The traditional argument from evil claimed that God was incompatible with any amount of suffering, for God could, and would want to, prevent every instance of it. Most philosophers nowadays regard that as too strong. A certain amount of suffering might be allowed by God, provided there is a morally sufficient reason for his allowing it—provided, in other words, the suffering serves some greater purpose or is the unavoidable consequence of something that justifies its existence. For instance, it may be that our having free will is a great good which more than compensates for any evil actions resulting from that freedom. Or it may be that certain types of suffering are the only way to bring about something of immense value. As an example of the latter, it is possible that in order to freely develop into the sort of beings that God wants us to become, we must first overcome certain challenges—and these may include disappointments, feelings of frustration, and other experiences we would prefer not going through. (As some theists put it, God’s intention was not to create a paradise in which to keep us perfectly happy, but to create a place where we can grow and develop into persons worthy of spending eternity with him.) It is also possible that an instance of suffering today is the least terrible means of preventing a far greater amount of suffering at some future date. Each of these, as well as several other possibilities that will be discussed below, provides a conceivable explanation for at least some of the bad things that happen in this world.
But even if God is not incompatible with all suffering, he is incompatible with suffering that cannot be justified by some outweighing benefit. Such suffering would be senseless or gratuitous, and if we are to take seriously the claim that God is perfectly good as well as all-powerful and all-knowing, we cannot suppose that he would let someone suffer without reason. If one has the ability to prevent such pointless suffering, yet fails to do so, one cannot be considered morally perfect. It follows that there can either be a God, or there can be senseless suffering, but not both. This leads to a very simple argument in support of atheism:
(1) God is incompatible with senseless suffering
(2) There is senseless suffering
(3) Therefore, there is no God
Now, the existence of suffering itself is not in question. That of senseless suffering, however, is more open to doubt. The theist can always maintain, it seems, that what may appear to us unnecessary and without justification might have some reason behind it. Thus, when faced with the above problem, most theists who are familiar with the issue deny the existence of senseless suffering. Some have attempted to develop theodicies—that is, explanations as to why God allows certain evils—as a solution. Others merely claim that there must be some explanation, even if we do not know what it is, since otherwise God would not allow such events. Either way, the denial allows them to continue believing in a perfect creator.
To others, however, it seems obvious that much of the misery and pain we see around us serves no purpose and could be avoided without incurring anything equally bad or worse. This paper will attempt to show that that intuition is in fact correct. There are cases of suffering that we have good reason for considering unjustified. But if we have good reason for thinking that there is such a thing as senseless suffering, then we have good reason for disbelieving in the existence of God.
Before proceeding, however, we have to consider another way of criticizing the above argument, for not every theist agrees as to what form the solution to the problem should take. According to some, there is something else there that should be disputed.
The Denial of the First Premise
Philosopher Stephen Wykstra once referred to the incompatibility of God and senseless suffering as “a basic conceptual truth deserving assent by theists and nontheists alike.” [Wykstra, 77] Most believers share his view, and therefore reply to the above argument by maintaining that all suffering must in fact have some justification. According to some, however, even suffering that serves no purpose and that could be avoided without loss is compatible with God. Thus, rather than denying its existence, such theists maintain that in at least certain situations God allows senseless suffering. They challenge the argument, not by arguing against the second premise, but by arguing against the first.
For the most part, this rather unorthodox view is the result of different interpretations of what is meant by “senseless” or “gratuitous,” or of what perfect goodness entails. And in some cases, it is due to simple confusion. Nevertheless, it is important to examine the claims of those who argue this way. Doing so will at the very least clarify the nature of the problem. This section therefore surveys the main suggestions that have been advanced in defense of God-condoned senseless suffering.
Perhaps the simplest among them is that based on God’s supposed inscrutability. As is often said, God works in mysterious ways. Some therefore appeal to our ignorance of his purposes and intentions in order to argue that we may simply be incapable of understanding why he permits senseless suffering. Who are we to say God could not allow such a thing?
This suggestion, however, misses the point of the problem. One does not need to understand what God’s reasons might be in order to see the incompatibility of a perfect being with that of suffering that is not justified. That incompatibility does not depend on any specific details regarding God’s purposes. Rather, it is based on what the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good being entails. A being with that combination of attributes could not allow pointless suffering in the sense described above. God’s inscrutability is therefore an irrelevant detail.
A second argument says that it is enough for God to create beings whose lives contain more happiness than unhappiness. After all, he did not have to create anything at all. Our existence is a gift from God. It follows that if our lives are, on the whole, worth living, we have no reason to complain. And yet, such lives are compatible with a certain amount of suffering that serves no purpose and that could have been avoided. Therefore, God can allow senseless suffering.
The main problem with this solution is that creating beings whose lives are on the balance positive is not sufficient for perfect goodness. A god who allows unnecessary suffering is, everything else being equal, not as good as one who prevents its occurrence. Therefore, such a god cannot be perfect. We may have no basis for complaining to a creator who acted in this way, given that we owe everything to him. In fact, one may argue that to criticize God is to be ungrateful and rather petty. All of that is beside the point, however. This second argument, then, fails as well.
Some state that evil is not a positive property, but is instead the mere lack of goodness. This idea provides theists with a third way of claiming senseless suffering to be compatible with God. For, on this view, in allowing senseless suffering, God is not allowing some actual thing, but only the absence of something—and that, some suppose, makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, this attempt to solve the difficulty misses the point as well. In fact, there are at least two things wrong with it. First, it is obviously false that suffering is merely the lack of some property. To suffer is to experience something—for example, physical pain—and that something is very real. It makes no sense to explain away that reality by describing it as, say, “lacking substance.” To do so is to ignore the facts. But the second flaw with this proposal is, if anything, more serious. For even if we were to grant that suffering is only the absence of something, the problem would remain. God would not allow that absence any more than he would allow the presence of a positive evil. After all, the absence of something can be (and in this case, would be) a bad thing. To allow it without reason is therefore, once again, incompatible with perfection.
Another suggestion consists of claiming that we have better reasons for believing in God than for believing in the incompatibility of God with senseless suffering. In other words, instead of arguing:
(1) God is incompatible with senseless suffering
(2) There is senseless suffering
(3) Therefore, there is no God
one may argue:
(1*) There is a God
(2) There is senseless suffering
(3*) Therefore, God is compatible with senseless suffering.
This kind of move is called a “Moorean shift,” after the influential twentieth-century philosopher G. E. Moore, who used it in a different context. Now, most theists, as already mentioned, reject the second premise in the original argument rather than the first. On their view, it is more reasonable to deny the existence of senseless suffering than to deny God’s incompatibility with it. At the very least, that seems a more reasonable alternative. The main objection to the above, however, is that it does not appear that the existence of God is more certain than the incompatibility claim. Whereas that incompatibility, once understood, seems obvious, God’s existence is much more open to doubt. To a convinced believer, this may not appear to be the case. However, one should keep in mind what is meant by “God” here. It does not mean merely an intelligent creator of the universe, nor even one who created it specifically for us. It means a being who is in addition omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Now, this is a rather remarkable set of characteristics. There would have to be quite a bit of evidence in its favor to make belief in such an entity even somewhat reasonable. Yet the arguments for God that theists find the most convincing do not support the existence of anything answering that description, or even so much as approaching it. At most, design arguments (including the fine-tuning argument) lead to the conclusion that an intelligence is responsible for the properties of the universe, and cosmological arguments to the conclusion that something (not necessarily an intelligence) caused everything else to exist. None of them says anything about omniscience, omnipotence, or perfect goodness. And ontological arguments, which do say something about those properties, are far more problematic, and almost universally rejected.
So far, four different attempts to show God’s compatibility with senseless suffering have been discussed, none of which was very promising. The remaining ones, which are somewhat stronger, focus on the possibility of senseless suffering being either a cause or an effect of some outweighing good. In this, they mirror the explanations of justified suffering mentioned at the start of this paper.
Some of these arguments state that senseless suffering may be a necessary means for achieving a desired end. One example of this was suggested by William Lane Craig. In a book-length debate on the existence of God with philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Craig says that perhaps “only in a world in which gratuitous natural and moral evils exist [do the] the optimal number of persons… freely come to salvation and the knowledge of God.” [Craig and Sinnot-Armstrong, 126] On this sort of view, then, senseless suffering is allowed to occur in order to bring about something worthwhile, or allow something worthwhile to continue existing. But in that case, why regard the suffering as senseless? Craig recognizes this as a potential objection. He admits that his opponent might say that the suffering is not gratuitous given that it serves a greater purpose. What we have here, then, is really a semantic disagreement. Craig’s idea of what constitutes gratuitous suffering is not the one mentioned above (and presumably not the one Sinnott-Armstrong had in mind when he stated that “even one bit of unjustified evil disproves the existence of God”). [Craig and Sinnot-Armstrong, 85] Much the same can be said with regards to the remaining views in this section.
A group of similar but distinct arguments involve an appeal, either directly or indirectly, to free will (where what is meant is what philosophers call libertarian free will, the ability to act in a way that is not predetermined). Such an appeal is, of course, found in the most common reply to the problem of evil, the claim that evil exists because God gave us the freedom to make our own choices. But the same idea can also be used more narrowly as an explanation for the existence of senseless suffering. On this view, God is justified in giving us freedom of choice because such freedom is something essential, or is at least a great good. However, because we have free will, we can bring about suffering that serves no purpose. Such suffering is therefore compatible with the existence of God.
A special case of the appeal to free will is based on the view known as open theism. Open theists maintain that, although God is omniscient, he does not have complete knowledge of the future because the future is as yet undetermined. For this reason, God cannot know ahead of time every evil that will occur as a result of our free choices. Senseless suffering is therefore a real possibility, and one that has in fact occurred throughout history.
There is more than one reason why one might regard free will as indispensable. One might claim that freedom is an end in itself. For example, free will might be so valuable that its existence more than compensates for any senseless suffering that happens because of it. This, however, seems rather implausible. Even if free will is a great good, the question remains why it should have unlimited scope—or, even if not unlimited, then at least to the extent that we see. The freedom of criminals to act is obviously less important than the rights of their victims. That, after all, is why societies try to prevent crime. And God could give us freedom while ensuring that no great suffering results from our actions. Why, then, allow senseless suffering?
According to the most common view, the answer lies in treating free will, not as an end in itself, but as a necessary means toward some other end, such as the existence of virtue or the possibility of our having a personal relationship with the creator. Philosopher Michael Peterson, for instance, argues that curtailing freedom so as to eliminate the possibility of senseless suffering would undermine responsibility and morality, so that the “moral enterprise” would be greatly diminished. [Peterson, 126-27] Our freedom itself might not be sufficient justification for all of the pain and misery that humans cause, but, according to this view, the existence of morality is.
But whether it is freedom itself, or something made possible by that freedom, the argument underlying all of these views states that free will is a great good which God is justified in giving us. However, as a result of this freedom, we can bring about suffering that is not itself necessary for the existence of any outweighing good. An act of murder, for example, does not serve any purpose if its occurrence is not necessary to either bring about a greater good or prevent an equal or greater evil. Everything else being equal, the world would have been better without it. Such an act is therefore, according to the above views, senseless. Nevertheless, God permits it.
Once again, however, the actual disagreement here is about meaning. According to these views, God is justified in creating us free, in spite of the evils that result from it, because of the value of freedom. But if so, that means our freedom itself is a benefit that more than compensates for any suffering that results from its use—which means that such suffering is not in fact senseless according to our definition. While it is true that individual acts performed by us may not themselves be necessary for an outweighing good, an outweighing good—namely, free will—makes it necessary that they be allowed to occur. These views therefore also fail to show that God is compatible with senseless suffering.
The final and strongest argument we will consider is one due to the influential philosopher Peter van Inwagen. It states that there is an inherent vagueness in the amount of suffering needed for accomplishing God’s purposes, and that therefore it is to a certain extent an arbitrary matter whether some instance of it should be allowed. From this, it follows that God is justified in permitting some evils that are strictly speaking unnecessary, and therefore gratuitous.
To make this idea clearer, consider an analogy. Suppose that a city government passes a law making anyone who parks illegally subject to a fine. The purpose of such a law is, of course, to discourage illegal parking, and the amount the authorities decide to charge attempts to strike a reasonable balance between too harsh a punishment (which would create more hardship than the law justifies) and too lenient a punishment (which would fail to achieve its purpose). Does it follow, however, that there is an exact minimum that the authorities ought to set as the fine? If it is set at, say, twenty-five dollars, and that works, then it seems that twenty-four dollars and ninety cents would work just as well. But if so, then that means the government is charging violators an extra ten cents without justification. But then the same thing could be said about a twenty-four dollar and ninety-cent fine, for ten cents less than that might also work. The point is that there does not appear to be a set minimum that the fine should be set at. Nevertheless, there must be a fine in order to curb illegal parking. Thus, the government is justified in setting it at a given amount even though a slightly smaller amount would work just as well. Similarly, God may have to permit a certain amount of suffering in order to achieve his purposes, but if there is no precise minimum that God must permit, there will be instances of suffering that are not essential for those purposes. These, according to van Inwagen, are therefore gratuitous. Nevertheless, God is justified in allowing them.
Van Inwagen’s argument, if it works at all, can only do so if he is right about there being an inherent vagueness in the amount of suffering needed for God’s purposes. This isn’t necessarily the case. The analogy with a parking fine seems to make sense because, even if there is an optimum amount for such a fine in any given situation, we cannot tell that there is (much less what that amount might be). However, if there are strict cause and effect laws, there must be a specific fine that constitutes the minimum needed to discourage a given number of drivers in a particular area from parking illegally. (Nor is the number of drivers that ought to be discouraged arbitrary, for that is itself determined by the optimum balance of value accomplished versus cost incurred.) By the same reasoning, the suffering needed in the universe so as to achieve God’s purposes must be a set amount. Now, it is of course possible that in reality there are no strict cause and effect laws. But even if so, it remains the case that God could have created a world in which there are.
On the other hand, it is possible that a universe with strict cause and effect laws cannot be as desirable, and may even be incompatible with God’s purposes. One reason for maintaining this is, once again, the importance of free will. A universe with strict cause and effect laws would be deterministic, which is inconsistent with libertarian freedom. One might therefore argue that God was justified in creating the kind of world in which the amount of suffering needed is unavoidably vague.
Even if we grant this last point, however, it does not necessarily follow that any of the suffering allowed by God is senseless. Once again, that depends on what one means by the term. Van Inwagen’s argument specifically addresses the concept introduced by philosopher William Rowe, who called an instance of evil gratuitous if God could have prevented it “without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.” [Rowe, 336] As van Inwagen correctly points out, given that there is no minimum amount of suffering needed for accomplishing God’s purposes, whatever amount is sufficient will include some that could have been prevented without loss. Rowe’s definition therefore allows for at least this type of counterexample. But now consider the concept introduced above, which merely states that suffering is senseless whenever it cannot be justified by some outweighing good. If there is no minimum amount that God must allow for his purposes, does it follow that some amount will be senseless on this definition? Obviously not. For, if there is no precise amount, then it is impossible for God to ensure that no more than what is precisely needed occurs. At the same time, God is, as this argument presupposes, justified for the sake of an outweighing good in allowing some amount of suffering. It follows that every instance of suffering that he does allow is justified even if a little less might have been sufficient. This is no more problematic than the claim that a twenty-five dollar parking fine is justified. Van Inwagen’s argument, then, also fails on the definition of “senseless” used here.
Given God’s perfection, any suffering he permits must be morally justified. But if senseless suffering is suffering that is not justified by some outweighing good—and thus not morally justified—it follows that God cannot permit its occurrence. This means that any argument that attempts to provide a reason why God might allow it will either be mistaken or will mean something else by “senseless.” The only question that remains, then, is whether such suffering in fact occurs. That is the issue addressed in the final section.
Rowe’s Argument for the Reality of Senseless Suffering
The most frequently discussed argument for the existence of gratuitous evils is William Rowe’s. It uses examples of terrible evil and suffering that do not appear to serve any purpose and thus are very likely unjustified. Rowe refers to two cases in particular. The first is that of a fawn that has been burned in a forest fire and lies injured and helpless in great pain for several days before dying. This scenario was invented by Rowe, but there is no doubt that it is the sort of thing that sometimes happens. The second example is that of an actual case of a five-year-old girl who was brutally beaten, raped and strangled to death on New Year’s Day in 1986. As Rowe points out, it does not seem reasonable to suppose that an all-powerful and perfectly good being could have any reason for permitting either of these things. The evidence we have suggests that evil and suffering of this magnitude cannot be justified. But what is worse is that events like these are not isolated incidents. Many other similarly terrible things have taken place throughout history, and continue to do so on a daily basis. The amount of pain and misery in our world is staggering—and that makes it all the more certain that there can be no justification for each and every such event.
Some of course claim that there may be reasons for such events that we are unaware of. We may simply not be able to see what those reasons are due to our limited knowledge. Consider the connection that an event today may have with some outcome in the distant future. This is not something human beings can detect. Most of us have heard of the familiar example of a butterfly that, by beating its wings, sets up a causal chain that eventually results in the formation of a hurricane. In much the same way, the movements of the suffering fawn may lead to some great good, or prevent some great catastrophe, many years from now.
But while such things are certainly possible, we have no reason for supposing that they are true. They are, at best, rather unlikely. As Sinnott-Armstrong points out, if we see a butterfly beating its wings, we have no reason to worry about a potential storm, and in fact have good reason to dismiss the possibility.6 Most butterflies do not cause hurricanes, after all. And the same can be said with respect to other possible explanations of suffering that have been suggested. Even if they might be true, we have no reason for thinking that they are. The only evidence we have is of what appear to be a lot of pointless evils. As best as we can tell, there is no justification for them. This already makes it more likely than not that God does not exist.
However, it is not just that such events appear to be unjustified. What is even worse is that, in some cases, there does not appear to be anything that could justify them. Consider the rape and murder of the five-year-old. In a reply to Rowe, philosophers Daniel Howard-Snyder and Michael Bergmann suggest, as a possible justification, “the good of both the little girl and her murderer living together completely reconciled (which involves genuine and deep repentance on the part of the murderer and genuine and deep forgiveness on the part of the little girl) and enjoying eternal felicity in the presence of God.” [Howard-Snyder, Bergmann an Rowe, 152] But in order for this to be sufficient, such a benefit must outweigh the horror of the act, and there must be no preferable alternative. Yet, neither of these seems to be the case. To begin with, there clearly appear to be better overall scenarios. In a world in which only minor evils occur, for example, those guilty of them might also come to feel deep repentance (because these would be the worst evils in that world) and be similarly forgiven by their victims. The benefits in this scenario, then, are analogous, whereas the negative act that leads to them pales by comparison. Even if we suppose that the benefits are fewer—perhaps because the amount of repentance and forgiveness involved is smaller—the overall balance of good to evil is certainly much better. In fact, of the two scenarios, only for the second is it plausible to maintain that good outweighs evil. Rowe concludes that, for any good we consider, it probably either fails to be sufficient to justify the suffering of the little girl, could have been actualized by God without such terrible suffering, or could have been replaced by some equal or greater good that could have been actualized without such terrible suffering. [Howard-Snyder, Bergmann and Rowe, 129] Moreover, this is the case not only with regards to this one example of horrendous suffering, but with respect to many other instances of it, and even with respect to many lesser evils.
Rowe’s argument, then, provides us with good evidence for the existence of senseless suffering, and therefore with good evidence for the nonexistence of God. But we need not stop there. A different, and arguably stronger, way of defending this conclusion is available.
Another Argument for the Reality of Senseless Suffering
As mentioned above, there are, broadly speaking, two ways to dispute the existence of senseless suffering: by claiming that there must be some justification for it that we do not know about, or by attempting to find specific reasons God might allow it. Similarly, one might say that there are two ways of arguing for the reality of senseless suffering, each roughly corresponding to one of the methods on the negative side. We have already covered the first, the claim that there does not appear to be any justification for many of the cases we see. The second is to try to show that particular instances of it cannot be justified.
One way to do the latter involves a fact that has been neglected in discussions of the problem of suffering. Consider the causal explanation suggested above for why God might allow the prolonged pain of the fawn: perhaps the laws of cause and effect are such that this is the only way to bring about some great benefit in the future. However, even if we grant that, it is not sufficient to justify the suffering. This explanation ignores the fact that God is omnipotent, and therefore is not bound by natural laws—laws that he himself created. He can change or override those laws, and thus can ensure the occurrence of the future event without having to depend on the suffering. To put it another way, God can perform a miracle. The fact that is often overlooked, then, is that, in order for the fawn’s suffering to be justified, it must be logically impossible for the future event to be brought about without it, or something at least as bad, taking place. So long as God can accomplish a goal painlessly, however, any suffering allowed for that purpose is unjustified.
Now, with respect to certain other evils, there are plausible reasons for claiming that they are logically necessary for a given outcome. One example is that of the repentance felt by a murderer. In order for something to qualify as genuine repentance, it must be felt in response to an actual instance of wrongdoing. Thus, even God cannot ensure that someone feels genuine repentance without permitting an immoral act. (This is, of course, a different question from whether such repentance is of sufficient value to excuse something as bad as murder.) But the case of the fawn does not appear to be like this. It seems clear that its suffering is not logically necessary for any purpose God might have. In its case, a miracle is available as an alternative. This fact can therefore be used as an argument for the existence of senseless suffering.
The fawn, which experiences terrible pain as it slowly dies, does not benefit in any way from its ordeal. Even if one supposes that it enjoys an afterlife, its suffering cannot be of use to it, for, unlike a person, it is incapable of learning some valuable lesson as a result. If there is some beneficial outcome, then, it must be for the sake of others. One possibility is the one already discussed, that the movements of the suffering fawn set up a causal chain that eventually leads to some event of immense value. Another is that someone who can learn a valuable lesson, perhaps on the importance of compassion, does so by becoming aware of the fawn’s suffering. The problem is that neither of these seems to require actual suffering. The reason is simple: God can make it the case that the animal experiences no pain, yet behaves as if it does. There is more than one way for an omnipotent being to accomplish this, but perhaps the simplest would be to prevent certain neurons from firing and then cause movements in the fawn’s muscles as if they had fired. Clearly, neither of these is logically impossible. Moreover, the miracle in this case would be sufficiently limited and localized so as to go undetected. (One reason some claim that God needs to accomplish his goals by means of normal causal processes, rather than by directly creating them through miracles, is that it is important for the universe to behave in a lawful, predictable manner. A hidden miracle such as the one just described, however, avoids this problem.) In this way, God can set up a causal chain leading to some important result without, however, there being any pain. The pain that the fawn in reality experiences is therefore unjustified. And that means it is not compatible with the existence of God.
What can a theist say in response? There are a few potential objections, but none that is plausible. One might question whether it is possible for God to perform the described miracle while avoiding all harmful consequences. However, any effect the miracle might have would necessarily follow in accordance with the laws of nature, which, as already observed, cannot constrain God. Another possible response is to deny that God would perform such a miracle because doing so would constitute an act of deception. Anyone observing the fawn would believe it is suffering when in fact it is not. But such a complaint can only make sense if that act of deception is worse than the pain experienced by the fawn, which seems clearly false. Neither of these replies is convincing, then.
A third objection, and one that might occur to most people, is that perhaps the miracle scenario described is in fact what happens—in other words, that God actually does intervene to prevent animals in this type of situation from experiencing pain. In this way, the senseless suffering fails to occur. In effect, this third response consists of employing the Moorean shift described above. To argue this way is to claim that the existence of God is more certain than suffering of the fawn, and therefore that it is the existence of the latter that we must reject.
Such a Moorean shift can also be used in answer to Rowe’s argument or any other argument for the existence of such suffering. If senseless suffering is incompatible with God, and God exists, then there is no senseless suffering, and therefore there must be an explanation for why he allows such things as the murder of a five-year old. Similarly, if the fawn’s pain is incompatible with God, then according to this argument it must be the case that the fawn does not experience it. However, as we have already seen, there is a problem with maintaining that the existence of God is more certain than such things. A perfect being, with supreme power and knowledge, is not the sort of entity for which we have any good evidence. That a brutal murder cannot be justified does, on the other hand, seem fairly certain. And that animals who have been burned in a forest fire experience great pain is, if anything, even more obviously true. Therefore, given these facts, the most reasonable conclusion is that there is senseless suffering. If so, then God does not exist.
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