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Natural tragedies naturally elicit religious questions. If there is a God, what kind of God permits death by earthquake, as we have seen recently in such catastrophic proportions in Turkey and Syria, with 50,000 dead? This question on suffering and the good God is ancient, but the question on earthquakes and the good God arose in the eighteenth century after Europe’s greatest modern earthquake. 

In 1755 the beautiful Portugal port city of Lisbon collapsed into flotsam and flames atop two colliding continental plates. Many many thousand died, and many of them died in crumpled churches, and some died 600 miles south in a Moroccan mosque. Everyone wondered about the benevolent all powerful God.

This wonderment found theoretical expression in theology as the problem of evil or the problem of the suffering. The problem lies in the incompatibility between an all good, all powerful God, on the one hand, and the existence of a high degree of human and animal suffering, on the other. Presumably a good and powerful God would not create or allow such suffering. 

In the face of this problem theology devised defenses of God, theodicies. The trouble is, the defenses weren’t all that convincing. 

I am going to explain the classic defenses and their weaknesses with a little courtroom theater. Suppose that God is the defendant here. God is on trial for the suffering of humanity. You are the jury.

Prosecutor: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant is purported to be benevolent and all powerful. If this is so, why would the defendant allow such human suffering as is occasioned by an earthquake, to mention just one of the natural media of sorrow that afflict humanity? I suggest to you that the defendant is not what the defendant is purported to be.

Defense: My client does indeed possess the attributes of benevolence and power. However, there is another force at work here, a force of pure evil, seeking at every turn to thwart the good intentions of my client. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is that force, that entity, and not my client, who has performed the actionable offense here.

P: Is this evil force as powerful as the defendant? If not, why can’t the defendant frustrate the designs of this entity?

D: My client allows suffering to take place for various reasons. For instance, suffering builds character and educates by inculcating empathy.

P: Perhaps a little suffering builds character, but why so much suffering? It’s pure overkill. We can learn everything we need to know about pain from a paper cut. Why an earthquake? And by the way, why does suffering often fall so disproportionately upon the world’s poor? Does their suffering educate and edify us?

D: I’m afraid it’s a matter of just deserts. Suffering is deserved. It is a punishment traceable to a primordial calamity, an indictable offense, perpetrated by our first parents.

P: Is there any existing system of jurisprudence that indicts children for the offenses of the parents, the grandparents, the great grandparents? To do so would be to call injustice justice. Moreover, the punishment is indiscriminately meted out: not all have suffered equally.

D: Suffering is a result of free will. People choose it.

P: Who chooses an earthquake or schizophrenia or fetal deformation? And by the way, animals don’t choose suffering, and yet they suffer greatly too. Is their pain simply gratuitous?

D: The best defense of my client is the fact that the end will justify the means. That is, my client has in mind for humanity a future so disproportionately euphoric compared to that of our present state that the sufferings of our present state will pale in comparison.

P: But not every person who suffers and no animal will enjoy that future euphoric state. Furthermore, who of us would create that future if we knew beforehand that getting there would entail small children being crushed to death in an earthquake?

You are supposed to get the feeling that the defenses are not airtight. But do believers really need airtight explanations for suffering? Do any of us need theories that make other people’s suffering more meaningful to us? Any absolutely compelling answer to the problem of suffering risks producing moral inactivity. When hurt happens, these defenses, by making hurt meaningful, risk cutting the nerve of a moral responsibility to ease that hurt. We have all heard people say that natural disasters are a punishments for sin. How could anyone think this without devolving into smug indifference to suffering?

Deadly earthquakes, diseases, and other natural disasters will always test faith in God. And really, the Turkey-Syria earthquake should convince people that the God of popular theology cannot exist. But if a person persists in affirming God in the face of a mountain of rubble under which 50,000 people lay dead, that person should recognize that explanations for the problem of suffering bring their own problems. 

If a persistent theist must live with the dissonance of two contradictory realities—God exists along with a high degree of animal and human suffering—then let that persistent theist cease attempts to meaningfully explain suffering. Better to ignore the theoretical problem of suffering and join in the efforts to ameliorate suffering’s concrete effects.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...