After Mass last Sunday, I was approached by a student who had been discussing religion with a friend who posed an interesting question. It went something like this… How is it possible for God to be all knowing, all powerful, and all good?
The dilemma has to do with the so-called “problem of evil.” If God is good, then why is there evil in the world? The problem goes like this:
- If God is all knowing, then he knows that evil exists.
- If God is all powerful, then he is able to stop the evil.
- If God is all good, he would want to stop the evil.
- Evil does exist in the world, therefore God either doesn’t know about it, can’t stop it, or doesn’t want to.
- Therefore God cannot be all knowing, all powerful, and all good.
Since our concept of God involves him being all knowing, all powerful, and all good, to many this argument suggests that God doesn’t exist at all.
The argument seems to have merit on the face of it. But it rests on a few assumptions that we should not take for granted — the major one being the assumption that we know what “good” is.
Why is there suffering?
The “problem of evil” is another way of asking the question, why is there suffering in the world? We tend to think of suffering as bad by definition. We figure that if God were truly good and loving he would neither cause (by actively willing) nor permit (by passively willing) people to suffer. People do suffer, which presents a problem to our notion of a good and loving God.
But is all suffering always bad, all the time? Can suffering ever be caused or permitted for a good reason? This is the key question, because the whole weight of the above argument rests on the presumption that suffering is always bad and never good.
Based on our own human experience, we know that suffering is sometimes necessary to bring about good. It’s not hard to think of examples. If you go to the dentist to get a cavity filled, you will suffer. It is an unpleasant experience. The dentist is directly causing you pain.
Last year I had to take my three-year old son to the dentist to get a cavity filled. It was a horrible experience, because a three-year-old does not understand why the dentist is doing what he is doing. All he knows is that it hurts, and he wants it to stop.
When I get a cavity filled, on the other hand, it still hurts but I can bear the pain much more easily because I understand the purpose behind the pain. I know the dentist is actually working for my good and that the end result of the suffering is my improved dental health. It makes the suffering easier to bear.
That’s just one minor example, but it serves to illustrate the point that it is possible for suffering to be brought about or permitted by someone who loves us and is working for our good.
Just like my three-year-old son in the dentist’s chair, most of the time we simply don’t understand why God might permit the suffering that we experience or witness. But our lack of understanding doesn’t mean God is not working for our good in the midst of the suffering. The scriptures teach that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28), even if we can’t see it at the time.
The best example of this is the crucifixion. God himself became man, and as a man was arrested, tortured, and executed in the most horrible way. He suffered greatly. He suffered unjustly. And from that suffering was born the greatest good mankind has ever received.
No one could have realized at the time the great good God was working in the world, and even now we only understand the smallest bit of the awesome victory Christ won for us on the cross. God transformed the greatest evil into the greatest good.
Our limited point of view does not allow us to know God’s plan or purpose fully. We are too close to it. We can’t see the whole painting because we are part of the painting. If you imagine an impressionist painting like a Monet, our lives are like just one dot of color on the canvas. All we can see are the other dots around us but we have no idea how it all works together. For us to really know what’s going on, we’d have to step outside of the painting and view it from a distance.
We may never know the reason why suffering happens in this life. But that doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist, nor that he is not good and loving.
We simply don’t have the ability to judge what is “good” and “just” from God’s eternal perspective. He sees the whole story at once, and we can trust that he’s working all things for our good — even the thing we are struggling with right now.