Good question…Why didn't God stop the process before it started, if He knew of the massive amounts of suffering that would befall many of His creatures?? (con't)

(Beginning of Series, gr5part1.html)

Part Three: Pushback about cases of prolonged or intense suffering



Pushback: “I feel like you have somehow pulled a sleight-of-hand trick on me, bud…how can you possibly argue that the lives of people with intense suffering, prolonged abuse, and/or early and innocent violent death are still “more good than bad”?! This sounds as sterile and insensitive a position as can be…like trying to philosophically define the problem away.”


Fair question—let’s think about this for a moment…


First of all, let me point out that my original argument was that the aggregate of all conscious lives was more good than bad—NOT that EACH life was so characterized. However, during the discussion above I seemed to move at times in the direction that EACH life was more good than bad, although that was not required for the establishment of Criterion One.


Criterion One is satisfied as long as 51% of the lives are more good than bad (henceforth abbreviated as MGTB), and that the ‘bad’ of the 49% does not grossly outweigh the good of the 51% (which it theoretically might do). The arguments above should have demonstrated this adequately.


But it would be a further strengthening of the case if it could be plausibly argued that EACH life ended up being MGTB, and it is this issue that seems to be embedded in the Pushback above.


As I have thought about this over the years (and believe me, I have…), two approaches to this have surfaced. One approach comes from something I have noticed in the Bible, a theme that God will somehow right wrongs of oppression against the innocent. This has been stirring around in my thinking for years.


The second approach is more conventional and is used by the philosophers in more technical discussions of theodicy and defense: that value must be seen in the aggregate and must include higher-order goods.


Let me briefly comment on this latter approach, and show its possible contribution to this issue.


Swinburne elaborates this position clearly, so let me begin by citing him at length [PH:EAE:43-46, bold emphasis mine]:


"In the course of this paper I have run through many good states [tn: e.g., showing courage, sympathy, moral response, compassion, learning, beneficence] which we find on Earth and which God might seek to bring about. I have shown how often various evils (or their possibility) are (logically) necessary for their attainment. The evils include moral evils--the harm we humans do to each other or negligently allow to occur--the natural evils of various kinds, both animal and human suffering. The same goods could exist in a world different from ours in which there was less natural evil and more moral evil--e.g., there was so much moral evil in virtue of stronger human desires for evil--that there was no need for so much natural evil if humans were to have the same opportunity for courage in face of pain. But it is far from obvious that such a world would be a better world than ours. In general we need a similar amount of evil if we are to have the similar amount of good by way of the having and satisfaction of desire, and of significant choice and serious beneficiary action. There are also, I believe, other goods and other ways in which evil is necessary for good which I have not described.


"None of the goods which I have listed are such that their production would justify God in causing endless suffering, but he does not do that. There is a limit of intensity and above all time (the length of a human life) to the suffering caused to any individual. In the perspective of eternity, the evils of this world are very limited in number and duration; and the issue concerns only whether God would allow such narrowly limited evils to occur for the sake of the great goods they make possible. A central theme of this paper is to draw attention to goods of two kinds which the modern world tends not to notice. It is when you take them into serious account, I suggest, that you begin to realize that not merely are certain evils necessary for certain goods, but they are necessary for goods at least as great as the evils are evil. There is first the good of being of use, or helping, and secondly the good of being helped. God will seek to bestow generously these great blessings. 


"I have almost always found in discussion of these matters that my opponents are usually happy to grant me, when I bring the suggestion to their attention, that the states which I describe as "goods" cannot be had without the corresponding evils, and quite often happy to grant that the former states are indeed good states and even that a world is not on balance worse for containing a few of these goods in the mildest of forms with the corresponding evils than it would otherwise be. But my opponents usually object to the scale--there are, they claim, too many, too various, and too serious evils to justify bringing about the goods which they make possible. Yet it must be stressed that each evil or possible evil removed takes away one more actual good.


"If the fawn does not suffer in the thicket, other deer will not so readily have the opportunity of intentionally avoiding fires; he will not through his suffering be able to show courage or have the privilege of providing knowledge for other deer of how to avoid such tragedies; other deer and humans centuries later will not be able to show compassion for his suffering, etc. The sort of world where so many such evils are removed and which in effect my opponents think that God's goodness requires him to make, turns out--as regards the kinds of good to which I have drawn attention--to be a toy world. Things matter in the kinds of respect which I mention, but they don't matter very much. I cannot see that God would he less than perfectly good if he gave us a world where things matter a lot more than that.


"I suggest that the reluctance of my opponents to see that arises primarily from overestimating the goodness of mere pleasure and the evil of mere pain, and grossly underestimating the value of being of use and being helped. Our culture has dulled our moral sensitivities in these respects. Yet even if an opponent allows the formal point that there is great value for the subject in being of use and being helped, he may fail to see that that has the consequence for theodicy which I commend because of two characteristic human vices--short-term and short-distance thinking. He tends to think of the worth of a sentient life as dependent on things that happen during that life and fairly close in space to the life. But once you grant the formal point that things outside a fife, e.g., its causes and effects, make a great difference to the value of that life, it seems totally arbitrary to confine those things to ones near to the life in space and time. The sufferings of the Jewish victims of the Nazi concentration camps were the result of a web of choices that stretched back over centuries and continents and caused or made possible a whole web of actions and reactions that will stretch forward over centuries and continents (and the same goes to a lesser extent for the suffering of the fawn). Such sufferings made heroic choices possible for people normally too timid to make them (e.g., to harbor the prospective victims) and for people normally too hardhearted (as a result of previous bad choices) to make them (e.g., for a concentration camp guard not to obey orders). And they make possible reactions of courage (e.g., by the victims), of compassion, sympathy, penitence, forgiveness, reform, avoidance of repetition, etc., stretching down time and space. In saying this, I am not of course saying that those Nazi officials who sent Jews to the concentration camps were justified in doing so. For they had no right whatever to do that to others. But I am saying that God, who has rights over us that we do not have over others, is not less than perfectly good if he allowed the Jews for a short period to be subjected to these terrible evils through the evil free choice of others--in virtue of the hard heroic value of their lives of suffering."


Notice that this reasoning is probably correct, but notice also that it “does nothing” (hedonistically speaking) for the do-gooder. Swinburne himself raises this issue at the end of the piece:


"For someone who remains unconvinced by my claims about the relative strengths of the goods and evils involved, holding that great though the goods are they do not justify the evils which they involve, there is a fall-back position. My arguments may have convinced the reader of the greatness of the goods involved sufficiently for him to allow that God would be justified in bringing about the evils for the sake of the goods which they make possible, if and only if God also provides compensation in the form of happiness after death to the victims whose sufferings make possible the goods. Someone whose theodicy requires buttressing in this way will need independent reason for believing that God does provide such life after death if he is to be justified in holding his theodicy, and he may well have such reason. While believing that God does provide at any rate for many humans such life after death, I have expounded a theodicy without relying on this assumption. But I can understand someone thinking that the assumption is needed. If, for example, the goods making possible free choice for the Nazi concentration camp guards (in choosing whether to disobey orders), for the Jewish victims (in deciding how to bear their suffering), and for many others involved are not goods great enough to justify God's allowing the Nazis to choose to exterminate Jews, maybe they would be if the evil is compensated by some years of happy afterlife for the Jews involved." (p.46)



What Swinburne had used earlier was an argument for 'self-choice', in which we would have chosen to suffer in order to bring about certain goods for others (p.45):


"There is no other way to get the evils of this world into the right perspective, except to reflect at length on innumerable very detailed thought experiments (in addition to actual experiences of life) in which we postulate very different sorts of worlds from our own, then ask ourselves whether the perfect goodness of God would require him to create one of these (or no world at all) rather than our own. But I conclude with a very small thought experiment, which may help my opponents to begin this process. Suppose that you exist in another world before your birth in this one and are given a choice as to the sort of life you are to lead. You are told that you are to have only a short life, maybe of only a few minutes, although it will be an adult life in the sense that you will have the richness of sensation and belief characteristic of adults. You have a choice as to the sort of life you will have. You can have either a few minutes of very considerable pleasure of the kind produced by some drug such as heroin, which you will experience by yourself and will have no effects at all in the world (e.g., no one else will know about it); or you can have a few minutes of considerable pain, such as the pain of childbirth, which will have (unknown to you at the time of pain) considerable good effects on others over a few years. You are told that if you do not make the second choice, those others will never exist--and so you are under no moral obligation to make the second choice. But you seek to make the choice which will make your own life the best life for you to have led. How will you choose? The choice is, I hope, obvious. You must choose the second alternative. And it would of course make no difference to your choice if the good effects are to be very distant in time and space from your life.


"If we go on to meditate on how we should choose between other alternatives with longer lives or different lives--incarnation as a fawn or a suffering child" maybe--against a background of many centuries of effect and cause and place in the web of human and animal society, we may begin to look at things a little more sub specie aeternitatis. If God is generously to give to creatures the privilege of forming other creatures, developing their desires and freedom of choice and informing them about the possible choices open to them, he cannot (for logical reasons) ask the latter before they are born what sort of life they would like to live. He has to make the choice on their behalf, and he will therefore seek to make a choice which, if rational, we might make for ourselves. He sometimes pays us the compliment of supposing that we would choose to be heroes.




We are clearly out of a “personal hedonist” framework with this ethical imperative on people to “choose self-suffering, that other-self-good may come” and more complete theodicies would certainly factor in this. Notice, though, that in a universe where God rewarded all goods (pleasurable or not), even these cases of unchosen-suffering-so-good-may-come (being credited to the sufferer under Swinburne's construct of "what they would have chosen" in the alternate world scenario) would in some way have to be rewarded by God. And we would be back to a very robust "more good than bad" long-term scenario.


[Notice also that Swinburn's approach can also be used as a starting-point for addressing the objection in Ivan's speech in Book V, Chapter IV of The Brothers Karamazov:  "Someone might hold, for example, that no good is great enough to justify permitting an innocent child to suffer terribly" (Rowe's words, PH:EAE:3).]



But in my argument here—a Poor Man’s Theodicy—I would prefer to have some evidence for ‘benefit’ for the sufferer. This would fit better with my understanding of God as “good to all He has made”…


So, while the philosophers’ solution is no doubt closer to the actual situation and patterns of virtue, I will opt to explore a solution (theological) somewhat off-limits to them as philosophers.


Which brings me to the discussion of the God who rights wrongs and turns the oppressed into princes…


Let me start this by drawing out some of the motifs and passages that have stirred my thinking over the years:


  1. The “recompense” elements in the Mosaic Law. When someone was robbed of something under the OT covenant, they were recompensed when the thief was apprehended. What was theirs before the robbery was returned with an additional “bonus”. The property rights section of the law gave a range of “bonus” from double to 5-fold:

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. 2 “If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. 3 “But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 “If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. 5 “If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. 6 “If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. 7 “If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him, and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. 8 “If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. 9 “For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. 10 “If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, 11 an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them, that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. 12 “But if it is actually stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. (Lev 22.1-12)

What this leads me to suspect is that God might “return” to someone (somehow in the next life, or at judgment day) any “losses” or “deprivations” done by an oppressor. In some way, perhaps, a victim of child murder might be “credited” with a “lifetime plus”. In the case of things that cannot be ‘returned’ (e.g., the case of the lost/dead animal), the recompense is the highest (fivefold). How God might recompense an innocent victim of murder, or theft, or rape, or war crimes is far beyond my ken, but that God might do this fairly—in line with this principle from Leviticus 22—is certainly within my ability to trust Him for.

This apparently applied to materials either (1) inherited [e.g., land grants] and (2) earned through work [e.g., husbandry or agriculture]. In the former, this is something someone is more or less born into (without getting into a notion of ‘rights to the land’), and the latter category—the results of honest labor and righteous living—would pass into the inheritance of the family as well.

It is a short, but treacherously fuzzy, step to seeing life itself as an ‘inheritance’ of an infant, and to seeing freedom from violence likewise. Thus, crimes of treachery against the “relatively” innocent (as would have been all the Israelites involved in the legal code of Leviticus 22), might be seen by God in this way.



  1. There are at least two classes of the “poor” in the bible: those that are ‘sluggards’ and those that are victims of the greedy, rich, or thieves. The latter category—of victims—is the object of several interesting passages:

Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (Jas 2.5)


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5.3)


The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. (Luke 4.18)


And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Luke 7.22)


For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God. (1 Cor 1.26ff)


This leads me to believe that ‘semi-innocent victims’ (as delineated by God's descriptions in the OT/NT) get special help in getting to faith, or special consideration at judgment day.



  1. The second point also shows up in the case of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, noted above), in which it was almost “owed” to Lazarus to get what he had been deprived up in the earthly life. Although it is exceedingly dangerous to build much on this (see discussion above), the expectation of ‘reversal of fortune’ is quite clear in the hopes of the poor of Jesus’ time. Had the society been working correctly, and God’s law of goodness been implemented wholeheartedly, there would be no poor (Deut 15.4), and hence, Lazarus would not have been in this situation. But, because of the results of moral evil and indifference, we have vast inequities in life-situation BEYOND that influenceable by personal factors.

The Law was clear that there would be poor among Israel (Dt 15.11), and even made a large body of secondary legislation to try to ameliorate their situation (e.g., Ex 22.25; Lev 14.21; Lev 25; Deut 15.7; Deut 24).


The “decent situation” that Lazarus ends up with in Luke 16 seems to match what he WOULD HAVE gotten—had sin not been a macro-factor in human society—which suggests to me, again, that God might recompense on the other side of death for gross injustices and violations on this side.



  1. Matthew 5.10 has this statement:


Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Although that are many similar verses, this is odd in that it refers to the “sake of righteousness,” NOT “My name’s sake.” It is more generic that specific identification with the gospel or the historical initiatives of God.


For decades, I have pondered the motive of vandalism, in its various forms. I have concentrated largely on property vandalism (in my thought experiments I focused on crimes against the elderly poor, in which their meager possessions were of little economic use to the vandals, but of significant importance to the elderly poor) and on a type of rape, in which the motive is simply that of 'spoiling' something virtuous. These cases to me were the clearest examples of "nothing to gain" crimes, in which the only "gain" came from the malicious pleasure/satisfaction of destroying something precious. Other acts of simple cruelty might also fit in this category. Perhaps these involve a sense of power, to be able to create evil and suffering at some magnitude of irrationality or anti-virtue. Perhaps it is involved in Satan's desire to "take others down with him", an irrational act of destructive rage at knowing his doom is certain (he can read the book of Revelation much better than we can...).


In these cases, the victims are not the actual targets of the evil--it is only the good/beauty that is being attacked. The victims are literally incidental victims in the act (sometimes even completely unknown to the perps). They are being "persecuted" NOT for the sake of their own righteousness (as perhaps when a missionary is killed for preaching the gospel), but for the sake of righteousness itself. We might use the illustration of "being caught in the line of fire" today.


This category of victim, when broadened beyond the cases I mentioned above, would exclude those who 'got themselves into that situation' by evil choices, and those who were targets of vengeance and such. But as a concept, the category of 'innocent victims of anti-virtue violence' would be meaningful, and the category would contain people who were not absolutely innocent, but only incidental to the nature and intent of the crime.


Now, the verse above would seem to indicate that God might 'recompense' such victims highly (or at least take their violation into consideration in the future), and this might be due to some kind of solidarity between God and the victims [e.g., Prov 14.31; Mat 25.40; Prov 19.17]. Since it was righteousness itself which was attacked (i.e., the character and heart of God), it was properly God who was the victim. And since the huge heart of God is so soft toward unfortunates and victims (just consider all the passages demanding kindness and munificence toward strangers, foreigners, slaves, widows, fatherless, the destitute!), this principle makes perfect sense. [Of course, the poor can just as easily be oppressors too--Prov 28.3, Is 9.17!]


Once again, though, we have no information on how God might apply this in the afterlife and in the context of judgment and reward.



  1. A special case of this might be 'directed evil' against someone--without human agents.


The case of Job has Satan visiting Job with massive amounts of suffering, and Job is recompensed (in this life) with even greater amounts of good (the multiplier thing). We do not know to what extent God added additional recompense on the other side of the grave. But it is instructive that Job is singled out for the attack because of his righteousness.



  1. There is another theme, along the 'reversal of fortune' direction, which makes a quite definite point about 'redistribution of ill-earned wealth/goods':


Here is the fate God allots to the wicked, the heritage a ruthless man receives from the Almighty: 14 However many his children, their fate is the sword; his offspring will never have enough to eat. 15 The plague will bury those who survive him, and their widows will not weep for them. 16 Though he heaps up silver like dust and clothes like piles of clay, 17 what he lays up the righteous will wear, and the innocent will divide his silver.  (Job 27.13ff)


He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. (Prov 28.8)


To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. (Ecc 2.26)


A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.  (Prov 13.22)


This can be seen explicitly as a reimbursement of extorted goods. As an Old Testament/Taanach motif, it focuses on the earthly kingdom of Israel, but since the principle of God's justice for the poor shows up outside the theocratic kingdom of Israel (e.g., Nineveh [Jonah 3] and Babylon [Dan 4.27]), there would be no immediate reason to doubt its continuance beyond death. This might suggest that the "goods" of long life, health, family experiences, social fulfillment, and basic necessities of life, if 'stolen' through treacherous and undeserved acts of violence or maleficence (by angels human or angelic?) might in some way be 'recompensed' (or at least taken into consideration) in the future.



I cannot pretend to have an idea of how God might apply these principles to the future judgment and states--but these biblical themes, although not strongly emphasized in passages about individual judgment,  DO create in me a strong presumption that God WILL somehow "right all wrongs" for innocent victims (as He did in the OT theocracy of Israel).


So where does this leave us?


1. The more properly philosophical approach of Swinburne would suggest a way in which a victim's suffering might be considered an act of goodness. When coupled with a theological understanding of a moral universe (in which good is eventually rewarded), this would create a philosophical-theological argument that cases of horrible, innocent, and undeserved suffering would be recompensed.


2. The biblical themes and principles noted above would suggest that the goods "taken" from victims may either (a) be returned in someway in the future; or (b) set other divine factors in motion for their benefit on earth (e.g., higher levels of acceptance and openness to the gospel). When coupled with a theological understanding of a moral universe (in which suffering is eventually reversed and recompensed for), this would create a theological-biblical argument that cases of horrible, innocent and underserved suffering would be recompensed.


3. The Poor Man's theodicy is not dependent on this issue, since it is an aggregate MGTB type of approach, but is strengthened in its force when coupled with (a) the statistically small cases of extreme suffering in the objection; and (b) the indications that the more extreme the suffering and/or evil, the more likely that God will recompense with immense grace and kindness somewhere in time.



So, although the pushback raises a good question, the theological data and context that we have suggests that its philosophical/theological force is much weaker than its emotional force. And, indeed, our analysis of it strongly suggests that the good-hearted God may have a much stronger interest in, and commitment to, tending to these victims than we ever could be....


So, let's move on to Criterion Two...[gr5part4.html]

[ --gr5part3.html--  ]
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