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 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. 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 article, I will demonstrate why the supposedly fallacious solution to the problem of evil actually succeeds by criticizing Mackie’s objection to the solution, and I argue that suffering is necessary to stand in a proper relationship with God. 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. Although Mackie’s argument only addresses standard theism (the view that an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God exists), it is important to consider his argument against the standard theist God since the Christian God is also omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

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 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.

I argue that having faith in God meets the criteria for being a third order good, which means that suffering is necessary for a relationship with God. 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) that establishes further 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 and how Mackie is wrong in assuming that a good (3) has a corresponding evil (3) in every instance. 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[1] is important because it involves the process of moral effort in overcoming temptations (Adams 169). He states that the environment conducive to the process of soul making must possess excessive suffering because it leads to the “positive value of mystery” (Adams 186-187). The positive value of mystery is the lack of meaning seemingly apparent in excessive suffering that contributes to the world as a place where genuine soul-making 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 a world. Such a world allows people to live by faith and exercise their faith by loving others, which is necessary for them to grow in their 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, 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. 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. 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. 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,[2] 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.[3] 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 suffering is necessary to achieve the highest good possible—faith in God.

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] 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.

[2] 1 Peter 2:11

[3] Luke 16:11

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: