Review of Suffering: if God exists, why doesn’t he stop it?
by John Morris
Morris’s answer to the question posed in the title of his concise but fairly thorough little book is that God cannot make things better, from our present point of view, by eliminating or even reducing injustice and suffering, without actually making things worse, from what our eventual point of view will be; because if he exercised the control that would be necessary to relieve our present suffering, we humans would not be free to become the virtuous and self-reliant creatures we need to be in order to, as he puts it, “multiply God’s virtues.”
In other words, God is stopping the suffering of grief and injustice, and the only problem is that from our present point of view, he isn’t doing it fast enough. So, the question becomes “Suffering: if God exists, why doesn’t he hurry up and stop it?” Morris’s answer is that he is doing it as fast as divinely possible, since the world would actually be worse if he were to take away the challenges of suffering through which we become morally virtuous and if he were to use force to prevent us from doing anything unjust, for that would be nothing more than to exercise his own virtue rather than to multiply it through the free actions of his creatures. We have to become morally virtuous on our own by living through the challenges of grief and injustice, becoming just and self-reliant, god-like beings who will no longer do anything unjust or suffer from the pains of evolving nature.
I am paraphrasing rather than directly quoting Morris because I am trying to show what I understand him to be saying. And if I have accurately represented what he says, I think he is right, and that he has said something very important. But here is something he wrote which I will quote directly, and which I think muddles the case:
“Whether or not there is an afterlife, the importance of the Earth remains unchanged: contrary to what some preachers suggest, believers and unbelievers are all in the same boat! Earth is still the only home all of us shall ever have with our present bodies and minds. So this life is not a rehearsal, but the one and only performance.” (p. 57)
If there is no afterlife, then there will be no point of view in the future from which we will see that our suffering made sense. So, I think what he should have said is that either there is an afterlife or else our suffering will only stop with our deaths and is not justified by anything that will come later. And then he could have said that if there is an afterlife, it doesn’t follow that this life is only a rehearsal. He has already explained why there is nothing trivial about how we live our present lives.
The problem of evil and the problem of suffering have traditionally been thought of as problems for religious believers. The unbeliever can argue that there is no satisfactory answer to the question of why an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God would allow evil and suffering, and give this as at least one reason for his or her disbelief in God. But it is not recognized often enough that the unbeliever has his or her own problem of evil and suffering. I think Camus recognized it when he said that suicide is the “only one really serious philosophical problem.” The unbeliever is faced with the question of why life is worth living even though evil and suffering are real. He doesn’t have to explain why a good God allows them, but he does need to explain why a life worth living allows them. That is the sense in which believers and unbelievers are in the same boat. But believers have the advantage of allowing themselves to hope for a future that is in the process of coming about, where grief and the other natural and artificial sufferings of life have become a more than fair price to pay for a deep joy; while unbelievers are constrained to pooh-pooh this as “pie in the sky bye and bye,” and come up with some other way of understanding how it can be all right that one day they will die utterly, or, as is more common, avoid thinking about it, all the while regarding themselves as hard-headed realists.