Monday, 20 October 2008

The problem of suffering in relation to Job

"I repeat the question. Is the world, considered in general, and as it appears to us in this life, different from what a man or such a limited being would, beforehand, expect from a very wise, powerful, and benevolent deity?"
David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Atheist)

"I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in his power?"
Job 23 verse 5-6

The problem of evil has always been close to my heart. Particularly because it seems to be a major factor in many Christians turning from their faith.This very nearly became the case for me towards the end of my first year at Uni. I was reading about Dostoyevsky's character Ivan Karamazov in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. The novel describes a conversation between the worldly Ivan and his brother Alyosha (who is training to be a monk).

In one particular part Ivan and Alyosha get into a debate about God, and in this context Ivan brings up the subject of the suffering of innocent children. He references a story that was circulating in the newspapers of the time involving a child who threw a stone at one of the Earls hunting dogs (he was a member of royalty but I can't remember his title so i've just labelled him as 'Earl'). When the Earl finds out that the young boy has injured one of his prized hunting dogs he calls for him and his parents to be brought to him. He then strips the boy naked - infront of his parents - and sends him running accross a field. After a small time lapse he then lets the hounds loose accross the field who tear the child to pieces.

The suffering of innocent children is a particularly bothersome problem for Ivan (and myself) because there seems to be no eventual good that can be got from the suffering of little children. One only has to visit the childrens ward of a hospital or remember the baby incinerators at Auschwitz to see this. His response (in my opinion) makes a laughing stock of any theodicy - (the attempt of believers to explain the problem of suffering away).His response is original in that he doesn't point out the flaws in any believers argument. Instead Ivan says (paraphrased) 'I don't care whether God is respecting human freedom (free will defence), or if he is moulding us into better people, or even if those children go to heaven'.

For Ivan, the horrific suffering of innocent children revulses him so much that the goals God has in mind are irrelevant to him. The tears of suffering children are not worth the price. In other words - the price of our freedom is too high. This leads Ivan to an atheistic position that also acknowledges the existence of God. He essentially says 'I accept God is there, but I stand in judgment on God because there is no goal that justifies the suffering of these children'. I found Ivans argument deeply unsettling as a Christian. Deep down I found Ivan very convincing, and this was different to any other atheistic argument because it said WHATEVER the reason, the suffering of children is far too higher price to pay.

So, after thoroughly depressing you all I will now turn to something more optimistic! Namely, how I came to appropriate Ivans response in my faith. Notice I say 'appropriate', not 'argue against' or 'reject'. Ivans response to the suffering of innocent children is a central part of my faith when it comes to suffering. I accept his challenge and as a result I believe that all Christian responses that try to 'explain' the suffering of innocent children away are totally inappropriate and buckle under the weight of Ivans argument. I found many paralells between Ivans outrage and the book of Job and The Psalms . Yet there was a crucial difference between them and Ivan. They both shared the confusion and outrage at the apparently pointless suffering in the world, yet Jobs response (after raging and arguing with God) is:

"I feel my littleness: what reply shall I give? I had better lay my hand over my mouth, I have spoken once, I shall not speak again; I have spoken twice, I have nothing more to say."

It seems then, that the problem of evil is much more a problem of life than an intellectual problem for philosophers. Yet, in the words of Peter Vardy (my lecturer on this issue) 'in the face of evil we are faced - existentially - with two choices either that of Ivan or that of Job'. They agree in their outrage and inability to explain evil - Job cannot reconcile Gods justice to the suffering he is witnessing and undergoing; Ivan cannot explain the suffering he see's around Him in light of Gods existence. Nevertheless Job says in effect ' I choose to trust and love God DESPITE the suffering that I cannot explain'. Indeed the only response God gives to Jobs anger and questions is the following:

"Where were you when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers?"
Job 38 verse 4-5

I was able to say with Job 'I have nothing else to say' - although when suffering comes my way I'm sure I will take that back. I am at peace with God now, even though I cannot see any way that the suffering in the world could possibly be justified. I haven't even mentioned the crucifixion and It's relevance to the problem of evil but I think I have yabbered enough now.


P-Doc said...

mmmm, I've been chewing over this post for a while. I'm not sure whether it's helpful to say to anyone who doesn't yet believe in God that you just have to believe in him anyway. It doesn't really help reconcile the two.

The problem is, I guess, that you can't really. Maybe I would say that I believe in God IRRESPECTIVE of suffering and/or evil. I don't think the two are causal, ie God does not cause evil/suffering and evil/suffering does not cause God. By that I mean I don't think that I invent or 'need' a God to help understand/deal with evil.

Whether there is suffering or not I will believe in God, it's not a factor in belief, or faith for me. It's such a tough subject though isn't it! Post enlightenment we are so obsessed with explanations and everything having a rational cause.

love you big boy

mat said...

Really liked the points you made and agree with alot of it, thanks Pat!
I agree with much of what you said but I would disagree with your argument that ‘suffering is not a factor in belief or faith’.
If we were dealing with a God who set the world going but chooses to have nothing to do with it, then I would agree with you (Aristotle believed the same). But Christian belief emphasises a God who is good and is involved with world history and acts upon it. The occurrence of suffering IS therefore a problem because it appears to suggest either that God does not care (Aristotle), or that God is responsible for the evil that occurs.
In short it appears to suggest that God is not good after all. We may continue to believe in God (as you do) – but if we deny that suffering is a problem in relation to Gods GOODNESS, then I believe we are in deep water. I’m not saying that God is not good (I strongly believe He is), but I acknowledge the paradoxical nature of my claims in relation to suffering. It ‘s never good to deny the paradoxical and scandalous nature of faith to reason.
It is not un-Christian to admit that suffering (like the examples I gave) is an enormous bucket of cold water to faith. It should and does shock our faith, and my concern is that the Church continues to behave as though everything was fine and dandy when it isn’t. For me, suffering is a profound problem to Christianity (not necessarily belief in God) because it flies in the face of our central tenets (Gods goodness).
I emphasise the centrality of belief because as a Christian, that is all that is available to me. In the face of suffering I am compelled to either judge God (which is the pinnacle of unbelief) or to submit myself to Gods decision EVEN THOUGH I CANNOT UNDERSTAND. If an unbeliever says ‘well what else have you got for me in terms of argument?’ - I would say ‘nothing’. There is nothing else –BUT in light of the crucifixion I know that God has entered into a state of indescribable suffering and as such understands it far more than I ever could. Even though I have only given the crucifixion one sentence in my discussion it is pivotal for my faith but Ive jabbered enough now. Thanks again Pat keep criticising, commenting etc its all really good stuff your coming up with (no patronising intended). Cheers 