Divine Benevolence, Human Suffering, and Intrinsic Value
As this issue of Reason & Revelation went to press, huge portions of numerous states along the Ohio River and its tributaries were experiencing some of the worst flooding in their history. Portions of many cities—indeed, whole counties—stood covered with water measured not in inches, but in feet. Numerous people had to be evacuated from their homes; still others lost both their property and their lives. The President of the United States declared certain sections of the country as disaster areas, thereby providing federal assistance to help the thousands of people who sustained terrible losses.
It is rare, it seems, for a single generation within a given locale to be spared at least some kind of disaster. Without warning, tornadoes sweep down from the afternoon sky and destroy in a moment’s fury what took decades or centuries to build. Floods cover old home places, and in the process remove forever any vestige of what were storehouses of hallowed memories. In a matter of a few seconds, earthquakes irreparably alter cherished, once-familiar landscapes. Hurricanes come from the sea, demolishing practically everything in their paths, and then dissipate as if they never had existed. Each time humanity suffers. And each time there are those who ask, “Why?”
But the question is not always asked in the same way, or with the same intent. Some stand on the charred remains of what was once their home and ask, “why me?”—and mean exactly that. Why them and why now? All they want is to understand the physical events that have changed their lives and daily routines, and to learn what they can do to correct the situation and avoid a repeat of it. They are not looking to assign blame; they merely desire an explanation of the prevailing circumstances.
Others view the suffering around them and ask “why?,” but their inquiry occupies only a moment, and their response is immediate. They know enough to view this Earth as a once-perfect-but-now-flawed home for mankind. Rather than their faith in God being diminished or demolished, it is strengthened because: (a) they know that there are rational biblical and scientific explanations for such events; (b) they put their faith into action as they work to help themselves, or others whose lives have been affected by the horror surrounding them; (c) they understand that after all is said and done, “the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25); and (d) they realize that there can be intrinsic value in human suffering.
Still others view, or endure, suffering and ask “why?”—when what they really mean is: “If a benevolent God does exist, why does He allow these things to happen?” The implication of their question is clear. Since these things do happen, God must not exist. After all, they reason, no truly benevolent God would allow such things to occur. Since they do occur, the God depicted within the pages of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures must not exist. Such a charge, however, ignores the reason(s) for human suffering, and the potential intrinsic value that can be gained from such suffering.
PERSONAL VOLITION AND HUMAN SUFFERING
At the end of His six days of creation (Genesis 1:31), God surveyed all that He had made, and proclaimed it to be “very good”—Hebrew terminology representing that which was both complete and perfect. Rivers were running, fish were swimming, birds were flying, and man was the inhabitant of the idyllic garden known as Eden. Pestilence, disease, and human death were unknown. Man existed in a world that was a paradise of happiness and beauty, in which he shared a covenant relationship with his Maker—a relationship so intimate and so blissful that God came to the garden “in the cool of the day” to commune with its human inhabitants (Genesis 3:8). Additionally, Genesis 3:22 records that man had continual access to the tree of life that stood in the garden, the fruit of which would allow him to live forever.
The peacefulness and tranquillity of the first days of humanity were not to prevail, however. In Genesis 3—with fewer words than an average sportswriter would use to discuss a Friday night high school football game—Moses, through inspiration, discussed the breaking of the covenant relationship between man and God, the entrance of sin into the world, the curse(s) that resulted therefrom, and the need for a coming Redeemer (the theme that would occupy the rest of the Bible). The matter of man’s personal volition—or “free moral agency” as we have come to call it—has much to do with Moses’ discussion. Various scriptures speak to the fact that since God is love, and since love allows freedom of choice, God created mankind with freedom of choice (cf. 1 John 4:8, Joshua 24:14, and John 5:39-40). God did not create men and women as robots to serve Him slavishly, without any freedom of choice on their part. Even angels were endowed with personal volition (Jude 6). When our original parents revolted against their Creator, evil entered the world. Moses stated that as a direct consequence of human sin, the Earth was “cursed” (Genesis 3:17). Paul, in Romans 8:19-20, declared that the entire creation was subjected to “vanity” and the “bondage of corruption” as a result of the sinful events that took place in Eden on that occasion so long ago.
Nothing has been the same since. Mankind now reaps the consequences of the misuse of that freedom of choice (i.e., sin) by previous generations. Surely one of the lessons to be learned here is that it does not pay to disobey the Creator.
GOD’S EXISTENCE AND HUMAN SUFFERING
The Bible is clear on its teaching that God is all-powerful (Matthew 19:26). Similarly, He is described as the very essence of a loving Being (1 John 4:8,16), and thus is benevolent, as love demands. How, then, can He allow pain and suffering to occur? Do not these things negate the benevolence of God, and strike at His very existence? The unbeliever suggests that they do, but rarely is willing to divulge “the rest of the story,” because it vitiates his conclusion that God does not exist. The truth of the matter is that pain and suffering—when viewed in their proper perspective—do not militate against God’s existence. In fact, they actually can be of intrinsic value to the human family, as the following facts will document.
First, God created a world ruled by natural laws established by Him at the Creation. If a man steps off the roof of a five-story building, gravity will pull him to the pavement beneath. If a boy steps in front of a fast-moving freight train, since two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the train will strike the child and likely kill him. The same laws that govern such things as gravity, matter in motion, or similar natural phenomena also govern weather patterns, water movement, and other geological/meteorological conditions. All of nature is regulated by these laws, not just the parts that we find convenient at one time or another.
Second, some disasters may be the by-product of something that itself is good. Norman Geisler has noted:
In a physical world where there is water for boating and swimming, some will drown. If there are mountains to climb, there must also be valleys into which one may fall. If there are cars to drive, collisions can also occur. It may be said that tornadoes, lightning, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are likewise by-products of a good physical world. For instance, the purpose of rain is not to flood or drown, but the result of rain may include these disasters. Likewise, hot and cold air are an essential and purposeful part of the physical world, but under certain conditions they may combine to form tornadoes (1978, p. 72, emp. in orig.).
The natural laws created by God allow man to produce fire. But the same law that enables him to cook his food similarly allows him to destroy entire forests. Laws that make it possible to have things constructive to human life also introduce the possibility of things destructive to humankind. How can it be otherwise? A car is matter in motion, and takes us where we wish to go. But if we step in front of a moving car, the same natural laws that operate to our benefit similarly will operate to our detriment. We routinely teach students in school that water seeks its own level. That fact works to our benefit when we place our boat on the lake; essentially, the water of the lake will be level. But if we dam a river, and the dam breaks, water will seek its own level, and in so doing may flood surrounding areas. The same law that operates for our pleasure during a sunny afternoon fishing expedition works for our displeasure during a dam break and the flood that subsequently follows.
Third, natural laws are both inviolate and non-selective. Everyone must obey them or suffer the consequences; no one is exempt. In Luke 13:2-5, Jesus related the story of eighteen men who perished when the tower of Siloam collapsed on them. The law of gravity was violated, and the tower fell. Jesus’ discussion had to do not so much with the laws of gravity as it did with the fact that the men who died were no more wicked than their peers. They perished not because of their sin, but because of a violation of natural law. Fortunately, natural laws work continually, so that we, as humans, can understand, and benefit from, them. We are not left to sort out a haphazard system that works one day, but not the next.
Those who rail against God because of pain and suffering, however, often are overheard to ask, “But why can’t God ‘selectively intervene’ to prevent such?” In other words, since God certainly has the power to do so, why does He not choose to employ miraculous intervention to prevent the human suffering that stems from disasters, diseases, etc.? Bruce Reichenbach has addressed this question:
Thus, in a world which operates according to divine miraculous intervention, there would be no necessary relation between phenomena, and in particular between cause and effect. In some instances one event would follow from a certain set of conditions, another time a different event, and so on, such that ultimately an uncountable variety of events would follow a given set of conditions. There would be no regularity of consequence, no natural production of effects.... Hence, we could not know or even suppose what course of action to take to accomplish a certain rationally conceived goal. Thus, we could neither propose action nor act ourselves (1976, 16:187).
Think of the kind of disheveled world we would inhabit if every time one of God’s creatures was in danger of harm or death, God took it upon Himself to suspend all the natural laws with which He has imbued this planet. Chaos would corrupt the Cosmos! In fact, the end result would argue more for a world of atheism than a world of theism. Further, as Geisler has remarked:
...continual interference would disrupt the regularity of natural law and make life impossible. Everyday living depends on physical laws such as inertia or gravity. Regular interruption of these would make everyday life impossible and a human being extremely edgy! ...it is probable that chaos would result from continued miraculous intervention. Imagine children throwing knives at parents because they know they will be turned to rubber, and parents driving through stop signs, knowing God will create crash-protection air shields to avert any ensuing collisions. The necessary intervention would finally grow in proportions that would effectively remove human freedom and responsibility (1978, p. 75).
How, then, would the unbeliever suggest that an understandable, dependable world be created, and operated, other than the way ours presently is? How could suffering be prevented if natural laws are to be maintained and humanity’s freedom is to be respected?
INTRINSIC VALUE IN HUMAN SUFFERING
Those who suggest that the existence of a benevolent God is impossible in light of human suffering often wish for a better world than this one. Yet they cannot describe the details necessary for its creation and maintenance. When—in a vain attempt to “improve” the world in which they live—they begin to “tinker” with it, invariably they find themselves worse off.
Instead of blaming God when tragedies strike, we need to turn to Him for strength, and let suffering remind us that this world was never intended to be a final home (Hebrews 11:13-16). Our time here is temporary (James 4:14), and with God’s help, we can overcome whatever comes our way (Romans 8:35-39; Psalm 46:1-3). In addressing these points, Franklin E. Payne Jr. observed:
Numerous Bible verses demonstrate the New Testament emphasis that God is more concerned about eternal values that are determined by the Christian’s handling of such situations in life, than His concern for physical comfort. Ultimately, the purpose of suffering is the believer’s reflection of the glory of God. His glory results when the person shows His power to overcome and His deliverance of His people through trying circumstances (Job 42:1-6; Ezek. 20:9, 14,22,33,39; 2 Cor. 11:24-33) [1985, p. 189].
The apostle Paul instructed:
Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
In the end, the most important question is not, “Why am I having to endure this suffering?,” but instead, “How am I going to react to, and benefit from, it?” The unbeliever sees suffering as militating against the existence of a benevolent God. The believer sees exactly the opposite, and recognizes that intrinsic value can result from suffering. With Peter, the faithful Christian can echo the sentiment that God, “who called you unto his eternal glory in Christ, after that ye have suffered a little while, shall himself perfect, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever” (1 Peter 5:10).
Geisler, Norman L. (1978), The Roots of Evil (Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan).
Payne, Franklin E., Jr. (1985), Biblical/Medical Ethics (Milford, MI: Mott Media).
Reichenbach, Bruce (1976), “Natural Evils and Natural Laws,” International Philosophical Quarterly.