Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gracepoint Berkeley Apologetics MYT: The Problem of Suffering

Let's get a discussion going on the problem of suffering. In the Gracepoint Berkeley Apologetics class, we talked about how the problem of suffering is a problem only if we can show that suffering is purposeless. What do you think about that?

Also, another useful apologetics skill is to test the "range" of possibilities. So let's ask: what if there IS random suffering? What are the ramifications of that proposition to Christianity?


Grace Kim said...

I agree that suffering would be a problem IF we can show that suffering is purposeless... but I don't think anyone can show that. There are examples of how even in worst of situations, good came out them.

But if there IS random suffering, Christianity would answer that proposition by saying that God understands and that we are not in our sufferings...

Daniel Kim said...

This is great, Grace. I would like others to chime in and pose a challenge to her answer, or propose your own answer. I would like to see some back-and-forth, as that really helps the discussion move alone, and please don't expect me to reply to your comments. I want to encourage you to reply to each others' comments.

Wynn said...

Well, I guess one criticism of that would be to say that the good that came out of suffering is in one's mind - a coping mechanism we use to rationalize through the shock of the suffering. If you wait long enough after suffering through something, eventually you can hit some good even that you can rationalize to be the result of that suffering.

dan said...

It seems to me that this, like any other problem we pose, needs to have clearly defined terms for us to work with. With respect to this, I think we need to qualify what 'random suffering' really is(not that I think any of us don't really know what this means, but to flush out the definition will make conclusions more obvious). By random suffering it seems we mean suffering without a purpose, that is, a good purpose or reason it is occurring of any kind. The burden of proof would be on the questioner to show a counterexample or proof of an instance of suffering with absolutely no good purpose to it. Not only does this seem to be an impossible task(thus the problem of suffering can't be proven as a contradiction), but I would say it means that to have random suffering is logically incompatible with our working definition of God as all loving and powerful. This is one of those areas where I don't think I would go for the cross-compatibility of saying "if there IS random suffering, then there's reason X for it", just because random suffering by the definition above is that which God wouldn't allow, because there is no purpose to it. What's important here is what I'm excluding from random suffering. If we take take the route Grace took by saying "God understands and we're not alone in our sufferings", this wouldn't be wrong, but it would give some purpose(even undetectable to us) for the suffering, so it's no longer 'random suffering'.

Wynn said...

I propose tackling this question from another angle. I was thinking on this problem of suffering, on the question of how can a just God allow suffering. And as I was reading Romans 9, I was really struck by the following passage:

10Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger."[d] 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."[e]

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."[f] 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth."[g] 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "[h] 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

This theme in the form of the question "Who are we to claim that our standards of justice is higher than God's?" is found in several places, most prominently in the dialogues between Job and his friends. Similar to what we heard about at home church service this past week, We have a certain idea of what is "normal," and we often equate what is to what ought. But just as there is a difference between ethics and morality, one being what ought and the other being what is, there is also a difference between what ought to happen to us, and what we see as the status quo. Often times we equate this status quo to what is "just." Take Job's case for example. The status quo was an abundance of blessings and riches - he had a big family, a lot of kids, lots of camels, donkeys, servants, etc. And when he loses all these things, we often feel sorry for him - he IS SUFFERING - and we say that what God did is bad. This is unjust suffering! But one has to ask the question, how is God taking away the riches he had freely and undeservedly given to Job by God's own good grace, evil or unjust?

According to the Bible, the fallen nature of humanity makes us worthy only of death. So aren't any blessings given to us given by grace? Maybe there needs to be a paradigm shift in our thinking. Instead of equating what one's comfortable status quo as what things OUGHT to be like, and thus anything short of that we quantify as "suffering," we should instead be thankful, recognizing that what OUGHT to be is not what IS, only by Common Grace.

Josh Wang said...

1. IF "purposeless" suffering exists.
2. AND God is all powerful and all knowing.
3. THEN God allows purposeless suffering to exist.
4. THEREFORE, God is not "all purposeful." Meaning God does NOT have a purpose for everything.

Is it possible to have an all-powerful and all-knowing God who does NOT have a purpose for everything?

albert wang said...

without suffering, there would be no such thing as joy. there needs to be something to compare to or else the entire argument is pointless. so there is no such thing as 'pointless' suffering, because it lets us enjoy and appreciate our triumphs/happiness more.

Allen Chen said...

I'm not sure if we can determine whether certain instances of suffering are purposeless or random. Maybe it seems random to us now, but it's not random to God. What if what we perceive as purposeless suffering are opportunities to display the work of God, similar to the situation in John 9 when Jesus healed the man born blind? I'm not sure if this is a satisfying answer, because then it seems all suffering could be categorized as potentially purposeful suffering, but until then it all just seems random.

I don't think that there is no such thing as joy without suffering (though suffering would accentuate joy and lead us to more gratitude). God was pleased ("it was good... it was very good") with Creation before sin and suffering entered the world. So if suffering is tied to sin, and rebellion against God is something God allows because of free will, then can't God still be all-powerful and allow suffering to exist without necessarily having to do something about it?

Daniel Kim said...

Let me pose a related question: Just because some "good" can possibly come out of evil, does it justify the evil/suffering?

It is true that people can possibly come to some kind of realization about life through suffering. And I would guess that no matter how great the suffering, there can always be some kind of good that could potentially come from it. But does that mean the suffering is justifiable? Is there some kind of a criteria on what kind of good could come out of the suffering before we can justify the suffering?

Ellen said...

I don’t know if there could be criteria that can justify suffering. In order to come up with such criteria, that would mean that we would have to decide what is good enough. But how do we define that? Not only did we have to define what is good enough, but also suffering. And also if we have some kind of criteria to justify suffering, does this mean that how we respond to suffering/pain be vary according to how much “good” came out?
Would the pain that a mom who lost her child feel different if her child’s death led to cure for all diseases? Pain would be still there. I think trying to look for good in suffering helps us to tolerate suffering, but I would think that it would be hard to justify the evil/suffering.

Jasper said...

It might be problematic for us to use "good" to justify suffering. The utilitarians of the 19th century held that anything was justified as long as it produced more good than bad, the "greatest good for the greatest number of people." However, this would mean that it would be right to inflict suffering on a minority so long as it made the majority happy (e.g. most instances of state-sponsored genocide in the recent century). Perhaps you may theoretically justify suffering with "good" if you could determine what was ultimately good or bad, ie. see it from God's perspective.

That does relate to a possible answer to the original post. The problem of suffering is almost always debated with the assumption that suffering IS bad, especially if it's is random or meaningless. To borrow a thought from CS Lewis, I would ask "Now where did you ever get the idea that suffering is bad?" Why isn't it the case that we live in a universe where suffering is good? If it is instinctively assumed that random suffering is bad, then it makes sense to try to figure out where that judgment comes from. Christianity, which appeals to a higher objective truth from God, can offer more to this issue than a naturalistic worldview.

Josh Wang said...

Jasper: "Now where did you ever get the idea that suffering is bad?' Why isn't it the case that we live in a universe where suffering is good?"

A universe where suffering is "good?" Hmm...

1. IF Suffering is good
2. AND I punch someone in the face and cause that person to suffer
3. THEN, by punching someone in the face and causing that person to suffer, I am doing "good?"


Jasper said...

haha, that's true. It would be a show-stopper to ask someone to imagine universe where suffering was "good."

Well if someone says that random suffering in the world is bad, do they mean: (a) it's morally wrong, or (b) I don't happen to like it?

Suffering might not be "good," but maybe its just a fact of life, why is there necessarily anything wrong about it? Depending on your worldview, you might not have the resources to appeal to any objective standard of right/wrong.

Francisca said...

Wow this is a hard question but the way I understand it is that suffering doesn’t have to be pointless but it can depend on our response to it. If we choose to learn from it or good comes out of it then I don’t view it as pointless. Yes we can view that as a coping mechanism we use to deal with suffering but it doesn’t take away the fact that there was a purpose to it and something came out of it that was to our benefit or someone else. As a means for measuring how much good came out it I have no idea I don’t think we can really pass that sort of judgement our knowledge as humans is limited, someday in heaven we’ll find out. The story of Job really helped me because as Wynn said it does shift s perspective on how we should view what we deserve. Where did we get the idea that suffering is bad. We are uncomfortable it , we don’t like it certainly, we also don’t like vaccinations but those are good for us. The point is that we have a problem with suffering in general but more often the discussion of purposeless suffering, its seems a waste why would God do such a thing. That is why I don’t think God intends for there to be purposeless suffering but he doesn’t control what we do with our free will so its not right to blame him for the kind of pain we see in this world. And as Allen said God can use bad things in our life like suffering to show his glory.

Jenny said...

I like organizing things so here goes... so if I understand properly, basically, our problem of suffering boils down to:

A good God would not allow random/purposeless suffering.

Assumptions (thanks Daniel Kim for teaching us this!):

1. God is good and omnipotent so he can prevent or stop random/purposeless suffering.

2. There IS random/purposeless
suffering in this world.

3. Random/purposeless suffering is bad and/or unnecessary, and so God should not allow it.

(are there other assumptions?)

My thoughts on the above assumptions:

1. I have nothing to say about this.

2. I think it would be difficult to prove that there is indeed completely random and purposeless suffering in this world. Even if some tragedies seem completely purposeless to us (things like deaths due to natural disasters and disease that we would be wont to blame God for) and are unexplainable by our mental and explanatory capacities, it does not mean that it cannot be answered for. This is kind of similar to Richard Dawkins’ argument for natural selection in Blind Watchmaker (but used in a very different context! haha) “Even if we found one example that we couldn’t explain, we should hesitate to draw any grandiose conclusions from the fact of our own inability.” (p.13)

3. I’m not sure if this assumption is true either. Perhaps the very nature of the universe as God made it (with freedom out of love) necessitates that there has to be suffering, even random or purposeless suffering. This quote might explain what I mean better: “The Bible essentially declares that God has allowed the world to go its own way - and that the world we have now - disease and disaster - is not a product of design, per se, but it is a product of God giving to humanity what we have asked: to be left alone by God; to live life our own way; to rebel. God has essentially said … "Okay; you wish to be left alone; here is the world without my continuing close presence within it." That not only results in individuals harming others because they have no moral foundation (the natural result of disbelief and of a world without God) but also a world in which Nature is filled with disasters.” (Jeff Young)

Tim Choi said...

I think the quoting of CS Lewis is taken out of context a little bit. I might be terribly mistaken, but I think the quote is from Mere Christianity and is referring to the Moral Law. In this sense, Lewis is more challenging where our inclination to see suffering as bad comes from rather than challenging whether suffering is intrinsically good or bad. But either way (in response to Josh), I don't think it is impossible to think up of a scenario where punching someone in the face is in fact a good thing.

In my opinion, the degree which suffering affects someone is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. However, all suffering should be grouped together as a consequence of evil, as opposed to suffering being evil itself. Now, suffering only exists in our fallen state. All suffering, regardless of how much good can come from it, was never supposed to be (e.g. childbirth). Therefore, suffering should fundamentally not exist. And so no amount of suffering can be justified. The fact that there inevitably is suffering forces us to look beyond our world for what should be (i.e. hope in heaven).

bwang said...

Tim makes a good point, suffering is a result of our fallen state rather than something that God just allows. Childbirth, toils of work, death (along with that disease and anything that would accentuate man's mortality) was introduced when man decided to reject God and take the fruit in Genesis 3. So I would argue that all suffering and even meaningless suffering (if it exists) would be a result of it.

To that extent then even the suffering of Christ for us is a result of a combination of God's love and our sinfulness. The existence of suffering seems to hinge on the ability for man to choose good and evil (free will) -- something necessary in every relationship, even one with God.

Arugeably it could be the case that if man did not decided to sin that suffering would not exist. It would be a world completely without pride, envy, and other sins; a world where we steward God's creation appropriately. Most importantly a world without death, which is often the context of suffering. But thankfully, God does give a us a way out of it which is through Jesus Christ, something that we will be able to fully realize beyond this physical world.

Suzanne.Hyun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Kim said...

What if the "good" is far greater than the suffering? Would it still be not convincing, if that were the case?

kenton said...

I still think would not find it convincing if the “good” is far greater than the suffering. Evil and suffering is something we as people must acknowledge and cope with, but to justify it by the possible good that may come goes beyond acknowledging its existence, but actually promoting its existence.
Another problem I have with such thinking is it basically says that the ends justifies the means, without us actually knowing the ends themselves. Any good that arises as a byproduct of evil/suffering can only be known at the end of the whole ordeal. So it would be unfair to go back and say that only through that means of suffering could this end (a good thing) arise, therefore I approve of that suffering. The person didn’t experience that act of evil/suffering knowing that some much greater good would come—it just so happened to be a fortunate byproduct. The end could have easily been obtained through a path that didn’t require any pain or suffering just as much as the end could have been more suffering and pain.
Another point that I’d like to throw out there is an argument/reason that I have heard Greg Koukl use before about why God would allow pain and suffering in the world. Going off my shaky memory, Greg Koukl states that God knew that only in a world of pain and suffering could such desirable traits as bravery and courage (these are only examples I can recall) have been cultivated in humans.

Jesse said...

Addressing the original question, “What if there is random suffering? What are the ramifications of that proposition to Christianity?”

Jenny Yen already mentioned, “Perhaps the very nature of the universe as God made it (with freedom out of love) necessitates that there has to be suffering, even random or purposeless suffering.” And I would like to propose that b/c of the free-will that God grants to people, the fact that there is suffering doesn’t raise any problems for Christianity. So in essence, I don’t see any ramifications of the proposition to Christianity, other than affirming it.

Jackie said...

Hmm, this is a tough question to answer (What is the "good" is far greater than the suffering?) because I'm not sure how one would quantify "good" and "suffering." I was trying to think of an example in answering this question, and I'm wondering, would something like Jim Elliott and his friends dying be an example that could support this question? Because the "good" that came out of their deaths was that a whole tribe came to know God and the Gospel has spread - does that far outweigh the suffering that the family members experienced from the death of these men?

Joy said...

Going off of what Jesse said, I agree. The fact that there is suffering in the world, including "purposeless" suffering, affirms that God gives us freedom, out of His love for us.
If there is no suffering, if there is no possibility of suffering, then there is not a free choice for people. If God comes in every time and intercepts, takes away suffering, or the possibility of suffering, or makes the suffering not "purposeless" by giving it a good that comes out of it, then this lack of suffering also shows that God is not really giving us free will, free choice.

If we have free will, there must be equal possibility for the good as well as the bad side to happen.

So because God wants to give us free will, free choice, out of His love for us, the possibility of suffering, even "purposeless" suffering, becomes a necessary component of this world.

Patti said...

I think the good that comes out of suffering does justify suffering because as sinners, we are the ones responsible for the suffering in the first place, and since we are such sinners, sometimes that is the only way God can speak to us.

Jacquelin said...

sounds like the broader question to ask is: does the end ever justify the means?

Daniel Kim said...

I would say "yes" -- but only sometimes.

The "healthy gums" end justifies the "painful dentist visit" means.

The "saved life" end justifies "lie to the Nazis" means.

But I would be very careful about when we can apply this justification. To be sure, we should not apply this for our own benefit or comfort.. (such as lying to escape discomfort). If we ever feel tempted to justify ourselves using this principle, we'd better be darn sure that the final moral principle that we're trying to uphold (e.g., saving a life) is clearly higher then the moral principle that must be compromised (telling the truth).

Wynn said...

One of my roommates showed me this video. I thought it might be relevant. It's a little long though. It's a clip talking about Job, what ancient Jewish wisdom literature has to say about what seems to be random suffering. I thought it was pretty inspiring.

Steven said...

Daniel (and others),

The Compassion child I sponsor is from Haiti...

I'm having a hard time understanding why God, who is sovereign, who is good, and who loves us so much, would allow the recent earthquake and resulting suffering to happen. I read through these comments to try to answer the question: "Why would a good God allow this to happen?"

My assumptions are pretty much along the lines that Jenny delineated above.

Most of the above comments seem to address the question using the "ends justify the means" principle. If we apply this principle to this particular case, then we can speculate that perhaps God has a purpose beyond the immediately obvious suffering of a nation, a purpose that is good and unforeseen. His purpose is so good that it justifies the great amount of suffering currently being experienced by Haiti.

Wynn's general argument in his comment re: Romans 9 is that we don't have a claim to the "status quo" of our lives because "the fallen nature of humanity makes us worthy only of death." So anything other than death is more than we deserve. If we apply his argument to this particular case, I'm afraid the answer we get is something like "They (the Haitians) got what was coming to them anyway." I recognize that the same could be said of all of sinful humanity, but applying this logic to this particular instance of suffering paints a scary picture of God and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Are there other answers? Is this simply a case where we have to trust that God allowed this to happen because he has some higher and greater purpose that we cannot understand?

Daniel Kim said...

Yes, there is another, a much more personally meaningful, answer to this problem of suffering. Because in the end, to the sufferer, this question is not really a philosophical question. To the sufferer, the question is not a "Why" with a question mark, but a "Why" with an exclamation point.

And to that outcry of bewildering pain and suffering, the answer that God gives is the cross. I am not sure if the cross answers the question of suffering in any kind of philosophical sense. But what it does show is that God cares, that God actually suffers, too. It shows that God understands the bewilderment, that God knows firsthand the injustice and brokenness of the world.. for He experienced it firsthand.

I don't know why human sufferig happens through natural disasters, all philosophical answers explaining the brokenness of the world seem to fall short, because really, there's no satisfactory explanation to actual human suffering. All I know is that there are no words or explanations that speak more eloquently to true human suffering than the cross.