Is there too much suffering for there to be a benevolent God?

A common way for the problem of evil to be expressed is to say that there is “too much” suffering in the world for there to be a (benevolent) God. But if you think there is too much suffering then you must have a clear idea about what would be an acceptable amount of suffering for a benevolent God to allow. Do you know what that amount is? In fact, it is not even clear how on earth one is to go about answering that question, because it requires you to somehow measure the amount of suffering in the world. But you have to know the answer to this question if you claim that there is “too much” suffering in the world that a benevolent God could rightly allow. If you say there is “too much” then this implies that there is some limit that has been overstepped, a line that has been crossed. If you do not know where that line is or what that limit is, then you cannot claim to know that it has been violated.

It is not clear that suffering can be measured in any way. Measuring the amount of suffering in the world is impossible to do even if we did have some database of all the people alive today who who were the victims of a tragedy. There is the added difficulty of measuring their subjective experience of suffering, which is the crucial part. The issue is not the objective events but the subjective experience, because if those objective events cause no or little suffering, they would be of no concern to us. How would you measure that subjective experience of suffering? And when does it become too much? There is the added difficulty of determining whether the suffering caused good things to come about in their lives or whether there could be some morally justifying reason God could have to allow each individual experience of suffering. There is no reason to think that we could even know whether there is some morally justifying reason, even if we did have this vast database of individual tragedies. Skeptical theism is a type of theodicy that points out how irrational it is to think that, if God does exist, that we would be able to discern his morally justifying reasons for every event of suffering. One reason is that it is very difficult for us to evaluate what could have been. We don’t know if someone would have been worse off or better off without a particular event of suffering. We also don’t know what the world would look like if people generally do get what they want and never suffer. Do people become better or worse when they receive all they’ve ever dreamed of? Would we cultivate compassion and selflessness at all in a world with little to no suffering? Would people be more or less egotistical and selfish without suffering? Would people’s relationships be colder or warmer, more indifferent or more intimate? These are all judgments we are in no position to make. We don’t know if the world would be a better or a worse place without some suffering or with less suffering than there is now. It is also just as difficult to make this judgment in individual cases. You may think that someone’s life is quite horrible as a result of a particular event of suffering. But would it have been even worse without that event? Would they have been a worse or a better person? Consequently, we should not really have confidence in our ability to judge whether a particular event has a morally justifying reason.

So, someone who says “there is too much suffering in the world for a benevolent God to exist” has not realized the unbelievably and impossibly ambitious claim that has been made. They have not expressed a thought so much as an emotion.

3 thoughts

  1. I usually claim that there is too much suffering in the world. I think of it like this. People should have at least the basics that they need to survive, ie: water, food, shelter, etc. In some parts of the world, people don’t have access to the basic needs of survival. If god is benevolent, why would he make people with these needs to survive, and then refuse to give them these things (water, food, shelter)?

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    1. Hi unapologetically atheist. Thanks for your like and comment. In the post, I was specifically talking about the idea of there being “too much” suffering. That is to say, that there is some amount of suffering beyond what can be considered acceptable. I was pointing out the irrationality of this given that we cannot measure amounts of suffering and even if we could, any amount that you could point to as too much would be arbitrary. You haven’t given an amount of suffering only a type of suffering ( namely, struggling to find food and shelter). It sounds like you have said that this represents something for which God could not have a morally sufficient reason. But you haven’t told me why. If people suffer as a result of struggling to find food and shelter, I’m sure you can find other types of suffering that are subjectively as intense or more intense than that. After all, if someone truly doesn’t have what they need to survive, they will by definition die within a relatively short span of time. They will starve, or freeze to death, or die by the predation of wild animals. These are not all quick ways to die but the ordeal will be over within a short span of time. My point is just that there are worse forms of suffering, so why identify that form of suffering as too severe? I think you agree that God could have morally sufficient reason for at least some of the suffering in the world. So why could God not have a morally sufficient reason to allow that?

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  2. Hi Mount Carmel, thanks for your reply. I identify this kind of carnal suffering as severe because God has made people with a need for water and a need for food. But, he then refuses to give them these. Starvation is not quick, and if your God doesn’t “give” the person food, they will die. He is essentially starving these people.

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