Good God? Pleasure and the Problem of Evil

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 nicebut 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.”

  • Dorian Greer

    In your G+ reply, you wrote: “However I think if we, as you suggest, “remove God” I don’t think the problem of evil goes away. Sure, the problem of evil existing in a Universe created by an all-powerful, all-loving God goes away, but the challenge to us as individuals and how we find meaning in this world remains.”

    The challenge “to us as individuals and how we find meaning in this world remains” – is another topic entirely. Back to the post: The problem of evil is problematic ONLY from the standpoint of inputting a god into the equation. Evolution and the quest for survival is inherent in all things living on this blue-green earth. It is perfectly consistent with everything we witness and experience, regarding the concept of evil.

    In that sense, if one “removes the god” the UNDERSTANDING of the problem of evil becomes crystal clear, and answers itself with ease. It’s only a problem because you believe an ancient story about a resurrection which supposedly involved a man who was really a god.

    • If the problem may be laid out as, ‘How can a good, all-powerful God allow suffering?’, and then we remove God from the question, that question no longer exists. Agreed.

      The answer is the post is intended to be part of a wider answer for why God (if He exists) might allow suffering. It is not an argument for the existence of God so much as an argument for how we can believe in God or the character of God in the face of the reality of evil.

      Yes, removing God here would do away with this question. But this question does not exist in a vacuum. How we find meaning in this world is, I agree, another question, but is it not closely linked to this one? Does not man’s search for meaning run headlong into the challenge from suffering? The naturalist who does away with God in order to do away with the God + Evil problem, then has other problems to deal with. Sure, we can see evolution as a framework with suffering inherent to it, and say that this makes the problem “crystal clear”, but how do we personally live with it? If we were (all humanity) to live by the rules of the jungle, would it make us a nobler species?

      Yes, the problem of evil as laid out (Good, powerful God etc.) is a problem for those who believe in the Resurrection. But if there are (as I think there are) good arguments for the Resurrection (see link for more on this) then we can bring with us an evidence of God into the question of evil, so that simply removing God from it isn’t an option.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your willingness to move from Google for this one and to take time to write thoughts out again.

      • Dorian Greer

        I am partial to solving problems (even the problem of evil) with intelligence. But can you truly say that superstition has solved any problem that wasn’t already caused by superstition?

        For example, if I’m trying to answer why the Invisible Pink Unicorn allows bumble-bees to have stingers, does it really answer the question, no matter what I come up with?

        I can pretend it’s true, and I can pretend it helps me to understand why the world is the way it is, but would any of it actually be TRUE?

        But that’s what I mean when I question adding a god (as a presupposed variable), when searching for a solution. It doesn’t help; it clouds, because everybody has their own personal notion of what such a thing is, what it wants, and so forth.

        It’s based on faith; and as you should know (as an apologist), faith is not epistemically valid. Not only can faith “not” discern truth from falsehood, but it has no commitment to do so.

        It is for these reasons, I believe that attempting to solve a problem by adding a superstition cannot give a valid answer, but at best, a soothing answer that one contrives in order to make him/herself feel better. But, would not be the truth. (Certainly not a verifiable one.)