Dull pain spreads through my hands, along my wrists, and up my arms. I find myself instinctively touching them, applying pressure to my wrists, and hoping the tightness will go away.
For the last three years, I have struggled with chronic pain that limits my ability to use my hands. My college experience has been marked by reminders of my own fragility and limitations. I must rely on others for help with taking notes in class, opening water bottles, or cutting the food on my plate.
My own pain and the suffering of those around me has led me to ask many questions: Why is there suffering? How could a good God allow so many people, including myself, to lose their health? As children, many of us are taught to view God as a benevolent father figure. However, as one grows up it can seem difficult to reconcile this image of God with the suffering He evidently permits in this world. If good and evil intrinsically oppose each other, how can they coexist in the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient God?
From Dostoevsky to Kant to Aquinas, every great thinker seems to tackle these questions. In the midst of this, philosophy offers one road through which to answer these questions. American philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes extensively on the problem of evil in his books, God, Freedom, and Evil and The Nature of Necessity. Plantinga tackles these objections with analytic reasoning. Plantinga acknowledges that it seems impossible that God would have a reason for permitting evil in the world but presents a logical argument for this possibility with what he calls “the free will defense.”
Plantinga argues that it is possible that God could have a good reason for creating a world containing evil. His “free will defense” states that the good brought about by free will must outweigh the good that would have been lost if humans were not free. Moral good would be impossible without freely thinking and acting agents. Plantinga postulates that God, in His foreknowledge, might have weighed the moral good and moral bad resulting from free will and decided that the world was better off with humans possessing free will. Plantinga argues that a world with creatures who are “significantly free and freely perform more good than evil actions is more valuable … than a world containing no free creatures at all.”
If God were to cause these creatures to do what is right, then they would have made no choice at all and would not be “significantly” free. For moral good to be possible, the possibility for moral evil must also exist. Thus, moral evil is the consequence of freedom of choice.
This claim may seem feeble. German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argues just this. He states that if God has the power to create the universe and all of creation, then He must have the ability to create a world without evil, or at least with less suffering. In response, Alvin Plantinga and others suggest that though God is omnipotent, He is still bound by the limits of logic; there are certain unchangeable states of affairs that even an all-powerful God would abide by. For example, five plus seven will always equal twelve. It is not possible for this to change, by no force of will. Likewise, it would be logically impossible for there to be free will without moral evil. God had to allow moral evil to allow for the immense moral good that does exist in the world.
This argument would have once made me angry. I don’t want to live in a world where immense personal pain is the byproduct of the greater good. This justification might be rational, but it does not ease the suffering. It is an impersonal and utterly unsatisfying resolution. God might have the right intention, but how can He allow certain joys for some and sadnesses for others?
One of the central tenets of Christianity is the proximity of God to the sufferer. God is not removed from human life, looking down from above imperiously. He is in the midst of all of human experience, to such a degree that Christians believe He took a human form as Jesus.
The Bible details many instances in which Jesus personally experiences pain, suffering, and grief. He weeps when his friend Lazarus dies. He has compassion on those who are sick and hungry and vulnerable, often bringing physical healing and emotional relief.
In Luke’s gospel in the New Testament, there is a story of an ostracized woman who suffers from hemorrhaging. For twelve years, she has sought treatment for the continual bleeding. Luke states that “she had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather worse” (Mark 5:26, ESV). Upon hearing about Jesus, she fumbles through crowds of His followers and touches Jesus’ cloak, thinking that in holding His garments she might be made well again. Luke writes that “immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (Mark 5:29). Jesus, in the midst of a bustling crowd, notices the woman and turns back. He summons her and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34).
This story reveals the nature of Jesus. Not only does He heal this woman, but He also speaks with compassion and addresses her as a beloved daughter. He speaks to this woman individually and listens to her experience. Finally, He blesses her.
It is radical to view God as someone who knows the pain and suffering we feel on an individual level. The story of the hemorrhaging woman is an encouraging and a poignant example of a healing moment for one that has long sought it. However, seeing this story as hopeful requires trust. After all, the woman had to wait twelve years for her bleeding to subside. Couldn’t she have been healed sooner? Couldn’t she have not suffered at all?
In tackling these questions, Plantinga provides an important contribution to modern philosophy. He shows that this Christian belief – that there is a God that is good and yet still allows evil in the world – is not necessarily contradictory. However, it is not enough. Without a final touchpiece, a personal understanding of God, one is left feeling hopeless. Seeing God as rational and good and powerful is one thing. However, also viewing God as compassionate in a tangible and individual way opens the door for trust.
In the end, Christians believe that just as Jesus chose to be in the midst of broken humanity and bring physical and emotional healing 2000 years ago, He continues to do so today. God is who He is; He acts outside of human understanding or even time. In the Bible, God ultimately promises that at the end of time, He will come again and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things, have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
We can acknowledge that the world is not right yet rest in the hope that than in His timing, He will restore hurt and pain.
I certainly hope that one day I will not feel pain as I go about my day, but holding fast to this conception of a personal God makes it a whole lot easier.
There is a peace found in this.
1. Plantinga, A. C. (1974). God, Freedom, and Evil. W. M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Noelle Michael is a senior majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society with minors in Art History and Psychology. Italy, cheese, and goats are a few of her most-loved things!Tags: Alvin Plantinga, compassion, death, evil, free will defense, freedom, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, hope, logic, love, pain, philosophy, reason, suffering, theodicy, theology