The Catechism of the Catholic Church admits the obvious, that is, “‘we walk by faith, not by sight;’ we perceive God as ‘in a mirror, dimly’ and only ‘in part.’ Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often liven in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.” (The United States Catholic Conference 1997, 51.164)
What is the answer, though, if there even is one? Why does God allow evil, pain and suffering? British philosopher Richard Swinburne offers the answer “that God cannot give us” the penultimate good “in full measure without allowing much evil on the way.” (Swinburne 2010, 85) His basic argument seems to run thus: God could have created the world without the possibility of pain and suffering, but this would exclude creatures – humans – with authentically free will/choice. Indeed, in employing “the free-will defense,” Swinburne argues “that it is a great good that humans have a certain sort of free will; which I shall call free and responsible choice, but that, if they do, then necessarily there will be the natural possibility of moral evil. (By the ‘natural possibility’ I mean that it will not be determined in advance whether or not the evil will occur.)” (Swinburne 2010, 86) To push his point further, this eminent philosopher of religion insists, “It is not logically possible – that is, it would be self-contradictory to suppose – that God could give us such free will and yet ensure that we always use it in the right way.” (Swinburne 2010, 86) In fact, Swinburne counts it as “good that the free choices of humans should include genuine responsibility for other humans,” however, this “necessarily involves the opportunity to benefit or harm them.” (Swinburne 2010, 87; Cf. also Kolakowski 2013, 162)
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz argued by deduction both the necessary existence of God and the perfect goodness of this God, thereby concluding that “God must have created the best world that is logically conceivable, and that this is the world we inhabit.” (Kolakowski 2013, 162) Of course, this does not directly, specifically address “natural evils” or disasters, which leave in their wake an immense amount of pain and suffering, seemingly so senseless. Are all natural disasters, or “evils,” senseless? The Cardinal Schönborn argues, no:
As powerful as the force of the movement of the continental plates was in 2004, a force that produced the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the planet earth, our home in the universe, was hardly affected… Dreadful as were the consequences of the tsunami unleashed by the submarine earthquake, the occurrence of earthquakes is merely the reverse side of something that is an essential condition of life on our planet. Without plate tectonics, the mobility of the plates that form the earth’s crust, there would be no life upon earth. (Schonborn 2007, 100)
Then, too, we must ask, are natural disasters/catastrophes strictly speaking “evil?” If not strictly speaking “evil,” then the teaching of the Church (despite the findings of science), at least infers these catastrophes are the result of human sin:
In creating man and woman God had given them a special participation in his own divine life in holiness and justice. In the plan of God they would not have had to suffer or die. Furthermore, a perfect harmony held sway within the human person, a harmony between creature and Creator, between man and woman, as well as between the first human couple and all of creation. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006, 25.72)
Indeed, again the teaching of the Church would seem to point to sinful humanity as primarily to blame:
In consequence of original sin human nature, without being totally corrupted, is wounded in its natural powers. It is subject to ignorance, to suffering, and to the dominion of death and is inclined toward sin. This is called concupiscence. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006, 26-27.77; cf. also the Epistle to the Romans 8.22-24)
Though it may sound rather callous, Swinburne puts something of a positive spin on the presence of what he refers to as “natural evil.” In his estimation, it is precisely the unwelcome occurrences of drought, various disasters, illness and whatnot that gives to humanity the opportunity to rise from good to better to best, as it were:
… Just imagine all the suffering of mind and body caused by disease, earthquake, and accident unpreventable by humans removed at a stroke from our society. No sickness, no bereavement in consequence of the untimely death of the young. Many of us would then have such an easy life that we simply would not have much opportunity to show courage or, indeed, manifest much in the way of goodness at all. We need those insidious processes of decay and dissolution which money and strength cannot ward off for long to give us the opportunities, so easy otherwise to avoid, to become heroes. (Swinburne 2010, 96)
This seems, however, to militate against God’s intentions in creation.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance. For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate. How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you. (Wisdom 11.23-25, NABRE)
And also, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” (Wisdom 1.13, NABRE) Furthermore, we are told explicitly by the Apostle St. Paul in his First Epistle to Timothy that “everything created by God is good…” (I Timothy 4.4a, NABRE) Are we missing something here? Perhaps rushing over the words too quickly? So, God does indeed love all that he has created. Does this necessarily negate the probability of the eventual presence of evil, pain, and suffering? And though God does not “rejoice” in the destruction of the living, does God somehow supersede that feeling with, one might say, an objective realization that ultimately good will overcome evil, life will spring forth from death as ultimately manifested in the resurrection of Christ, or to put it, perhaps, more mythoi-artistically, that the majestic Phoenix will rise from the ashes and fly again? Is this the via necessaria to the best of all probable worlds? Possibly.
The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu of South Africa certainly knows much about pain and suffering, specifically from the gross, immoral injustice of apartheid. He played an important role in both the overthrow of that horrid regime as well as the peaceful transition to new government and authentic justice. The Reverend Tutu, then, is an authority worthy of hearing on the subject, and he possesses and boldly expresses optimism, and even (humble) triumphalism, where seemingly senseless pain and suffering are concerned:
There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now – in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally… Indeed, God is transforming the world now – through us – because God loves us…
This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice. God is in charge. That is what upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid. (Tutu 2010, 148-149)
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna echoes the same conviction when he declares, “Evil is great, it is dreadful, and it cannot be explained away. Yet good is nonetheless always greater and more powerful – of this we may be convinced with absolute certainty. Evil, in all its forms, is always a lack of good, a defect, which may be great and frightful, yet is ultimately never greater than the good of which it is a distorted or deprived form.” (Schonborn 2007, 102)
Marine Geophysicist Robert White shares much the same sentiment, especially in his work as one of the leading scientists of the world. A Geology graduate of the University of Cambridge, he was awarded his PhD in Marine Geophysics in 1977. In 1989, White was appointed to the Chair of Geophysics at Cambridge. He was subsequently elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1994 and, with Denis Alexander, co-founded the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, in 2006. For White, his faith is fundamentally pivotal in both his overall perspective as well as his practical work, and what should be, in his estimation, the practical work of all Christians.
First off, in an honest appraisal of pain and suffering caused by often unpredictable and seemingly meaningless disasters, Robert White rejects the description of “natural,” pointing out rather bluntly that “God is sovereign over all of the cosmos, including what we call ‘nature,’ so there should be no sense in which a massive earthquake, tsunami, flood or volcanic eruption is outside God’s purview.” Still, these (and many other similar) events cause great devastation, including great loss of life. White, nevertheless, steers toward hope guided by his faith, pointing out that “while the secular world wrings its hands about the problems and consequences of natural disasters … Christianity brings a radical new approach.” (White 2009, 154-155) This radical new approach includes a number of important points:
- There is God, who is Creator and Superintendent over the whole of the created order.
- Everything ultimately belongs to this God, so that “the resources of this Earth are only on loan,” as it were; consequently…
- We have an obligation to rightly make use of the resources we have been given, and importantly…
- We have an obligation one to another, which includes continuing study and research in the various sciences with the double-goal in view of properly caring for this world and better helping humanity, specifically in alleviating pain and suffering.
“It is a profoundly Christian response to be prepared to give up some of our privileges for the sake of others, modelling in a small way Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us. Christians should care for the stranger and the foreigner even if they live out of sight on the other side of the world.” (White 2009, 155)
In the course of such self-sacrificial serving within the awareness of the sovereign-but-imminent Creator God, there have been those who have, shall we say, “risen above” or “by-passed” the pain and suffering of this world by way of an ever-deepening, personal experience of the divine and the world itself. As the 20th century Polish philosopher, Leszek Kołakowski shares in one of his essays, “Some pantheists and some mystics live lives so immersed in the divine environment that evil is unnoticeable in their universe. The light of God penetrates everything; there is no reason to complain and no point in complaining, for the world is full of joy and ‘whatever is of God, is God,’ as Eckhart says. Or, in the words of the seventeenth-century French mystic Louis Chardon, ‘God in the sky is more my sky than the sky itself; in the sun He is more my light than the sun, in the air He is more the air than the air I breathe.’” (Kolakowski 2013, 167)
Of course, this via vitæ may be understandably out of reach for the common man and woman, but perhaps equally as profound, is what Richard Swinburne refers to as “compensation in the form of happiness after death to the victims whose sufferings make possible the goods” (Swinburne 2010, 98) that issue forth in a world where pain and suffering are necessary in order to progress beyond mere, mundane existence to, or toward, what is optimally the best. White posits the same idea with, perhaps, a bit more polish in contrasting the futility of secular humanist naturalism with “the assurance that sin and injustice have already been dealt with for all time on the cross, and (thus) the certain hope for the future (is) that in due course the whole cosmos will be renewed in the new heavens and new earth.” (White 2009, 155)
In the end, perhaps, it is this hope founded upon faith – at least within the Abrahamic religions – that offers the necessary terminus to the evils, pain and suffering of this life in this world. Without this terminus, one might justly wonder if any other answer or point of explanation could possibly make any real difference at all, no matter how reasonable or sensible-sounding.
Kolakowski, Leszek. 2013. Is God Happy? Selected Essays. Translated by Agnieska Kolakowska. New York: Basic Books.
Schonborn, Christoph Cardinal. 2007. Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith. Edited by Hubert Philip Weber. Translated by Henry Taylor. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Swinburne, Richard. 2010. Is There A God? Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The United States Catholic Conference. 1997. Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications From The Edito Typica. New York: Doubleday.
Tutu, Desmond. 2010. “God Believes In Us.” In Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, edited by Francis Collins. New York: HarperOne.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2006. Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, D. C.: USCCB.
White, Robert. 2009. “Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Other Catastophes.” In Real Scientists, Real Faith, edited by R. J. Berry. Oxford: Monarch Books.