If God is good, omnipotent, compassionate and loving, then why do children suffer?
by Perry Bulwer
This archive of news articles related to child abuse in religious environments demonstrates just how dangerous religion can be to children. The abuses, atrocities and crimes documented in these pages, committed against children in the name of God or gods, ought to give thinking people of faith serious doubts as to the legitimacy of religious or spiritual beliefs that cause or contribute in any way to the suffering of the most innocent, vulnerable humans. It ought to, but it usually doesn't. For example, I was recently contacted by a Christian who demanded that I remove the painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac that appears in the left side-bar under the title Religious Child Abuse, which I think is an accurate description of what is happening in the painting. This anonymous person wrote to me in response to an article related to Catholic clergy crimes in Ireland:
You need to remove the Abraham Isaac image. It has nothing to do with what has been going on. Christ died for our sins and He has already said that anyone who harms children would be better off with a millstone round his neck and drowned in the bottom of sea. That is His outrage and I am baffled by the lack of connection with Christ in the church. And the lack of fear of God. Knowing of those heinious actions if you truly believed in God would strike terror in your heart.
What astounds me is the failure of believers to recognize that the defining moment of faith for Jews and Christians alike, and I assume Muslims, is Abraham's willingness to sacrifice, i.e., murder, his son because God commanded him to. His willingness to kill his own son is considered the ultimate test and expression of faith. Of course, God apparently changed his mind and commuted innocent Isaac's death penalty, so it is no wonder some fundamentalists today are willing to risk their children dying from medical neglect just to prove how faithful they are, believing that their faith alone is enough for God to intervene and save their child like Isaac was saved. Yet Abraham was guilty of attempted filicide, as are modern faith healing parents who allow their children to suffer needlessly without any professional medical care, sometimes unto death. The link between Abraham, the father of faith, and modern believers who neglect, harm or murder their children in the name of God is undeniable, so the painting stays as a symbol of all religiously motivated child abuse.
The suffering experienced by children from the misguided actions of religious adults is a specific subset of suffering that I have purposely focused on in this archive to help expose the dogma that God is good and faith is beneficial. What kind of god or God would allow innocent children to suffer or die at the hands of believers and do nothing to intervene and stop the suffering? It is certainly not a kind, loving, compassionate god or God, at least not by any reasonable standard of kindness, love or compassion. No believer has any reasonable answer to that question of why a presumably good, all-powerful god allows innocent children to needlessly suffer. Neither does the Bible.
The broader question of suffering, any suffering of any human whether related to religion or not, is enough to invalidate the god of the Bible, who is the god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. That is the conclusion of Bart Ehrman who has a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a life-long, devout and committed evangelical Christian, until he considered deeply the question of why humans suffer. In his 2008 book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, he explains that the question of suffering is the reason he lost his faith. Rather than paraphrasing him, I provide here two brief excerpts from that book. The first is a description in chapter one of his personal history and why he came to write the book. The second is from the concluding chapter nine in which he discusses a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that considers the question of suffering children.
If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith. This book tries to explore some aspects of the problem, especially as they are reflected in the Bible, whose authors too grappled with the pain and misery in the world.
To explain why the problem matters so much to me, I need to give a bit of personal background. For most of my life I was a devout and committed Christian. I was baptized in a Congregational church and reared as an Episcopalian, becoming an altar boy when I was twelve and continuing all the way through high school. Early in my high school days I started attending a Youth for Christ club and had a "born-again" experience—which, looking back, seems a bit strange: I had been involved in church, believing in Christ, praying to God, confessing my sins, and so on for years. What exactly did I need to convert from? I think I was converting from hell—I didn't want to experience eternal torment with the poor souls who had not been "saved"; I much preferred the option of heaven. In any event, when I became born again it was like ratcheting my religion up a notch. I became very serious about my faith and chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody Bible Institute in Chicago—where I began training for ministry.
I worked hard at learning the Bible—some of it by heart. I could quote entire books of the New Testament, verse by verse, from memory. When I graduated from Moody with a diploma in Bible and Theology (at the time Moody did not offer a B.A. degree), I went off to finish my college work at Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois (also Billy Graham's alma mater). There I learned Greek so that I could read the New Testament in its original language. From there I decided that I wanted to commit my life to studying the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and chose to go to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school whose brilliant faculty included Bruce Metzger, the greatest textual scholar in the country. At Princeton I did both a master of divinity degree—training to be a minister—and, eventually, a Ph.D. in New Testament studies.
I'm giving this brief synopsis to show that I had solid Christian credentials and knew about the Christian faith from the inside out—in the years before I lost my faith.
During my time in college and seminary I was actively involved in a number of churches. At home, in Kansas, I had left the Episcopal church because, strange as this might sound, I didn't think it was serious enough about religion (I was pretty hard-core in my evangelical phase); instead I went a couple of times a week to a Plymouth Brethren Bible Chapel (among those who really believed!). When I was away from home, living in Chicago, I served as the youth pastor of an Evangelical Covenant church. During my seminary years in New Jersey I attended a conservative Presbyterian church and then an American Baptist church. When I graduated from seminary I was asked to fill the pulpit in the Baptist church while they looked for a full-time minister. And so for a year I was pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church, preaching every Sunday morning, holding prayer groups and Bible studies, visiting the sick in the hospital, and performing the regular pastoral duties for the community.
But then, for a variety of reasons that I'll mention in a moment, I started to lose my faith. I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why.
In an earlier book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, I have indicated that my strong commitment to the Bible began to wane the more I studied it. I began to realize that rather than being an inerrant revelation from God, inspired in its very words (the view I had at Moody Bible Institute), the Bible was a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives of different authors living at different times in different countries and writing for different reasons to different audiences with different needs. But the problems of the Bible are not what led me to leave the faith. These problems simply showed me that my evangelical beliefs about the Bible could not hold up, in my opinion, to critical scrutiny. I continued to be a Christian—a completely committed Christian—for many years after I left the evangelical fold.
Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It's a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.
The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith. After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered—some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers and theologians—after thinking about the alleged answers and continuing to wrestle with the problem, about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don't "know" if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.
Suffering - The Conclusion – from Chapter 9
[Ehrman begins this chapter with a brief survey of human suffering of all kinds around the world as reported in just the first section of one Sunday morning newspaper.]
What are we to make of this mess? I should say that I’m not one of those people who is all gloom and doom, who wakes up every morning depressed and despondent about the state of the world.
I’m actually very cheerful, with a good sense of humor, a zest for life, and a sense that there is an unbelievable amount of good in the world—some of which I personally enjoy, every day of my life. But what are we to make of all the tragedy in the world, all the misery, the pain, the suffering?
Just about every day I receive e-mails from people I don’t know; they have read something I’ve written and heard that because I have difficulty explaining the suffering in the world, I have become an agnostic. These e-mails are always well meaning and many of them are very thoughtful. I try to respond to all of them, if nothing else just to thank the person for sending along his or her thoughts.
It is a little surprising to me, though, that so many people have such a simple understanding of suffering and want to share it with me as if I hadn’t heard or thought of that one before. Still, it’s all kindhearted and innocent, and so I appreciate it. One of the most common explanations I get is that we have to understand that God is like a good parent, a heavenly father, and that he allows suffering into our lives as a way of building our character or teaching us lessons about how we should live. There is, of course, biblical precedent for this view:
My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Prov. 3:11–12)
I haven’t devoted an entire chapter to this view, because I don’t think it’s one of the most common explanations found in the Bible, but it is there on occasion, as we have already seen. In the book of Amos, for example, when God punishes the people for their sin, it is precisely as a kind of discipline, to teach them a lesson: they need to return to him and his ways. That is why, according to Amos, the nation has experienced famine, drought, pestilence, war, and death: God was trying to get his people to “return to me” (Amos 4:6–11).
This view would make sense to me if the punishment were not so severe, the discipline so harsh. Are we really to believe that God starves people to death in order to teach them a lesson? That he sends epidemics that destroy the body, mental diseases that destroy the mind, wars that destroy the nation, in order to teach people a lesson in theology? What kind of father is he if he maims, wounds, dismembers, tortures, torments, and kills his children—all in the interest of keeping discipline? What would we think of a human father who starved a child to death because she did something wrong, or who flogged a child nearly to death to help him see theerror of his ways? Is the heavenly father that much worse than the worst human father we can imagine? I don’t find this view very convincing.
From the e-mails I get, I realize that a lot of people think that the suffering experienced in this world is a mystery—that is, that it cannot be understood. As I’ve said before, this is a view that I resonate with. But many think, at the same time, that one day we will be able to understand and that it will make sense. In other words, God ultimately has a plan that we cannot, at present, discern. But in the end we will see that what happened, even the most horrendous suffering experienced by the most innocent of people, was in the best interests of God, the world, the human race, and even of ourselves.
This is a comforting thought for many people, a kind of affirmation that God really is in control and really does know what he’s doing. And if it’s true, I suppose we’ll never know, until the end of all things. But I’m not sure that it’s a convincing point of view. It is a view that reminds me very much of an episode in one of the greatest novels ever written, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The most famous chapter of this very long novel is entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It is a kind of parable, told by one of the book’s main characters, Ivan Karamazov, to his brother Alyosha, in which he imagines what would happen if Jesus were to return to earth as a human being. In his parable Ivan argues that the leaders of the Christian church would have to arrange to have Jesus killed again, since what people want is not the freedom that Christ brings but the authoritarian structures and answers that the church provides. I think the leaders of our world’s megachurches should sit up and take notice—leaders who much prefer providing the certainty of right answers to guiding people to ask difficult questions.
In any event, even though the chapter on the Grand Inquisitor is the novel’s best-known chapter, it is the two chapters immediately before it that I have always found the most compelling. In these chapters it is again Ivan and Alyosha who are talking. Alyosha is a bright but inexperienced young novice at the local monastery; he is deeply religious but still displays some (at times delightful) naïveté. Ivan, his older brother, is an intellectual and a skeptic. Ivan admits that he thinks God exists (he is not an atheist, as interpreters have sometimes claimed), but he wants nothing to do with God. The pain and suffering in the world are too great, and ultimately God is at fault. Even if God were to reveal at the end of time the secret that made sense of all that had happened here on earth, it would not be enough. Ivan wants no part of it. As Ivan says: “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept” (page 235).
He does not accept the world because even if God were to reveal at the end the one thing that made sense of it all, Ivan would still find the suffering in the world too horrible. Ivan likens his rejection of the world to a mathematical problem. The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid indicated that two parallel lines cannot meet (otherwise they would not be parallel). But Ivan notes that there are “some geometers and philosophers” who think that this rule applies only in the realm of finite space, that somewhere in infinity in fact the two parallel lines do meet. Ivan doesn’t deny that this might be true, but he rejects it—his mind can’t grasp it and so he refuses to believe it. It is like that with suffering for him. If in the end God showed that it all served some greater, nobler purpose, it still would not be enough to justify it. As Ivan says:
I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, and . . . that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened. . . . Let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. (page 236)
This then launches Ivan into a discussion of his view of suffering, in the key chapter of the book, called “Rebellion.” In it he explains that, for him, the suffering of innocent children can not be explained, and that if an explanation from the Almighty ever is forthcoming, he simply won’t accept it (that’s why the chapter is called “Rebellion”—for his pious brother Alyosha, this kind of attitude toward God is rebellious).
Much of the chapter involves Ivan agonizing over the suffering of the innocent. He talks about the violence of Turkish soldiers in the wars in Bulgaria who “burn, kill, rape women and children, [and] nail prisoners by the ears to fences and leave them like that until morning, and in the morning they hang them.” He objects to anyone calling this animal behavior, because that “is terribly unjust and offensive to animals,” who could never behave with this kind of cruelty. He continues:
These Turks, among other things, have also taken a delight in torturing children, starting with cutting them out of their mothers’ wombs with a dagger, and ending with tossing nursing infants up in the air and catching them on their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. The main delight comes from doing it before their mothers’ eyes. (page 238)
He then comes up with another horrible scenario:
Imagine a nursing infant in the arms of its trembling mother, surrounded by Turks. They’ve thought up an amusing trick: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh, and they succeed—the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk aims a pistol at it, four inches from its face. The baby laughs gleefully, reaches out its little hands to grab the pistol, and suddenly the artist pulls the trigger right in its face and shatters its little head. . . . Artistic, isn’t it? (pages 238–39)
Ivan’s stories are not just about wartime atrocities. They involve the everyday. And what is frightening is that they ring true to real-life experiences. He is obsessed with the torture of young children, even among well-educated, “civilized” people living in Europe:
They have a great love of torturing children, they even love children in that sense. It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to—that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer. (page 240)
He tells then the story of a five-year-old girl who was tormented by her parents and severely punished for wetting her bed (a story that Dostoevsky based on an actual court case):
These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesse: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up and go in the middle of the nights (as if a five-year-old child sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age)—for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! (page 242)
Ivan notes that some people have claimed that evil is necessary so that we human beings can recognize what is good. With the five year-old girl with excrement on her face in mind, he rejects this view. With some verve he asks Alyosha:
Can you understand such nonsense [i.e., such evil acts], my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? (page 242)
For Ivan, the price is too high. He rejects the idea that there can ever be a divine resolution that will make all the suffering worthwhile, a final answer given in the sky by-and-by that will justify the cruelty done to children (not to mention others; he restricts himself to children just to keep the argument simple): “Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children to do with it?” (page 244). Ivan takes his stand in the here and now to say that whatever is revealed later, whatever can bring “ultimate harmony” to this chaotic world of evil and suffering, he rejects it, in solidarity with the suffering children:
While there’s still time, I hasten to defend myself against it, and therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to “dear God” in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! (page 245)
In a sense Ivan is reacting against the old Enlightenment view of Leibniz, that despite all its pain and misery, this is the “best of all possible worlds.” The only way one could recognize that this is the best world is if what happens in it is finally explained and justified. But for Ivan, nothing can justify it. He prefers to stand in solidarity with the suffering children rather than to be granted a divine resolution at the end that provides “harmony” to the world—that is, a sense of why all things worked together for the good purposes of God and all humanity.
I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket. (page 245)
Here Ivan likens the final act of history, in which God reveals why all innocent suffering was “necessary” for the greater good—the harmony of all things—to a stage play, wherein the conflicts of the plot are resolved in the end. Ivan admits that the conflicts may be resolved, but he is not interested in seeing the play. The conflicts are too real and damning. And so he returns his ticket.
I first read The Brothers Karamazov more than twenty-five years ago when I was a graduate student (for years I read nothing but nineteenth-century novels, and this was one of my favorites). This passage has stayed with me all those years. I’m not sure I completely agree with Ivan. I think that if, in fact, God Almighty appeared to me and gave me an explanation that could make sense even of the torture, dismemberment, and slaughter of innocent children, and the explanation was so overpowering that I actually could understand, then I’d be the first to fall on my knees in humble submission and admiration. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Hoping that it will is probably just wishful thinking, a leap of faith made by those who are desperate both to remain faithful to God and to understand this world, all the while realizing that the two—their views of God and the realities of this world—are at odds with each other.