The Psychology Behind the Problem of Evil

There is a sort of typical back and forth that occurs between skeptics and Christians that sounds a bit like this:

  • Skeptic: “If God loves everybody, why is there so much suffering in the world?”

  • Christian: “Because people choose to rebel against God.”

  • Skeptic: “If God can do anything, why couldn’t he have just created a world where no one would rebel against him?”

  • Christian: “Because then there would be no free will. People have to be able to choose whether or not to follow God for their love to be meaningful.”

  • Skeptic: “Fine. Then if God knew that the people he created were going to just rebel, why create them at all?”

This is typically the point at which the Christian is stumped.

Is there something beneficial to both Creature and Creator in a fall from grace, and the pain and suffering seen in the world?

Before addressing this specific question, it is worthwhile to look at the biological nature of pain and suffering.

Biological Pain and Pleasure

In his argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure, atheist philosopher Paul Draper examines the physical sensations of pain and pleasure in organisms to see which hypothesis of the universe would better explain these findings: a godless, indifferent universe, or a universe in which is ordered by a personal creator[1].

Draper’s argument contains a certain level of complexity, but some of the basic ideas to be drawn from this are, firstly, that pain and pleasure are potent sensations. Pain does not merely inform an organism that it is in physical danger, but does so in a way that is uncomfortable – possibly even gratuitous. Organisms do not merely experience an avoidance reaction to injury: they suffer. Likewise, pleasure is biologically compelling; even addictive.
These sensations make sense on the assumption that they evolved out of their usefulness to compel organisms to avoid danger and seek experiences that make them thrive. In an indifferent universe, the experience of pain could be merely informative or excruciating, and serve the same function.
However, an ordered, created universe could, according to Draper, be organized in such a way that the body could alert the neural system of physical peril without the associated suffering.

Further, pain and pleasure are not related to moral behavior. The rapist will experience pleasure in his reprehensible act, while his victim will experience pain. This is exactly what one would expect within an indifferent universe, but surprising in the context of a universe under divine supervision.
Another point is that “moral agents” (human beings), appear to experience pain identical to that experienced by creatures which have no moral agency. Once again, this lack of differentiation between human and animal is exactly what one would expect in an indifferent universe ruled by blind forces, but surprising if one allows for God.

Now one might make the argument that this pain and pleasure is some part of the design. After all, if it is biologically useful, it need not be connected to any kind of morality. Serving a biologically useful end might be by design, leaving morality in its own separate realm. This is where Draper’s final observation comes in: there are examples of pain and pleasure which have no obvious biological end. Examples might include the pointless pleasure of self-stimulation or the pointless pain of somatization disorder - a long-term (chronic) condition in which a person has physical sensations of pain that involve more than one part of the body, but no physical cause can be found.

These “accidents” of biology seem fairly sloppy in a designed universe, but might easily be explained by the rough and unguided forces of evolutionary biology.

The bottom line is that Draper lays out what, on the face of it, seems a fairly compelling argument that the biological experiences of pain and pleasure are exactly what one would see in a mindless, amoral universe; not what one would expect of an ordered universe with an underlying moral law.

There are, however, a number of broader facts that if one includes, tend to shift the evidence back in favor of theism.

The first of these is the qualitative difference in the way in which animals and humans experience pain and suffering as well as pleasure. Humans and higher order animals experience pain and suffering which – evidence suggests – is neurologically identical. Likewise, animals and humans generally seek to avoid or eliminate experiences of pain and to pursue experiences of pleasure. However, a crucial difference occurs in human behavior versus animal behavior when it comes to pain and pleasure. This difference lies in the surprising ways in which humans will often act against their feelings of pain and pleasure.

One way in which this can be seen is in the breaking of addictions. Addiction studies have been done on animals, and in none of these studies do animals attempt to break the addiction or fight the urge to give into the addictive behavior. Now pursuing an addiction to its end is exactly what one would expect in universe without morals or a God. That human beings have the ability to fight against the biological urges that bring pleasure or gratification is surprising on Naturalism, and has a distinctly moral aspect to it. Clearly, it is neither common nor easy for a person to break their addiction, but it is possible.

Another example of this can be seen in faithfulness in marriage or relationships. Only 3-5% of all mammals mate for life[2]. This puts humans in a pretty exclusive club. However, the truly defining difference is the vast range of sexual behaviors of humans around the globe. Sexual pleasure is arguably the strongest behavioral motivator as relates to pleasure in humans. So much so, that large amounts of money and resources – in both the private and public sectors – are devoted to separating the act of sex from its biological purpose of procreation.

Clearly the temptation to sexual promiscuity is strongly ingrained in human biology – and yet many humans decide to pursue values like loyalty and fidelity above the urge to pursue pleasure.

More telling, however, is that neither fidelity nor infidelity are universal human behaviors. Whereas with all other animals, the entire species tends to either mate for life or not, only in humans do behaviors vary so widely.

Perhaps most interesting is that, in humans, experiences of pain and pleasure are not always connected to feelings of personal fulfillment.

On a purely biological model, one would expect that people suffering from chronic pain or physical disabilities would mostly be emotionally depressed. One would also expect that people who experience biological pleasure – such as frequent sexual experiences – would mostly be happy or contented. However, the studies suggest that this is not nearly as straightforward as it would seem.

The abstract of Romano and Turner’s 1985 paper “Chronic pain and depression: does the evidence support a relationship?” states:

“The extent to which depression and chronic pain are associated remains a controversial issue that empirical studies have failed to resolve completely.”


The paper goes on to state that, while there does seem to be some relationship between the two, that relationship is not as strong, nor as straightforward as it might seem.

Additionally, many studies – such as “The relationship between religion/spirituality and physical health, mental health, and pain in a chronic pain population[3]” – have found that certain kinds of religious beliefs and practices help people to cope with their chronic pain.

Perhaps more surprising are the findings of Regnerus and Uecker who, in their book Premarital Sex in America (2011), find that promiscuous behavior with a high frequency of sexual experiences can be a contributor to depression.

Healthy humans who live indulgent lifestyles in which they are consistently undergoing experiences that give them physical pleasure can still be depressed and unfulfilled. On the other hand people that have disabilities or medical conditions in which they experience chronic pain can be content and fulfilled. This becomes obvious when one considers the wealthy, influential and attractive people who are constantly airing their personal problems in the media while flitting between relationships, as contrasted with people who find purpose and fulfillment in monogamy and in stressful and under-appreciated jobs such as healthcare, therapy and missionary work.

Ultimately, if animals are used as a baseline against which to compare the human experience, it becomes obvious that animals are very much slaves to their biological experiences of pain and pleasure, whereas humans have an entirely separate dimension of experience that ascends to the level of the transcendent. Moreover, this transcendent experience appears to have strong moral ramifications.

It may well be that this level of human experience also has some kind of physical explanation; however the fact that it exists at all, and that it exists in tension to mere pain and pleasure, strongly indicates a higher moral design that is better explained by a designed universe than by an indifferent one.
When one examines the above facts, a certain dichotomy emerges: certain humans chase addictions, others avoid them. Some humans are faithful in their relationships, others are unfaithful. Some humans experience depression and a lack of fulfillment despite pleasurable experiences, others experience fulfillment and contentment in spite of their physical problems.

Dichotomy is the hallmark of morality. Right and wrong, good and evil, sin and righteousness; this is the language of moral theory, no matter the philosophy that lies behind it. And this dichotomy strains against physical experience in a way which is surprising on the model of godless universe.

From beginning to end, the Bible is a book about pain, suffering and evil. It is a book that addresses these problems in a complex and nuanced way that involves the unfolding of revelation culminating in Jesus Christ. When a person criticizes the Bible or Christian worldview, in order to make the criticism stick, they must deal with the total teachings of the Bible. More than this, they need to define the position from which they are criticizing them, and what gives their position moral authority to judge the Bible.

Once a person has defined the concrete basis upon which moral values are necessarily based, criticism of the Bible and Christianity are no longer necessary. By defining the supreme moral position outside of the Christian God, they have essentially eliminated the necessity of that system.

Throwing criticisms at the Bible from a moral vacuum is logically unsound and does nothing to actually impugn the Bible or Christians.

 

Purpose and fulfillment

People who work as doctors or psychologists or social workers live lives of stress where the work they do is rarely met with appreciation or gratitude. Many of them struggle to balance family and any form of social life against their highly demanding jobs. Such people could easily find less stressful work and yet something drives them to pursue these career choices.

Why? Perhaps one reason is because these same people can go to bed at night with the knowledge that they are making an impact in the world, and that what they are doing is good and worthwhile. What they fail to receive from the thankless people they help, they receive existentially by the knowledge that their work has some kind of purpose. These people may rarely be in a happy mood, but they are sometimes deeply fulfilled.

 

Pain and Fulfillment

When a philosopher talks about “Existential Fulfillment” they mean that a person has found purpose and meaning in their life, such that their very existence is justified. It can reasonably be assumed that a person who experiences suffering and is living a fulfilled life is far better off than a person who is comfortable - who has access to pleasures of every sort - and is living a restless and meaningless life.

The Genie Dilemma

There is a thought experiment known as “The Genie Dilemma,” and it goes like this:

An individual is walking along the shore and stumble upon a bottle. A Genie pops out and offers several wishes. What does the individual request?

Generally the options add up to material possessions (i.e. wealth, houses, cars, boats, land, etc.), or life situations (i.e. a career, love, sex, good looks, power, success, charm, fame, immortality, etc.). These are, in fact, the things that people work for their entire lives. They are the primary goals of practically everyone on the planet, including religious people.

Of course, all of these things are pursued as a means to an end; that end being happiness. The Genie Dilemma asks why the human impulse isn’t simply to ask for “happiness,” or “contentment.” Why individuals want to achieve happiness and contentment through some other means.

However, it is plainly evident that these things do not, in fact, result in happiness or contentment. It is anachronistic that “Money does not buy happiness.” One can simply stand in line at a grocery store and study the glossy covers of the tabloids in order to see this. There one may see the lives of the most attractive, wealthy and successful people in the world; all falling apart before one’s eyes.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that those who achieve the life goals they have set for themselves are some of the most unhappy people.

Alexander the Great is said to have cried bitterly when he ran out of nations to conquer.

In his autobiography, The Unusual Suspect, actor Stephen Baldwin writes of the time he was invited to the Playboy Mansion:

“Wow what am I doing here? If you think about it all of this is pretty meaningless. This isn’t working for me anymore. There has to be more to life than this.” 

Jack Higgins, the renowned author of The Eagle Has Landed, has said that he wished he had known as a small boy that “When you get to the top, there's nothing there."

In his book, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, Charles Swindoll writes about the successful and wealthy cartoonist, Ralph Barton, who took his own life. In his suicide note, Barton wrote “I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”

So the “Genie Dilemma” asks why one does not wish to simply bypass the unnecessary pursuits and instead wish to be happy?

Consider the state of being happy all of the time, no matter the circumstance. The feeling of happiness is a mood – an emotional state – which, devoid of context, is fairly sad. One might look upon a mentally retarded person or a junkie who are always in a state of blissful happiness or euphoria not with envy, but rather with pity.

In his play, “Androcles and the Lion,” atheist philosopher George Bernard Shaw actually characterized his rejection of religion in this exact manner:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.”

Happiness as a state of mind could be chemically induced and is ultimately meaningless if not attached to some kind of object or meaning that inspires such happiness.

If history and psychology has demonstrated anything, it is that pursuing things – not obtaining those things – is what gives some illusion of purpose to people’s lives. This sets up a state in which “pursuit” is simply a meaningless treadmill, with a carrot dangling eternally before, it that occupies a person’s time while they wait for death.

The object being pursued would have to be uniquely fulfilling and meaningful – and of infinite depth – to give this dynamic some kind of transcendent purpose.

 

In a paper by atheist Stephen Maitzen’s, titled, “Atheism and the Basis of Morality.” Maitzen makes the argument that suffering is only justifiable if it benefits the sufferer in the long run. Maitzen uses the example of a child receiving a vaccination. The needle hurts, but ultimately it benefits the child. So presumably if it could be shown that a person achieves existential fulfillment – purpose and meaning to life – through suffering, then that suffering ultimately benefits the person, and Maitzen would agree that the suffering was justified.

It is worth noting at this point, that there are no stories, real or fictional, that boast an achievement or accomplishment that was not reached through a process of struggle and pain. It could be argued that triumph can only be achieved as a result of struggle.

Perhaps an apt example of this would be the Biblical story of Joseph.

In this story, Joseph was born to his father’s favorite wife after her many years of heartbreak over her infertility.

Because of the privileged treatment he received from his father, Joseph was verbally abused regularly, and ultimately beaten and sold into slavery by his own brothers.  

While in slavery, Joseph was falsely accused of rape and placed in prison. After successfully prophesying the fate of two inmates, he was not thanked, but rather forgotten for years.

Finally, that act of prophesy paid off, and he ended up the king’s confidant and eventually second in command. As such, he administrated the land during a famine, saving millions of lives, including his family.

His rise to power and fulfillment involved a path of humiliation and suffering but was all the sweeter by virtue of the struggle.

In the popular mind, comfort, pleasure and enjoyment might be termed “good” whilst struggle, pain and tragedy might be termed “evil,” but if these things lend purpose and existential satisfaction, then they are, in fact, beneficial in a way that comfort is not.

Why Dissatisfaction?

The late Douglas Adams once likened the human experience to that of a pool of water waking up one morning to examine the world in which it found itself. The puddle quickly recognizes how incredibly well the hole that composes its world fits it, and comes to the conclusion that the hole must have been designed exactly for the purpose of containing it.

This is a point well-taken. The order of cause and effect is frequently confused when examining a situation, resulting in erroneous conclusions. If the world were designed by God for humans, or humans evolved to fit the world in which they accidentally formed, it might look very much the same.

There is, however, one small but obvious difference between the human race and Douglas Adams’ puddle. The puddle fits its hole exactly and entirely. Humans, on the other hand, are historically entirely dissatisfied with the hole in which they have found themselves.

It needs very little documentation that human beings, no matter what kind of life they have, are a restless, unhappy and discontented lot.

Take, for instance, the story of the Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. According to legend[4], he grew up in a wealthy home where all his needs were tended to, but found himself unhappy. Casting about the world, he quickly discovered that everyone he met was unhappy. It was partially this realization which caused him to found his new religion. When he founded Buddhism, it was in part designed to answer the question of how to satisfy the deep sense of dissatisfaction in all people. In the end, he concluded that it couldn’t be satisfied, only eliminated. Thusly, one of the central tenants of Buddhism is to force oneself to desire nothing at all.

One would think that if humans formed in, evolved through, and constantly adapt to their environment, that contentment would be the status quo. How is it that human beings are not satisfied with this world if they have known no other world? How do humans recognize that something about the world is wrong when they know of no right?

From whence does this sense of longing come, and more importantly, what in the world could satisfy it? The answer is clearly nothing in the world can. Cast about the hole as they might, people cannot find the missing thing that would once and for all satisfy them.

Human beings recognize that they have needs and longings which no material thing seems to satisfy.  The complaint of the problem of evil might be stated as “Why do bad things happen?” Perhaps an even deeper question would be, “Why don’t good things satisfy?”

What Do Humans Really Need?

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In this paper he proposed his now-famous “Hierarchy of Needs.” What Maslow said is that human beings begin with a very basic set of needs that they pursue in order to live. These include such things as hunger, thirst, and physical comfort. Once these immediate needs are met, they pursue more long-term needs such as safety and security. The third tier of needs Maslow suggests includes love and belonging. Fourthly, an individual would pursue respect and accomplishment. Finally they would seek out things such as philosophy, knowledge, and wisdom.

 

In all likelihood, Maslow would have considered things like religion and spirituality to belong to this final tier of human needs, making them the most expendable of all the needs a person might have.

 

The Bible appears to have the opposite view. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the new generation of Israelites with these words:

 Deuteronomy 8:3 English Standard Version (ESV)

“And he (God) humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

 

Later, Jesus quotes this same passage when responding to Satan’s temptation to break his fasting by turning the stones to bread.

 

In fact, the practice of fasting itself, recommended throughout the Bible, is a blatant denial of the Maslow Hierarchy. What the Bible seems to suggest is that spiritual needs are superior to physical needs such that physical needs must be placed in subjection to them.

 

While this may seem topsy-turvy, it makes a great deal more sense when one considers that, no matter how effective a person is in meeting their physical needs, they will still inevitably die. There is no amount of food, water, comfort or safety that can eliminate the possibility of death; these things can only delay it. However, if Jesus’ teachings are correct, then the meeting of spiritual needs affords a person eternal life beyond death.

 

Additionally, it is disputable that, even if a person were to rise to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, they would ever truly be satisfied.

 

The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes walks the reader through his pursuit of existential satisfaction. He relates that he tried physical pleasure - living a life of hedonism; he tried vocational pleasure - gaining wealth and accomplishing great building projects that brought him fame; and he tried mental and spiritual satisfaction - studying and becoming renowned for his wisdom. After accomplishing every stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, he found it all to be meaningless and unfulfilling.

 

The search to meet these physical needs may, in fact, be a catalyst that brings people in search of God in the first place. As an example of this, consider this passage from the book of Matthew:

Matthew 9:2-8 English Standard Version (ESV)

“And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’  And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’  But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home.  When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”

Presumably the purpose for which the people brought the paralytic to Christ was not to have his sins forgiven, but rather to have him healed. Jesus, instead, put the priorities in their proper perspective by forgiving the sin for the eternal net benefit of the paralytic, rather than healing his paralysis, which was a temporary benefit at best. It was only when they questioned his authority to forgive sins that Jesus healed the man, doing so to prove his authority, and, as is fitting, the people who saw it “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Thus the man’s suffering served the ultimate purpose of glorifying God.

In fact, a strong argument could be made that people are brought to knowledge of God most frequently through suffering. The case of the paralytic is a good example. This man came to Jesus because of his suffering, an act that resulted in eternal rewards: a net gain for his suffering. The Gospels and the book of Acts are packed with such examples of people in suffering who, by seeking relief, came to saving knowledge in Jesus.

But one need not turn to the Gospels to see examples of this. Ask any Christian to give you their testimony and, in the vast majority of cases, they will sight an example of suffering that brought them into union – or a closer relationship – with God.

When Christians help those in need, this becomes a testimony to God’s love through those Christians, and will frequently lead to the salvation of the sufferer. The person would never be seeking relief if they were not suffering in the first place, and the Christian’s obedience to God in helping the sufferer has the net benefit of affording eternal life to the otherwise lost soul. The suffering and the good deed are two parts of a necessary whole for the benefit of that person.

As Michael Card put it, in his song “Distressing Disguise”:

“Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible for they've both disappeared”

In conclusion, suffering serves the purpose of impressing upon the sufferer their own mortality. In seeking relief, the sufferer recognizes their own helplessness and comes to a reliance on God to the end that they achieve eternal salvation instead of damnation. Thus the suffering does result in a net benefit for the sufferer. As Christ says:

Matthew 9:12b English Standard Version (ESV)

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

 


       

[1] Draper, P. (1989) "Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists." 

[2] Than, K. (2006, November 20) “Wild Sex: Where Monogamy is Rare”. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/1135-wild-sex-monogamy-rare.html

[3] Rippentrop, Altmaier, Chen, Found, and Keffala, 2005

[4] Boeree, C. G. (1999). “The Life of Siddhartha Gautama”. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/siddhartha.html