The most common objection to God’s existence is the presence of human suffering. How can there be a God when there is so much suffering in the world? This searing question is reiterated endlessly. Yet, it is an objection that has no legs at all on which to stand.
I have always sensed that behind this question is the presumption that if the person asking the question were God, the questioner would have created a world in which human beings would never suffer. The assumption is truly stupendous because it suggests, to supply words to the atheist’s thoughts, “If I were God, I would do the job right.”
Apart from the pride that goes along with such a presumption, there is something that the atheist overlooks. God, in fact, did create a world in which human beings, beginning with Adam and Eve, were not to experience any suffering. The Garden of Eden was Paradise. God created the first human beings with neither death nor disease in his plans.
But, as we know from our reading of Genesis, things did not work out very well. Our primal parents could not leave well enough alone. The reason for this, quite simply, was human freedom. Because Adam and Eve were free, they could reject the Paradise God gave them. They wanted more than was possible; they wanted to be equal to God.
Naturally, a creature cannot be both a creature and a creator at the same time. But freedom does not necessarily choose what is realistic. The presence of pride makes it possible for freedom to lean toward the irrational and the unrealistic. Suffering is the inescapable consequence of a person’s refusing to be what he or she is. If a person overeats, smokes too much or drinks excessively, the biological laws inherent in that person’s body are unforgiving. He or she will suffer in one way or another.
If a child runs away from home, the child becomes homeless. If a creature severs his friendship with God, he embarks on a path of inevitable suffering, just as if he decided not to eat, breathe or sleep. The Fall brings suffering, as does the turbulent journey back home.
Suffering is not God’s idea of how humans should live. It is the inevitable result of humanity’s stubbornly rejecting its own nature. It is the fate portrayed in Aesop’s fable about the horse that, in trying to sing like a nightingale, lost its ability to whinny like a horse.
The great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, wrote a thought-provoking book, entitled God and the Permission of Evil. In this study, he elaborates on two axioms. The first is that “God is absolutely not the cause of moral evil.”
It is most interesting that an atheist can presume, if the atheist were God, that he or she would not permit suffering in light of the fact that when people do have an opportunity to create, they often make sure their characters suffer both continuously as well as immensely. Consider the soap opera, a purely human creation. It routinely depicts human life as a hell on earth. A“soap” without a healthy sprinkling of scandalous activity simply cannot survive in the war for television ratings. The following one-week synopsis of “One Life to Live” is typical:
After bugging Peter’s hospital room, Brad discovered Karen and Marco switched Mary with Jenny’s deceased child. Bo questioned Asa’s new security system at Olympia’s crypt, where Pat and Cliff snooped. Ted tried to turn Vicky against Becky. Wanda filled Clint in on Niki Smith. Marco, who grew more restless, told Karen they would make a nifty couple. Corky, Peter’s nurse, made eyes at Brad. Will advised Katrina to work on improving her self-esteem. Marcello drank away his confusion over Katrina and Dorian.
The prevalence in the media of immoral characters’ inflicting suffering on one another is an indication that its creators and audiences alike have an insatiable appetite for such depictions.
An unplugged lamp does not shine. A rebellious creature, disconnected from God, does not thrive. It is man who inaugurates the chain of human suffering, not God. By contrast, the depiction of goodness seems boring.
G. K. Chesterton once quipped that if there were no God, there would be no atheists. Even the existence of an atheist is an astonishing fact that the atheist is reluctant to acknowledge. Atheists are too enamored with their atheism (something that is truly theirs alone) to credit God for their existence. According to the great satirist, Jonathan Swift, “That the universe was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, I will no more believe than that the accidental jumbling of the alphabet would fall into a most ingenious treatise of philosophy.”
Atheism is unrealistic on several counts. Many atheists think they could do a better job if they were God. Yet, we have invincible difficulties in finding a person who can properly run a country, or a city or even a small-town bank properly. Let us not talk about running the cosmos. None of us could do any better that Goethe’s “sorcerer’s apprentice.”
Atheism is about pride, not logic. Theism is about love. Pride and love are mutually exclusive. But love is infinitely more realistic.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s “Truth & Charity Forum.”