The Role of Suffering in the Christian Faith

By Joanna Tien, Class of ’18

“3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:3-5

While suffering is biblically viewed as something that the Christian God works through to achieve his divine plan, many skeptics argue that the existence of suffering is enough to disprove the existence of the Christian God. One such skeptic was J. L. Mackie, who argued that the existence of suffering (the problem of evil) prevents any rational justification for a belief in standard theism[1] . In his paper “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955), Mackie describes several solutions to the problem of evil that are supposedly fallacious and uses them to argue for his claim that theistic belief is irrational. In this paper, I will demonstrate why one of the supposedly fallacious solutions to the problem of evil actually succeeds by critiquing Mackie’s objection to the solution, and I argue that suffering is necessary to stand in a proper relationship with God[2] . After I establish my argument for the role of suffering in the Christian faith, I will discuss the implications my argument presents for Christianity and how Christians ought to view suffering and have joy in it. Although Mackie’s argument only addresses standard theism (the view that an omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God exists), it is important to consider his argument against the standard theist God since the Christian God is also omnipotent, and omnibenevolent (not to mention omniscient).


Mackie’s logical, deductive argument in “Evil and Omnipotence” proceeds in a manner aimed to expose the apparent contradictions between suffering and standard theism. Because Mackie’s argument is deductive, his conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. Mackie claims the problem of evil is: “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists” (Adams 25). He claims it is a logical problem because it is irrational to adhere to three seemingly contradictory claims, and the only adequate solution entails giving up a constituent proposition to avoid the problem of evil. Mackie then examines four supposedly fallacious solutions to the problem of evil that partially reject one proposition or implicitly maintain all three propositions. The solution I will defend is the third one, which states that “the universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil” (Adams 30).


Mackie’s argument is constructed as follows. Mackie claims that the solution involves first order goods or “good (1)”, such as happiness and first order evils “evil (1)”, such as misery. A second order good or “good (2)”, such as benevolence, logically necessitates the existence of evil (1), which is misery. In other words, one cannot have benevolence without misery, and in order to have a higher good, there must be a lower, opposing evil. He states that good (2) “outweighs the first order evil it involves,” making it more important than good (1) or evil (1) (Adams 31). The supposedly fatal objection Mackie provides is the claim that there is a second order evil or “evil (2)” that follows from the attempted solution. In order to reconcile the existence of evil (2) with theism, Mackie argues that the theist must appeal to a third order good or “good (3)” as a response. However, Mackie claims that a third order evil, “evil (3),” follows from good (3) and leads the theist to an infinite regress of goods and evils (Adams 32). Because he assumes that evil (2) eventually leads to an infinite regress through good (3) and evil (3), his claim about the infinite regress is supposed to render the solution unsuccessful and is what I will be objecting to.


In order to successfully establish my objection to Mackie’s infinite regress, I must argue for a good (3) that does not have a corresponding evil (3) because a lack of a good (3) prevents the establishment of higher goods and evils. First, I will address how faith in God meets the criteria for being a third order good because it logically necessitates evil (2). I will later demonstrate how such a good avoids the infinite regress because Mackie is wrong in assuming that a good (3) has a corresponding evil (3) in every instance.


I argue that having faith in God[3]meets the criteria for being a third order good, which means that suffering is necessary for a relationship with God. In order to provide an example, I will restrict good (1) and evil (1) to happiness and misery, respectively, and good (2) and evil (2) to benevolence and malevolence. I argue that malevolence is logically entailed in having faith in God because it is a component of spiritual development (or developing stronger, more genuine faith). Such a view is held by John Hick in his paper “Soul Making and Suffering” (1978). To Hick, the process of soul-making for humans to stand in a proper relationship with God through faith[4] is important because it involves the process of moral and spiritual effort in overcoming temptations (Adams 169). Such effort is exercised when excessive suffering[5]occurs because it leads to the “positive value of mystery” (Adams 186-187). The positive value of mystery is the supposed lack of meaning in excessive suffering that contributes to the post-Fall world as a place where spiritual growth and moral goodness commanded by God can occur. Malevolence, or having the disposition to do evil to others, is a component of the “unjust and inexplicable, haphazard and cruelly excessive” suffering that exists in the world. Such a world allows people to exercise their faith in God (and strengthen it) by carrying out his commandments regarding interpersonal relationships (e.g. loving others). In addition, such a world often tests one’s faith in God and fortifies it to become more genuine, which is necessary for him/her to grow in his/her relationship with God (Adams 187). Therefore, malevolence is a logically necessary component of having faith in God, which makes the latter a third order good.


Furthermore, the third order good of having faith in God cannot be reduced to the second order good of benevolence, which means that the former is still a third order good. This is because virtues are necessary but not sufficient for good (3) to occur. Good (3) is not just some kind of manifestation of virtues, such as benevolence, because it is possible for a virtuous person not to have faith in God. In other words, it is possible for a person to be virtuous and not believe that God exists. However, development of virtues is an important component of genuine faith in God. Even a Christian’s first act of faith, which is genuinely accepting Jesus Christ as his/her Lord and Savior (recognizing a need for Jesus in his/her life), implies humility. Furthermore, genuine faith in God involves spiritual development and development of character, and the ultimate goal of such development is to exist in a relationship with the perfectly virtuous and holy God for eternity and bring glory to him[6] . Thus, the objection that good (3) can simply be reduced to good (2) fails, and having faith in God is still a third order good.


Finally, I argue that the third order good of having faith in God does not have a corresponding third order evil, which renders Mackie’s objection unsuccessful because it avoids the infinite regress. The third order evil that intuitively follows is “not having faith in God”. However, I argue that evil (3) does not actually exist because it is a privation. In order words, the definition of evil (3) itself is just a privation of good (3), or an absence of faith in God. Because evil (3) does not exist, it stops the infinite regress because there is no possible way for a fourth order evil or good to exist. This is due to the fact that higher order goods logically necessitate lower order evils. And since there is no third order evil, there is nothing for higher level goods or evils to “build upon.” Thus, the supposedly fallacious solution actually succeeds because the infinite regress is avoided.


Through my objection to Mackie’s argument, I have shown that having faith in God is the highest good one can obtain. My argument raises several implications for Christianity. First, it explicitly establishes the role and place of suffering in Christians’ lives. As shown through the logical relationships between goods and evils, suffering is necessary for Christians to have a relationship with God through faith in him (Romans 8:17-18). However, the nonexistence of evil (3) shows that faith in God (which leads to a relationship with him) is the ultimate good—there is no further good beyond a proper relationship with God established through faith, and faith in God is unparalleled by any evil. Finally, the ultimate goodness of good (3) reinforces God’s loving nature. In the Christian faith, God loved the world so much that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the punishment that sinners deserved. One of his reasons for doing this was to reconcile sinners to him. In other words, God sacrificed his Son so that undeserving humans are able to possess the ultimate good. God’s goodness triumphs over evil, and the goodness of faith triumphs over the problem of evil.


Christians should strive to have joy in suffering rather than view it as a distraction to their relationship with God, which means that suffering is truly necessary to have a proper relationship with God. That is the point made in Romans 5:3-5, the verse quoted at the beginning of this paper. As described in those verses, God allows suffering to occur in his redemptive plan to make believers more like Christ and exist in union with God for eternity. Suffering produces endurance to continue to carry out God’s kingdom purpose in this world and to focus on living a life worthy of eternity. Suffering produces character, which Hick hints at in “Soul Making and Suffering”. Hick describes how a world with excessive suffering allows Christians to grow in genuine love and care towards others and towards the love that Christ exhibited for humanity. Suffering reminds Christians that they are simply sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11), and it produces hope for eternal life with God. God uses suffering in other ways, such as bringing attention to one’s sins or challenging individuals to grow in their relationship with him. Suffering can also be used as a way for one to identify whether he/she is truly focused on serving God or if he/she is focused on fulfilling his/her own sinful desires. Since Christians are simply stewards of the various gifts, opportunities, talents, etc. that God has entrusted to them, suffering can indicate a sinful attachment and perceived ownership a Christian has over things that were simply loaned to him/her (Luke 16:11). Therefore, God sovereignly allows humans to experience suffering as a way to help them to become more like Christ and seek the union with God that they were originally created in.


Mackie’s argument against the rationality of standard theism, which is shown through his deductive argument, fails because a solution to the problem of evil succeeds. Although Mackie attempts to show that the solution is fallacious because it leads to an infinite regress, I argue that it does not because having faith in God is a third order good. Such a good logically necessitates evil (2) and cannot be reduced to good (2). Furthermore, there is no corresponding evil (3) because evil (3) is just a mere absence of good (3). The infinite regress is avoided and the apparent pointlessness of suffering is simply apparent, as God is so powerful that he uses the suffering that is a product of the Fall as a necessarily integral part in his redemptive plan, which allows humans to achieve the highest good possible—faith in God.


“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Works Cited:

Hick, John. “Soul-Making and Suffering.” The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn and Robert

Adams, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp.168-188.

Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn and Robert Adams, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp.25-37.

[1] For Mackie, standard theism is the belief that a God “who is both omnipotent and wholly good” exists (Adams 25).

[2] A proper relationship with God is where one is spiritually reconciled to God and no longer a slave to sin, which is achieved through faith in God and accepting Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Furthermore, my argument focuses on the post-Fall world (i.e. the world that is affected by sin after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit). The relationship between human and God pre-Fall is beyond the scope of this paper.

[3]Faith in God, which is genuinely believing that God exists, that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for everyone’s sins, and that Christ was resurrected after being dead for three days, is necessary to stand in a proper relationship with God.

[4] Without faith, it is impossible to have a relationship with God. In order to have a personal relationship with God, one must believe he exists in the first place.

[5] That is, suffering that is so extreme that it does not seem to have any purpose or end (Adams 183).

[6] Bringing glory to God, or ascribing glory to him, is simply making it clear that God is who he is (i.e. loving, righteous, creator of all things, etc.). It is important and good to bring glory to God and exist in a proper relationship with him because it is what human beings were made for. By bringing glory to God and having a proper relationship with him, humans fulfill their primary function. Just as it would be a waste to use a coffeemaker as a doorstop, so would it be a waste for humans not to fulfill their primary function. Furthermore, it is also morally wrong for humans not to fulfill their primary function, since that would be going against a wholly good and perfect God’s command.

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