In one of the first significant conversations I had on this topic, my Aunt Regina expressed to me how difficult it is to see her son Charles—my cousin—struggle with a serious mental illness. Putting the question before the questioner, I started spouting some of my abstract, philosophical ideas about why God might allow suffering. But after listening very graciously, Aunt Regina turned to me and said, “But Vince, that doesn’t speak to me as a mother.”
Suffering is very real and very personal, and since that conversation with my aunt I am always hesitant to address it briefly. In what follows, I explore one line of response that I have found helpful, but please forgive me if anything I say comes across as if I am not taking seriously any real life suffering you are dealing with. My hope is this will not be the case, and that amid the suffering of this world each of us will find strength, comfort, and meaning in the community of those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ.
Here is a sketch of an idea I have been developing and have written about elsewhere under the name “Non-Identity Theodicy.” It’s typical to think of the problem of evil like this: we picture ourselves in this world of suffering; then we picture ourselves in a world with far less suffering. And then we wonder, “Shouldn’t God have created us in the other world—the world with far less suffering?”
That’s a reasonable thought. But I think it’s a thought that relies on a philosophical mistake. It relies on the assumption that it would still be you and me who would exist in that other world. And that is highly controversial. Let me explain.
There was a pivotal moment early on in my parents’ dating relationship. They were on their second date. They were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the picturesque New York City skyline, and my dad noticed a ring on my mom’s finger. So he asked about it, and she said, “Oh, that’s just some ring one of my old boyfriends gave me. I just wear it ‘cause I think it looks nice.”
“Oh, yeah, it is nice,” my dad said, “let me see it.”
So Mom took it off and handed it to him, and my dad hurled it off the bridge and watched it sink to the bottom of the East River! “You’re with me now,” he said; “you won’t be needing that anymore.”
And my mom loved it!
But what if she hadn’t? What if she had concluded my dad had lost it and ran off with her old boyfriend instead? What would that have meant for me?
I might be tempted to think I could have been better off. I might have been taller. I might have been better looking. Maybe the other guy was royalty. That would have been cool! I could’ve lived in a castle!
But, actually, that’s not right. There’s a problem with wishing my mom wound up with the other guy, and the problem is this: ‘I’ never would have existed.
Maybe some other child would have existed. And maybe he would have been taller and better looking and lived in a castle. But part of what makes me who I am—the individual that I am—is my beginning: the parents I have, the sperm and egg I came from, the combination of genes that’s true of me.
Asking “Why didn’t God create me in a world with far less suffering?” is similar to saying “I wish my mom had married the other guy.” I’m sure my mom and her old boyfriend would have had some very nice kids, but ‘I’ would not have been one of them.
We often wish we could take suffering out of our world while keeping everything else the same. But it doesn’t work that way. If something as small as the throwing of a ring into the East River can change who comes to exist, imagine how radically who comes to exist would be changed if God miraculously removed all vulnerability to suffering. Imagine if he took away free will every time we thought to hurt someone, or if he radically changed our natural environment—if weather systems and plate tectonics didn’t behave as they do, if we were never susceptible to disease, if the laws of thermodynamics had undergone a redesign. What would be the results?
One likely result is that none of us would have lived. Sometimes we understandably wish that the world had been very different. But, in doing so, we unwittingly wish ourselves—and those we love—right out of existence.
And I don’t think God likes that idea! In fact, I think one of the things that God values most about this world—even though he hates the suffering in it—is that it is a world that allowed for you. I believe God desired you. Not because you are better, or smarter, or funnier, or better looking than the other creatures God could have created, but simply out of grace—unmerited love, the love of a parent standing over a newborn child.
The question, “Why do you love your child?” doesn’t even make sense to the parent. What do you mean why do I love her? She’s my child. I made her. She’s in my image. She has my nose.
My family has had quite a bit of disability in it. Some people would say that, because of the suffering caused by their disabilities, it would have been better if my cousin, Charles, had never existed, and if my uncle, John, had never existed. There would have been less suffering overall; the world would be better off.
I adamantly disagree. It’s because I knew Charles and John intimately that their suffering was so frustrating. But it’s also because I knew Charles and John intimately that I can understand why God loves them so deeply, and why God would value a world that allowed for them to have life and to be offered eternal life.
Why didn’t God create a very different world? When this world fell into ruin, why didn’t God give up on it and start over? Well, it depends on what God values. And what if one of the things he values – values greatly and unconditionally – is you, and the people you love, and every person you see walking down the street?
Sometimes we wish God had made a very different sort of world, but in doing so we fail to realize that we are wishing ourselves out of existence. And so the problem of suffering is reframed in the form of a question: could God have wronged you by creating a world in which you came to exist and are offered eternal life, rather than creating a different world in which you never would have lived?
There is a strong analogy here between divine creation and human procreation. We know that intentional human procreation will result in serious suffering, because even the most fortunate of human lives includes serious suffering. Even more than that, we know that one day any child we bring into existence will suffer death.
Why, then, do we think that having a child is morally okay, and even can be loving and courageous? Because the child who comes to exist would not have existed otherwise. In human procreation we risk great suffering, but in doing so we give to someone the gift of life. What I have been suggesting is that, similarly, in creating and sustaining this world rather than some very different world, God gave each of us the gift of life and the offer of eternal life with him.
Here is the result of this reasoning: if you think it would be in principle evil to create people into a world that you know will produce serious suffering in their lives, you will not only need to call God evil, you will also need to call evil anyone who decides to have a child. What follows is that if there is good reason to think that human procreation can be an act of love, there is also good reason to think that God’s creation could be an act of love.
This is by no means an exhaustive response to the problem of suffering, but it does suggest that the problem is more complex than it first appears. The loving parent is not the one who never risks suffering in a child’s life; the loving parent—whether human or divine—is the one who is willing to suffer alongside a child, and willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure that one day suffering can be overcome.