Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Substantial Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain has never been an intellectual obstacle to theism for me. There has never really been a time that I can recall that I simply could not reconcile the concept of God to the concept of pain in the same worldview. Naturally there are many who would disagree with this. It seems to me, though, that while there is an intellectual Problem of Pain/Problem of Evil, it exists primarily as something for budding theistic thinkers to cut their teeth on and a persistent question for different intellectual methods and different schools of thought to be measured by. On the other hand when it comes to factors that determine whether or not a person will be a theist, there is a more substantial Problem of Pain, one that is not as easily wiped away by reasoning, language, and argument.

Whatever we say, whatever we hold true, if we mean it, we live with it. We live - and feel - according to whatever we honestly believe. Now, it is a comfort and a joy to imagine that God is on our side in life and wants us to feel well. If our lives are pleasant, it is a joy to believe that God made our lives pleasant. If our lives have little struggles and problems, it is a joy to believe that God is actively educating us and that he will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able (1 Cor. 10:13). On the other hand, if someone experiences a depth of despair, where their will and the world are completely at odds with one another, what joy does God bring?

Suppose we say that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). What does this mean? Perhaps we take it to mean that God will eventually turn that despair into something beneficial. This can bring joy to a person, but, I think that this idea is not robust. That is, the idea seems to be there to bring joy and does not seem adequate for the phenomena it is supposed to have grown out of. This is because God is said to be all-powerful and is said to have created the world, and even if we allow for devils and free wills, it is hard to escape that God created the conditions necessary for the despair to emerge in the first place.

So God works all things for the good of those who love him? But did God not create the despair in the first place? The seemingly gratuitous, seemingly pointless pain and misery? Isn't that the logical consequence of the idea of God?

Of course we can avoid this conclusion several times over. We can say that it is not God's fault, it is free will. We can say that it's not God's fault, it's the devils. These are not robust, it is rare that our minds naturally lend themselves to these explanations, one must stretch and condition oneself to give these answers. Then we have more novel explanations: perhaps God is on our side but he is not all-powerful? Well, in that case some of us would naturally be inclined to worship him, but for most of us I think we would view God the way we might view Superman if he lived in the real world: helpful, powerful, but nothing transcendental.

Keeping God as God, and seeking a robust idea, most of us will come to the conclusion that God is the author of our pain. That the single most fundamental force - capable of moving the universe itself as well as any of its contents - decided to make you suffer. And you're told that good will come of it, but good from what point of view? After all, if human suffering is the means, human flourishing might not be the end. Is it good from your point of view, or good from some transcendental point of view that you have to climb up to? And how could you live a life with that notion? How can you live and try to escape your despair while also believing that God approves of your despair?

This is the substantial problem of pain. In such a situation, it is oftentimes easier to remove God from the worldview.

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