God and Suffering #1: Creation and Omnipotence

Photo: Jennifer Wallace/Shutterstock

PRESCRIPT: Anyone who knows me also knows that there are two things which, as a Christian, I think about a lot.  One is the Book of Job from the Old Testament, which I happen to regard as one of the most important books of the Bible, not least because I have come to believe that it is a powerfully subversive text which overthrows all our expectations about it and its subject matter.  The other is the issue of suffering; or, more accurately, the relationship between the reality of suffering and the existence of God.  Hardly original, I know, but I believe this is an important issue for two reasons.  Firstly, because suffering – whether experienced directly or indirectly – has the power to shape the nature and content of our outlook on life.  Secondly, and related to the first point, because resilience in the face of suffering – again, whether experienced directly or indirectly – is often shaped by our understanding of God, an understanding which itself is often the product of experiencing, or simply being aware of, suffering.  Our outlook on life – including our response to the question of the existence/nature of God – is the child of our experience, an experience that is often powerfully influenced by suffering; and our resilience in the face of suffering is often determined by our outlook, which in turn is further shaped by consequent experience.  Or, in pseudo-mathematical terms: experience = outlook = resilience = capacity of experience to further (negatively/positively) shape our lives.

It is this equation which persuades me that, far from being “ivory tower” subjects out of touch with the deep realities of human existence, philosophy and theology actually matter.  Indeed, my own (admittedly limited) experience in ministry, and my wider experience as a Christian, have demonstrated to me that how people approach questions of God and God’s relationship with creation, as well as often being influenced by experience, are often themselves instrumental in determining the impact of future experience.  In other words, I have come to the view that there are theologies and philosophies of life that are destructive to human flourishing precisely because they construct understandings of, and relationships with, God that, when tested by experience (especially suffering) only cause further suffering.  And this further suffering usually takes the form of some sort of “existential collapse”: the previously cherished worldview, having been found wanting by experience, results in a nihilistic despair that in turn produces ennui, cynicism, bitterness, and even self-harm.

By the same taken, it seems equally evident to me that there are theologies and philosophies of life that produce resilience, the capacity for people to experience suffering in its fullest measure without being overwhelmed, or without having that experience dictate the future course and quality of their existence.  Such approaches are not about guaranteeing “happiness” (usually defined as the absence of suffering), rather, they concern themselves with establishing context: that is, with placing the experience of suffering within the framework of a wider relationship.  This context does not seek to minimize the reality or depth of suffering, nor does it seek to elicit complacency or  indifference in the face of suffering (especially those forms of suffering attributable to human evil).  Rather, by placing the experience of suffering within the context of a wider relationship, these theologies and philosophies of life do honour to the reality of that experience, and then enable to sufferer to honour the whole of life by living through and beyond their particular circumstances.  In other words, to honour life, one must honour suffering; life cannot be successfully re-engaged until and unless suffering has been likewise engaged.

And for Christians, the contextualizing relationship that enables us to honour suffering, and honour life, is our belief in God.  But not just belief in the existence of God; rather, our discipleship to the Triune God: the Creator who caused, is causing, and will cause all things to be in the unfolding of the cosmos; the Redeemer, who in the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Christ broke into our experience, God with, among, and one of us; and the Advocate, the Spirit who dwells among us yet, enabling us to live in hope in the face of our own brokenness, in light of the promise of the Word made flesh.  In other words, the God of Christian faith is not a remote, impersonal deity, nor yet a threatening, violent bully; rather, the God Christians live in discipleship to and relationship with is a God who lives among us, suffering as we suffer; yet who also lives in a way that we do not, drawing us into the greater Life that contextualizes and relativises our particular experience of suffering.  Not as “pie in the sky when you die”, but in the here and now, enabling us to honour life.

Of course, not all Christian theology and philosophy has depicted the God of Christian faith in these terms.  And it is in reaction to these depictions that many people angrily question or refute belief in God, or the “truthfulness” of religion.  And this reaction is itself often the consequence of people having willingly and for a long time subscribed to these theologies and philosophies (usually under the influence of significant others, such as parents or clergy), only for the devastating reality of experience to demonstrate their inadequacy, thereby producing a corresponding feeling of “betrayal” that magnifies the suffering.  When a person’s worldview is suddenly destroyed (as opposed to gradually evolving over time), that makes it next to impossible for them to honour life: into the vacuum of belief and understanding flow despair and anger.  

This is the first of two longer reflections on this subject. I am, of course, aware that this is a subject that has been addressed many times before, and by people better qualified than I am; I therefore do not flatter myself that anything I write on the subject will be either especially original or particularly insightful.  I would, however, like to make one thing clear: these reflections are not intended to be pastoral in nature: that is, they do not represent the response I would make to a suffering person with whom I was pastorally engaged.  Rather, these reflections are theological-philosophical in nature, and are consequently intended to provide food for thought; or, put another way, substance for further reflection.  Their context is not the immediate reality of suffering but the longer horizon of resilience.  So, with that important qualification in place, here is the first reflection.

The question: If God is omnipotent, why didn’t God create a world without suffering?

In many respects, this is the “big question”, the question that leads to all the other questions concerned with suffering.  It is often asked in anger, in the wake of hardship and grief; at other times, it has been more of a statement than a question, an articulation of the underlying reasons why people don’t – or no longer – believe in God.  Confronted with death, disease, evil, and the apparently arbitrary operation of chance, the question “why?” is often accompanied by an accusation: God could – and should – have prevented this tragedy from happening.

This accusation is grounded in the popular understanding of God.  God is omnipotent – all-powerful.  God created the universe, bringing into being the astonishing complexity of the natural world.  God controls time and fate, knows everything that has or will ever happen, has all the answers to all the questions.  God can perform miracles, is able to intervene directly in the natural world in a way that overthrows – or, at the least, suspends – the operation of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.  In short, God can do anything.

Why, then, couldn’t – or didn’t – God create a world without suffering? Is it because God has some master plan whose depths and extent human beings are incapable of understanding?  Is it because God knew beforehand that humans are prone to misbehaviour, and so created suffering as a mechanism to punish and correct us? Or is it because God is a cruel and dictatorial tyrant, who delights in hurting us simply because it is within God’s power to do so? Why didn’t God create a world without suffering?

To answer this question, we need to first address the issue of God’s omnipotence, because what most people think “all-powerful” means is profoundly different from what it actually means.  The word omnipotent – all-powerful – implies that God can do whatever God wants.  If God wanted grass to be blue instead of green, or for people to breathe through their feet, or for the Sun to orbit the earth, then God need only to have willed it to be so in order for it to have happened.  But the implication arising from this understanding of omnipotence is that if suffering is real, then it’s because God has willed it into being; suffering exists because God, in God’s omnipotence, made the choice that suffering should exist.  In other words, in the course of creation, God was confronted with two options: a creation with suffering, or a creation without suffering.  According to the popular understanding of omnipotence, God chose to have a creation with suffering – or, looked at from the negative, chose not to have a creation without suffering – because it was entirely within God’s power to do so.

The problem with this understanding of “all-powerful” is two-fold.  Firstly, it casts God in a wholly evil light.  If God had the capacity to bring a creation into being in which suffering was absent, but elected to do the opposite, then God is nothing less than a divine sadist, a victimiser who could have enabled life without horror, pain, or grief, but who chose to inflict all these things on humanity.  Nor is this image of God as evil alleviated by any talk of a “divine plan” which is ultimately benevolent, but whose details remain inscrutable to the human mind.  No plan, no outcome, no promise of “pie in the sky” could compensate for any decision to deliberately inflict suffering upon creatures powerless to do anything to prevent it.  Neither does the argument for suffering as punishment help the issue: what crime, what wrongdoing, could be so heinous as to warrant a child contracting some debilitating disease, or a family on vacation being wiped out by a “freak” natural event? This is especially the case when we know that some people who commit grievous crimes escape the consequences of their actions.  Where was God in these situations; why didn’t God punish these people with illness, injury, or death?  The only option which the popular understanding of omnipotence leaves us is that God is evil, a brute who could have spared us suffering but elected not to do so.  Little wonder that many people turn away from such a God in disgust and revulsion.

The second problem the popular understanding of omnipotence creates is that it reduces God to a kind of children’s party performer, magically pulling rabbits out of the divine hat.  This is an image that mirrors human wish-fulfilment: we would like the power to do whatever we want; we would like the power to manipulate reality to suit ourselves.  Accordingly, our conception of all-powerful as the capacity to do anything invests God with the responsibility of facilitating our desires; God should have wrought a creation without suffering because human beings – reasonably enough – don’t want to suffer.  This is perhaps so much more the case when a highly individualised culture, in which the autonomous self organises life in such a way as suits its personal preferences, becomes the predominant model of human life.  The dream of absolute autonomy, of unlimited and unrestricted capacity, becomes the paradigm through which human beings view God; if we are not able to do so, God ought to be, on our behalf and at our whim.  But just as the dream of human autonomy produces frustration and despair for many people, so it also produces a like reaction against the God whom we believe ought to be able to do anything but who apparently chooses not to.  This, many people conclude, is a God who is not worth knowing, because this is a God who can’t – or won’t – deliver.

In other words, the popular conception of omnipotence actually creates suffering, by rendering people vulnerable to feelings of anger or despair when their experience doesn’t match their expectations.  But as noted earlier, the popular understanding of omnipotent bears little resemblance to its actual meaning.  For omnipotence is not, as we imagine, the power to do whatever you like; it is the power to do whatever can actually be done.  Admittedly, this sounds like hair-splitting; but the distinction, while fine, is nonetheless real and of vital importance.  For the power to do whatever can actually be done necessarily implies some limitations to an agent’s capacity to act; the agent can do whatever it is actually possible to do, but no more than that.  Which still leaves an enormous scope of possible actions available to the omnipotent agent – but not an unlimited range.  Omnipotence is not the power to do anything and everything, however improbable or even impossible; it is the power to do everything possible, everything that can actually be done.  The “all” in “all-powerful” means “all that is possible”, not “all that is conceivable”.

This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, not least because they are so deeply enculturated in the understanding of omnipotence as the power to do anything.  Afterall, they say, if God created the universe – the ultimate act of the impossible – surely it was possible for God to have created that universe without suffering? Surely God can continue to act on the universe to alleviate or even remove suffering?

Unfortunately, this expectation operates on the assumption that an unlimited number of options were available to God when it came to bringing about a creation in which life was possible.  While cosmologists are aware that ours is only one of an infinite variety of possible universes, they are also acutely aware of the fact that ours is a universe that appears to be particularly “fine-tuned” toward the generation of life.  Indeed, cosmologists know that if our universe was calibrated only fractionally differently, it would be very different to the one we know today – and probably incapable of sustaining life.  In other words, while an infinite number of universes may be possible, it appears that in only a very restricted number of those universes – or, perhaps, only in one, the universe we now inhabit – is life actually possible.

Therefore, while God may have had an infinite variety to choose from in terms of bringing the universe into being, it may be that only in one or a tiny fraction of those options was the capacity for life possible.  Moreover, while scientists are aware that – theoretically, at least – live could exist throughout the universe in an infinite combination of possibilities that accommodate different environments and habitats, that same life, no matter how spectacularly varied, would be subject to the same basic laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that made life possible on earth.  What this means is that within the grand narrative of the cosmic structure, infinite variety is possible; but possible only in the context of the cosmological narrative itself.  Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that any other life in the universe, no matter how strange or different, also experiences suffering – that is, some analogue to human suffering that applies to their particular biological context.  Suffering, it may be, is part of the cosmological narrative; it is part of what makes life itself possible.

In other words, God’s choices in creation may not have been between a universe in which suffering was absent, and a universe in which it was present.  Instead, God’s choices may have been between a universe in which life was absent, and one in which it was present.  Thus, insofar as creation is concerned, God’s omnipotence extended only to those conditions that were actually possible for the emergence of life; God could certainly have brought into being any universe which it was possible to bring into being, but could only bring life into being under those cosmic conditions that made life possible.

But isn’t there a contradiction here? If the possible alternative universes are infinite, why shouldn’t the alternatives for life also be infinite? Why shouldn’t there be a possible universe in which life without suffering could exist? And doesn’t this “restricted” understanding of God’s omnipotence imply that the universe itself is a kind of power or force that acts to limit God’s agency?

It seems that the answer to the question of a possible contradiction resides in the nature of life itself.  To be alive is to not merely be an organism as such, it is to possess the kinds of sensory faculties that enable a living creature to interact with its environment.  Such interaction necessarily involves an exchange of sensations, in which the organism acts on its environment, and is acted upon by that same environment.  Thus, life is not merely the biological and chemical process through which an organism sustains its physical existence; it is the experience of sensation, the exchange of actions through which organisms relate to their environment, and to one another.  At the most basic level, this involves an awareness of the physical conditions in which an organism lives: plants and microscopic organisms seem to exist at this level.  At a more complex level, it involves some awareness of the existence of “others” – for example, the “social instinct” that prompts some animals to form herds or establish mating hierarchies, or the undisguised pleasure displayed by a pet when their owner returns after a long absence.  Most animals display varying capacities for this form of interaction.  Ultimately, however, this exchange of sensations involves not only environmental or other awareness, but self-awareness: sentience, knowledge of the self as an entity existing in distinction from other entities, knowledge of a “psychological I” that exists as a consequence of the “physical I”.  At this level, interactions are not only physical or instinctual, they are also conceptual; they engage the apparatus of the “psychological I” – the mind and emotions – and are accordingly invested with meaning that transcends the merely utilitarian.  This is the interactive realm in which humans exist; humans have the capacity to not only suffer physically, but existentially as well.

The point being that, at the level of animals and humans (we possess insufficient information with respect to plants and microscopic organisms), suffering seems to exist as part of an organism’s capacity to interact with its environment.  Pull a dog’s ears and it will yelp with pain (it will probably also bite you as part of its engagement with the “other” who caused it pain!).  Do or say something that assaults another person’s understanding of themself and they may become depressed, or angry, or offended, or even react with a compensatory assault designed to damage your self-understanding.  In both cases, the dog’s physical pain and the person’s existential pain are part of their respective sensory faculties, through which they engage with the world and other living agents.  Of course, if someone were to punch another person as well as say something degrading about them, they would be assaulting that person at both the physical and the existential level; it is doubtful, on the other hand, that a dog would feel any less about itself if their owner made derogatory remarks about the colour of its fur.  In either case, both humans and animals possess distinctive suites of sensory faculty, of which suffering is an integral part.  Indeed, were suffering not included as part of these sensory faculties, it is doubtful that life in its respective forms would be possible.

How, after all, could I be truly self-aware if it were not possible for someone to either damage or enhance my self-understanding? Indeed, what would self-awareness under such circumstances involve? Since life is more than just mere physical existence, but instead involves an exchange of sensations between the individual organism and its environment, this necessitates the capacity for suffering as part of an organism’s capacity to be alive, without which it would probably be unable to exist.  Understood in this light, suffering becomes not an intrusion into life, but one of the potentials and conditions that makes life itself possible.

In other words, it isn’t the case that a universe without suffering ought to have been possible among all the infinite variety of possible universes.  Rather, it is the case that a universe without suffering is a universe that is incapable of producing life, since suffering – along with all the other sensory potentials and conditions of existence – is part of that which makes life itself possible.  No contradiction is involved; it is simply the nature of existence itself.  And it is this insight that enables us to answer the question about God’s agency; God was not restricted with respect to the choice of potential universes which God could have been brought into being.  It is just that each of those potential universes has its own overarching cosmological narrative, a structure that establishes what is – and isn’t – possible within each universe.  Indeed, it is possible that God could have – and perhaps has – brought into existence any number of universes that are every bit as complex, terrifying, and extraordinarily beautiful as the universe we actually inhabit; with the exception that each one of these universes may be utterly lifeless, because the conditions that make life possible do not occur as part of their cosmic structure.  Insofar as creation is concerned, God has infinite choice and agency; but each one of those choices represents a specific set of circumstances and outcomes.   God’s omnipotence in each case is to do all that is possible within each of these specific cosmological contexts.

What all this amounts to is that, in and through creation, God made an election for life, for existence over non-existence.  God did not will suffering, but life; but since suffering is one of the potentials and conditions that make life possible, then existence necessarily involves the reality of suffering.   But if suffering was one consequence of God’s election for life, so, too, was joy; if evil was a consequence, so also was selflessness and altruism.  Which isn’t to say that the positives of existence outweigh or justify the negatives: no amount of beauty and goodness “makes up” for the agony of losing a child or being made to feel worthless and unlovable. Rather, it is to make the point that suffering forms part of a totality, an overall complex of potentials and conditions that we call life.  God chose this totality; God did not specifically choose or will suffering or evil or hardship.

At this point, it may be objected that the act of creation itself was an example of omnipotence in fact being the capacity to do whatever one wants to do.  Afterall, humans are not able to create in the proper sense of the term – that is, bring being out of non-being.  But if God wrought creation out of total non-existence, surely that is an example of God doing that which is not actually possible, of God having unlimited and unrestricted agency? Surely this demonstrates that God could, in fact, have caused a creation without suffering?

We can address these questions by finding an analogy in some of the discoveries of modern science.  Physicists are aware of the fact that the conditions at the time of the Big Bang – the event that marks the beginning of the physical universe we are able to observe today – were not the same conditions which apply today.  According to the modern scientific understanding of the universe, prior to the Big Bang, all time, space, energy, and matter were contained in a “singularity”, an infinitely dense point of non-space, non-time, non-energy, and non-matter.  What the conditions prevailing within this singularity were, no-one knows; what is known is that the laws of physics as we understand them today did not apply within the cosmic singularity.  In the same way that the laws of physics break down and no longer apply beyond the event horizon of a “black hole”, so those same laws are irrelevant with respect to the cosmic singularity before the Big Bang.  Indeed, for an almost inconceivably small fraction of time after the Big Bang – which was not so much an “explosion” as a hyper-rapid inflation of the cosmic singularity – this same exclusion to the laws of physics applied; physicists can take us back to a period almost immediately after the Big Bang, but not to the event itself or its immediate aftermath, because the laws of physics break down at this point.

But what, then, is the relationship between the conditions which applied within the cosmic singularity and those which apply to the universe that emerged from the Big Bang event? No-one knows precisely; indeed, it is not even certain that the laws of physics which applied within the cosmic singularity necessarily lead to the laws of physics as they apply today.  However, it does seem reasonable to conclude that whatever laws of physics did apply before the Big Bang also lead to the Big Bang event itself, and thereby either laid the foundations for, or acted as a necessary precondition for, the laws of physics that are discernible today.  In other words, although we are not sure of the precise nature of the relationship, we can reasonably conclude that there is a relationship; the laws of physics as they exist today simply didn’t emerge from a “blank slate”, an absolutely open potential in which they could have taken any conceivable or potential form.

What all this implies is that creation ex nihilo – creation from “nothingness” – is not the same as “unconditional creation”, creation in which everything and anything is possible.  The cosmological narrative that made the emergence of life possible – and of which suffering is but one component – exists within the context of those conditions which made that narrative itself possible.  The precise nature of the relationship between the two may never be known; but it does seem as though the latter laid the foundations, or else acted as the necessary preconditions for, the former.

In other words, prior to creation there may indeed have only been void; but this void is not the same as a “blank slate” that offers a kind of creative “empty canvass”.  Void itself implies the conditions relevant to a void; “nothingness” has its own qualities and properties.  Thus, any creation from nothingness necessarily draws on the properties and conditions of nothingness in order to bring creation into being.  While it perhaps cannot be said that those properties necessarily result in the properties that exist once creation emerges, nonetheless, it can be reasonably suggested that the properties and conditions of nothingness made creation possible; and from that possibility, made probable the conditions for creation – and the conditions for a creation capable of sustaining life – which exist today.

It may be that this is one of those strange connective points at which theology and physics represent different sides of the same coin.  The conditions within the cosmic singularity prior to the Big Bang may be a kind of analogy for the creative process itself: just as the conditions prior to the Big Bang lead to those conditions within the universe we observe today, so the conditions associated with the pre-creation void lead to the conditions that made possible a creation capable of bearing life.

It can be seen therefore that the objection based on the act of creation itself is another form of misunderstanding about the nature of God’s omnipotence.  God did indeed bring being out of non-being – but only under those conditions which made an ex nihilo creation possible.  What those conditions might be is impossible to know, just as it is not possible to know what conditions prevailed within the cosmic singularity prior to the Big Bang.  Which, again, is not to suggest that God was somehow constrained by a force or power equal to, or greater than, God; rather, that the very basis of creation itself were those conditions which made that creation possible.  God acted omnipotently to facilitate those conditions in order to bring creation – and ultimately, life – into being.  It is this aspect of creation that is beyond human creativity: not the bringing of being out of non-being per se, and, by implication, the bringing about of any sort of creation; but the facilitation of those conditions that actually make creation possible.  This, God – and only God – can do; this is what God’s omnipotence actually involves.

But what, then, of miracles? Many people believe that God is able to intervene directly in their lives in order to cure illness, heal injury, avert danger or ill-fortune, or otherwise grant some favour or sign of divine grace.  Surely such belief implies an omnipotence that, more than facilitating what is actually possible, enables God to do whatever God chooses, the natural laws of the universe notwithstanding? If God can perform miracles, why can’t God remove suffering? Indeed, why can’t – or won’t – God perform miracles for everyone?

These questions can be addressed by examining the nature of the miraculous itself.  A miracle is, in many respects, that which defies common sense, or which overturns those expectations and assumptions which have been confirmed by repeated experience.  Thus, the person who inexplicably recovers their health when suffering from an illness which experience tells us is normally fatal, is said to have undergone a “miraculous cure”. The person who survives a landslide when experience tells us that large rocks and boulders normally crush people to death, is said to have made a “miraculous escape”.  The person who, after languishing in a lifeboat for weeks at sea with barely any water or food, is then found and rescued, is deemed to have “miraculously survived”.  Common sense tells as us that people in these situations ought not to have survived their ordeal precisely because so many others in the same situation died.  Thus, a “miracle” is simply that which defies our expectations.

In other words, the universe appears to contain within its very structure the capacity to surprise us, to operate in a way that confounds experience and defies our assumptions.  Some understand this capacity as “randomness” or “chance” or “probability”; but perhaps it is a capacity that is actually built into the universe itself.  Perhaps this capacity – like suffering – is one of the potentials and conditions that make possible a universe capable of producing life.  If this seems a purely speculative thing to suggest, then one need only attend to the speculations and discoveries of modern physics, which not only defy common sense but also seem utterly incomprehensible.  What, for example, is one to make of the tachyon, the hypothesized sub-atomic particle that is said to both possess mass and travel faster than light – apparently in defiance of the absolute limit of the speed of light established by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity? How is one to understand “dark matter” and “dark energy”, which many physicists now believe make up most of the universe, and which appear to be behind the accelerating expansion of the universe instead of its de-acceleration (which one would expect from the dissipation of energy after the Big Bang)? Even the humble electron, one of the better known atomic particles, is not what it appears: consistent with a principle physicists call “wave-particle duality”, the electron can simultaneously be both a distinct particle and act as a wave; moreover, instead of neatly orbiting the nucleus of an atom, as most children are taught in school, it operates as a “probability distribution” – that is, as a potential location around the nucleus of an atom, more akin to a constantly shifting cloud than an orbit.

The discoveries and speculations of modern physics reveal a universe that is full of mystery and surprise, that confounds our expectations and assumptions at every turn.  This is a universe in which “common sense” turns out to be neither common nor sensible.  Indeed, the mechanistic conception of nature that most people hold, which views the universe as a stable system operating rather in the same way as a finely tuned pocket watch, turns out to be opposite to the reality: the universe is more like a constantly moving river, always changing, always unfolding, with odd eddies and backwaters, terrifying rapids, and surprises lurking beneath seemingly placid depths.

So if we understand the miraculous in the sense of the universe’s in-built capacity to surprise and confound, then the scenarios of “miraculous” escapes and survivals begin to make sense.  It seems that the universe contains within itself the capacity, through the operation of the natural laws that sustain its physical existence, to subvert the “normal” outcomes which those same laws predict.  Thus, the disease is unexpectedly cured, the body remains unexpectedly uncrushed, the survivor remains unexpectedly alive. Precisely how this occurs remains utterly mysterious; what remains undeniable is that it has occurred – the “miracle” has become manifest.

Of course, it could be objected that this scenario completely removes God from the picture, delegating to the universe the powers that belong to God.  But if God created the universe, bringing it into being with all the consequences and potentials which a universe capable of sustaining life contains, then it was God’s creative act, God’s election for life, that caused a universe with this “miraculous” potential to exist.  The “miracle” thus becomes, not a direct act by God, but a consequence of God’s election to bring into being a life-sustaining cosmos.

Another objection may be that this analysis simply alters – but doesn’t remove – one of the most problematic matters associated with miracles: namely, why should God cure, heal, or save some people but not others?  Imagine, for example, two parents, each with a child stricken by an inoperable disease that will eventually cause them a lingering, painful death.  Both parents fervently pray for a miracle, for their child to be delivered from the horrible fate the disease has in store for them.  The child of one parent inexplicably recovers; the child of the other parent dies in agony. Why? Was the parent of the cured child more fervent or sincere in their prayers? Were they a better person? Did they “deserve” their child being saved more than the parent whose child died? Any suggestion along these lines is utterly repugnant; and, indeed, it is the cruelty of such suggestions, allied with the cruelty associated with the notion of God choosing to heal some and not others, that causes many people to entirely reject any notion of the miraculous.

Does the notion of the universe possessing a capacity for the miraculous replicate this cruelty?   Not at all; in fact, it resolves the problem of cruelty by removing the element of arbitrary choice.  If one of the constitutive elements of the universe is a capacity for the miraculous, then it takes its place alongside suffering as one of the conditions and potentials that make possible a life-bearing universe.  In this context, the miraculous becomes, not the product of an inexplicably cruel choice, but simply a consequence of the natural operation of the universe.  Of course, it remains utterly unfair and tragic that one person inexplicably recovers from a disease while another person with the same disease dies; but unfair and tragic is not the same as cruel and arbitrary.  Moreover, it remains the case that, as with suffering, God does not will this unfairness; rather, God wills the totality that is life.  It is simply that a constituent component of life is the unfairness of the cosmic capacity for the miraculous.

Ultimately, the question which this essay addresses – if God is omnipotent, why didn’t God create a world without suffering? – is founded upon a misunderstanding of what omnipotent means.  Omnipotent – all-powerful – is not the capacity to do whatever one likes; it is the power to do everything that is actually possible.  Within this context, life without suffering is not possible, since suffering forms part of the suite of sensory faculties through which living beings interact with their environment and with one another – it is one of the foundations of life itself.  The argument that God ought to have created a world without suffering therefore involves a logical contradiction; it is an argument that God ought to have acted beyond God’s omnipotence and do that which is not possible.

Further, it cannot be argued that the creative act is demonstrative of the fact that omnipotence is the actual capacity to do whatever one wants.  The discoveries of modern science seem to indicate that, even though the laws of physics as they are currently understood break down in the cosmic singularity prior to the Big Bang, nonetheless, it is reasonable to conclude that whatever physics was applicable before the Big Bang laid the foundations for the physics observable within the present universe.  Thus, whatever conditions prevailed before creation did not represent a blank slate in which everything and everything was possible; rather, these conditions made possible creation itself, which in turn made possible, through creation, a universe capable of bearing life.  God’s omnipotence was the capacity to do that which no-one else can do – facilitate those conditions which lay the foundations for being itself.

Finally, God’s omnipotence – that is, omnipotence misunderstood as God’s capacity to act directly on the universe –  cannot be argued from those events which are inexplicable and apparently “miraculous”.  Once again, modern science demonstrates that the universe in its internal structure is frequently counter-intuitive, overthrowing the common-sense expectations we develop through experience.  It seems that the universe, through the operation of its own natural laws, contains a capacity for the miraculous, a capacity that appears to be one of the conditions and potentials that make a life-bearing universe possible.  Thus, God’s omnipotence in this context was the election for life, the facilitation of those conditions that make possible a universe capable of bringing life into being.  God did not will either suffering or the unfairness of the miraculous; God willed only life.

In short, if God is omnipotent, why didn’t God create a universe without suffering? Because God’s omnipotence is not the capacity to do anything (this “anything” usually being a reflection of human wish-fulfilment), but the capacity to do all that is actually possible. Since suffering and the miraculous appear to be necessary conditions for a life-bearing universe, God’s omnipotence involved God doing that which only God can do – facilitate the conditions that make creation, and consequently life, possible.  None of this denies the unfairness, tragedy, and sadness that suffering and the uneven occurrence of the miraculous involve; but this sorrow is a separate issue from the matter of God’s omnipotence and the why of suffering.  God is not responsible for suffering and the unfairness of the miraculous; God is responsible for life.  The reality simply appears to be that without – among other things – suffering and the cosmic capacity for the miraculous, life itself would not be possible.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2017. All rights reserved.