Why Does God Allow People To Suffer?

wwMy last two posts addressed common challenges skeptics level against Christians for defending God’s inherent power to deal with his creation as he sees fit. If God orders the destruction of a wicked people, the skeptic contends, He must be a hypocrite at best, or some kind of moral monster at worst. But if man ever creates an artificially intelligent robot, I concluded, man too will possess the power to turn off his creations whenever he sees fit.

But, the skeptic complains, robots aren’t human – and they never will be. Humans are so much more than machines. Fragile even under the best of circumstances, each living person is a miracle of flesh and blood, all too subject to pain both physical and emotional. Capable of feeling the boundless love of a mother, they can also experience the agony of loss. As the skeptic might put it, “Surely there is a difference between pulling the cord out of the bottom of a toaster, and pulling the arms off an infant. Likewise there is a difference between turning off a robot and running through with a sword a human being.” Isn’t it different when what’s being turned off is a living, breathing human being?

This challenge may seem significant to us – after all, we are all part of the class that is affected – but what difference does it actually make? What power has God ceded to us – has God abandoned – when he included among our features such things as thoughtfulness and pain, love and hatred, joy and bitterness?

First, it bears noting that feelings and intelligence are gifts, not liabilities. Life is fuller and more meaningful with them than without. The dog has some awareness, but cannot appreciate the subtlety of poetry or the ecstasy of marital love. Pain too serves a function. Without it, we would lack the tool essential to avoiding danger. In short, God gave us more by giving us these things. He made us more like him. So, what then is the objection? The earlier objection was that God was hypocritical or contradictory. But once one recognizes that God, having created us, occupies a level above us, it follows that he has the authority to do that which we cannot do. What does our feeling pain do to change that authority? Speaking for myself, I am perfectly content that he gave me feelings and intelligence because I can experience emotionally and intellectually the fulfillment promised in reuniting with him. But with these gifts, he also attaches a price. If I am entrusted with access to great power, is it not right that I am punished more (rather than less) when I abuse it? To whom more is given more is expected.

I suspect that the real objection is that this is not fair. God, having created us with feelings, must now “respect” them. He must not allow us to suffer any pain. But again, why should this be so? And if “respecting” our feelings means allowing us to have our way, and if our way conflicts with his perfectly holy nature, which “right” should prevail? God’s right to remain true to his character or our “right” to feel “good” all the time, to never suffer, even where that suffering is a natural and predictable byproduct of our conduct. Returning to my analogy, if the artificially intelligent robots are like the robot on Lost in Space (for those of you not old enough to remember, he possessed human emotion), would I be prohibited from turning it off or otherwise destroying it if it were to attack me? Refuse to follow my commands? Could I not turn it off or on as I wish, or use it for parts, if I determined that this was the best course of action? Taken a step further, if the robot used the intelligence I had given it to rebel against me, would the capacity for emotion I had given it prevent me from exercising my power to dispose of my creation as I saw fit?

This may seem harsh, and perhaps that is the ultimate objection. Why can’t God just do what we want him to? Why can’t he let us be gods and play by our own rules. Perhaps – at least from our perspective – God’s actions are sometimes harsh. Having given us so much, he expects something in return and the punishment that he metes out for our rebellion is substantial, all the more so because we are aware of it intellectually and emotionally.

But he has warned us, and he has provided us a means to reunite with him. What else does fairness require? The suffering we experience here need not be eternal and there is a reward that awaits us that will far surpass the pain we endure here. But it must be done on his terms, not ours.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Bible. I think this helps me understand what that means.

Posted by Al Serrato


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