In a world seemingly full of pain and suffering, if we believe in the existence of God we might well ask: ‘What possible good reasons would God have for permitting these evils?’
At the risk of explaining away the question – and a very large question at that – it is, I think, helpful to look at what we mean by our terms: specifically, what do we mean when say something is ‘good’?
The ancient Greeks, who are known as much for their deep thinking as their incredible abs (thanks, 300), had some ideas about this. They may have been around a long time ago but I think that they’re not so different from you or I.
One of these Greeks, a man by the name of Epicurus, concluded that what is good is that which is pleasurable. Essentially: if it feels good, it is good. We’re not a million miles from that today in our society. In this way of thinking, a good thing is an event or action that results in pleasure, whereas, correspondingly, a bad thing results in pain.
There is some truth to this. It is undeniable that many pleasurable things are good. A great night out with friends that leaves us feeling good can be truly good! In the opposite manner, incurring a broken arm when mountain biking is at the same time both painful and bad. But these examples don’t cover the whole picture.
So, zooming out a little with this question, we might ask, ‘Are there things that are good that aren’t pleasurable?’ On thinking about this it’s rather obvious that there are. For instance, there are selfless acts of bravery that risks life to save others. The parents, for example, who are badly injured after running back into their burning house to rescue their young child. We would all want, I think, to say that this is a good act, despite it being pretty low on the pleasure scale.
Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and one of the top philosophers of religion in the last 50 years, acknowledges that suggesting both the existence of God and the existence of pain and suffering, in a world made up only of pleasurable goods, would be a very big problem.
“My suffering would be pure loss for me if the only good thing in life was sensory pleasure, and the only bad thing sensory pain; and it is because the modern world tends to think in those terms that the problem of evil seems so acute. If these were the only good and bad things, the occurrence of suffering would indeed be a conclusive objection to the existence of God.”
Because there are some things that are good, which are not pleasurable, we can allow for the painful alongside the good without contradiction. The painful moment never, ever feels nice, but there can exist a deeper element to the moment, which is truly good.
In a me-centered culture, where my happiness is king, pain can be a terrible thing. When my felt-happiness is the most important thing for me then I will do all I can to avoid the discomfort.
Swinburne I think rightly observes that the ‘acute’ nature of pain can come as a shock to us. It’s a jolt that can awaken us to a reality that our self-centeredness has obscured. In this way, some pain is not without its (valuable) uses, as C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”