Suffering: is this God’s best possible world? 7 December 2014

An essay reflecting on questions of theodicy by Dr John Morris. A shorter version of this article edited by the On Religion team appeared in Issue 8. The full article, as intended by the author is below.

“Where is God and what is he doing?” Goethe’s question on hearing news of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake raised the ancient problem of suffering which has always been the weakest pillar holding up all religions, and the strongest ground for atheism. Without God, there is no theological problem! Suffering is ‘simply’ part of life’s package. While helping to care for my own grandson born profoundly handicapped, I wrote my Revised Edition, Contemporary Creed (RECC) which expands on points I can make only briefly here and which is also free at Those born without a chance of a week of ‘normal’ life, and beyond medical repair, raise bigger questions about God’s world than mishaps to healthy bodies.

Leibniz (1646-1716) remained optimistic despite natural disasters and human evil. His God was not an under-achiever but the Creator of “the best of all possible worlds”, a phrase he felt had roots in Plato.   With the progress in science we are in a better position to discuss whether the Earth is the Creator’s best habitat for today’s humans or their only possible environment. My discussion depends on readers being open-minded about my initial premise, from which follow ideas that often pretend more knowledge of God than humans possess! So these thoughts remain tentative.

First a health warning! I do not mean “all is for the best” in a cot death, blindness, or cancer. I am not saying: “God is in control”; “God allowed, willed or planned it”; “God wanted mummy in heaven – there’s a reason for everything”; “The unfortunate exist to make the rest of us kinder”; “It was Adam’s fault”; “God punishes sin”. These quotes are, I suggest, inappropriate responses to both particular individual circumstances and to the whole global system or big picture.

1. Reworking St Anselm, my premise is that God is the greatest idea that the human mind can imagine. But an idea of something does not prove its existence. If God is a theoretical concept without existence, there is something lacking: real existence seems necessary to complete the truth of that supreme idea. I assume God’s objective existence to be eternal, unlimited by space-time, and immaterial Spirit. Unsurprisingly, infinite God has many names, including Supreme Being, Consciousness, and Divine Energy; all without gender, though for convenience I refer to God as he, rather than he/she/it.

2.That greatest idea means God is Good. “Too much can be made by some philosophers of the intractable problem of defining Good, when most of us know what it means for everyday use” (RECC p59).   God wills something because he is good; if that is true, it follows that something is right because he wills it. Nature red in tooth and claw might suggest an evil First Cause but which human would think it his greatest idea, especially as nature also includes beauty and joy?   A Good Creator is the highest Love, not self-centred controlling love but outgoing, unconditional compassion, a personal quality in God who is personal Being – but not a person in anthropomorphic terms.

3. That greatest idea means God is omnipotent and rational which includes firstly, the power to create something other than itself, a material universe or multiverses, with laws and order, reflecting his own rationality; secondly, the power to restrict himself, if God chooses not to be Almighty on occasions or continually.

4. My amateurish grasp of cosmology suggests that an evolutionary process was the only choice open to God consistent with his purpose. “Only a big universe is an old universe, lasting the billions of years needed to produce stars, heavier elements, carbon-based life, and eventually us, a vastly more ingenious continuous creation” than one in a flash (p49). Instead of finished species, primitive forms acquired the capacity for wonderful self-development and adaptation. “A detailed inflexible plan from beginning to end would allow no freedom to God or his creatures” (p27). If humans were an intended objective as the anthropic principle suggests, Mind’s only option for expressing love to other minds was to create a habitat through gradual emergent creation, needing carbon that can be formed only inside stars.

5. Thereby “God is the great Discoverer of where creation leads” (p26) – early Muslim scientists had much the same thought!   “Let us make humankind in our image” (Gen.1:27)pictures God on an adventure to multiply goodness, who would later discover in Jesus what “humankind” is like from the inside. The greatest all-knowing God knows and foresees only all that is possible, so he cannot know the precise future until it exists – or who will win Wimbledon!

6. In Genesis, most ‘days’ end with “God saw that it was good” – not perfect, but fit for purpose.   Perhaps God rested on the seventh to let his six ‘ingredients’ take their course. Since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the Creator appears to observe a continuous sabbath rest, letting creation make itself through seemingly undirected evolution. The atheist sees a self-governing system in which God is unnecessary to spark our violent universe. That violence – on which we depend, warmed by the sun’s explosiveness – was not introduced by legendary Adam’s sin. The deist has a hands-off Creator, inactive after setting the ball rolling. My theism accepts a double agency, God and natural forces: a restless Creator, constantly interacting, rather than sometimes intervening from outside, with the unfolding and open process he began, rich in its alternative possibilities. If God is not a necessary hypothesis, one can still argue that he is a rational hypothesis: it may look as though the universe is making itself, yet it is reasonable to believe that nature and its beings exist and are kept in being through the only One with Being in itself, the original essence and sustainer of all being, the perpetual I am.

7. Freedom is indivisible. Humans are stardust: they cannot be given moral freedom without material freedom being given to their constituent particles. Subatomic particles in the quantum world have an unpredictability, indeterminacy, within the overall cosmic order. Particles, bacteria, and animals behave ‘freely’ in the painful and amoral natural world – without moral choice to act otherwise; savage predation and parasitism help achieve the survival of the fittest and ‘best’. Higher up the evolutionary ladder, human animals are aware of moral choices between right and wrong. Freewill versus determinism is an ongoing debate: some neuroscientists think freewill, the self, and the brain-mind duality are illusions and humans are entirely chemical mechanisms. Certainly, genes do determine your height and looks – and my unlucky baldness! Genes influence behaviour but do not determine it and delete all personal responsibility; reductionists make us puppets pulled by our selfish gene strings! No one has complete freedom, let alone starving people, but there is a degree of discretion in the way people cope with appalling situations – and in a pedestrian’s refusal to cross the road just in front of an advancing bus!

8. Creativity is also indivisible. Prolific creativity is not only a characteristic of the Creator, it is endowed on all creation, bringing astonishing ingenuity to the natural world and to humans.

9. The Creator of the material universe (or of the vibrating strings of energy that underlie all matter, as string theory suggests) is impotent to create immaterial good at the drop of a hat. Amoral, clockwork robots could have been programmed to be good, instantly; but that would be God’s own goodness returned to him. Whereas autonomous moral beings could return something distinctively fresh. But the gift of freedom is risky, as every parent knows: Love that is uncontrolling risked his creatures’ rebellion, making Love’s outcome unpredictable.

10. Moral creativity is difficult: the highest virtue of love, like courage, sacrifice, loyalty, patience, endurance, generosity and sympathy, cannot be ready-made; they emerge only in the moral struggle of tough decisions. God has to allow real consequences to human actions to create morally responsible beings. Were he to rescue us from each impending disaster, we would have smaller brains and remain immature children, so a loving parent-Father restrains himself and lets his ‘baby’ of virtue climb onto its own two wobbly feet! Yet behind the emergence of self-conscious humans, sieved by natural selection, was a providence that helped virtues to be born, initially as a survival mechanism, which graduated into altruism for complete strangers. Sadly, we cannot have moral beauty without the beast: moral giants of forgiveness like Nelson Mandela breathed the same air as monsters like Hitler. But I too make matters worse by my air pollution in planes and cars, and selfish share of the world’s resources.

11. Evolution has gains and losses. Yet what does not have a plus and minus? Everything has a price. My process theology entails mistakes, extinctions, and waste. The evolution of life is driven by genetic mutation in cells. Without accidental mutations – which sometimes bring cancer – we humans would not have arrived!   Scientists discovered that only a system with both order and disorder (including quantum uncertainties) delivers novelties that can survive. But they are costly: some babies (maybe well under 1%) are born with irremediable, overwhelming genetic defects.   They are the vicarious sufferers on behalf of the 99%. Instead of asking “Why me?”, our afterthought might be “Why not me?”.   Ironically, mutations are extremely useful for genetic research and medical progress. Random mutations express the orderly structure of DNA molecules in all living matter: creativity is maximised through exploring the gamut of potentialities within ordered genetic sentences that randomly misspell, sometimes detrimentally, but sometimes beneficially in real novelty. As microbiologists uncover the immense complexity of one cell amongst the trillions within the human body, is it not unreasonable to expect everyone to remain healthy, when so much could go wrong? Bodies age, heart attacks happen, yet the high degree of health is an amazing achievement. It is either nature’s unaided triumph or God assists it and all medical progress, though little came until the modern era! Proof either way is impossible, for we cannot experiment by taking God out of the equation to see if things work without him!

12. A distinction between God’s end and means is now needed. That end or goal is to multiply Good, because God is Love, with the best intentions. The means or method he uses to achieve that end necessarily requires evolution, creativity and moral freedom, and they entail intrinsic suffering. That suffering is not good in itself, nor does God enjoy it. Olympic sportspeople know that without the coach’s punishing training there will be no medals; this grinding method is the necessary price paid to reach the top. God, like the coach, does not want the suffering itself – were there another way he would take it – he wants victory in the race, if the world is his Olympic training ground of soul-making!   So suffering is the consequence of the way things have to be, “the cost of Love that makes things free” (p26). Terrible adversity has by-products: it brings out saintliness in some (which does not justify the suffering), but breaks others. “God had no purpose for the crisis but once it arrived he has a redeeming purpose in it, attempting to bring a positive out of the most negative situation” (p181). So he can influence events he is unable to control, to bring out the best in people, to help them cope. Unlike the Christian God’s forgiveness, Hindus and Buddhists believe people ultimately reap what they sow, a moral law of cause and effect (karma), profounder than ‘cigarettes can kill’. But any moral grain in this world is necessarily imperfect: sometimes criminals escape justice and innocent victims suffer. If the innocent were always protected and the guilty always penalised, we would not be good for its own sake! (Rom.8:18-39).

13. There is either appropriate freedom for all creation or no freedom, it is all or nothing. If we want God to stop human evil – the Holocaust, rape, and child abuse – are we prepared for the consequences?   Where could he draw the line to stop his interventions reducing everyone’s liberty? To want a safe environment – so the sun warms but never causes skin cancer, with seas good for sailing but never dangerous – is to want the impossible. God’s system has to combine lawful necessity and chance happenings. Volcanoes and tectonic plates are left free to be themselves, bringing we now know some beneficial scientific consequences as well as personal calamities. If God were unreliable, often overruling his physical laws, scientists would not know where they are – in short, life would become chaotic, defeating progress. A Safety Officer, at his cosmic radar screen diverting dangers, reduces the greatest God to an unpredictable Dictator. Can we be sure our changes to God’s world will be improvements, when we, like Job, have only a fraction of his knowledge? The present ‘me’ would not exist; the whole package would be different, probably populated with aliens grumbling for changes!

14. How do world religions know that God is Good? Miracles seem rare and Mayday distress prayers may fail (pp144-183), and the hands of a typically non-interventionist God are those of caring families and professionals, all keen to alleviate pain (though it helped in diagnosis). Original Buddhism, without a Creator God to defend, focuses not on the global but on an individual’s Way to avoid personal suffering by sensible detachment from desire. Christianity alone pins its hope on history as the best defence against God’s alleged inhumanity. That intervention 2000 years ago replaced a philosopher’s God with a suffering God, who in Jesus shared our dangers. Crucified, Jesus forgave his killers, and felt “forsaken” by God who did not intervene – and may also not spare a heroic teenager with cancer. Remove the cross – and dismiss the evidence for God’s unique physical or spiritual resurrection of Jesus (debated pp130-139) which alone promises the final defeat of evil and suffering – and any belief in a compassionate God becomes harder to justify. The teenager’s grieving parents may also feel God-forsaken; or held by a pain-sharing God in Christ, whose cross is an everlasting divine memory; or that cancer is an agonising frustration of God’s will for a long, joyful life. When asked about reunions in heaven, Jesus replied: “men and women do not marry”; so there is discontinuity between bodies now and any’embodiment’ then; but there will also be continuity of my ‘essence’ – Mary recognised the resurrected, transformed Jesus (Mark 12:18-27; Rev. 21; John 9; pp198-9).

15. Belief in an aloof Creator might come from clues – not proofs – in the natural world: a Supreme Intelligence, based on arguments from design, first cause, rationality, order, beauty, coherence, and the amazing fine tuning of the universe. But against design might be set mal-design; against moral order, random suffering. Though suicide is an option, remarkably few humans take it, seeing life as better than death, a blessing more than a curse.

16. Einstein remarked to his assistant Ernst Straus, “What really interests me is whether God could have created the world any differently; in other words, whether the demand for logical simplicity leaves any freedom at all”. Probably, the universe has the properties we observe because no other universe is possible, it is the only recipe nature allows. Alternatively, before the Big Bang, the greatest Mind may have compromised, balancing gains and losses between alternatives, to find the optimum for his goal of Good. We inhabit either the only possible world or the only optimal world to achieve his loving purposes, despite the suffering involved. Either way, God’s work in progress is more dynamic than Leibniz could know. Perhaps future space explorations will modify that conclusion, providing we, God’s stewards, do not ruin our changing planet with its evolving humans, thereby frustrating his local intentions.

Einstein gave us E=mc2.   Energy = mass x the speed of light squared. Evolution brings Morality and Creativity but at a much slower, painstaking speed.

About John Morris

John Morris, MA, M.Ed, PGCE, PhD, was a teacher and lecturer for over thirty years before being ordained as an unpaid Anglican clergyman in 1995. He is also author of Contemporary Creed, available through John Hunt Publishing.