It remains one of the most perplexing mysteries in all of theology: if an all-powerful god has infinite love for all of us, how can They allow untold suffering in the World? Events such as indiscriminate natural disasters and childhood ailments that cut innocent lives short. The question has attracted the attention of theologians and philosophers alike throughout the ages and their quest to find answers has come to be known as theodicy.
I have discussed this topic before but it has remained at the forefront of my thinking. Enough so that I will attempt to explore it here in a little more depth so as to provide one possible rationale for the god I believe in.
One could argue that moral evil is an inevitable side-effect of humanity’s free will. That evil manifests as a result of human choices which The Greatest Love has relinquished control over. But suffering due to natural causes, whether they be medical, environmental, or some other source independent from human free will is different. A child does not choose to have leukemia. A man does not choose to have his family taken from him in an earthquake or tornado. These examples of natural evil are not a reflection of human free will. They are a reflection of something else and they can be troubling.
Some people believe such suffering originates with the Fall of Adam and Eve. That it is an eternal punishment for humankind’s disobedience to Yahweh. I do not believe this. Science teaches us that the biblical story of Adam and Eve cannot be real but even as a metaphor it represents a disproportionate response in this age of sacred love to inflict all of humanity with untold suffering, in perpetuity, due to the disobedience of our ancestors. What kind of god would do such a thing? Certainly not the One loving god of today which I believe in.
Some atheists have used the existence of natural evil to argue that a god is either imaginary or evil. Their sentiment is exemplified in this interview with Stephen Fry from 2015, a well-known author and atheist:
Now I agree with one of Mr. Fry’s points that a god that demands our worship should be viewed skeptically but disagree with his overall argument. Mr. Fry devotes most of his time denouncing this “evil” god but only has one short sentence fragment to find anything positive to say: “Yes the world is very splendid but …“. Splendid? Is that the best that can be said about our World? A World of breathtaking beauty and countless wonders but also one that contains so many simple pleasures: a hug from a friend, a child’s laugh or a partner’s embrace. A World with so much love and yet Mr. Fry chooses to focus on the most painful parts of it. When he says it is “not right” I agree. His argument is not right for it fails to properly account for the love that is all around us. When citing the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of a higher and loving power we should also be prepared to balance that view against the problem of beauty.
A theodicy asks why a supposed omnipotent and omnibenevolent god allows such suffering and natural evil to occur in the world. Various proposals have been put forward to address the question. Many based on religious doctrine such as the original sin introduced by Adam and Eve mentioned above. Other proposals posit a god who introduces evil and suffering in the world in order to test us. Still others describe a god with impenetrable motives whom we cannot possibly understand in this regard. An omnipotent and omniscient god that can peer into the future with certainty to see a greater good that will come as an eventual result of the tragedies in the past and present.
I have a few beliefs about the god I believe in, The Greatest Love, which form the basis of a defense that allows natural evil to co-exist with that god. Those beliefs are:
- I believe first and foremost The Greatest Love is all-loving. So much so that They have forsaken Their omnipotence and omniscience so that we may be more free.
- I do not believe in a god that continually tests our worthiness. For me such a being is as Mr. Fry describes: capricious and mean-minded. Not the all-loving god I believe in.
- I believe in a god who instead is not continually trying to test us, but to teach us, the knowledge and compassion we must attain in order to progress our love and achieve Their Divine Plan.
Why not simply present all knowledge to humankind, in some form of Book of Knowledge, delivered by a prophet? In it would be the cures to all of our tragic suffering. Because, I believe, the accumulation of knowledge is only a small part of The Greatest Love’s Plan. Yes knowledge will provide some of the raw tools necessary to realize Their Plan. But the wisdom to use those tools properly will be based on our collective love. Love becomes the much greater and much more important piece. And love cannot be learned from books. Nor can the complexity and intricacies of love be dictated from on high. Instead love needs to be experienced, in all its pain and glory, and higher forms of love need to be realized from those experiences. This takes time and, I believe, suffering along with the associated empathy in order to occur. And without that understanding we risk wielding newfound knowledge without the necessary compassion to do so wisely. The result can be even greater suffering, not less. I believe the World must come together first before it can properly harness some of the knowledge we have yet to learn. Knowledge that when combined with greater compassion will elevate our civilization even more.
To answer Mr. Fry’s question: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?“. I believe The Greatest Love has allowed great tragedies to unfold in order to grow humanity’s empathy and teach us the critical lessons of collective love. They are teaching us that a young life cut short from a terrible disease is something we all must feel, and support the efforts to find the answers for. That there is much more medical research that needs to be done. And in that pursuit of answers we may discover new therapies, eradicate more disease, and eliminate some of the pain and suffering in the World. Humanity’s true power lies not in our military arsenals, economic indicators, or religious fervor. It lies in our love. And the love for our children is the most sacrosanct. By investing in the cures to childhood ailments we elevate our civilization by protecting that most precious of treasures.
Is all suffering, moral or natural, meant to teach us the lessons of empathy, compassion and love? Yes I believe so. Whether those lessons, for example, inspire scientists and researchers, broaden public support for euthanasia and dying with dignity, or increase donations and funding to charities and hospices, I believe they are all love. And I believe that through science and understanding, the promise of eventual control over such natural evils comes into our reach.
There are similarities to this line of rationale and the greater good argument noted above but with a key difference. I believe humanity must act in the face of natural evil and not simply stand aside and say “It is God’s Will out of which They will provide a greater good“. Humanity must act, and not ignore, or worst cower, to such natural evil. We must attack it as forcefully as we do moral evils. We must support the efforts of science and technology to better predict natural disasters and the medical community’s efforts to find future cures for today’s incurable ailments. I believe it is our own empathetic reactions and subsequent actions to predict, reduce or eliminate such natural evils that will help result in the greater good. It must not all be left to The Greatest Love. Occurrences of natural evil are not the consequence of some master plan that can never fail to derive a greater good because it is orchestrated by an omniscient god. Instead greater goods may not be forthcoming because humanity can fail. When that happens the tragedies can be missed opportunities to learn and improve our societies. The Greatest Love is not controlling us. We must step up and find the greater good in such tragedies ourselves.
The Greatest Love created nature and chose its laws and in so doing required pain and suffering, disease and pathogens, to be a part of our Universe and to afflict the most beautiful and innocent of Their creations. But I ask you to just begin to imagine Their pain and suffering. The highest love, divine love, having to torture an innocent child in order that love may progress. With only our sacred love the pain of losing a child can be unbearable. Now imagine what it would feel like for a god of infinite love who is the inflictor of such torment. We cannot even begin to fathom Their agony.
And why do They do this to Themselves? So that all people may be truly free. But I believe there was an alternative creation The Greatest Love could have constructed. They could have created a deterministic, clockwork Universe consisting of human life that lacked true free will. A cosmic train set where “the neighbors are always kind, the lovers always end up together, and the trains take you to the far-off places you always swore you’d go.”
Life in our Universe is not nearly so neat and tidy because it cannot be predetermined even by The Greatest Love. In place of a deterministic Universe devoid of any pain or suffering The Greatest Love has created a Universe where we are truly free. The consequence of this is that our Universe is not a closed system. Supernatural elements span the chasm between it and the heavens. And with those elements our libertarian free will comes into existence.
But Their Divine Plan must remain the same: the progression of love for all of humankind. This Plan is as constant in our Universe as The Greatest Love Themselves. I believe it is this combination, libertarian free will along with the need to elevate our love higher that necessitates our pain and suffering at the hands of natural evil.
The lack of “neatness and tidiness” that results however means The Greatest Love must take a number of our most loved and innocent, well before we are ready to lose them. It is at these times that I believe The Greatest Love suffers most grievously alongside the stricken. It is at these times that They wish there was some other way. But there is not. Our love must be allowed to progress to the highest of levels and the words of the seventh message resound in my memory: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. But it had to be this way.“
I also believe that “miraculous” recoveries from terminable diseases point not to the Invisible Hand of the Divine but instead voids in our current medical understandings. I believe The Greatest Love would not circumvent Their own laws of nature to cure only a select few. Instead in such recoveries there must exist knowledge to be gleaned that can help progress our love further. The Greatest Love looks to us, our doctors, and our scientists, to understand such miracles, in the hopes they can direct us toward future cures. In so doing we make our World a little more perfect, and bring it a little closer to the ideal of Heaven.
I believe The Greatest Love introduced pain and suffering into our Universe in order to teach its inhabitants empathy along with related forms of love such as kindness, compassion, and humility. Through those lessons our love will be exercised, strengthened and eventually progressed. For there will always remain a higher love to be achieved in the Universe and along with it pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are the catalysts that allow higher forms of love to be attained. These higher forms of love are the ultimate greater good. We must never simply stand aside and say such tragedy is the mysterious work of The Greatest Love out of which will always come a greater good. That leaves all the work to Them and absolves us of any duty to act.
We must weep with those who suffer. We must provide relief to those who are in pain. We must strive to eliminate such afflictions wherever they reside. We must work with The Greatest Love to achieve the greater good. In so doing we elevate our humanity further by continuing to progress our love. This is as The Greatest Love intended despite all the pain it causes us and Them.
Can an all-loving god coexist with bone cancer in children? I believe so if we are willing to open our hearts and listen to what that god is trying to teach us.