Human Suffering: Why This Isn't the 'Best of All Possible Worlds'
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
Many people have used the tragedies of human suffering as an excuse for rejecting the God of the Bible. Accordingly, skeptics rationalize this rejection by using syllogisms such as this:
- If God is great and good, He can and would make our world (including human life) good.
- Not all of the world (including human life) is good, as human suffering amply demonstrates.
- Therefore, the Creator God is not perfectly great and good.
In essence, Darwinists of the 1800s (and later again in the 1900s and 2000s) argued:
- If God really is perfect in power and goodness, no human suffering would occur.
- Human suffering does occur.
- Therefore, God cannot really be perfect in both power and goodness.
A corollary conclusion extends this syllogism: Any explanation of human origins that relies upon a Creator God who is perfectly powerful, wise, and good cannot be true, because of the above syllogism-produced conclusion.1
But are these two syllogisms sound and trustworthy? No, as we shall see.
Shining a spotlight on hidden assumptions
The above challenge to God’s goodness and power necessarily implies some hidden (i.e., unspoken) assumptions.
One such assumption is that all human suffering is inexcusably evil, even if it is temporary in duration and it contributes to a permanent improvement in God’s creation. Another assumption is that a perfectly great and good Creator God would never tolerate evil in His creation, even temporarily. A third unspoken assumption is that the universal morality of God’s providence should be evaluated based only upon the temporal world as it now exists, without any appreciation for what God will do with it (and us) in the future.
Whether temporary experiences in human suffering can be reconciled with the character of God as the perfectly great and good Creator requires consideration of the “big picture”—and that picture is not limited to the temporal history of this present world.
Is this the “best of all possible worlds”?
When Darwinists argue their view of origins based upon the “tooth-and-claw” selfishness of the present world, it must be recognized that they act as though this world is the only reality that matters. This temporal approach to evaluating the world and the human life in it has been used by Darwinists to contradict the biblical concept of God.2 They sarcastically ask, “Why didn’t the Creator God intelligently design and make His creation to be perfectly good, to be ‘the best of all possible worlds’?” Those who want an excuse to reject God are often quick to accept this objection to the Bible’s view of creation.
Why? It is easy for anyone (whether pious or impious) to imagine a nicer world, one that is free of sickness, suffering, frustration, and death. So, the Darwinists say, if God is so great and so good, why didn’t He make sure that we had the “best of all possible worlds”?
Ironically, one class of Darwin’s opponents, the Deists, effectively argued that this world should be the best, because the Creator God surely used pure reason to make it so. Because the Deists kept the Holy Bible closed whenever they analyzed the past and present condition of nature,3 they failed to accept and appreciate how the world’s “groaning” was historically caused by Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden.4
If Deists would argue (as many did during the years of Darwinism’s early popularization) that the Creator God made the present world to exhibit perfect wisdom, reason, and harmony, the Darwinists would retort that nature is often downright cruel, selfish, vicious, and ugly (with predation, pain, and death). The Deists had no logical explanation for why a rationalistic deity would allow such tragic conditions. Triumphantly trumpeting their pessimistic philosophy, the Darwinists preached a substitute “gospel” of godlessness and death, stressing that the true nature of nature was a selfish and bloody “survival of the fittest” competition, anything but a “best of all possible worlds” made by a great and good Creator God.5
Exposing the Darwinists’ false dichotomy
When Darwinists insist that the imperfections of our “groaning” world disprove the Bible’s depiction of a “very good” creation lovingly crafted by an infinitely perfect Creator, they are arguing a false “either-or” dichotomy. Their implied argument is that this present world is all there is (or will be), so either it is God’s “best” or God has failed to provide the “best.” But this present world, according to the Bible, is—after Eden—only a temporary phase during which mortal humans are contextually experiencing valuable moral testing and character-building.6 This world is not permanent; it is not all that counts.7
Accordingly, the Darwinists’ fallacy of judging God’s “fairness,” by comparing this present world with an imagined “best of all possible worlds,” is a fault traceable to the Darwinists’ closed Bible.
What Deists and Darwinists have both failed to see is that 1) God has ordained a present opportunity for mankind to make real choices in this world; 2) God has ordained that some present real-world consequences are built into human choices; and 3) God has ordained that this present world is does not represent the qualitative conditions of the permanent world that God has planned for the humans who choose to belong to Him.
In short, this present world is not the “best of all possible worlds,” but God never said it was. Moreover, God (who sovereignly orchestrates all of human history, in both time and eternity) never said that He intended that it would be.
Nonetheless, the human suffering question deserves further attention.
Is the questioner a hypocrite?
Perhaps someone has asked you to explain the problem of human suffering—broken homes, broken hearts, broken health, broken finances, broken dreams. There is nothing trivial about human suffering.
Before replying, consider first who is asking the question. Some who claim to reject God because of such objections actually do so with dishonest motives, hypocritically seeking to disguise the real reason for their rejection. Many who adamantly reject God would be embarrassed to honestly admit, “It’s because I don’t want to admit that I am His creature, so therefore He has rightful authority over me.” So, such rebels use rationalistic arguments merely to cloak their inherently rebellious attitudes. In short, many despise God’s creation-based authority, so they employ “philosophic” protests about human suffering, as if that were the real reason why they reject God.
If the questioner is insincere, another issue is the real problem.8
Is the questioner sincere?
But, what about sincere questions about human suffering? Some people are genuinely confused and troubled by human suffering; they seek a logical explanation for why a loving God would permit it.
Sincere inquirers should be provided with real answers. Biblical answers should be given in such cases with logical clarity, biblical truthfulness, and caring respectfulness.9 The problem of human suffering is a complicated problem, and analyzing its causes has often led to erroneous conclusions. God devoted the book of Job to this subject, so we know this is an important topic. This shows that God will give answers to those who genuinely seek the truth about human suffering. And part of that truth is the scary reality that God has created human beings with the ability to choose.
If God programmed all of His human creatures to mechanically speak “I love You, Lord” like robots or tape recorders, those recited words would be meaningless. Those words are meaningful only if they are voiced from the human heart, voluntarily, as a result of a human creature really appreciating and loving his or her Creator. But, in order for God to enable an opportunity for such a human to choose to appreciate and love Him (or anyone else, for that matter), there must exist the real opportunity for that human to choose otherwise.10 If only one “option” is available, there is no true moral choice involved. (Likewise, if a behavior is forced or coerced, it is not voluntary.) If a human was programmed to say “I love You, Lord,” any such “love” would be an involuntary farce. But God wanted to create a family of creatures capable of loving Him, and that is how (and why) He made Adam’s race.
The Bible makes it clear that God thought it best (i.e., the best of all possible eternal scenarios) to provide mankind with real moral choices, so that some humans could—and, He foreknew, would—voluntarily choose to appreciate and love Him (and one another).11 But, providing this moral choice required that the opportunity to choose otherwise be given.
The proof that we are not robots is the reality that we see all around us, day by day, some of which is tragic: some appreciate and love God, while others choose an opposite lifestyle. Yet, considering all alternatives, God deemed it better to tolerate the consequences of some humans making bad choices, in order to facilitate the eternal consequences of some humans making good choices (e.g., choosing to apply the promise of John 3:16 personally).
Doing so meant that evil would be allowed to exist, at least for a time. Yet the only other alternative available to God (prior to His making Adam and Eve) would be to disallow any real moral choices to His favorite creatures; obviously, in that scenario, they could not honestly appreciate or love God voluntarily, much less genuinely be His unique “image bearers.” There is no true opportunity to choose to approve and to accept love unless there also exists the true option to disapprove and reject love.
In other words, if we humans were fatalistically programmed robots, we would not be morally responsible for our “decisions.” However, we are true moral agents, created in God’s image, with true capacity to choose what is true, what is right, what is good. But that means that there must be bad consequences for bad choices. Why? There is no true “choice” to do right unless there is also the true option of doing wrong. But likewise, because God is just, there is no true choice to do wrong unless there is a built-in consequence of punishment for doing wrong. (If doing wrong was rewarded with blessing, there would be no justice.)
Accordingly, the fact that God has chosen to allow for the real possibility of evil, based upon His choice to give humans real choice, is an important aspect in answering the many complicated questions about human suffering.12
In short, God has provided the potential for evil (and that potential has been actualized in human history, beginning with Adam’s sinful choice in the Garden of Eden) as a necessary part of His decision to give humans real opportunities of choice, with real moral consequences built into the choices made.
But it is a false causation fallacy13 to conclude that all human suffering is a punitive consequence of human sin. Reality is much more complex than that.
A common (but unreliable) answer: “Suffering is always self-caused”
Job’s so-called friends concluded that his sufferings must be proof of some secret sin on his part.14 Otherwise, they reasoned, what possible explanation could there be?
Like Job’s friends, Hindus have explained human suffering as a manifestation of reincarnation-based justice, supposing that the law of karma (what some would call the law of “just desserts”) is punishing or rewarding in this life someone’s morality (or immorality) exercised during a previous life.
Observing human behavior does provide many examples of “just desserts,” because it frequently occurs that someone’s bad behavior is punished by a fitting consequence. However, to say that all human suffering is a punishment for immoral behavior would be logically fallacious and historically false. In short, it is a false causation fallacy to infer that all suffering is deserved.
Was God punishing Job with exceptional levels of suffering on account of Job’s exceptional levels of personal sins? No. The Bible clearly teaches that Job’s sufferings were not punishments for his personal sins, because his unprecedented sufferings did not match his exemplary conduct.
Rather, Job’s sufferings served a completely different (yet valuable) purpose. Amazingly, Job’s sufferings were designed to prove that God is worthy of worship regardless of whether life’s “weather” is fair or foul, because God is a faithful Creator who will work out ultimate good for those who belong to Him, regardless of how events in this extremely temporary life go at times.15
The ultimate example of undeserved human suffering: Christ Jesus
Of course, the quintessential and perfect example of undeserved human suffering is Jesus Christ. His voluntary suffering on this earth to pay for our sins was a self-sacrifice that He accepted in order to accomplish a greater and everlastingly permanent good.16
The Lord Jesus Christ’s uniquely redemptive self-sacrifice, almost 2,000 years ago, only makes sense when it is viewed within the context of eternity. Think of how it must have appeared at the time of the crucifixion; it would have seemed to make no sense at the time it was happening—the Just, dying for the unjust?
But hindsight, informed by holy Scripture, perfectly shows us that the then-tragic experiences of human suffering—including the death and burial of the soon-to-be-resurrected Christ—can (and will) ultimately make good sense, in the fullness of time.
So, in light of eternity (from God’s perspective, which is perfect), there is no logical excuse for using the tragedy of human suffering to reject the God of the Bible.
- A similar analysis could be made that would also include the suffering of animals.
- “An important aspect of the creationist model is often overlooked, but it is essential for a proper understanding of the issues. This aspect is the deterioration of a once-perfect creation. Creationists believe this because the Bible states that the world was created perfect (Gen. 1:31), and that death and deterioration came into the world because the first couple sinned (Gen. 3:19, Rom. 5:12, 8:20-22, 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 26)….Many evolutionists point to allegedly imperfect structures as ‘proof’ of evolution, although this is really an argument against perfect design rather than for evolution.” Sarfati, J. 2001. Refuting Evolution. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 33-34.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. The Failed Apologetic of the Wedge Strategy: How the Intelligent Design Movement Treats the Bible as Irrelevant. Acts & Facts. 40 (8): 10-11.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Misreading Earth’s Groaning: Why Evolutionists and Intelligent Design Proponents Fail Ecology 101. Acts & Facts. 39 (8): 8-9. See also Romans 5:12-21 and 8:21-23.
- Morris, H. M. 2005. The Long War Against God. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 154.
- 1 Peter 1:6-9. See also James 1:2-4.
- 2 Peter 3:1-13 and John 14:1-3.
- Consider the example of King Herod, who asked where the baby Jesus was born, pretending that he wanted to know so he might worship Him. God knew Herod’s heart was false and murderous, so God directed the magi to avoid giving an answer to Herod’s question (Matthew 2:7-12).
- 1 Peter 3:15.
- Compare Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-6 with Job 13:15.
- Christ not only knows what will happen in the future, He knows what would have happened if events and circumstances had been different. See Matthew 11:21-24.
- Note that it is only those who belong to God, through redemption in Christ, who will have a permanent future that can accurately be described as “all things work[ed] together for good.” Compare Romans 8:28 with Genesis 50:20.
- Watts, Isaac. 1724. Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Productions, 1996 reprint of the 1847 edition by William Milner, 304.
- See Job 8-15.
- Job 13:15. See also 1 Peter 4:19.
- See John 1:29. See also Isaiah 53, Philippians 2, and Hebrews 8-10.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. Human Suffering: Why This Isn’t the “Best of All Possible Worlds.” Acts & Facts. 40 (11): 8-10.