O OTHER PROBLEM OF THEOLOGY or the
philosophy of religion has excited so sustained and wide an interest as the problem of suffering. In spite of that, people
keep saying, as if it were a well-known truth, that you cannot prove or disprove God’s existence. This cliché is as
true as the assertion that you cannot prove or disprove the existence of y. Of course, it is easy to construct a formally valid proof that y,
or God, exists—or, for that matter, that they do not exist: x said that
y exists; x always spoke the truth
(in fact, he said: I am the truth); hence, y exists.
Or: y is a z; no z exists; hence, y does not exist. But whether the existence or non-existence
of y, or God, can be proved from plausible premises depends on the meaning we assign to y, or to God. And the term “God” . . . is almost, though not quite,
as elastic as the symbol “y.”
One’s strategy in trying to
defend or to attack the claim that God exists obviously depends on what is meant by “God.” It may be objected
that it is not so difficult to isolate what might be called the popular conception of God. The problem of suffering is of crucial importance because it shows that the God of popular theism does not exist.
The problem of suffering is: why
is there the suffering we know? Dogmatic theology. . . has no monopoly on dealing with this problem. Let us see how a philosopher
might deal with it, after repudiating dogmatic theology and endorsing the importance of the “critical, historical,
and psychological study of religion.” My approach will be part philosophical, part historical—only partially
philosophic because the problem can be illuminated greatly by being placed in historical perspective. What matters here
is not to display philosophic acumen but really to remove some of the deeply felt perplexity that surrounds this problem;
and toward that end, we shall have to draw on history as well as philosophy.
There are at least three easy ways of disposing of the problem why there
is suffering. If we adopt the position that everything in the universe, or at least a great deal, is due to chance, the problem
is answered in effect. Indeed, as we reflect on this solution, it becomes clear that the “why” of the problem
of suffering asks for a purpose; a mere cause will not do. Immediately a second solution comes to mind: if we say that the
universe, far from being governed by chance, is subject to iron laws but not my purpose, the problem of suffering is
again taken care of. Thirdly, even if we assume that the world is governed by purpose, we need only add that this purpose—or,
if there are several, at least one of them—is not especially intent on preventing suffering, whether it is indifferent
to suffering or actually rejoices in it.
All three solutions are actually
encountered in well-known religions. Although the two great native religions of China, Confucianism and Taoism, are far from
dogmatic or even doctrinaire, and neither of them commands assent to any set of theories, both approximate the first solution which accepts events simply as happening, without checking either laws or purposes behind
The second solution, which postulates a lawful world order but
no purpose, is encountered in the two great religions which originated in India: Hinduism and Buddhism. Here an attempt is
made to explain suffering: the outcaste of traditional Hinduism is held to deserve
his fetched fate; it is a punishment for the wrongs he did in a previous life. We are all reborn after death in
accordance with the way we behaved during our lives: we receive reward and punishment as our souls migrate from one existence
to the next. The transmigration of ails proceeds in accordance with a fixed moral order, but there is no purpose behind it.
The scientific world-view also disposes of the problem of suffering by denying that the laws of nature are governed by any
The third solution is familiar from
polytheistic religions—for ample, the Iliad and the Odyssey—but present also
in the Persian religion of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), who taught that there were two gods, god of light and goodness
(Ormazd or Ahura-Mazda) and a god of darkness and evil (Ahriman). Here, and in many so-called primitive religions, too,
suffering is charged to some evil purpose.
In all three cases, and for most
human beings, the problem of suffering poses no difficult problem at all: one has a world picture in which suffering has its
place, a world picture that takes suffering into account. To make the problem of suffering a perplexing problem, one quires
very specific presuppositions, and once those are accepted the problem becomes not only puzzling but insoluble.
For atheism and polytheism there
is no special problem of suffering, nor need there be for every kind of monotheism. The problem rises when monotheism
is enriched with—or impoverished by—two
God is omnipotent and that God is just. In fact, popular theism goes beyond merely asserting God’s justice and
claims that God is “good,” that he is morally perfect, that he hates suffering, that he loves man, and that he
is infinitely merciful, far transcending all human mercy, love, and perfection. Once these assumptions are granted, the problem
arises: why, then, is there all the suffering we know? And as long as these assumptions are granted, this question cannot
be answered. For if these assumptions were true, it would follow that there could not be all of this suffering. Conversely:
since it is a fact that there is all this suffering, it is plain that at least one of these assumptions must be false. Popular
theism is refuted by the existence of so much suffering. The theism preached from thousands of pulpits and credited by millions
of believers is disproved by Auschwitz and a billion lesser evils.
The use of “God” as a synonym for being-itself, or for
the “pure act of being,” or for nature, or for scores of other things for which other terms are readily available,
cannot be disproved but only questioned as pettifoggery. The assertion that God exists, if only God is taken in some such
Pickwickian sense, is false, too: not false in the sense of being incorrect, but false in the sense of being misleading and
to that extent deceptive.
It is widely assumed, contrary to fact, that theism necessarily involves the two assumptions
which cannot be squared with the existence of so much suffering, and that therefore, per
impossibile, they simply have to be squared with the existence of all this suffering, somehow. And a great deal
of theology as well as a little of philosophy—the rationalizing kind of philosophy which seeks ingenious reasons
for what is believed to begin with—has consisted in attempts to reconcile the popular image of God with the abundance
of suffering. . . [Onel spurious solution, which is one of the prime glories of Christian theology, claims in effect
that suffering is a necessary adjunct of free will. God created man with free will, which was part of God’s goodness
since a creature with free will is better than one without it. (Why, in that case, he first made so many creatures without
it, we are not usually hold.) Man then misused his free will, disobeyed God, as God knew he
would do, and ate of the fruit of the one tree in Paradise whose fruit he was not supposed to eat. This made suffering inevitable.
(We are not told why.) The uncanny lack of logic in this supposed solution is generally covered up with a phrase: original
How old this doctrine is, is arguable. Some of the motifs are
encountered in pre-Christian times, not only in Judaism but also in Greek thought. But in its familiar form it is a specifically
Christian dogma. Augustine thought that he found it in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 5:12: “Therefore, as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread
to all men—eph ho pantes hamarton.” What was the meaning of these
four Greek words? The last two clearly mean “all have sinned”; but what does eph ho mean? Augustine did not read Greek but Latin, and wrote Latin, too, and took it to mean “in whom”
(in quo), while the King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version translate
“in that” or “because” (eo quod). As George Foot
Moore1 puts it: “For. . . ‘for that all have sinned; the Latin version has “in quo omnes peccaverunt” in whom (sc. Adam)
all sinned: If the translator had rendered eo quod, it is possible that the Western church might have been as little
afflicted with original sin as the Greeks or the Orientals.”
The doctrine of original sin claims
that all men sinned in Adam; but whether they did or whether it is merely a fact that all men sin does not basically affect
the problem of suffering. In either case, the following questions must be pressed.
First: if God knew that man would abuse his free will and that this would entail cancer and Auschwitz, why then did he
give man free will? Second—and this question, though surely obvious, scarcely ever gets asked—is there really
any connection at all between ever so much suffering and free will? Isn’t the introduction of free will at this
point a red herring?...
Far from solving the problem by invoking original sin, Augustine
and most of the Christian theologians who came after him merely aggravated the problem. If such suffering as is described..
. in the New York Times’ annual pre-Christmas survey of ‘The Hundred Neediest Cases,” and in any
number of other easily accessible places, is the inevitable consequence of Adam’s sin—or if this is the price
God had to pay for endowing man with free will—then it makes no sense to call him omnipotent. And if he was willing
to pay this price for his own greater glory, as some Christian theologians have suggested, or for the greater beauty
of the cosmos, because shadows are needed to set off highlights, as some Christian philosophers have argued, what sense does
it make to attribute moral perfection to him?
At this point, those who press this . . . pseudo-solution invariably
begin to use words irresponsibly. Sooner or later we are told that when
such attributes as omnipotence, mercy, justice, and love are ascribed to God they do not mean what they mean applied
to men. John Stuart Mill’s fine response to this has been cited in Chapter II. In a less rhetorical vein, it may
be said that at this point the theologians and philosophers simply repeat ancient formulas in defiance of all sense. One might as well claim that God is purple with
yellow dots, or circular, or every inch a woman—provided only that these terms are not used in their customary senses.
These, of course, are not ancient formulas; hence,
it is not likely that anybody in his right mind would seriously say such things. But the point is that when anybody has recourse
to such means, argument fails. It is as if you pointed out to someone that eleven times eleven were not equal to one hundred
and he said: it is, too—though of course not if you use the terms the way one usually does.
To be sure, one need not remain speechless. One can ask for the
admission that, as long as we use the terms in the only way in which they have ever been given any precise meaning, God is
either not omnipotent or not perfectly just, loving, and merciful. Some people, when it comes to that, retort: How do you
know that we use the words right? Perhaps the way in which we ordinarily use these terms is wrong.
To this, two replies are possible. The first is philosophically interesting but may not persuade many who
are sincerely perplexed. When we use English, or Greek, or Hebrew words in conformity with their generally accepted meanings
and fully obeying the genius and the rules of
the language, it makes no sense to say that perhaps their “real” meaning is quite different. It does make
sense to suggest that a particular term has an additional technical sense; but, if that is the case, one should admit that,
as long as it is used in its ordinary, non-technical sense, God is, say, unjust, or cruel, or lacking in power.
The second reply interprets the question differently. What the
questioner means may well be that our ordinary conceptions of love, justice, and mercy stand in need of revision; that
our ideals are perverted. If so, should presumably model ourselves on God’s “justice”
and “love.” And this is precisely what former ages did. Children who disobeyed adults who broke some minor law
or regulation were punished in ways that strike us as inhumanly cruel. Those who do not like reading history I I find
examples enough in Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.
This last point, which is surely of very great importance,
can be put differently by recalling once more Job’s wonderful words: “If I sin, . . . why hast thou not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” The attempt to solve the problem of
suffering by postulating original sin depends on the - belief that cruelty is justified when it is retributive; indeed, that
morality commands retribution.
Although Job denied this, most theologians have clung to it tenaciously; and to this day the majority of Christian
theologians champion the retributive function of punishment and the death penalty At this point, some liberal Protestants
who invoke [this] pseudo-solution are less consistent than more traditional theologians and minis-is: they fight as unjust
and unloving what they consider compatible with perfect justice and love. But, as we have seen, the traditional theologians
I not solve the problem either, and their conceptions of love and justice are inhuman—especially if one considers that
Job and Jonah were part of their Bible.
Indeed, Augustine and his successors
aggravated the problem of suffering in yet another way, instead of approaching a solution: by accepting as true Jesus’
references in the Gospels to hell and eternal torment, and by bettering the instruction. According to Augustine and many of
his successors, all men deserve eternal torture, but God in his infinite mercy saves a very few. Nobody is treated worse than
he deserves, but a few are treated better than they deserve, salvation being due not to merit but solely to grace. In the
face of these beliefs, Augustine and legions
after him assert God’s perfect justice, mercy, and goodness. And to save men from eternal torment, it came to be considered iist
and merciful to torture heretics, or those suspected of some heresy, For a few days....
to quote Ecclesiastes, “is the conclusion of the whole matter?”2 I here is, first of all, a Biblical
notion not yet mentioned—that of vicarious suffering, beautifully expressed in Isaiah 53: “He is despised and
rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief....
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.... He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.
. . . The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Christians have seen in these words a prophecy of Christ;
Jews have applied the words to their own people, in an effort to give their own perennial sufferings some meaning. The search
for a purpose behind suffering is not a mere matter of metaphysical speculation, nor a frivolous pastime of theologians. Man
can stand superhuman suffering if only he does not lack the conviction that it serves some purpose. Even less severe
pain, on the other hand, may seem unbearable, or simply not worth enduring,
if it is not redeemed by any meaning.
It does not follow that the meaning must be given from above; that life and
suffering must come neatly labeled; that nothing is worth while if the world is not governed by a purpose. On the contrary,
the lack of any cosmic purpose may be experienced as liberating, as if a great weight had been lifted from us. Life ceases
to be so oppressive: we are free to give our own lives meaning and purpose, free to redeem our suffering by making something
of it. The great artist is the man who most obviously succeeds in turning his pains to advantage, in letting suffering deepens
his understanding and sensibility, in growing through his pains. The same is true of some religious figures and of men
like Lincoln and Freud. It is small comfort to tell the girl born without a nose: make the most of that! She may lack the
strength, the talent, the vitality. But the plain fact is that not all suffering serves a purpose; that most of it remains
utterly senseless; and that if there is to be any meaning to it, it is we who must give it.
The sufferer who cannot give any meaning to his suffering may inspire someone else,
possibly without even knowing it, perhaps after death. But most suffering remains unredeemed by any purpose, albeit a
challenge to humanity.
There is one more verse in Job that should be quoted. At the end of the first
chapter, when he has lost all his possessions and then his children as well, he says: “Naked I came from my mother’s
womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Without
claiming that the following remarks represent or distill “the immortal soul” of his words, one can find more meaning
in them, or find them more suggestive, than meets the eye at first glance.
Job’s forthright indictment
of the injustice of this world is surely right. The ways of the world are weird and much more unpredictable than either scientists
or theologians generally make things look. Job personifies the inscrutable, merciless, uncanny in a god who is all-powerful
but not just. . . .
Those who believe in God because
their experience of life and the facts of nature prove his existence must have led sheltered lives and closed their hearts
to the voice of their brothers’ blood. “Behold the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them!
On the side of the oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already
dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been, and has not seen
the evil deeds done under the sun.” Whether Ecciesiastes, who “saw all the oppressions that are practiced under
the sun,” retained any faith in God is a moot point, but Jeremiah and Job and the psalmists who speak in a similar vein
did. Pagan piety rose to similar heights of despair and created tragedies.
The deepest difference between religions
is not that between polytheism and monotheism. To which camp would one assign Sophocles? Even the difference between
theism and atheism is not nearly so profound as that between those who feel and those who do not feel their brothers’
torments. The Buddha, like the prophets and the Greek tragedians, did, though he did not believe in any deity. There
is no inkling of such piety in the callous religiousness of those who note the regularities of nature, find some proof
in that of the existence of a God or gods, and practice magic, rites, or pray to ensure rain, success, or speedy passage into
Natural theology is a form of heathenism,
represented in the Bible by the friends of Job. The only theism worthy of our respect believes in God not because of the way
the world is made but in spite of that. The only theism that is no less profound than the Buddha’s atheism is that represented
in the Bible by Job and Jeremiah.
Their piety is a cry in the night, born of suffering so intense that
they cannot contain it and must shriek, speak, accuse, and argue with God—not about him—for there is no other
human being who would understand, and the prose of dialogue could not be faithful to the poetry of anguish. In time, theologians
come to wrench some useful phrases out of Latin versions of a Hebrew outcry, blind with tears, and try to win some argument
about a point of dogma. Scribes, who preceded them, carved phrases out of context, too, and used them in their arguments
about the law. But for all that, Jewish piety has been a ceaseless cry in the night, rarely unaware of “all the
oppressions that are practiced under the sun,” a faith in spite of, not a heathenish, complacent faith because.
The profound detachment of Job’s
words at the end of the first chapter is certainly possible for an infidel: not being wedded to the things of this world,
being able to let them go—and yet not repudiating them in the first place like the great Christian ascetics and the
Buddha and his followers. In the form of an anthropomorphic faith, these words express one of the most admirable attitudes
possible for man: to be able to give up what life takes away, without being unable to enjoy what life gives us in the first
place; to remember that we came naked from the womb and shall return naked; to accept what life gives us as if it were God’s
own gift, full of wonders beyond price; and to be able to part with everything. To try to fashion something from suffering,
to relish our triumphs, and to endure defeats without resentment: all that is compatible with the faith of a heretic.
Foot Moore (1851—1931), American scholar on
religion. Kaufmann cites his History of Religions (1913—19).]2. [Ecclesiastes 12:13: “Let
us hear the conclusion of the whole matter’ (KJV).]