Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Suffering and deconversion

I listened to a wonderful talk over the weekend by Jeff Arthurs, a professor up at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. In it, he addressed the issue of suffering from a theological issue. Obviously, this is a classic issue in both theology and philosophy, and there is much that can be said about it. Still, I found his remarks quite useful.

Besides a personal interest in understanding the issue, I was interested in what he had to say because this issue--why do people suffer--came up a lot in our studies of deconversion. A number of the respondents said they left the faith in part because they couldn't understand why innocent people suffered.

Though he didn't use this language, Arthurs cast the difficulty of this issue in terms of cognitive balance, and this perspective highlights why people would leave Christianity due to this issue.

Arthurs identified four simultaneously-true propositions about Christianity & suffering:

1) God exists
2) God is powerful
3) God is loving
4) Suffering sometimes happens to innocent people

Taken together, these statements are cognitively imbalanced. I.e., it's hard to know how all four can be true. But... take any one of them away, and they become balanced. To illustrate,

Drop #1--People think that God is powerful and loving, but in reality God does not exist, and that is why there is suffering in the world. This is the logic used by some of the deconverts.

Drop #2--God may exist and be loving, but if God is unable to prevent suffering, then innocent people will suffer.

Drop #3--God may be powerful indeed, but if God doesn't truly love people, then God wouldn't protect the innocent from suffering. This was another form of logic we found we deconversion--basically: Why should I follow a God who doesn't take care of people.

Drop #4--Maybe innocent suffering doesn't really exist. Maybe the suffering people were really not innocent, and somehow they deserved it. (E.g., Gays "deserving" AIDS). Or... maybe suffering doesn't really exist--it's an illusion.


Ruud Vermeij said...

Personally, I think the factor of free will solves the equation.

An existing, powerful, loving God is not an all-controlling dictator; therefore suffering happens. (Because of how we deal with eachother and how we messed up nature.) Maybe this is not a 100 % solution, but for me it comes close!

Brad Wright said...

I agree that free will enters into the picture, so as part of that we're can hurt each other. As such, 9/11 and other human-on-human harm doesn't pose as much of a moral dilemma as do natural disasters or disease--things were no one has a choice.

John Williams said...

I have personally wrestled with this topic quite a bit over the last few years, and in reading some good stuff and talking to different people who are older and more experienced than I am, here is my conclusion.

I think the problem is that there is an assumption that comes with #3. It is, "If God loves us, He will do whatever is necessary to protect us from suffering."

We make this assumption because when we love someone, we will try hard to shield them from suffering. If you have kids, you can definitely appreciate this. However, there are times when we have no choice but to either allow our kids to suffer (e.g., they need some kind of painful medical treatment in order to get back to good health), or to cause suffering for them (e.g., not allowing them to do something they want to do because we know it will be harmful to them). In the same way, God sometimes allows or even CAUSES suffering in our lives because He knows the good that will come from it.

We are very temporal people and have a hard time truly understanding that concept, with me being a good example of that. But I believe that if #1 (God exists) and #2 (God is all powerful) are both true, that He probably is able to see the "Big Picture" much better than I can. It doesn't always relieve my pain and suffering, but it does help me with the Cognitive Dissonance problem.

I like what CS Lewis had to say. I think it was from "The Problem of Pain", and I am paraphrasing here, but he said something like: "What we want is NOT a heavenly father, but rather something more like a heavenly GRANDFATHER, who sits back in his chair and watches his grandchildren play, and at the end of the day joyfully declares, 'A good time was had by all.'"

J. R. Miller said...

I don't think we can understand the ethical nature of evil/suffering, unless at the same time we come to grips with the ethical nature of good/pleasure.

HERE is my effort to understand good and evil.

Jim said...

My opinion on this remains nearly the same as when I first entered the faith nearly 36 years ago. If it is already settled that God exists, if we know that we know, the circumstances aren't puzzles to be solved, but burdens that we give unto Him, accepting His answer as it comes...

kent said...

These are same conclusions that Rabbi Kushner came to in his book "Why bad things happen to good people".

Brad Wright said...

John, I think that your right that some suffering is redemptive. That probably takes care of any suffering I've ever gone through, but it leaves me wanting more when it comes to big disasters like a Tsunami. So really, the question is more a theoretical thing rather than a day-to-day thing.

Jim, I think I'm at where you are--that this isn't a detective case trying to prove God. We start with the God question and go from there. Still... it's a question that nags.

J.R., your post on the matter is helpful. Certainly a useful distinction!

Kent, Jeff Arthurs actually addressed that book, and he suggested that it argued God as powerless to stop some things. Haven't read it myself.