The Non-Problem of Pain
Pain and suffering raise a dilemma. Philosophers commonly argue: “If God is good, then He is not all-powerful; and if He is all-powerful, then He is not good.” Suffering, they insist, is not compatible with an omnipotent, benevolent deity. If God were both good and omnipotent, He would never allow suffering. Since misery and suffering do occur, He is either not good or He is not all-powerful.
A few theologians say that God is omnipotent though not good. They think of Him as being beyond good and evil and indifferent to finite happenings, or as having created the world in such a way that pain simply comes about when people violate the laws of the created universe. God, somewhat abstracted from it all, could not care less about the relentlessness of created nature. It is a kind of self-correcting universe; people have to pay the price of pain when they tinker with it. God Himself does not tinker with it, and thus there are no miracles.
The Indian god, Bhagwan, exemplifies this thought. A picture on the temple wall showed this deity bending over the prone figure of a human being and pulling out the victim’s entrails. One tourist asked the meaning of the painting and was told that it ‘‘shows Bhagwan’s power.” Apparently Bhagwan, though not good, was irresistible and did not hesitate to show his strength by torturing those less powerful than he.
The more common philosophical solution, however, is to give up not the goodness of God, but rather His omnipotence. God is indeed good, but suffering proves that He simply is not able to achieve universal happiness. He would like to, and if He were able He would. Since He does not, He is not able. When God is put in the dock, He is cleared of any guilt of ill will. He is simply less powerful than He is benevolent.
The idea of a finite God has had a long history from Plato to Edgar Sheffield Brightman. God may be infinite in His goodness, but He is finite in other qualities, especially power. He is a limited deity as far as His ability to execute His desires is concerned. The result is the tragic story of human misery. William James, one of the most noted preachers of the finite God, goes even further than that. In one of his most noted comments, he remarked that there is a problem of suffering as long as one cockroach pines in unrequited love. I myself will have to admit that my faith was challenged when in a museum many years ago I saw an artificial representation of a hawk pulling apart a tiny bird. “Nature red in tooth and claw” nearly overpowered my belief in an omnipotently good deity. We sympathize with William James’s suffering cockroach, and agree with him that, if there is a problem of pain at all, it is not restricted to human beings. Wherever there is any anguish, there is the problem of pain.
We need not further illustrate what is meant by the problem of pain. What probably troubles the reader is having been told that there is no problem of pain—especially since the writer is not a Christian Scientist, but actually admits that pain hurts. How could anyone imagine that pain raises no problem in a universe in which an omnipotently benevolent deity reigns supreme?
The answer to that so-called problem of pain is sin. As long as there is sin, there can be no problem of pain. A good God, if He is omnipotent, would have to make the sinner suffer.
A dilemma would exist only if there were no suffering in a sinful world. Then we would have to say there cannot be a true God. Were there no adversity in a sinful world, God either would not be good or would not be omnipotent. Either He would be unconcerned about sin’s being unpunished, and therefore not good, or He would be unable to punish sin, and therefore not omnipotent. That would be a real problem in our world, where sin obviously abounds.
What could you possibly expect in a sinful world but suffering? If there were no suffering, then you would have an absolutely unanswerable problem: How could God be all-powerful and all-good and allow sin to go unpunished?
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.