Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Problem of Suffering and the Answer to Job

The Problem of Suffering and the Answer to Job

I want to talk here about what I currently think about the problem of suffering, the problem of why a good God allows us to suffer when he could help us. (Note: I've recorded a podcast of this article here).

SUMMARY: I think that God is infinite and that people are partly infinite and partly finite. I say partly infinite because I think that we have to be partly infinite to be made in the image of an infinite God and relate to him. We can't be fully infinite like God because God alone can be fully infinite, but we can be partly infinite. Through the infinite part of us - our soul, we get the ability to feel stuff e.g. happiness and suffering, free will, morality, and so on, like God. Other living things have a soul as well but not understanding (Job 39:13-17). Through the finite part of us we get everything else, including our reasoning and understanding. Why is this important? Because if suffering comes to humans through our infinite soul... and finite reason can never fully understand the infinite... then we can never fully understand that through which suffering comes: our infinite soul. And I'd say that means never understanding suffering the way God knows about it. And it had to be this way. That's why it's OK for Christians not to know the answer to why we suffer in a way that would please philosophers, because we can probably never know the answer in such a way. So we should feel able to trust God's answer in the Bible.

In what sense are humans made in the image of God (Gen 1:27)? Is it being able to think that makes us in God's image?

Maybe. But then again, computers can think in a sense. With advanced enough technology, we could easily make thinking computers just as smart as we are. So either humans can design and build stuff in God's image, or being made in God's image is something more than this.

Let's look at the God who made us. There's an important distinction that people often forget about God, which is that he is infinite. Not infinitely good, or infinitely smart, but actually infinite. So we're made in the image of an infinite God.

This raises an interesting question: how can anything finite be made in the image of the infinite? You literally cannot imagine anything more different than a finite object and an infinite object. Humans in one sense have more in common with rocks than with God if we're finite, because at least rocks are finite. Yeah, but rocks can't think, you might say. But if thinking is just a matter of doing mental calculations, then actually we have more in common with computers than with God, because computers can 'think' in a sense and are also finite like we are. And advanced enough computers could think as intelligently as humans or be even more intelligent.

So there are a couple of problems with thinking that we have much in common with God if we're finite and God is infinite. Actually, it's relatively common to think that our finite language and knowledge are utterly inadequate to talk about the infinite hence = agnosticism.

Yet the apparent alternative of saying that humans are infinite like God makes no sense... it's even worse than saying that we're finite. If we were infinite then we could do an infinite number of calculations a second. Obviously, we can't. Being infinite would also make us equal to God, which is not the Christian view. Does this mean that we have to see humans as being *finitely* made in God's image, despite the problems?

But could there be a third option? What if you said that humans are partly infinite and partly finite? That way you could have the best of both worlds. If you said that human reasoning, knowledge and bodies are finite then you could make sense of our limited knowledge, power and understanding. And by saying that we're partly infinite you could show how we're made in the image of an infinite God without making humans in any way equal to God.

But why are we partly infinite rather than completely infinite? It's easy enough to suggest a reason: God *is* the infinite, all that is infinite is God, and there can be only one infinite ("Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, and the Lord is one" - Deu 6:4). So through God's power we can use (or 'borrow') some of the infinite, but not all of it, as then we'd be God.

We're made in the image of God, and that means that we're like God in some way. What is God like? He feels things: happiness, love, hurt, joy, anger and so on. We're like that as well. Where do we get it from? I'd say from our infinite part. God has free will, so we get free will from there as well. And moral knowledge in the same way. Our infinite part could be called our (infinite) 'soul'.

But because we can't be fully infinite, we have to be made out of parts that are not infinite, and that means finite parts. Finite parts are infinitely less than God. So the rest of us, whatever isn't our soul, has to be made out of finite stuff, and that stuff is our physical body in this universe. Through God's power the infinite can interact with the finite in this way.

It's because every creature had to be made partly finite that God had to give all his creatures finite reasoning and understanding. There's something about having infinite reasoning that is one and the same with being fully infinite, and only God can be fully infinite, see for instance Matt 24:36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only". Also see Ecclesiastes 3:11 "God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end". I.e. our soul is infinite, but our reasoning is finite, because only God can be fully infinite.

There's a question of how we can have our own personality if we're actually borrowing our soul from God. I would speculate that as long as not all of infinity is used (i.e. all of God), then God can reuse infinity as many times as he wants to make many creatures. And that through our finite body and infinite soul interacting we take on our own personality different to God's.

But is there any need for a soul? Can't the brain account for why people act the way they do?

Well, just because we see our brain working when we make decisions doesn't mean that the brain is all that a human is. God needs to connect the finite to the infinite to make creatures, because creatures cannot be all-infinite. We must get our reasoning from something in the finite world, so why not use the brain as the source of finite reasoning and knowledge in humans? So clearly God has to give the brain a lot to do, since it is responsible for our reasoning, knowledge, and carrying out the free choices that we make through our soul. When we look at the brain doing lots of things, we're really looking at the brain doing its required tasks as the finite aspect of humanity (whereas we cannot look at the soul, as that's actually infinite.)

Wait a second, if we get the stuff that makes us like God from the infinite soul, then that means we get feeling from the soul. But don't we get feeling from the brain?

Not in the way we might think. God wanted to put something in our brains that would allow us to react quickly and easily when something happened in the physical world. So when a person reacts to pain, God wanted there to be something in the brain that would allow a quick response to pain. God wants our bodies to have automatic responses, to deal quickly and easily with situations that come up. And that requires circuitry in the brain that deals with emotions and feelings more generally. But I don't think that the circuitry in the brain actually does feel anything, I think it's just like the circuitry in a computer, only organic and a lot more complicated. It only helps our bodies react/act when we make choices in the infinite world. The circuitry itself feels nothing, any more than a box or a couch feels anything.

God has also given infinite souls to animals and other living things so that they can feel things. We can know this because our moral intuitions tell us that animals need to be protected, that come from God. They are given much less understanding of the things of God, however (Job 39:13-17).

Note: my attempt in the preceding section to make feeling things and suffering a part of the infinite world is *very* important for my argument.

OK, interesting thoughts, but what does this imply? I'll talk about what it implies for human reasoning and our ability to understand God before moving on to the problem of suffering.

If God is infinite and our reasoning is finite, then we have serious issues with ever understanding God through our reason. This is because finite reasoning can't deal with the infinite up close, but always has to approach it from a distance. That is, we always have to use the finite to understand the infinite. This means that we could be missing out on a lot of what the infinite is like when we talk about it. Also, the stuff we've worked out about the infinite sounds absurd and is hard to get one's head around.

For example, take the paradox of the Grand Hotel by David Hilbert. In theory, you should be able to put a guest in every room of a hotel. But what if the hotel is an infinite hotel? Well, you can't ever fill an infinite hotel with any finite number of guests. No matter how many guests go to the hotel, there will always be room, because the person in room 1 can move to room 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and so on ad infinitum. Like you can't think of a 'highest' number (someone could beat you by adding a zero on the end of your number.) You would have to get an infinite number of guests to fill an infinite hotel.

This shows how the finite is an entirely different kind of number to the infinite, or different concept. The finite deals with the finite and can't interact with the infinite without help from the infinite. The infinite deals with the infinite, and through God's power can deal with the finite. They're very different concepts; the infinite isn't just 'much bigger' than the finite, but a different kind of thing. A difference of quality rather than quantity.

Another example of an infinite paradox is the paradox of the circle. Suppose you have a circle and a line to every point of the circle. You need an actually infinite number of lines to go to every point of the circle, because otherwise when you zoom in there'll be gaps. OK, suppose you've drawn that circle and the lines. Now draw a much larger circle around that circle. And make the lines you previously drew go out to that even bigger circle. Now, according to finite logic, when you look at those lines in enough depth, there should be tiny gaps between them when they go out to the much larger circle, because that circle is, well, much larger. But that's not the case. No gaps will ever appear between the lines going out to the much larger circle, no matter how much you zoom in, because infinity is always infinity. This is a rather counterintuitive mystery of infinity.

You can also use infinity to show that 1 = 2.

Let's assign infinity some value. Like X. Let's say that infinity = X.

OK, now let's add infinity to infinity. What does infinity + infinity equal? Surely two infinities (using finite logic). So if we say that infinity equals X, then infinity plus infinity must equal 2X.

But infinity always has the same value. So infinity plus infinity remains infinity. That means that if we assign a value to infinity then we can show that numbers that are inherently different are the same.

So infinity = X. Infinity + infinity = 2X. But infinity is always the same, so infinity + infinity = X. But this means that 2X = X. That would imply that 1 = 2.

So infinity can be used to show that 1 = 2. This shows that there are clearly 'issues' with using our reasoning to understand infinity, to say the least.

We find infinity so hard to understand because God really 'messed up' our reasoning when he made us. He did this so that he *could* make us (in line with my earlier explanation of only God being able to be fully infinite). No matter how smart people or computers get, we'll never even approach the kind of reasoning that God has. No matter how smart we get we'll still think in finite terms and use finite reasoning, even if everyone had an IQ of six billion. God is not just smarter than us, but has a different quality of reasoning, and understands things that it's not just a matter of 'smartness' to understand. You can't be smart enough to understand these things and still be finite. If we could understand them, then we'd be God. No angel or human will ever understand these issues (it reminds me of Matt 24:36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only".)

I'll now use what I've written to talk about suffering.

When atheists and Christians talk about suffering, they generally assume the 'commonsense' view of reality. In this view, when a hurricane hits, it seems obvious that someone could have been able to stop it. After all, we affect the physical world when we pick up a book, and we know that if we had really advanced technology then we could easily stop hurricanes. God, who is much more powerful than us, could easily stop the winds from blowing that hard, and could easily stop earthquakes and so on, which we could do with advanced enough technology. In fact, very advanced aliens who wanted to help us could probably get rid of all the suffering in the world. Am I saying that God is less powerful than extraterrestrial civilisations only a few hundred or thousand years more advanced than us?

Well obviously, if suffering was just in the finite world, and was just a 'finite world problem' then I'd have to agree with the atheist critic completely. Clearly, in the finite world, it would not be hard to stop any suffering. But there's a real question about which world the Christian is talking about when we talk about God preventing suffering... what if suffering is an 'infinite world' problem? What if suffering comes through the infinite world of the soul? It's not clear that the Christian is saying something illogical or odd sounding about the finite world... he/she could be saying something illogical or odd sounding about the *infinite world*. And that world could well have a really, really different logic to the world we see around us. This situation could frustrate people's attempts to disprove God.

Is suffering *really* a finite world problem? Suffering definitely manifests itself in the finite world and is affected by what we do there... but it doesn't seem like a finite world problem. Let me explain. Earlier I said that the ability to feel stuff comes from the infinite soul and brain working together. The body shapes the feelings, the feelings themselves come through the soul: the part of us made in God's image, the part of us that's actually infinite, that we borrow from God in some sense, that is actually 'up there' in the infinite world with God in some sense. So suffering doesn't actually come from things such as hurricanes or earthquakes, although those are immediate causes of suffering. Suffering must ultimately come from the infinite world, through our souls. So it sounds like suffering is in many ways an infinite world problem!

Sure, suffering manifests itself in the finite world, but the ultimate cause of and ultimate solution to suffering really has nothing to do with the finite world. I say ultimate solution because clearly we can lessen the amount of suffering in the finite world with our actions. Thinking finitely you could say that we create suffering everywhere in the world when we choose to sin, and God can't take this suffering away without cutting off our freedom completely, although this is just a finite reasoning guess. It's possible that God has made it so that suffering is reflected, like a mirror reflects images, in the finite world when suffering is created everywhere through sin, so that people don't suffer without any visible cause. So we would suffer, for example, from natural disasters. God needs to do stuff in the infinite world to get rid of suffering, not the finite world. And I'd imagine that God tries to lessen suffering as much as he can in the infinite world, since that's the only place where there can be a solution. I would not say that my attempt just then to explain suffering has to be right, the point is that suffering is mostly not a finite world issue.

There are a couple of difficulties here: although suffering is an infinite, not finite, world issue, it seems to be lessened and affected by what goes on in the finite world, which seems a little contradictory. It also seems contradictory that we can reduce suffering, but an all powerful God cannot even though he's doing everything he can to help us. This is one of the reasons why I'm appealing to suffering being an infinite mystery, through making suffering an infinite experience of an infinite soul. I hope that infinite logic (whatever that might be like) could explain such an odd situation.

Let's take a look at what the Bible says about suffering, to see what kind of logic might apply in the infinite world with regard to suffering:

Romans 5:12-14 "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned - sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come."

So is Paul saying here that Adam's sin caused all the suffering in the world? When I first read this I used to think 'Huh? How does that even work?' Atheists would probably think that this sounds ridiculous... indeed it does, according to finite world logic. There is a very weird cause and effect thing going on here. How on earth does a couple of people's sins a long time ago affect anything today? It makes very little sense using our reasoning. (Note: The relationship between sin and suffering is probably very hard to understand, not direct or simple like we might think it is.)

Where I'm going with these thoughts is the idea that even though something like Romans 5 makes little sense in the finite world it could make complete sense in the infinite world. This opens the way for us to look at suffering with a Biblical perspective once we accept that suffering is an *infinite world* problem.

Philosophers often complain, why doesn't God just come down and tell us the solution to the problem of suffering if he exists? Why doesn't he explain everything to us and then we'll stop arguing against his existence?

The thing is, I don't actually think that God can even articulate the whole 'suffering issue' fully using finite language. It's an infinite world problem. Sure, God can give us the main points, clarify why we suffer to a good degree, and we'll certainly know that his explanation is right if he appears to the world and tells us himself. That would be nice, and would satisfy our doubts. But can we really know why we suffer in the way God knows why we suffer? The answer, I think, is no. Even when we get to heaven, all we're going to know is as good an answer as can be articulated in finite language, describing what is really an infinite world problem. We can no more understand something like our consciousness, free will or suffering than perfectly understand infinity, although God can hopefully give us the main points and maybe add a few layers of philosophical 'varnish'. Our conversation with God in heaven about suffering will be much like God trying to explain to us what it's like to be fully infinite. It's going to be interesting, but ultimately we won't be able to follow the reasoning very well because there's a lot of stuff there that finite reasoning just can't understand. Hopefully we'll get the main points.

That said, God has told us the truth in the Bible. He has actually told us pretty much what we're going to hear when we get to heaven about the problem of suffering, in passages such as Romans 5. Literally, in a way that we can't understand, that we will probably never understand fully even with God's help, Adam's sin (or the original proto-humans if you accept theistic evolution) caused all the suffering in the world. This suffering had to happen; God could not have prevented or lessened the suffering in our world without damaging an even greater good. This 'odd situation' arose somehow (considering God is perfectly good and powerful) through Adam's sin, because of which people in our world suffered terribly. And somehow it was a greater good for Adam to have that freedom even though it caused all our suffering (or if this sounds too strange, you could say that we were all present in the Garden and came to our current world at different times in history, and Adam and Eve are symbolic for us.) God told us the truth in Romans, it's just that there are missing puzzle pieces to contextualise the what, when and why in a way that would please philosophers.

When God does tell us why we suffered, when we get to heaven, I don't think the answer he's going to give is going to be a matter-of-fact 'This is why'. I think that the 'best' stuff God will use to help us understand suffering in heaven, the really helpful stuff, will be in providing the context (like this talk of infinity) for *why* we can't understand suffering fully, and our experience of God's love for us in heaven (Rev 21:4) which will comfort us in letting us know that there is an answer. I think that a big part of why no philosopher has solved the problem of suffering is that the answer can't be very easily translated into finite concepts or thought, and so Romans 5 is close to the best that we'll ever get.

To sum up: we are in a sense in the permanent situation of Job when it comes to understanding suffering. Many believe that God avoided giving an answer to Job, or made excuses to Job. The reality is that no matter how God tries to explain it to us, the answer isn't going to get much better than Romans 5. By answering Job the way that he did, God tried to make this situation plain to people (Job 42:3).

The thing is, this intellectual stuff can never get us anywhere, even if we had God as our personal teacher. In fact, our intellect will never get us anywhere with God. The infinite world is so totally different to the finite world that it's an entirely different way of existing, and finite reasoning can only ever see it through finite eyes. You'd need infinite reasoning and infinite concepts to know intellectually what God is like. This means to know about God we have to relate to God using the stuff that we have in common with God, the infinite stuff that humans and God share. And that is: feeling, morality, free will, love and so on, not anything from the intellect. Or we can know key points about God through revelation. This means that to know about God we have to connect with him on a personal level rather than on a level of abstract ideas which, being finite, can never know much at all about God (1 Cor 1:19-21). If anywhere, this is where the best intellectual answer to the problem of suffering is to be found.

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