Suffering: Free and Fallen

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By Mary Biese, University of Notre Dame

            It is evident that suffering plays a large part in our world, especially in our daily lives; it is an unavoidable aspect of the human experience. But why do we suffer? More specifically, how can an all-good and all-powerful God exist when suffering exists? In this essay, I will explore three aspects of the solution to this difficult question. After laying out the argument against an all-good, omnipotent God, I will then explore the possibility of a world without free will, the existence of free will in our world, and the Fall as the source of human suffering. In addition, I will cover the questions of Providence, of suffering within the natural world, and of Christian Redemption and hope.

            In David Hume’s “Dialogues concerning natural religion” (1711-1776,;view=1up;seq=301), it is asked, “Why is there any misery at all in the world?… Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning… except we assert, that these subjects exceed all human capacity, and that our common measures of truth and falsehood are not applicable to them” (Hume 140). The arguer holds that, on a basic and fundamental level, God and Suffering cannot logically coexist. He assumes that the counterargument will simply be a statement of ignorance in this matter, a kind of “shrug,” if you will. This essay, of course, will attempt to counter Hume with a more substantive answer.

            Hume further expands on this argument by asserting that it would be possible for an omnipotent being to completely and directly eliminate pain (148-149). He assumes that this pain is inherently bad and therefore an inherently good God cannot, by his nature, allow for the possibility and reality of pain. Or, on the other hand, he says that God just may not be powerful enough to get rid of pain. Either way, one of the primary characteristics of God (or both) appear to be impossible given the prominence and persistence of suffering that we experience.

Subsequently, Hume asks why humankind has not been created with the natural ability to easily avoid suffering (152). He puts forth a Creator that intentionally keeps something from mankind–that deprives us of something that we need in order to be “happy,” whereby Hume in this case means “free of suffering.” He further critiques the concept of Providence by assuming another appeal to ignorance–that we do not know why nor how God intervenes or “fails” to intervene–another shrug-related accusation. Hume explores the difficulties and disappointments associated with suffering, and argues that God cannot be all-good or all-powerful because He did not give us, when we were created, the impossibility of suffering.

Now what would the world look like, if it were impossible to suffer? What would that entail? The short answer is that the only way to eliminate suffering completely is to eliminate free will, because free will intrinsically allows for suffering. If I was completely unable, naturally and inherently unable, to kill a stranger, what then? You might think, “Humans can’t kill each other? That sounds great!”–but there is something more to consider here. While in this case, it would be impossible for the stranger to suffer, but this situation would constrain me–God would directly constrain me–from doing something freely. Nobody likes being forced to do anything, especially something they do not want to do. (One may wonder, how can one want to do something without free will?)

You must take this proposition to its logical conclusion: if we cannot murder, if we have no free will, then we simultaneously cannot love. The Thomistic definition of love is the choice to do and want what is good for another: this is impossible without free will. A world without love or murder or choices–what does that look like? A world of robots.

You might ask, if you have the freedom to only do good things, isn’t that better than the ability to do both good and bad things? The answer is no, since “freedom to only do good things” is in itself contradictory. If I can only do one thing, the good thing, I have no choice in the matter; I am a robot. If our robotic objective is to love (as many maintain), then how can we meet that objective if all of our choices are pre-programmed and therefore no longer choices? The short answer: we cannot. What does that imply? We have free will. If one desires further proof, just look at our world: it is painfully obvious that human beings have murdered other human beings, and that human beings have loved other human beings. Therefore, we must have free will, to do good, or to do bad; this free will must be a part of our human nature.

Hume argues that God’s direct intervention would be possible, easier, and more predictable than the Christian notion of Providence (God’s interference and lack thereof). However, the underlying principle of free will is that it is by its nature free. In addition, if free will is inherently a part of our nature, which I maintain it is, we are not directly restrained by God, nor would His doing so improve our lives. Direct intervention would be an interference with the free will He freely gave; this is incompatible with our previous conclusion, that we have free will. To Hume’s point at the start of this paragraph, “easier” possibilities should not always be realized. This is seen in the human experience: how many “shortcuts” have gone awry, how many “tips” have gone sour (cooking or otherwise)? Something done quickly is not always worth more than that same something done well, done lovingly. You must consider: is convenience or freedom more important? It is more convenient for me to have all of my meals prepared for me, but (assuming, in this scenario, that I can only eat what I am given) this limits my freedom. Let’s apply this example to the concept of free will: is knowing what will happen next or eliminating the pain in one instance worth losing free will? It seems too steep a price to pay. In essence, God’s direct interference would not improve the quality of our lives, but instead subject us to an inescapable state of robotic slavery.

But back to the real question–why suffering? Why do we suffer? The short answer is “free will.” If I have the choice to preserve a human life, I have the choice to destroy it, otherwise preserving the life is not in and of itself a choice. Destroying life obviously inflicts suffering upon another human being. In essence, we cannot eliminate the chance of suffering without simultaneously eliminating the chance of choosing on a fundamental level. Our endearment of choice stems from our inherent free will. The existence of free will explains suffering inflicted by other human beings.

What about suffering within nature? Why do animals suffer? Why do hurricanes inflict pain upon human beings? This question is hard to answer without appealing to Christian documents and theology. However, the question of whether or not God is all-good and all-powerful can still be validly answered in a Christian context, especially since the above characterization of God is generally Christian in nature. In addition, Hume himself references the Christian tradition by speaking on Providence and the characteristics of the Christian God. Therefore it is fair to consider Christian ideas when discussing the question of suffering. In regards to the question of strife and suffering within nature, one prominent Christian theory holds that when Man, the steward and peak of creation, fell and (mis)used his free will to disobey God and go against his nature, all of creation followed suit: both his descendants and the world he lived in descended into strife and chaos. Thus, when man fell, so did creation.

The Fall helps further explain suffering caused by our fellow humans. Free will and the Fall are tightly interwoven: the Fall could not have been possible without free will. In addition, the Fall weakened the human mind and will and thus made it easier for mankind to abuse its free will and therefore multiply suffering. (One can see this, for example, through classic stories like Pinocchio’s, where one lie or sin begets another and almost inevitably injures another.) It should come as no surprise, then, that we see and experience suffering on a daily basis. We are fallen; thus, it is extremely difficult for us to use our free will as God intended before the Fall.

Another explanation for suffering can be found in the Christian view of Divine Providence (mentioned earlier), as exhibited in the story of Joseph in Genesis (thus the saying “God writes straight with crooked lines”). God works with our failures and our sufferings to bring about a greater good. The ultimate answer to suffering is found in the eventual triumph over suffering and death, through Christ’s own suffering and death. God didn’t deprive us of the way to happiness (as Hume implies); he gave us the only way to happiness, which is the choice to love others and to love God. He didn’t take something away from us and then leave us alone to suffer. He became one of us and suffered himself so that we can attain the ultimate goal, heaven, where we do not suffer. While some may define happiness as the absence of suffering, no one can deny the happiness that stems from overcoming adversity; that kind of happiness cannot be found by a point-blank removal of suffering from our world. God shows us the way to a deeper happiness, not found despite suffering, but through it. He gives us the ultimate reward for suffering well–heaven itself.

So why do we suffer? Free will, which we fallen creatures often abuse–this brings about suffering. How can an all-good and all-powerful God exist when suffering exists? God gives us free will and then allows us to use or misuse it. He is good because he allows us to choose the good, and he is powerful because of His Providence, His ability to use suffering, to use our free choices, to bring about a greater good. Our world has free will, and we have fallen, but we have been redeemed through Christ. And therein lies our hope.

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