In a couple of previous posts, I have discussed the Sam Harris accusation of narcissism and his accusation concerning the suffering of children. In his arguments, Dr. Harris is criticizing God for the ocean of pain in which we as human beings find ourselves swimming. “How can God be good?”, runs the argument, “when human beings are surrounded by and experience this vast ocean of undeserved suffering and pain?” Against this argument, apologists for a traditional understanding of Christianity sometimes argue that the pain is not undeserved because of the original sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Since there is no evidence for Eden and since the morality of punishing children for a crime committed by unknown ancestors is questionable, this explanation for the suffering we find around us is extremely unsatisfactory and Harris uses this argument to ridicule Christian belief.
Now in my essay on the suffering of children, I made a very limited argument that God cannot heal a sick child even though He wants to and has the power because the attitudes of the parents would make such a miraculous vindication more harmful than helpful. I then generalized that case and argued that God’s actions are incomprehensible to us because we do not have information or processing power to understand anything on the scale of human history. Though I stand by that argument and believe that it has explanatory power when it comes to the question of suffering in the world, a truly satisfying explanation is only possible if one formulates such an understanding on the basis of God’s fundamental purpose in this world.
As I have advocated on this site in a number of different essays, God’s work in this world can only be understood in the light of the fact that created beings are inherently evil. That is to say, created beings are incapable of perfect love without divine assistance. Created beings are not omniscient nor all loving and this limited understanding and capacity for love means that we will inevitably love imperfectly without divine assistance. This imperfect love would inevitably cause any society of created beings to become arbitrarily horrible. How horrible? Look around you and see the way human beings treat one another. Murders, lies, theft, adultery, physical assault, verbal abuse, misery and suicide are all the inevitable consequences of every human being “doing what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
God has put us in this world, therefore, to see for ourselves what it is like to live without his guidance, protection and love. Do people get killed wholesale in industrial accidents and natural disasters? This is the inevitable consequence of rejecting God’s protection and direction. Do people murder and injure one another on a colossal scale? This is what it is like to live among those who have rejected God’s guidance and love.
The only way that a created being can live in harmony and peace with others and with God, therefore, is to accept the forgiveness, guidance and direction of God available to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. With God’s assistance, created beings can love one another perfectly and a perfect society based on perfect love is Heaven. God’s purpose in the suffering of this world, therefore, is to get us to reject the self-will and pride that makes extreme suffering inevitable that “we might have life and have it more abundantly”. (John 10:10) The suffering of this world is not punishment for original sin, it is God demonstrating to human beings our need for the Cross of Jesus Christ. For anyone who accepts Jesus Christ, therefore, the finite suffering of this world is swallowed up in an eternity of joy and blessing.
Now, of course, atheists are not going to accept this explanation of suffering. The natural follow up question is “What happens to those who do not accept God’s love and forgiveness? Their suffering is not mitigated by living in eternal paradise.” While it is true that those who reject God do not live in eternal joy, they do experience God’s eternal blessing. Those who choose to live without God have the gift of eternal life given to them by God, they just won’t enjoy it because life without God’s guidance, love and forgiveness is hell. I have discussed these issues in my essay on the “Nature of Hell“.
While I have taken the time to answer the question that Dr. Harris has asked about the goodness of God, it should be noted for the sake of humility that no human being has the right to accuse God in this manner. Of the great ocean of suffering experienced by humanity, only a small amount is ever experienced by a single human being. What right do I have to accuse God on behalf of others? They will have their own voice and will be able to make their own case before God’s throne. We know how these exchanges are going to go because the Bible tells us that, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10)
When I read this post over earlier this evening, I realized to my horror that I had not mentioned the Cross of Christ! How could I have written something explaining God’s purpose for the suffering of the world without mentioning the Cross? Yikes! I rewrote the post to correct this oversight.