Why don’t we start with something specific. People often cite the story told by the character Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: parents punished their little daughter for bedwetting by locking her in a frozen outhouse. Ivan cannot accept a God who would let that happen.
OK, how would you prevent it? Can you imagine a world where there is no child abuse? Not just that one awful case—there’s no point in stopping only one act of abuse. How would you stop child abuse entirely? Would you make it so that an angry parent could not think of any way to hurt a child?
Could a parent imagine striking a child, but be paralyzed and unable to raise an arm?
Could he strike at the child, but the blow would not land?
The blow would land, but the child would not feel it as painful?
Maybe you could make it so that parents could not get angry in the first place—how about that? Would that mean that no one, anywhere, could get angry? Why stop with parents?
(We’ll get to earthquakes and tsunamis later. One thing at a time.)
How about making it powerfully instinctive to protect children, but with some small room for evil people to do wrong? Child abuse would be so contrary to normal human nature that people would recoil in horror, as they do to Ivan’s story.
Wait—that’s the system we have now.
OK, let’s try something simpler. What about a boy who loves his dog? The dog grows old and sick. The boy is worried. Would you make it so that no beloved pet dies?
Or does a bittersweet thought arise that, even though such a loss is painful, it will help the boy grow in maturity and compassion? But you can’t allow that, really. We’re trying to make a world without suffering, not one where suffering has hidden meaning. Besides, if the boy is going to live in a world without suffering, he won’t ever need to feel compassion.
All right, the boy loves the dog, so you won’t let it die. What if the next year he discovers girls? Would you let the dog die then?
In a perfect world, would staying alive be based on whether someone loves you? Can you foresee that causing any kind of suffering?
What about dislike, in general? Racism, for example: would you eliminate it by making everyone look the same? Or would you eliminate our ability to notice differences? Or could we notice differences, but be unable to have negative thoughts? Would you create humans who love everybody and hate nobody, and have no choice about it?
You have to change something. The way things are now, there’s a lot of suffering.
Maybe you don’t expect to eliminate suffering entirely—you just want to set some limits. But there already are limits. A bad guy can’t kill you and dig you up and kill you again. He can’t kill children you haven’t had yet. Even if he holds you captive, your thoughts are still free. And scientists don’t struggle to cure that terrible disease where your skin suddenly melts away in the shower; there are lots of diseases that don’t exist.
There are limits, but you think they should be in different places. Let’s keep trying to do that.
OK, earthquakes. Would you have constructed the world some other way, without plate tectonics? Great! That was an easy one.
But if “Earthquake” was the worst kind of natural disaster, whatever was number two now automatically becomes number one--tidal waves, maybe, or volcanoes. People won’t be grateful for the non-existence of earthquakes, like they’re not grateful for the non-existence of Skin Melt Disease. As long as there are any natural disasters, something’s going to be worst.
And, yes, it’s unfair that some victims of disaster are miraculously saved, while others die. How do you want to make it fair? Nobody gets miracles, or everybody does?
Let’s just go ahead and eliminate all natural disasters, anything caused by changes in weather, earth, or sea. But even stuff that’s just sitting there can kill you. You can fall into a pool of water and drown.
Would you make it so that couldn’t happen? Would you do that by changing the nature of water, or changing the nature of lungs?
Maybe water would have a tough skin, so you’d hit the surface and bounce. But how would we drink it? Would you change the way our bodies take in water? Or maybe we wouldn’t need water? Would we need something else instead?
Don’t forget gravity. We’ve eliminated earthquakes, but what kills people in earthquakes is being crushed by things that fall on them. Stuff can fall, even without an earthquake. Would you make it so gravity doesn’t pull things down on people? …No, that whole train of thought is problematic.
When you say that if there was a truly omnipotent God, he could have prevented suffering, do you mean that God could have made things differently? Sure, that’s what we’re trying to visualize now. But if you mean that he could have made a world that was illogical, I’m going to have trouble following you.
I don’t expect you to actually build this perfect world, but it does seem like you should at least be able to imagine it.
And here’s a factor we haven’t talked about yet: subjectivity. People can respond to the same thing in different ways, and interpret it as suffering or not, depending on the context. A hangnail can be unbearable when you’re trying to sleep, but twelve hours of childbirth is worth it when you hold that new little baby. Losing a pint of blood in a Red Cross clinic is not like losing one in a car accident.
What’s more, different people have different responses to suffering overall. Some make a big fuss over nothing, while others endure terrible things without blame or complaining. Though people can’t control what happens to them, they seem to have some control over their response.
Would you make that part of the human mind stronger, and diminish suffering that way? Actually, a number of religions have made significant breakthroughs in that area.
I’m not mocking your desire to create a world without suffering. If we didn’t grieve at suffering and urgently want to end it, we would be less than human. Your desire to do so springs from a strong, sincere love for humankind. But accomplishing it requires major changes in what humankind is like.
You can prevent interpersonal pain by making people who give and receive the same amount of love, without bias or personal preferences. You can standardize physical appearances, so no one would suffer from feeling inadequate or ugly, and no one could choose to love one person and reject someone else. Personalities would have to be standardized too, for the same reason. Old people would be as attractive as young people, and I guess they might as well continue to look young, since nobody is going to die anyway. You can reorganize the natural world, too, so that it is predictable and never dangerous.
This world you’re creating certainly is beautiful; it’s elegant and serene. It’s also a lot simpler. Nothing there can change, because change would mean a fall from perfect bliss. The people living there are simpler too, untroubled and uniformly beautiful, like marble statues in a quiet garden.
In comparison, the world we’ve got now is just so odd, isn’t it? It’s far more complex than seems strictly necessary. Why make such wildly differing landscapes? Why bother with color? Fish are great, but 20,000 species? The more you think about it, the more eccentric, even comical, our world appears.
If you were designing humans for your perfect world, you probably wouldn’t have them digest food the way we do. When you planned how they reproduce, you’d come up with something more dignified. Flatulence has been making humans laugh since the dawn of time, but it just wouldn’t belong in a perfect world. (Besides, laughter can lead to teasing).
The world we’ve got is far from quiet and unchanging. It changes constantly, vigorously, and yet remains the same, like an ocean, like a forest. God doesn’t sit afar off, watching us “from a distance,” as the dumb song has it. There’s no distance. His life permeates creation, filling every bug and every blade of grass, sustaining every molecule. “‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:24), and Isaiah heard the angels agree, “The world is full of the glory of God” (Isaiah 6:3).
Yet there is, undoubtedly, suffering. Behind every overt experience of suffering, there is a gray-noise static of isolation, even loneliness, and the edgy necessity of self-protection. It is easy to spend most of our lives in the dry attic of the mind, worrying and pondering. We retain a sense that we are cut off from something important, something beautiful, and that is surely the tragedy reigning behind all others.
No one knows why things are this way. (A factor we usually disregard, but one assumed by people in most times and places, is that it’s not just us and God here in the universe. There are spiritual forces that are not benign. You laugh, but it might turn out they’re right. They make up a mighty big vote.)
The God who made such a world, and who continued to love his lost children, would try to call them back into communion with him. He would want them to dwell in innermost security and peace, because then nothing they could face would be perceived as suffering. Even when they were hurt and hated, they would give love in return. But how would he go about reaching them?
This entire Planet Earth project is eccentric, so God’s approach to this problem is likely to be unexpected too. What we would expect is for him to try to make contact by speaking in the hearts of some people in every generation, and giving those prophets a message designed to draw his beloved home. Most religions preserve such books.
But we Christians believe that he did something else, something extremely odd: he became a baby. Holy books are one thing, but what humans really need is love. So he started out as a baby and walked, day by day, through a specific, earthy human life. The things he did and said during that life are still compelling, two thousand years later. The force of his personality reverberates through the ages.
At the end he went through terrible suffering. It was as if he was saying, “Look, this is how you do it,” and then he did it with courage, love, and, most amazing, forgiveness.
But that wasn’t the end. On the third day he rose again from the dead, trampling down death by death, and smashing the forces that wound and tear us. He demonstrated that the final victory belongs to him.
If you believe this happened, it’s the definition of “good news.” If the fear of death is shattered, everything is changed. Our lives are not free of trouble, but we can look at trouble in a different way, because the conqueror is with us. “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
This story might sound crazy, but it’s not any crazier than the world itself; in that context, it’s strangely fitting. But what about your perfect world, so beautiful and unchanging? Can you honestly say that you love it? Would anyone die for your marble men?