Evil and human suffering – Philosophical/theological problem or human tragedy?

By | March 23, 2011

Many studies of the philosophy of religion include the “problem of evil,” which can be treated either as an intellectual problem, one which raises logical and epistemic issues, or as an existential problem of human tragedy.

Philosophers and theologians take on the challenge of trying to show that one can consistently affirm God’s existence and the fact of evil in the world. Other philosophers argue the contrary thesis. Questions of logical consistency are hashed back and forth; attempts are made to make concepts fit together, while others expose unexamined assumptions and point to implications that follow from propositions affirmed.

But the intellectual problem arises from the “existential problem”, one concerning human experience of suffering and evil, and human attempts to make sense of such suffering and evil. However, unless we have been there, we cannot fully comprehend first-hand experience of suffering and confrontation with evil. Fortunately, great literature, film, art and drama can offer a concrete, real-life expression, and enable us some measure of the experience of human tragedy. Great literature, both religious and secular, effectively portrays humans in confrontation with suffering and moral evil, attempting to find meaning and some redeeming value in tragedy.

In some cases, the message of literature and art implies a rejection of the intellectual “solutions” as mostly ineffective. This is the case in the following three examples, two from world literature and one from a contemporary drama.

Biblical Story of Job: Job suffers overwhelming loss and affliction. Three friends accompany him and offer theological explanations of his situation. Job rejects them all as irrelevant and ineffective. For him nothing about his travail makes any sense (he has been pious and morally upstanding). “The virtuous suffer along with the evil doers. Even worse, the evil doers prosper.” What is God doing??

Dostoevsky – “Rebellion” (1879-80)- In an emotionally wrenching exchange between two Karamozov brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, Ivan takes up the case of the gratuitous suffering of children, something he cannot accept as justifiable or subject to theological, philosophical explanation. He remarks that even if someone were to prove that children’s suffering was a necessary condition for achievement of ultimate harmony, he would reject that ‘truth.’ The suffering of one innocent child cannot be justified by a higher purpose or harmony to be achieved. Alyosha remarks that this is a form of rebellion against God.

PBS Drama: “God on Trial” (2008)- Jewish men imprisoned at Nazi death camp (Auschwitz?) and awaiting execution put God on trail on charge of violating the covenant with the Jewish people. Different witnesses give testimony, some presenting theological and philosophical defenses of God’s inaction and apparent indifference to the plight of Jews at hands of Nazi executioners.
The discussion — sometimes heated, sometimes half- whispered, always charged — went back and forth. If suffering is God’s design, is Hitler a servant of God? Does God want them to suffer and die? Why, as Jews, do they think that they have a monopoly on God? The convicted criminal who oversaw the bunkhouse spat that he just wanted to survive and would do anything to do so. What use is free will? All attempts to defend God are found to be inadequate, not at all justifications for what God has allowed to happen. Ultimately, God was found guilty of a breach of contract, although this verdict was revealed in the present day by an old man.
One of the conclusions: “God is powerful and has been on our side in the past; but is no longer our advocate and protector. God does not represent moral justice.”

The screen play written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and probably inspired by Eli Wiesel’s account of his experience in Nazi concentration camp and his book The Trial of God.

Human existence and evil:

The question is not why do humans commit and suffer evil, but why so much? Why is there so much gratuitous evil and unnecessary suffering? (Gratuitous Evil (suffering) – Suffering which is devoid of reason or justification.) The question is not why isn’t the world one of perfection and pure happiness, but why is the world one in which so much is permeated with intense suffering, evil, and injustice? This question is one which applies even to a secular person, someone who has a non-theistic, naturalistic view of reality. In the face of such overwhelming evil, what meaning and value can we find in human existence? What moral order remains? The question becomes more pressing for the theist who believes in an all-powerful deity who represents the highest moral good.

Some Christians have the image of the God the heavenly shepherd, who cares for his flock. Jews have the idea of a covenant between God and his chosen people. Muslims believe that everything that happens is Allah’s will. In each case, we have the general idea of a deity who controls or oversees all that happens to his creatures. Add to this the idea that the deity is perfectly good and desires that his creatures enjoy their measure of happiness and well-being. Often we apply the analogy of a parent who desires and works to realize the welfare of his children. (Another analogy: we judge the skill of the builder by the strength and integrity of his building. David Hume relies on similar analogies to argue that on basis of his works we could never infer the existence of an all-powerful, perfect Being.)

There isn’t any need to think in terms of perfection or a world of pure happiness. All we need to envision is a world which is not so full of gratuitous evil, unnecessary suffering, and injustice. The question that both the believer (in a deity) and the non-believer asks: Can’t we imagine a better world? The answer, to anyone who notices what human history and current reality are like, is that obviously one can imagine a better world, for example, one in which children do not suffer unnecessarily. Conscientious people, both believers and non-believers, work to realize such a better world.
Existential problem: Given human experience of evil, how do we make rational sense of evil? What are the implications for our beliefs, our faith, and our attitude (toward God, with regard to our moral values)? What meaning or value or moral order can we find in human existence?


The question for theologians and ‘philosophical’ defenders of theism: Given the plausibility of a better world, what are the implications for belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good deity who oversees the human world?

The question for everyone, including nonbelievers in deity, is why does the world show so little moral progress in present so much evil, suffering. This question arises in the context of great progress in the sciences, technologies, engineering, medicine, communication, etc.

History and news accounts of current world events can be read as horror stories!

War, oppression , slavery of African people, genocide, conquest and destruction of Native American cultures, . . In the 20th century: the Jewish Holocaust, Genocide in Soviet Union, of the Armenian people, in Southeast Asia (Cambodia’s “killing fields), in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi) – Suffering and massive death resulting from two world wars, aerial bombing of cities and civilians seen as acceptable way of doing war, atomic bombing of Japanese cities; from continuing conflict in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan – September 11, 2001 attack.

Disease, plague, physical and mental afflictions of many kinds, famine, drought, natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes), hurricanes, Flu Epidemic of 1917, Tsunami near Indonesia in 2004, the Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Gross economic inequality and disparity in quality of life around the world.

Any great suffering that we focus on (e.g. genocide, Jewish holocaust, slavery of Africans, conquest and destruction of native Americans, oppression, hunger, death from preventable disease in ‘developing nations’; death and suffering from wars) is but a sampling of the suffering of people throughout history.

From the PBS dramatization “God on Trial”: “God was not good. He was only on our side.” (Statement by a Jewish man referring to Biblical history of Hebrews. Statement made in context of attempt to make sense of God’s role at time of Nazi genocide perpetrated on Jews, among others.)

“God destroys both the guilty and the innocent. Even worse, He allows the evil doer to prosper, and destroys the righteous.”

Biblical Job: The lesson taught: Might makes right. Job is overwhelmed by the might of the almighty. Question of justice becomes irrelevant.

The lesson of Job is not an intellectual one, but an existential one. Job, the paragon of virtue, has become a man of flesh and blood overcome by suffering. Standard answers (from theology and philosophy) to the problem of evil and suffering are discarded as insufficient, even irrelevant. The questions raised by Job are not intellectual ones. He cries out because, through suffering, he has lost the capacity to trust in life itself. The final point (a religious one) is that meaning in life is not to be found in words (philosophy), but in confrontation with the Almighty himself.

From Plato: Socrates raises a philosophical dilemma for theists. Either moral good is what God does (i.e., definition of “good” as anything which God does) or God does what is good (meaning, the action of deity is good by some objective standard). If the former is true and good is by definition whatever God does, then there is no problem of evil. But you have bizarre consequences that genocide, murder, and the suffering of innocent children could be morally good. If the latter is true (God’s acts can be evaluated by some standard of good), than we have a problem of evil when the actions of God (and what He allows to happen) are evil by our objective standard and cannot be explained as the acts of benevolent, just Being. .

Analogy: In life you win some and lose some. But the ‘evil’ does not result from failure to find perfection, from our not having a perfect season. Yes, sometimes good people win (the trapped minors are rescued and all passengers on the down airliner are safe). Evil results when everyday is one of profound suffering and loss, as is the case for the majority of people on the earth. Evil is manifest in the gross injustice and disparity of wealth and standards of life around the world.

“Any talk of a correspondence between moral justice and human destiny is just plain foolishness.”

From Michael L. Peterson, The Problem of Evil, Selected Readings

“Among various issues in the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil commands much attention. Both the specialized philosopher and the intelligent lay person puzzle over how certain theological concepts fit together, how to evaluate various explanations of why God allows evil, and what personal stance to adopt toward a world such as ours which includes so much evil.”

“From the lament of the ancient patriarch, Job, to Albert Camus’ disturbing tale of about a bubonic plague epidemic in the French town of Oran, we see the horrors of natural evil. Each piece raises in its own way the question of how the God of theism — a being thought to be omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good — could allow undeserved physical suffering. Then, in the exchange between Ivan and Alyosha Karamozov given to us by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and in the chilling account of the Holocaust by Elie Wiesel, we sense the terrible and haunting human capacity for moral evil. Why does God, if he exists, allow human beings to be so inhuman to each other?”


But the question could also be: Why do humans allow so much injustice and commit so much inhuman evil on others? We don’t need the postulation of a God to pose the problem of evil.

2 thoughts on “Evil and human suffering – Philosophical/theological problem or human tragedy?

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