Problem with the Problem of Pain

About a year ago, a friend of mine who is a pastor at a church, posted on Facebook that their church had been flooded after a major rainstorm. He said “Christ’s body” was “truly present” in the clean-up of the damage. It was his way of expressing his thanks to everyone who came and helped.

Stuff like this bothers me a lot.

It bothers me because it doesn’t praise the people who actually took all of the actions. The people who took the time out of their day, who wanted to help, who got down into the literal mud and helped clean this place up. Instead, it praises the God who ostensibly was the reason that the church flooded in the first place. So I posted this on my Facebook wall (not his but mine, I didn’t want to rant on the pastor’s wall):

When your Church suffers a disaster (flood, fire, etc) and a bunch of Christians show up to help clean and fix things, that shows that your community has caring people and that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t show “Christ’s body” is present. If Christ was actually present in your Church, he should have averted the disaster in the first place.

It’s just an example that random bad crap happens and we have compassion for each other. To ascribe any kind of supernatural influence to the actions of those who come to help ignores the initial disaster, but more importantly it diminishes those who come to help. It takes away some of the admiration we should give to those helpers and gives it to a God who, according to some, caused the initial disaster to begin with.


Another devout friend of mine told me that I misunderstand the reasoning for suffering and calamity and suggested that I read a book called The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. “Problem of Pain” is a re-wording of a concept called the “Problem of Evil.” The Problem of Evil is, simplistically speaking, “If God is powerful and good, why does He let bad things happen?”

Formally, it is a logical and evidential refutation that an Omniscient and Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent God cannot exist in a world that also contains evil. An omniscient God would know all of the ways that evil could enter the world and all of the ways to prevent that from happening. An omnipotent God would be able to stop evil from entering the world. An omni-benevolent God would not desire for evil to be in the world.

If God, as Christians claim, is simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent, then evil should not exist in the world because He wouldn’t want it, would have the power to stop it, and would know how to use that power to prevent it. But evil does exist in the world, therefore God either does not exist or is missing one of those three attributes. He could be all knowing and all powerful but not really give a shit. He could care about us and be all-powerful but just not have known the way to keep evil from entering the world to start, etc.

My friend gifted me a copy of Lewis’ book and, as I have done several times in the past with Christian friends, I read it. I think a lot of arguments that modern Christians use to explain away the problems with their beliefs in God probably have their foundation in writings like Problem of Pain, or at the very least the modern Christians who are using these arguments are introduced to them by Lewis.

Free Will

The most common attempt to explain evil/pain is Free Will. The idea goes like this: God wanted us to have Free Will and therefore evil must have the possibility of existing. If He didn’t give us the option to be evil or cause pain, then we don’t truly have Free Will, and if we have Free Will it is unavoidable that there are going to be some people who will use their Free Will to hurt other people, to steal, or to kill. God doesn’t want those things but if He wants us to have Free Will, they come as part of a package.

There are numerous problems with this argument but I’m going to focus on a couple of aspects of why Free Will cannot be used as an excuse.

The Fall of Man

When people talk about suffering and death, we often talk about disease. Cancer is a big one, and the obvious question comes to mind is: When a four year old girl dies from Leukemia, was that really a matter of Free Will? What choices did she make in her life that caused her to develop Leukemia and die horribly? What “lesson” could she possibly learn by dying horribly at such a young age? The common response to this question is that the suffering due to disease doesn’t come from an individual’s Free Will but it comes from one particular exercise of Free Will.

Free Will in the Garden of Eden: The Fall of Man.

Lewis supports this argument as well, even though he thinks Genesis is obviously an allegory. He does not take Genesis literally. What he believes is that humans had a special connection to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sustained them, repairing their bodies, keeping them alive. But when humanity disobeyed (i.e. chose to disconnect itself from God) that we lost access to the energy of God which repaired and maintained us. Most people don’t put it that way but that’s how Lewis puts it. Most people would simply say that disease entered the world when sin entered the world. In other words, it’s not the four-year-old girl who caused herself to have leukemia but it was Adam and Eve’s choice that allowed these things to come into the world.

However, when it comes to the discussion of pain, suffering, and death, here is the most important aspect of the argument:

I don’t care about Free Will.

Free Will and human behavior can be entirely wiped from the slate, it can be removed from the question completely and the problem still exists. Unnecessary suffering and death still exist in the world even if you remove Free Will. Massive hurricanes, tidal waves, floods, scorching drought. These are not manifestations of Free Will and yet they cause suffering and death. God didn’t need to create the Earth with a weather system that would occasionally spiral out of control and devastate large swaths of the population. I, as a “lowly” human, can easily envision a world in which there is less suffering and death and still includes Free Will.

Simply take the world we have today and subtract natural disasters. It’s that easy. Yet God either couldn’t do or chose not to do that. If God doesn’t actually want there to be pain and suffering in the world and it only exists because Free Will must exist, then the fact that pain, suffering, and death all occur due to natural disasters means either God doesn’t care, God can’t stop it, God doesn’t know how to stop it, or God simply doesn’t exist.

Divine Intervention

Is it even valid to demand that God intervene to stop these things? Lewis puts forward the incredibly wrong idea that if God were to intervene and prevent disasters that would:

    1. Invalidate our Free Will.
    2. Create the necessity that God must continually intervene.
    3. Because if he intervened to stop one thing he should intervene to stop the next as well.

Therefore the system would not be allowed to run because God would constantly be intervening. And when I read this, I thought to myself

“Did C.S. Lewis even fucking read his bible?”

The Bible, if its stories were true, catalogues God intervening numerous times. It even catalogues God specifically fucking with man’s Free Will. The most heinous of these instances, I think, is Pharaoh in Exodus. We all know that story, right? God tells Moses “Go get the Jews out of Egypt.” Moses shows up, tells Pharaoh “Let my people go.” Pharaoh tells him to screw off. Then God starts dropping the plagues on Egypt. 

Let’s review the end of the story though. There are ten plagues, and let’s say we’ve gone through nine of them. The tenth is the death of every first-born son. God is going to kill every first-born child in Egypt if Pharaoh doesn’t let the Jews go. Pharaoh’s not an idiot though, he’s learned his lesson. After all, this dude Moses walked in and said “Let my people go or God is going to seriously smite your ass.” And then what happened? It started raining blood and frogs and pestilence and flies. If that happened to me, dude, you better believe I’d be questioning and saying “You know what? I’m going to cut my losses here. The first nine all happened just like he said, I really don’t want to risk the tenth. Just in case, I’m going to let these people go.”

What does the story say happened? The story says that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so that the Pharaoh would not let the Jews go. Think about that. This story says God intervened and removed Pharaoh’s Free Will, but not to do something good. It’s not like God chose to interfere with Pharaoh’s Free Will when Moses first showed up to soften the Pharaoh’s heart so that the Pharaoh would say, “You know what, sure, we’re going to let your people go.”

No. The time he chose to interfere with Pharaoh’s Free Will was to stop him from doing something good. It was to make him do something bad, so that God had the excuse to kill all of the first-born sons in Egypt. Not only is God intervening to perform the plagues, he was coming down to his tenth and final plague and to ensure the final plague kills millions of innocent children, God violates the Pharaoh’s Free will to force him to do the wrong thing.

God supposedly won’t intervene to prevent disaster, but oh boy can he intervene to cause some fucking mayhem and disaster! So, when Lewis writes that God can’t and doesn’t interfere with events in the world and specifically doesn’t interfere with Free Will, I have to conclude he has never fucking read his Bible.

Praise the People

In the original occurance of the flooded Church, when you praise God because people came to help, that implies God intervened somehow to encourage those people to go and help out. Some will then say, “God didn’t intervene directly to cause them to help out, it was just they chose to do so based on God’s teachings or their religious beliefs.” Then once again it comes back to my point which is that you should thank them. Praise the people for helping out, don’t praise God who could have prevented the entire event.

Perhaps if preventing the flooding of that Church would also have resulted in the slaughter of millions of innocent Egyptian children, maybe then God would have intervened. 

The 9/11 Cross

9/11 CrossIt’s similar to the infuriating discussions over the 9/11 cross. If you’re not familiar with the story… In the wreckage of the World Trade Center there was a section of crossbeam that looked cross-shaped. Shocking, I know, that a giant building would have a bunch of metal at right angles in it. There is currently controversy over it because the WTC plaza is now a national monument, which means it is public land. I believe displaying a Christian Cross on public land is a violation of the First Amendment, however that’s what not infuriates me about it.

What infuriates me is the audacity that people have in saying that God intervened in this tragedy to preserve this steel cross as a symbol so that people would see it and turn to God. Think that logic through. The people who are claiming this believe that God was there, watched this happen, knew that these 3,000 people were going to die horrible burning, crushing, asphyxiating deaths, and chose to intervene to save a piece of scrap metal…  but chose not save them. Instead he chose to produce a mangled cross-section of steel which would also likely have been in the rubble if there was no God intervening at all. That’s the part that infuriates me. That people can attribute goodness to God in providing this symbol and completely ignore the fact that he chose to intervene there, but didn’t choose to intervene to save those 3,000 people.

The suffering didn’t end with those 3,000 people who died, they had families. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, grand-children, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts. The extended reach of those 3,000 deaths is devastating, and it doesn’t stop with just the families of the 3,000. What about all of the First Responders who are suffering lung disease and cancer due to inhaling particulate debris while risking their lives to save others? Now that was an exercise of Free Will. The people who made the choice to run toward the danger and are suffering now for it showed greater love, greater compassion, and greater sacrifice than God ever showed in the Bible.