will argument, and insist that this world is the best place for including free moral beings. We could draw on the soul-making theodicy, and insist that this world is the best place for having evils that perfect our souls. In the final analysis, this may not be a perfect world, but it is the best way to that perfect world.

Critics, for the most part, simply have a hard time buying this argument. Is this world really the best that an all-powerful, all-loving God can do for us? Why did God not create a world in which moral beings can choose to do right or wrong, but always choose to do right? [We have seen that question already.] Why did God have to create moral creatures at all? Could He not have created a world in which there were beings unable to choose between right and wrong? At least in such a world, there would be no moral evil. Or, why create a world at all? Is it really better that a material world should exist, whether it is populated by moral or nonmoral beings? Supposedly, creation is a divine grace, but could God not have refrained from imparting this gift? Christians claim to know of a perfect world already—they call that place heaven. Why could God not create us in heaven?

Without knowing God’s mind, we do not have the answers to these questions. We do not know why God created us the way we are. We do not know why God created a world in which suffering was possible. We do not know why we must pass through a physical existence first. Does the Bible’s silence on these matters reflect badly on the Christian faith? By no means. Christianity never claimed to have every answer, but only those answers “that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:2-3).


Adams, Marilyn McCord and Robert Merrihew Adams (1990), The Problem of Evil (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press).

Frame, John M. (1994), Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R).

Hick, John (1992), “The Irenaean Theodicy,” To Believe or not to Believe, ed. E.D. Klemke (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; originally published in Evil and the God of Love, 1966, chap. 13), pp. 482-494.

Mackie, J.L. (1990), “Evil and Omnipotence,” The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; originally published in Mind, 1955, 64:200-12), pp. 25-37.

Plantinga, Alvin (1977), God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→