“How can a good God allow innocent children to suffer?”
People often raise the following objection against God:
“In our world we see many small children suffer and die. Some are born in abject poverty and starve. Some are tortured and beaten to death by their own parents. Some are cruelly put to death in war. Dostoevski’s character Ivan Karamazov cried out that he would never forgive a Creator God for such injustices. For these children have not deserved such suffering. And nothing else can justify it, not even the eternal punishment in hell of those who harmed the children. I agree. No just and good God could ever be forgiven for tolerating such a situation.”
See: Bruce RUSSELL, ‘The persistent problem of Evil’, Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989) pp.121-139.).
The pain and suffering of even one young and innocent child does, indeed, bring home to us the fact of sin, evil and injustice in our world. And when we think of children, we should, perhaps, extend consideration of their plight to all members of society that are weak and vulnerable: the underdogs, the poor, the handicapped, in some cases women and the elderly. It is usually these weaker members of society that bear more than their share of the hardships that come our way.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is frequently quoted in atheist literature because of the eloquent pages in which he raises the problem of innocent suffering. However, atheists always omit to report on Dostoevsky’s own attempt at answering the question in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, presented by the same speaker, Ivan Karamazov (see: F.DOSTOEVSKI, The Brothers Karamazov, London 1950, vol 1, part ll, book v; read both chapters 4 and 5!
Dostoevsky posits that absolute human freedom of choice is God’s first priority. But has God not overestimated human beings? he asks. The majority would, perhaps, prefer just to be given food to eat and be told what to do, rather than having the responsibility of building up a just world. God’s mistake, if any, lies in expecting people to be autonomous and develop a mature conscience. “Thou didst crave for a love that is free and not the base raptures of a slave before the might that has overawed him for ever.”
Dostoevsky also points to Christ, the mystery of God suffering with the underdog. The Grand Inquisitor condemns him to be burnt at the stake, together with witches and heretics. But Jesus, who is nothing but goodness, does not defend himself. He remains silent and embraces even the Inquisitor. This is how Dostoevsky describes him. “He moves silently in the midst of people with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in his heart, and power shines from his eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love.”
God’s solidarity with us
The closest we can come to understanding unjust suffering from God’s point of view is, perhaps, to think of ourselves as parents seeing our children grow up. We want to give them freedom and autonomy. We want to allow them to become adults. We cringe when they make mistakes. We share the agony of our children as we try to patch up the scars they leave. And we rejoice all the more about their triumphs and successes.
In the same way God, creative Reality in us, cares deeply about everything we do and endure, without interfering with our personal autonomy.
But God’s involvement does not stop there. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches God’s profound concern for the marginalised and downtrodden. God is on their side.
“Happy are you poor; the kingdom of God is for you!
Happy are you who are hungry now; you will be filled!
Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh.
But how terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your comfort!
How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry!
How terrible for you who laugh now; you will cry and weep!”
At the last judgment, when all human beings will stand trial before God, God will punish those who have not helped the underdogs. The reason is: “What you failed to do for the least of my brothers or sisters, you have failed to do to me.” But the just and the merciful will be rewarded.
The King will say: “Come and enter the royal status I prepared for you since I began to create the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you offered me a drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me in your home, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you nursed me; in prison and you visited me.”
The righteous will then answer him: “When, Lord, did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever find you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or without clothes and we dressed you? When was it we saw you sick or in prison, and we visited you?”
The King will reply: “I assure you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me!”
God, the creative energy who supports us in being, cares deeply about fairness, justice and love. The mystery is that God wants this goodness to come about through our own conscious decisions.
Children, the weak, the poor are part of us. They belong to our families and our society. They suffer with us. They experience even more than the rest of us do, our human fragility and dependence. In their successful growth or untimely death we see the unfolding of God’s experiment with intelligent and free beings, an experiment we know as creation.
Rather than blame God, should we not do our bit to make the experiment succeed?
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love