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When asked "If there is an omnipotent and good God, why is there suffering in the world?", the most common response Christians give is something along the lines of "Suffering is a necessary consequence of free will, and it is more important to God to allow free will than to eliminate suffering. All the suffering is ultimately caused by free will.".

I think one of the most serious problems with that response is that suffering predates free will by hundreds of millions of years. Which all beings have free will? I don't think anybody would seriously argue that non-human animals have free will, in the sense that they should be held responsible for their actions. And human beings have existed for, let's say, two million years. But which all animals are capable of suffering, at least feeling physical pain? It's hard to tell, the general consensus seems to be that it is birds and mammals and perhaps octopuses. The latest common ancestors of birds and mammals existed 300 million years ago. Now, many people think that the ability to feel pain has evolved separately in birds and mammals, so that would push the number of years suffering has existed to lower, but we are still talking about hundreds of millions of years. So, for hundreds of millions of years, there was suffering in the world, but there was no free will. How do the proponents of the "free will" theodicy explain that?

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  • add the caveat that some suffering is consequence of free will. Natural occurrences can cause suffering: some illnesses, struck by lightning, hit by falling tree, etc.
    – depperm
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 12:12
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    This website requires questions to be scoped towards particular Christian groups. Who are you inviting to answer, for many do not accept your concepts of 'hundreds of millions of years' ? Also, many groups dispute the whole idea that humanity has 'free will' at all.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 12:47
  • As Nigel has pointed out, this question seems to hinge on evolution and/or old earth theory being true, both of which are heavily disputed. The question needs narrowing, and I think can be phrased better Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 16:36
  • Another assumption being made is that, assuming old earth is true, there was suffering. Perhaps it is arguable (I'm not familiar with the subject) that there was no violence between species before the Fall, and that creatures eg simply died peacefully of old age rather than suffering or getting sick Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 16:43
  • @NigelJ I don't think this idea that free will is somehow the cause or all evil is limited to particular branches of Christianity. It is what we, as Catholics, were taught in our Religion classes in high school. Yet, Gottfried Leibniz, who was also a Catholic, is famous for rejecting that theodicy, replacing it with his theodicy "This is the best of all possible worlds.". I am inviting all the people who believe that "All evil is caused by free will." to answer, regardless of how they identify themselves. Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 19:55

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Yes, there is no reason why old earth / theistic evolution threatens the 'free will' answer to the question 'why is there suffering in the world?'

C.S. Lewis defends this position in The Problem of Pain chapter 9. He presents three arguments to justify why pre-Fall suffering of animals does not threaten the free-will-based theodicy:

Firstly, there's simply too much that we don't know about animals. It is not knowable whether animals experience suffering in any way meaningfully similar to ours. We also don't know what role they play in Creation well enough to say whether their suffering is actually a bad thing or not. Lewis puts it simply:

God has given us data which enables us, in some degree, to understand our own suffering: He has given us no such data about beasts. We know neither why they were made nor what they are, and everything we say about them is speculative.

Secondly, in a free-will theodicy, we do not need to assert that sin and suffering entered the world only after the creation of Adam. If we suppose that Satan and his angels fell before Adam was even formed, it may very well be that they corrupted the pre-Adamic creation and thus the suffering in the animal world is a result of demonic activity. (Lewis presents this as merely a hypothesis, not as if he sincerely believes it.)

He also points out Luke 13:16 as Scriptural support for this - disease in a human was attributed directly to Satan. Why not animal disease as well?

Thirdly, he puts forth as another speculation that in fact animals do suffer as a consequence of abuses of their own free will, in essence that animals are actually moral agents. This somewhat harkens back to the first point - we simply don't have information to know whether we can say this or that definitively about animals. He also speculates at some length on immortality of animals souls. I think his thoughts on this topic are well worth the read, but he himself would not take them as dogmatic, and we ought to take them for what they are: speculations of an astute mind on a topic about which almost nothing has been revealed.

(Note, while I am a theistic evolutionist, I am not an advocate of free will theodicy. If I have misrepresented it in any way, I would welcome correction from any proponents of free will theodicy.)

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  • Regardless of whether beasts themselves suffer, humans definitely suffer because of beasts being subject to injury, disease and death. How, therefore, do you justify this human suffering existing prior to the Fall?
    – Matthew
    Commented Apr 11 at 14:44
  • I don't believe in human suffering before the fall, nor does C.S. Lewis if I understand him aright. Lewis doesn't address this specific question, but I would suggest two possible answers: firstly, that prior to the fall, human beings did know the purpose of animals and therefore, knowing the reason for animal suffering were known and didn't cause suffering for humans. Another might be that alleviating animal suffering was part of Adam's job, and didn't cause him to suffer himself, it was just his task. Commented Apr 11 at 15:10
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The OP disagrees with the correlation of 'free will' and 'suffering', I believe Jesus would agree that disagreement, as in John 9:1-12, there was a man blind from birth, obviously he was suffering before he had his free will. Jesus answered his disciples that 'he suffered so that the works of God might be displayed in him'. I would think this answer from Jesus may be even harder to be agreed with.

The question "If there is an omnipotent and good God, why is there suffering in the world?" bewilder both to Christian and non-Christian and in my opinion, it is a mistake to correlate suffering to God while nobody able to understand how the works of God be displayed.

Now this is the second question; "Did God make one suffer so that the works of God might be displayed in him?"

  • If the answer is 'Yes', then you believe God made us a puppet that should have no free will.

  • If the answer is 'No', then the first question is invalid.

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