The existence of suffering has, for thousands of years, been one of the greatest challenges to God’s existence. Back in 301 BC, Epicurus was already succinctly questioning:
‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’
And, for all the years of questioning, we have been given years of pertinent answers. However, when we examine the assumptions on which the answers are based, we will see that the answers are all absurdly lacking.
The Talmud (Brakhot, 5B), in analyzing why suffering befalls righteous people, suggests the concept of ‘afflictions of love’. Rashi, the famous commentary from the 11th century, explains that ‘God afflicts those whom He loves – even if they had not committed any sin – in order to give them an even greater reward in the World to Come than they would otherwise have merited’. In other words, the world works according to a just system of reward and punishment. If one commits a sin, one gets punished; if one does a good deed, one gets rewarded. Now, one can get this reward or punishment in this world. However, the infinite reward promised in the next world is much (infinitely) greater than anything in existence in this world. And so, if one receives one’s deserved punishments in this world, one’s punishment in the next world will be decreased and one’s reward increased.
Thus, suffering in this world is a gift to righteous people, an act of love.
The Christian Gospels (according to some interpretations) offer another popular answer in the form of the Temptation of Christ. In this narrative, the Devil offers Christ three temptations – to turn rock into bread, to be miraculously saved, and to have power over all the kingdoms of the world. In his work The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky sees each of these three temptations as opportunities to take freedom of choice from humanity. By turning rock into bread Christ can eliminate hunger and gain worldwide subservience as a man will do anything to alleviate his hunger. Through an open miracle, man will experience the truth of Christ and will no longer logically be able to deny him. With power over the kingdoms, Christ can attain obedience simply by being the ultimate authority, which man will instinctively serve. Although these three things would alleviate all suffering and doubt, Christ rejects these opportunities as he will not take freedom of choice away from humanity, it being the very factor that makes us human.
Thus, suffering is necessary in order for man to have free choice.
Importance of freedom of choice
Dostoevsky himself painfully questions the importance of freedom of choice. He cynically acknowledges that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle this freedom and will thus fail. How is it that God would put most of humanity (billions of people, no matter which major religion you subscribe to) in such a position that they are likely to fail? However, the extent of his question goes deeper:
‘“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!”’ (The Brothers Karamazov, Book V, Chapter IV, Dostoevksy (1880))
He questions whether the benefits of freedom of choice could possibly be worthy to justify the sufferings of even this one child. Even where the majority of humanity to succeed, could it ever justify the sufferings of the entire world?
Value of freedom of choice
While Dostoevsky struggles with the assumption of the value of freedom of choice, there is one more assumption that most religions take for granted – as long as it is good and evil, there must be Divine justice. This is the assumption of the Talmud, which attributes the suffering of the righteous in this world to afflictions of love – the alleviation of the justice of the World to Come. Many question the existence of evil within a man; no man truly believes that he is a ‘bad’ person. But we may go one step further. Even if evil exists within man, even if a man acts with the most corrupt intentions, why need he be punished in the next world? Justice makes sense in our world. For a functional society to exist, we need to punish unacceptably (at least what society defines as unacceptable) behavior in order that the perpetrator does not commit the same crime and in order that others may learn from his punishment. However, in the world of the dead, where a man can neither sin nor do good, what need is there for punishment? Who is going to learn from Divine retribution? And what harm is there in rewarding a sinner?
Religion has many more responses to this eternal question. I have, however, discussed the two main responses and, at the very least, brought up the questions which left the great philosophers puzzled and which demand even greater attention from proponents of religion.’