Spiritual but not religious

Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.

If God is all good and all powerful, why does s/he allow suffering?

This is the $64,000 theological question – the technical term for the issue is theodicy, from the Greek theos – god; and dike – justice. It’s the subject of many thick books, so I don’t expect to answer it in these 400 words; but I would suggest two things. First, all religions, not just Christianity, have grappled with the question with little success. Second, it might be better to shorten the question to: “Why do we suffer?” This turns what presents as a theological question into the more general philosophical and existential question that it really is. Human suffering is a challenge independent of our descriptions of God.

Certainly, human beings cause each other a great deal of suffering, intentionally and unintentionally. This might be a result of “sin” or perversity, or evolutionary biology. A common explanation for the suffering that human beings cause one another is that we have “free will”, but the concept of free will is not uncontroversial; nor is it, again, purely theological.

“Natural evil” – disease, drought, earthquakes, hurricanes, death itself – is harder to rationalize theologically. Could not God have created a world without such problems? Among religious responses to the problem of natural evil (outside of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are ideas such as the material world and its suffering are an illusion; or that good and evil are competing and more or less balanced forces in the universe; or that god or the gods are not necessarily all good or all powerful. All of these aside from the possible answer that there simply is no god. A fresh look at the issue of natural evil may be needed. Human beings have accumulated the collective power to cause climate disasters. What is our own responsibility?

It does not seem to me that purely logical answers to the problem of evil can ever be satisfactory. We have long understood that even if we knew perfectly well why we suffer, such knowledge would do little to alleviate our suffering in general. At best we might consider it a duty to avoid causing suffering for others – a little bit of reflection will reveal that this is plenty difficult! – and to alleviate the suffering around us as best we are able. The virtues of hope and compassion must serve.

The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church