God and Suffering #2: Existence, Relationship, and Suffering

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The Question: Doesn’t the fact of suffering prove that God doesn’t exist?

In some respects, this question is related to the question of God’s omnipotence.  If God existed and was omnipotent – that is, able to do anything God wanted to do – then surely God would do something about suffering, given that it was within God’s power to do so.  The fact that God doesn’t do anything about suffering therefore surely proves that God doesn’t actually exist.

What this question overlooks is the fact that it raises another possibility – that God does actually exist but chooses not to do anything about suffering because God is either indifferent to human suffering, or else wants humanity to suffer.  I do not propose to deal with that possibility in this reflection. However, it is not wholly unrelated to the present question, because the possibility of God’s indifference to, or desire for, human suffering is also often cited as “proof” of God’s non-existence.  The argument runs like this: God is necessarily good and loving and omnipotent; if God were good and loving and omnipotent, God would remove suffering from creation (or, better yet, would have prevented suffering from entering into creation); the idea of a God who is neither good, nor loving, nor omnipotent (as suggested by the fact of suffering) is too repugnant or counter-intuitive to consider; therefore, the fact of suffering demonstrates that God doesn’t exist.

So, whichever way you argue the claim, the essence of the proposition is this: the fact of suffering means that God doesn’t exist.  The element of this question relating to God’s omnipotence has been dealt with in the first reflection dealing with suffering: it is not a matter of God not being omnipotent, but of omnipotence not being what we think it is.  However, even if this corrected understanding of omnipotence were to be accepted, what is the relationship between the fact of suffering and the question of the existence of God?

The answer is that, essentially, there is no relationship between the two issues: the fact of suffering is entirely irrelevant to the question of the existence of God.  The assertion that the fact of suffering demonstrates the non-existence of God proceeds from a logical fallacy, namely, the assumption that God’s existence is contingent on humans being free from suffering.  However, this assumption is unsustainable, not least because our own experience tells us that issues of existence and suffering are not related.  For example, the existence of person A is not contingent upon person B not suffering.  The existence of person C is not contingent upon either person A or B not suffering.  Either person A exists, or they don’t; their existence can occur either in the context of person B’s suffering or in the context of Person C’s freedom from suffering, just as person B’s and C’s existence can occur irrespective of whether or not Person A is suffering.  Suffering does not alter the fact or otherwise of existence.

In other words, to argue that the fact of suffering proves that God doesn’t exist is to make humanity’s freedom from suffering a condition for God’s existence.  But even if one is only prepared to accept the existence of God for the sake of argument, it becomes immediately apparent that the argument for the non-existence of God based on the fact of suffering presents those holding this position with an irreconcilable contradiction. Even at the purely conceptual level, God is understood to have the attribute of not requiring pre-conditions in order to exist; if it were not the case, God would simply be another creaturely being like ourselves, however powerful and long-lived.  Indeed, God could not be a god because no creaturely being could exist prior to the universe, any more than they could survive the eventual dissipation of the universe, whatever form that ultimately takes.  The argument thus becomes a non sequitur: the fact of suffering proves God doesn’t exist; thus freedom from suffering becomes a pre-condition for the existence of God; thus God is not actually a god given the very nature of God is to not require pre-conditions for existence.

Put another way, the argument for the non-existence of God on the basis of suffering makes the absence of suffering a condition of God’s existence.  If suffering exists, God cannot be; God can only be if suffering does not exist. But another implication of this argument is to suggest that human existence itself – however indirectly – somehow possesses the capacity to impose conditions upon God that directly contradict God’s own nature.  But since humans are patently not gods, and do not possess the power even to impose pre-conditions upon their own existence (never mind that of any other living creature), the argument does not only not follow, it is also self-contradictory.  Ultimately, what it amounts to is an imposition upon God of conditions for existence which do not apply to any other agents, humans included.

This is a contradiction from which even determined non-theists are unable to escape.  Of course, those same determined non-theists might object that the very point of a belief in God (as it is often articulated by theists) is the proposition that human beings form the centrepiece of creation, and accordingly are enrolled in a special relationship with God, one which (so far as is known) no other living creatures share.  This being the case, surely the point of such a “special relationship” would be to benefit humans to the exclusion of all others (as, for example, is the case with “special relationships” between humans).  Such a special relationship would necessarily involve a protection against suffering, given that freedom from suffering forms one of the deepest desires of the human heart.  The fact that this desire remains so patently unfulfilled surely demonstrates that the “special relationship” does not exist.  And the fact that the “special relationship” does not exist ultimately proves that God does not exist.

The response to this assertion is that while many theists may indeed believe that such a “special relationship” between humanity and God not only exists but also involves a protection from suffering (although the extent to which theists actually believe this is debatable), what the fact of suffering may demonstrate is not the non-existence of God but the misunderstanding by theists of the nature of the relationship between God and humanity. This is a proposition that may afford as much offence to theists as it does surprise (or a certain grim satisfaction) to non-theists; but since belief in God does not confer infallibility, it may be a proposition that is all-too-true.

In other words, humans may indeed be engaged in a “special relationship” with God (the Judeo-Christian notion of humanity being made in the “likeness and image of God” being one articulation of this relationship), but it does not necessarily follow that this relationship is “exclusive” in the sense of humans being excluded from the kinds of sensory experience to which other living creatures are subject.  Therefore, this misunderstanding of the nature of the “special relationship” between humans and God may reflect, not the invalidity of belief in God, but the human propensity to construe reality in terms of their own wish-fulfilment.

Indeed, since the capacity to engage via the senses with one’s environment appears to be one of the foundations for life, and the faculty for suffering appears to be part of any living organism’s sensory capacity, it may be that the fact of suffering is relevant, not to the question of the existence or otherwise of God, but to the question of the nature of life itself.  In such circumstances, any “special relationship” between God and humanity would not be capable of excluding suffering, simply because the nature of the parties to a “relationship” as living agents involves and includes the capacity to suffer.  Moreover, part of the emotional-empathic bond within a relationship includes the capacity to agonise over, or feel anguish on behalf of, the other party to the relationship.  To therefore speak of a “special relationship” that excludes the capacity for suffering is to speak of a relationship that cannot, in reality, exist.

The irony of this situation is that the basis on which at least some theists believe in God (namely, the existence of a “special relationship” that protects them from suffering) may actually articulate an argument against the existence of God; and, vice versa, the basis on which many non-theists deny the existence of God (the fact of suffering) may actually indicate why God not only exists but also shares a “special relationship” with humanity!  Any relationship from which suffering is excluded is not real; and any real relationship necessarily involves the potential for suffering.  So the argument against the existence of God on the basis of suffering strangely echoes the notion of a “special relationship” between humans and God that excludes suffering:  it is a misconception of the nature of relationship, and the nature of the parties to a relationship as agents capable of experiencing suffering.

We have an illustration of how this misconception operates in the Old Testament text, The Book of Job.  This text tells the story of a man named Job, a good and righteous person who suffers a series of undeserved calamities: his children are killed, his property is destroyed by raiders, and Job himself is struck down by a debilitating disease.  Neither the admonition of his wife nor the well-intended but misguided counsel of his friends is of any comfort; complaining loudly against the injustice of his situation, Job demands that God appear and justify why Job should suffer thusly.  At the end of the text, God comes to Job and speaks to him out of a whirlwind and, as it were, shows Job the whole universe resting in the palm of God’s hand; and Job is both standing outside the universe looking at it as God reveals it to him, whilst simultaneously remaining part of the very universe he observes.

In other words, Job is in two places at once: in the creaturely world of which his physical being is a part and to whose laws and operations he is subject; but also in the conceptual world of the consciousness, in the realm of existential awareness that takes Job beyond a sense of his own suffering toward an understanding of suffering as it exists within the context of the cosmos.  Job is able to see the “big picture”, and it immediately provokes not argument, but awed silence: he places his hand over his mouth and declares that he has spoken of things about which he had no knowledge.

Interestingly, this reaction has been interpreted by both theists and non-theists alike as Job being bludgeoned into silence by God’s power and majesty: the universe is a mystery, and in the face of that mystery, Job should simply remain silent and accept his lot.  But it may be that this represents a serious misreading of this passage; Job falls silent, not because God has overwhelmed him, but because he suddenly realises that he has misinterpreted the nature of the relationship between God and humanity.    Job has thought of the relationship as a contract, as an exchange of guarantees: Job guarantees his fidelity to God, and God guarantees that Job will be protected from suffering for so long as he remains faithful.  That, afterall, forms the basis of Job’s complaint: he is being punished despite not having broken the rules.  But the revelation of the cosmos in all its astonishing complexity reveals the insufficiency of this understanding: it is too one-dimensional to accommodate God, or the possibility that God may engage relationally with humanity in a way that includes the capacity for suffering.

In essence, Job realises that the nature of the relationship between God and humanity is not a matter of guarantees, but of encounter.  God’s election for life, for a cosmos capable of bearing life, is also an election for sentient life: that is, for a creation able to bring into being creatures who understand their “psychological self” as an entity that is “other than” the “psychological selves” by which it is surrounded and with which it interacts.  Such creatures are in turn capable, by virtue of this self-awareness, to respond to the possibility of God as the ultimate “other”.  It follows, therefore, that as part of that creation, humans are subject to all the suffering and hardship that are part of the foundations for creaturely existence; with the sole exception that it is humans, alone of all other living beings, who are capable of seeing themselves in something like the same light that God sees them.  We see imperfectly; but it is our capacity for sight, however limited, that enables us to appreciate the possibility of God and to respond accordingly.

Thus, those theists who argue for a “special relationship” that excludes suffering, and those non-theists who argue for the non-existence of God based on the fact of suffering, are indulging in the same error: they, like Job, are misunderstanding the nature of the relationship between humanity and God.  God’s relationship with humanity does not exist for the purpose of serving our desire to be free from suffering; it exists in order to engage us as the one species capable of responding to the possibility of God.  It is a “special” relationship, not because it protects us from the operation of the universe, but because we, so far as we know, are the only species who can engage with God on a relational basis.

In essence, therefore, the argument that suffering proves that God does not exist is not, in fact, a case against the existence of God, but an articulation of the expectation that God will protect humanity from suffering.  In part, this expectation proceeds from the misunderstanding of omnipotence discussed in the previous post; and from the misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between humanity and God discussed above; but it also has a narcissistic element.  Humans imagine that they are the focal point of creation, the reason for the universe being brought into being.  They imagine that they are special – as distinct from sharing a special relationship with God based on their capacity to respond to the possibility of God – and that the universe exists for their benefit alone.  They conflate being the centre-piece of creation with being the purpose of creation. They imagine, accordingly, that God will afford humanity some special protected status; indeed, that God is obligated to afford such protection, otherwise, what was the point of creation?

But what if humans, although the centre-piece of creation, aren’t the point of creation itself; what if they are rather part of God’s election for life, for a creation capable of bearing not just life, but sentient life? In this case, any expectation of divine protection is not only invalid, but entirely misguided.  Suffering being part of the foundations of life itself, humans can no more expect to escape suffering than any other living organism.  Our expectation – our demand – that God shield us from suffering is, in fact, a conceit; it is an assumption that we occupy a exclusive – as distinct from special – place in the cosmic scheme of things.  But suffering reminds us that humanity doesn’t exist as a disconnected reality floating above the rest of creation; we are intimately bound to and connected with the rest of the cosmos.  We share its experience, we are part of its structure and being.

God, therefore, is under no obligation to protect humanity from suffering, and the argument that the fact of suffering proves God doesn’t exist is to repeat the conceit that humans are the purposive end-point point of creation: it is to misunderstand the “special” nature of our relationship with God.  It assumes that humans are deserving of protections not afforded to any other living creature – and concludes from the fact that they don’t receive this protection that God is a fiction.

Of course, the obvious objection to this suggestion is: what is the point of the “special relationship” if humanity is not afforded a privileged position with respect to the rest of creation generally, and the experience of suffering particularly? This objection is made as often by theists as it is by non-theists, and is frequently underpinned by a concern (by theists) and an assumption (by non-theists) that any special relationship that precludes the elevation of humanity to an exclusive position in creation amounts to a contradiction in terms and consequently undermines the validity of any belief in God.

But this is to overlook the very real possibility that the whole point of the “special relationship” between God and humanity may very well be the relationship itself.  God’s election, not just for a universe capable of producing life, but also sentient life, life capable of responding to the possibility of God, reveals something fundamental about God’s own nature.  And, from the Christian perspective, this is that God is fundamentally relational: it is part of God’s own nature and being to not merely create, but to interact with that creation on a relational basis.

However, this interaction does not occur for its own sake; the “special relationship” between God and humanity does not exist merely because God is “relational” in the sense of needing an “other” to whom God can relate.  On the contrary, God’s relational nature is also purposive, it has a point that involves more than relationship for the mere sake of engagement.  And, from the Christian perspective, that purpose is salvific: that is to say, it is God’s purpose to work through the unfolding of the creation which God has brought into being in order to bring that creation into its fullness, until it has become a “new creation” perfected and fulfilled in God.  This understanding of creation as “unfolding”, as dynamic and fluid – as evolving – stands in stark contrast to the static, monolithic view of creationism; but it also understands that creation in its present manifestation also represents and “in between” condition located after the “then” of creation and the “not yet” of salvific fulfilment.  Creation is still being unfolded, carried forward; and the purpose of that unfolding is not mere dissolution or reincarnation, but the fullness of being that Christians call salvation.

In this salvific context, the point of the “special relationship” is to invite humanity into a relationship in which they become co-participants with God in the bringing about of God’s salvific purpose; or, as it is often expressed, collaborators with God in establishing the Kingdom of God[i].  From the Christian perspective, God invites humanity into relationship in order that humans themselves may become the agents of God’s scheme of salvation; our invitation is not merely an invitation into relationship, but into salvation itself.  This is not “salvation” understood as a benefit accruing to some narrow club of the “righteous” or the “elect”; rather, it is the fulfilment of God’s purpose in creation, the bringing of creation into that fullness of being which it does not yet experience in its intermediary, still unfolding state (but which was embodied and promised in the person of Jesus).

However, since human participation in this scheme of salvation is invitational, and since humans also possess free will, we can choose to accept or reject this invitation.  God does not force or require us to participate in the bringing about of God’s Kingdom.  We are free to reject God, reject God’s invitation to relationship, and reject participation in God’s salvific purpose.  Ultimately, God does not require human participation in order to fulfil the salvific purpose of creation; to suggest otherwise would be, in effect, to impose another pre-condition upon God’s existence (and certainly upon the operation of salvation).  But since God is relational by nature, God’s desire for relationship with humanity is also a desire that humans partner with God in the salvific scheme of creation[ii].

Thus it can be seen that any suggestion that God’s “special relationship” with humanity ought to be about freedom from suffering, and that any absence of this freedom renders the relationship pointless, itself misses the point: the purpose of God’s relationship with humanity extends far beyond the limited horizon of individual experience and toward the salvific purpose for and with which creation was brought into being.  Which is not to say that God doesn’t care about the reality of suffering (a subject that will be discussed elsewhere); rather, that the purpose of humanity’s “special relationship” with God is to facilitate humankind’s participation in God’s scheme of salvation.

Understanding this in turn enables us to understand that humanity’s elevation to the centrepiece of creation is not an excuse for smugness or grounds for conceit.  Rather, it is to contemplate the awe-inspiring reality that, alone of all the beings whom we know to exist, humanity has been vested with the capacity, through its evolution of sentient faculties, to respond to the possibility of God; to respond, in other words, to God’s invitation to participate in the salvific purpose that undergirds creation itself.  Our being the centrepiece is not about our being elevated above the forces of nature or the processes of life that govern the rest of the natural world.  Nor does it confer upon humanity any guarantees for the future, let alone any sense of indestructibility: anyone who lived through the nuclear terror of the “cold war” in the 20th century, or who is contemplating the future in light of global climate change in the 21st century, knows that there is ample scope for homo sapiens to wipe itself out.  Likewise, anyone even vaguely cognisant of the fact that, in the earth’s 4.5 billion year history, there have been at least five “mass extinction” events that have annihilated untold numbers of plant and animal specials, will be uneasily aware that nature may, one day, account for our species, too.  The relationship into which God invites us is not a relationship that guarantees that we or our descendants may one day be around to see the purpose for which that relationship exists brought to its fruition; the Nicene Creed that looks for “the resurrection of the dead” does not speak of “the dead” only in individual terms.

In summary, the argument that the fact of suffering “proves” the non-existence of God proceeds from a logical fallacy, one that makes freedom from suffering a pre-condition of God’s existence.  But to impose pre-conditions on God’s existence is contradict the very nature of God, since it is God’s own nature to not require any pre-conditions for existence.  Moreover, it is to fail to understand that the question of suffering is itself irrelevant to the question or otherwise of existence; either one exists or one doesn’t, existence being perfectly possible in the contexts of suffering or freedom from suffering.  My suffering does not preclude another’s existence any more than another’s freedom from suffering precludes my existence.  Moreover, in a universe within which suffering may very well be one of the properties or conditions that actually make life possible, to speak of any relationship in which suffering is absent is absurd; it is in the very nature of agents capable of relationship that they are also liable to experiencing suffering for or because of that relationship.  It is not that either agent necessarily wants to suffer – or, in the case of our relationship with God, that God is indifferent to the fact of our suffering – but that suffering is simply one of the qualities which agents capable of relationship bring to that relationship.

In other words, the understandable desire for freedom from suffering is irrelevant to the question of suffering itself; the latter is a deep issue pertaining to the nature of existence itself, while the former is an expectation, desire, or demand of the human heart.  However reasonable or understandable, it is not relevant to the question of existence.  Any notion of a relationship without even the potential for suffering is a contradiction in terms: any relationship between two agents as agents (as distinct from merely environmental stimuli) cannot proceed without at least the prospect of suffering.  The human suite of sensory faculties being what it is, suffering is a necessary condition – or potential – of relationship.

It is thus that we can see that the nature of the “special relationship” between God and humanity is not to elevate humanity above the sensory experience of the rest of creation, any more than it is to quarantine humanity against the experience of suffering.  Similarly, making humanity the centrepiece of creation does not confer special privileges or guarantees upon humanity with respect to its survival as a species.  Rather, the relationship is special because, so far as is known, it is unique: only humans have the capacity to respond to the possibility of God.  Moreover, the point of that relationship is to invite humanity’s participation in the divine scheme of salvation that undergirds creation itself.  We are not required to respond; but God being relational in nature desires us and our collaboration in bringing about the fulfilment of the salvific purpose for which creation was initiated.  This collaboration occurs through our relationship with God.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2017. All rights reserved.