1. As we saw in the last lecture the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God assumes historically two distinct shapes according as the kind of evil we have to deal with is moral evil or natural evil. In my last lecture I gave my reasons for believing that the problem of moral evil presents no real challenge to the theology of theism. But there is certainly no such easy way with the problem of natural evil. The question briefly and broadly stated is whether the goodness and omnipotence of God are consistent with the prima facie badness of so much of the suffering that exists in the world of His creation. I begin with some comment designed to specify the problem with greater precision.
Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Lecture XIV: Theism and the Problem of Evil: (2) Suffering
It will be observed that I have spoken not of all the suffering but of so much of the suffering that exists in the world. The limitation was of course deliberate and introduces us to the first point that must be made in closer definition of our problem. It is manifestly not suffering of every kind wheresoever and howsoever it exists that threatens the theistic creed. Suffering that is (as we say) ‘deserved’ and in the degree approximately that it is deserved is not commonly regarded as in any objective sense bad. Very few people consider that there is any moral impropriety in the deliberate wrongdoer being made to suffer for his crimes. Indeed it is much more usual to see a threat to the moral government of the world in the fact that the wicked so often seem to get off scot-free in this life at any rate.
Let us assume then that deserved suffering in the degree (approximately) that it is deserved constitutes no problem for the theist. Undeserved suffering however is another matter. Yet here too it is imperative to make qualifications when we are considering its compatibility or otherwise with the God of theism. Do we really regard a world in which there is undeserved suffering as ipso facto bad or even as imperfect? I do not think so. It takes no very deep reflection to see that a world in which people could suffer only if they acted wickedly—a world without hazards or hardships for the virtuous—would be a world in which the soul could not develop its highest virtues. The moral achievements for which we hold men in highest honour would seem to be precisely those in which the path of duty as the individual has conceived it entails for him great personal suffering or the risk thereof. In so far as we approve of a world which serves as a theatre for moral endeavour we cannot I think disapprove of a world in which there is at least some suffering that is undeserved.
Can we then specify the kind of undeserved suffering that really does trouble the theist—or that ought to trouble him if it doesn't? It seems to me that we can. No one is seriously troubled about undeserved suffering that is brief in duration even though it be intense in degree; nor about undeserved suffering that is moderate in degree even though it be of long duration. These are ‘bearable’ experiences. Pity for those who so suffer is natural; but we can see how such hardships and the risk of such hardships are necessary for the discipline and purification of character; they play an indispensable part in a world that is a Vale of soul-making’ and they cause us no moral offence. What does disquiet us is the occurrence of undeserved suffering that is both immoderate in degree—sometimes excruciating—and also long protracted. Here we do have a real problem. In this context it is unrealistic (and highly offensive) to talk about ‘discipline and purification of character’ or of any other valuable effects upon the spirit. What possible spiritual benefits can accrue to the man who is reduced by slow torture (as even the most heroic natures may be) to a state of mind in which he is no longer a rational being at all but just one vast feeling-centre for devastating and all-enveloping pain? And if it be suggested that perhaps later recollection of his experience may somehow bring valuable spiritual effects one must point out that in very many cases so far as this life is concerned there is no later recollection.
The assertion has indeed sometimes been ventured that in the nature of things suffering cannot be both very intense and prolonged; that when a certain degree of intensity is reached unconsciousness mercifully supervenes. Of course there is a modicum of truth in this. There is a point at which unconsciousness supervenes. But the ‘threshold of unconsciousness’ seems quite horrifyingly high. It is mere wishful thinking to suppose that when pain reaches the pitch of sheer agony it is never long before insensibility sets in. Without doubt modern discoveries in the field of analgesics have done much to alleviate the human lot; but even if we forget the past (which we have no right to do) these have by no means removed the problem. Victims of the most painful diseases and wounds are not always even yet within reach of anodynes; and there is no drug in the pharmacopoeia that will make tolerable the mental anguish of say the wife and mother bereaved of her whole family in a single disaster.
It may be admitted that the incidence of suffering which is at once prolonged and very intense is comparatively rare. Not very many persons have had first-hand experience of it. That perhaps has something to do with the almost shockingly facile ‘solutions’ of the problem which are sometimes offered in apparent good faith. A strenuous effort of sympathetic imagination is necessary for most of us if we are to appreciate the problem of suffering in anything like its full poignancy. Logically of course the intense and prolonged suffering of others is no easier to reconcile with a God perfect in goodness wisdom and power than similar suffering in one's self; psychologically I fear it is a great deal easier.
There are occasions however when even the least imaginative among us cannot remain blind to the spectacle of undeserved suffering of a well-nigh unbearable order. Two great wars have brought home the problem of suffering to many people who had somehow failed to realise that even in times of peace there are millions dying every year in acute distress from causes like hunger and disease that cannot plausibly be ascribed to any fault of their own. It is inevitable that the ordinary thoughtful man confronted by so much undeserved misery should ask himself ‘Is this really compatible with the existence of a righteous and all-powerful God? Could not He with whom “all things are possible” have created a world in which at least the more hideous kinds of suffering could not come about?’ There can be no denying that many reflective and worthy men have felt themselves forced by their inability to return satisfactory answers to such questions as these to doubt or even to disavow their old belief in God as the only alternative to the forfeiture of their intellectual integrity.
So much for the nature of the problem. Let us turn now to consider possible solutions.
2. The easiest solution one which recurs fairly often in the history of theology and which earlier in the present century had a considerable vogue is not strictly speaking a solution of the problem as we have formulated it since it is based upon a modification of one of the premises. God's perfect goodness is a premise that obviously cannot be tampered with. But it is suggested that we do not need to think of God as all-powerful. It is enough that we think of Him as immensely more powerful than any conceivable human being. On that assumption there will be no inconsistency in supposing that there is an independent ‘material’ upon which God works in His creation of the world and that it may prove in some measure refractory; or even in supposing that there is some positive principle of Evil in the Universe such as the Devil of so much early Christian theology which opposes itself to God's beneficent purposes and may bring some of them to naught. Given this limitation of God's power no religious difficulty arises from the incidence of so much undeserved suffering of an intense and prolonged character for we are no longer obliged to conceive it as somehow in accord with the Divine will. On the contrary we can fairly suppose that God would prevent it if He could but that limited as He is by opposing forces He simply is not able.
The hypothesis of a Finite God—for that is what it amounts to—though it emerges periodically in theology has a habit of vanishing again with curious rapidity. But perhaps its failure to survive for long is not so very curious. As suggested earlier in this course the religious attitudes of worship and adoration are difficult to sustain in conjunction with an explicit recognition that the Being to whom they are directed is defective or imperfect in any way whatsoever. And we can hardly pretend to ourselves that limitation of power is not an imperfection. Or to look at the same point from a slightly different angle; it is generally accepted that one of the fruits of religious belief where it is sincerely and deeply held is a profound serenity of spirit—‘the peace that passeth all understanding’—based on an absolute assurance that whatever ills and disasters may afflict the world all things are ultimately in God's hands and must in obedience to His will ‘work together for good’. Now this religious peace of mind is just not possible at any rate at a reflective level once the infinitude of God has been compromised and forces independent of God and either actually or potentially hostile to Him have been admitted. We may piously hope for and even persuade ourselves to believe in God's ultimate victory in some cosmic struggle against the Powers of Darkness; but we cannot logically have any assurance of such victory if these contrary forces are thought of as having their existence in complete independence of the Divine Will.
I am of course aware that the ‘Devil’ has (so to speak) an honourable tradition in Christian theology; but the postulate of a Devil is not necessarily incompatible with insistence upon the infinitude and omnipotence of God. Everything turns here upon how the ontological status of the alleged Devil is interpreted. Is the Devil a principle of Evil no less ultimate in nature than God Himself? Or is he rather to be thought of as ‘a fallen angel’ a being who is in the last resort a creature of God's own creation? If he is the latter (and this would seem the more orthodox theological interpretation) then no compromise of God's omnipotence is involved. Equally clearly however belief in this kind of Devil will not make the problem of suffering one whit easier of solution. For however much of the world's suffering we may feel disposed to attribute to the malignant machinations of the Evil One we cannot blink the fact that since God is ex hypothesi the author of the Devil's being the ultimate responsibility for the Devil's work belongs to God. The problem of reconciling with the Divine goodness the suffering that offends our moral sentiments remains precisely where it was.
A somewhat similar reply would be pertinent against those who tell us that after all by far the greater part of human misery is due not to the world as God created it but to the cruelties and follies of mankind. Waiving the objection that this view hardly appears to allow due weight to ‘natural’ catastrophies—earthquakes floods typhoons pestilences and the like—as sources of human misery the obvious retort is ‘But didn't God create man as well as the rest of the world?’ Nor does this retort seem adequately met by arguing that though God did create man He conferred upon him free will and that He cannot be held responsible for what men have done of their own free will. The responsibility for imparting free will to man remains with God. And if free will is a benefit that can accrue to man only at the risk of bringing in its train the horrifying sufferings which constitute our present problem it cannot be deemed a proposition beyond all reasonable debate that a world with free will is better than a world without it. Moreover as we shall have occasion to notice later it seems a fair enough question to ask whether a truly omnipotent God could not have created conditions for human life that are compatible both with the exercise of free will by finite creatures and with the non-occurrence of the more morally objectionable kinds of human suffering.
3. Let us pass on to attempted solutions which whether or not they prove in the end any more satisfactory have attracted more and more authoritative support from those seriously interested in our problem. I think that ignoring minor variations they reduce to three.
The first claims that there is no such thing as undeserved suffering; that man is so wicked a creature that he deserves whatever ills befall him. No human suffering therefore can legitimately cast doubt on the goodness of God.
The second frankly admits that there is much human suffering that is undeserved that at least some of it cannot be justified in terms of the hazards and hardships necessary to spiritual progress that in short some suffering must be acknowledged to be per se just bad and therefore incapable of being directly willed by a good God; but it goes on to argue that we can see on reflection that the incidence of it is inevitable in a world-order which taken as a whole is the best world-order there could possibly be.
The third solution accepts the second solution as far as that goes but regards it as insufficient without adding the postulate of the immortality of the soul. Given that postulate we may suppose that due compensation will be made in a future life for miseries of the present life which even if they be inevitable ‘by-products’ in the best possible world-order nevertheless leave us with a bitter sense of injustice to the individual on the assumption that this is the only life man has. We shall examine each of these solutions in turn.
4. The first type of solution bases itself upon the premise of universal human wickedness. This premise I must confess I do not find it easy to take very seriously. It may be recalled that I tried to show in my last lecture how it originates in the main from an easily committed confusion; the confusion between on the one hand the universal imperfection that attaches to man merely in virtue of his finite creaturely nature and on the other hand the imperfection of (deliberate) sinning which is a specific mode of human behaviour not a universal mode at all not something which pertains to human acts as such. I propose therefore to deal now very briefly indeed with the doctrine that all men are always wicked in the main merely reminding you of certain points made before as they bear upon the present problem of man's ‘deserts’.
In the first place if universal human wickedness is taken as meaning that unaided man inevitably wills what is evil then (a) this thesis (as was argued before) is in flat contradiction with the actual facts of moral experience as we know it; and (b) even if the thesis were sound it would not establish that man ‘deserves’ whatever suffering befalls him for the notion of ‘desert’ has no meaning at all in relation to a being without freedom of choice.
In the second place if universal human wickedness is taken as meaning that though man could choose good rather than evil as a matter of fact all men always do choose evil the thesis again conflicts hopelessly with the only direct evidence we have on the question viz. our own moral experience. I doubt if there is any sane man who believes that though he has the power to resist temptation he has never in fact resisted it in the whole course of his life. And though it is only in the case of our own choices that we can be said strictly to know that man sometimes uses his freedom of choice for good as well as for evil there is every reason to suppose that other men are in like case and no reason to believe the contrary. It is apparently possible for those who have strong religious preconceptions about the inevitability of human sin to persuade themselves sporadically at any rate that even men and women who to the innocent eyes of the rest of the world have characters of rare nobility and beauty are nevertheless in reality sunk deep in iniquity. It would be very surprising to find that any normal human being had arrived at this odd view without such preconceptions.
If anything were needed to clinch the case against suffering being a just retribution for human wickedness it is surely to be found in the acute suffering often undergone by little children who are old enough to feel pain but too young as yet to be miserable sinners. Most of us will resolutely decline to believe no matter who tells us that the toddler who plays too close to the fire and is burned to death in agony is merely receiving just punishment for its sins. It seems to me that anyone who can believe this is in need of a moral no less than an intellectual spring-cleaning: or to change the metaphor he ought to have his heart as well as his head examined.
I fear however that we cannot even yet quite leave behind us the type of solution of the problem of suffering that bases itself on the wickedness of man. There is a modified thesis about human wickedness which apparently seems to some minds to be capable of justifying all human suffering on the score of desert. This is the thesis that though the human will is occasionally good evil willing preponderates so vastly over good willing that ‘mankind’ as a whole can and must be stigmatised as ‘wicked’. I do not myself believe that there is convincing evidence for this supposed over-plus of evil willing. On the other hand I know of no way of actually disproving that thesis. Let us therefore admit its possibility and ask whether if true it has anything to contribute to the problem before us.
The argument must be I suppose that since ‘mankind’ is wicked the sufferings of ‘mankind’ are deserved. Now on the face of it this seems too glaringly fallacious for anyone to hold. ‘Mankind’ in the premise simply means the vast majority of mankind whereas in the conclusion (if the argument is to be relevant to the problem of suffering) it must mean all men individually. Do the proponents of this argument really mean that the minority of the human race who are not wicked deserve to suffer for the guilt of the majority who are wicked?
Incredible as it may seem there are eminent theologians who apparently want to say either this or something that is in principle indistinguishable from it. They acknowledge (almost reluctantly one feels) that it is not really plausible to say that all men are wicked; but they are prepared to talk of what they call the ‘collective guilt’ of the human race of ‘mankind’ and it is perfectly clear that they mean by ‘collective’ guilt a guilt in which every member of the human race is a sharer. Very often no doubt this involvement of the individual in a racial guilt is conceived as arising from the sin of Adam man's common ancestor rather than from the sins of the mass of mankind. But the principle is the same in so far as in both cases guilt is imputed to individuals for crimes which they have not themselves committed simply in virtue of their common membership of the human race.
This notion of collective guilt taken as implying that the individual shares in the guilt for acts in which he played no part seems to me to be nearer to undisguised self-contradiction than even the neo-Calvinist usually likes to approach. Either that or else he is electing to use words not just in an extension of their ordinary meaning but in flat defiance of their ordinary meaning. For all ordinary usage of the term to be ‘guilty’ of an act means (among other things) that one has been at the very least a contributory agent in its performance. If the neo-Calvinist is using words in their ordinary meanings therefore the self-contradiction of his doctrine seems unqualified. If on the other hand he is using the word ‘guilty’ in some new sense peculiar to himself it is obvious that the word cannot have in its new sense the same implications as it had in its old sense; and in particular there is no reason to suppose that it has the implication that is relevant to our problem viz. that the ‘guilty’ deserve to suffer. In either case therefore his doctrine makes no contribution to the problem of suffering.
I am well aware of course that the protagonists of this strange notion of collective guilt are less worried about contradictions than ordinary mortals. The way to deal with them apparently (if they pertain to one's own doctrine) is to call them ‘paradoxes’ and then everything is all right. Collective guilt is declared to be one of the great ‘paradoxes’ of religion of which the unregenerate can naturally make nothing but the profound truth of which is revealed to the man of spiritual discernment. Unfortunately for this view there are a great many persons whom there seems every reason to credit with spiritual discernment equal to that enjoyed by neo-Calvinists who also find themselves able to make nothing of the doctrine. Dare one suggest that what is really required in order to be able to see that a man can be guilty of an act in which he played no part whatsoever is not a rare spiritual discernment but a thoroughly muddled mind?—due chiefly perhaps to an inflexible determination to justify at any intellectual cost what is taken to be the authority of the scriptures in respect to certain aspects of the relationship between God and man.
The confusions that lie at the root of the doctrine of collective guilt have nowhere to my knowledge been so effectively exposed in brief compass as in Professor H. D. Lewis's Morals and the New Theology. I could wish that Chapters V VI and VII of this work were made compulsory reading for all who may be tempted to look to the said doctrine for an escape from their perplexities. Here I have room to touch upon only one of these confusions; the confusion involved in slipping from the proposition which seems clearly true that man is nothing apart from the social whole to which he belongs to the different proposition by no means clearly true that man is nothing but an element in the social whole to which he belongs. If the latter proposition did happen to be true then of course guilt could pertain to an individual man only derivatively from the social group since he has no being save as an element in the group and the ‘collective guilt’ doctrine could then claim some plausibility. But the two propositions are not as is sometimes carelessly assumed just alternative ways of stating the same fact. It may be the case that a man is nothing apart from society in the sense that his existence as a man is inconceivable without certain social relationships; but it may be the case that his existence as a man is also inconceivable if he be not credited with an active initiative in responding to the social influences surrounding him which is not itself derivable from the social whole. We have no right to pass directly from the proposition that man is not an atomic individual wholly self-contained to the proposition that he is not an individual at all but only a function of the social group. If the latter proposition is to be established it must be by special argument: and the fate that has overtaken the various ‘organic’ theories of society that have from time to time been propounded by philosophers does not promise very well for any such argument.
It is not of course necessary to deny that there are types of whole conceivable in which the parts draw every bit of their significance from the whole to which they belong so that to try to view the part as in any sense an individual unit is to try to view it as it is not. A living organism may be said to come fairly near to this peculiarly intimate sort of systematic unity; and a work of art in proportion to its perfection comes nearer still. But surely it is beyond doubt that no human society (let alone the human race) is conceivable as a unity of this kind? It is a commonplace we agree that in the life of primitive tribes where the member of the tribe is (for cogent reasons) subjected from infancy to a host of influences designed to foster in him the maximum sense of community the individual tends to have no clear consciousness of himself as distinct from the tribe and in consequence does not demur (within limits) to sharing responsibility for acts committed by others of his tribe. But even in the most primitive societies the distinction is only obscured not abolished. The primitive tribesman can think and act and sometimes he does in ways not sanctioned by the tribe and he knows that he can; though by reason of a life-time of mental and moral conditioning he fails to draw explicitly the correct inference that despite his dependence on the tribe for almost everything he has a ‘self’ which is something more than just a manifestation of the tribal self a ‘self’ which has rights and duties not exhaustively definable in terms of the tribal will. It is probably the case that man only discovers his ‘private’ self when a certain level of reflective analysis has been attained. But surely we are not going to say that the view which prevails on the relationship between man and society before the emergence of reflective analysis has better credentials than the view which prevails thereafter? It is ironical indeed that representatives of a religion like Christianity which justly prides itself on the centrality it accords to the human person and the individual soul should today be aligning themselves with primitive notions of man's relation to society which prevailed only because the idea of an individual soul had not yet emerged into clear consciousness.
5. The second type of solution we undertook to consider seems to me very much more plausible. In it there is no pretence that undeserved suffering prolonged and intense is other than evil. But it is urged that on reflection we can see that a certain amount of suffering of this sort is an inevitable though an unfortunate incident in a world whose internal arrangements are such as to constitute it on the whole the best conceivable world. If this can be shown to be the case God's Omnipotence and Goodness will not be threatened. For it is a mistake to interpret ‘omnipotence’ as a power to do absolutely anything even the intrinsically impossible even the self-contradictory. As Professor C. S. Lewis points out we must distinguish between the relatively impossible and the absolutely or intrinsically impossible. The relatively impossible is impossible unless certain conditions difficult but still possible of fulfilment are in fact fulfilled. It is relatively impossible to get from St. Andrews to Glasgow in three minutes; but it is not intrinsically impossible since conditions are conceivable (e.g. some revolution in aircraft design) under which it could be managed. The intrinsically or absolutely impossible on the other hand is impossible under any conditions whatsoever. Thus it is intrinsically impossible for a man to get from St. Andrews to Glasgow in no time at all. ‘Omnipotence’ says Dr. Lewis ‘means power to do all that is intrinsically possible not to do the intrinsically impossible.’1 We can still legitimately say he goes on that with God all things are possible even though He cannot do the intrinsically impossible; for ‘intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities.’2
If this distinction (with its application to Omnipotence) be granted the existence in the world of the suffering that is so peculiarly distressing will be compatible with the Goodness and Omnipotence of God provided that we are able to show it to be logically bound up with the conditions of a world that is the best conceivable so that the elimination of such suffering from the best conceivable world is an ‘intrinsic impossibility’.
The argument that is intended to lead to this conclusion rests I think on three main propositions.
The first is that the best conceivable world should provide the opportunity for realising the highest moral values. This proposition though we cannot perhaps call it self-evident would I think be accepted by most people.
The second is that some suffering even undeserved suffering there must be in such a world. This proposition seems unexceptionable. We noticed earlier how hazards and hardships are indispensable to a world of moral achievement.
The third is that a world in which a moral agent can effectively operate must be an orderly world in which events conform to objective laws. This proposition also seems to me to be true. ‘Without such regularity in physical phenomena’ writes Dr. F. R. Tennant (who has elaborated this proposition in most instructive fashion) ‘there could be no probability to guide us: no prediction no prudence no accumulation of ordered experience no formation of habit no possibility of character or of culture.’3
The implications of this third proposition bring us to the heart of the matter. As Tennant proceeds to point out ‘We cannot have the advantages of a determinate order of things without its logically or its causally necessary disadvantages.’4 The only way in which such disadvantages as we are here specially concerned with—viz. the incidence of sufferings which are per se evil—could be avoided would be if God were to intervene to suspend temporarily the operation of the ‘natural’ laws which govern the disposition of masses every time that their unimpeded operation would bring about such calamities. But when we try to think out what this would mean in practice we can see that the interventions would have to be on such a vast scale as to undermine all confidence in the predictability of natural events. We could never with our narrow knowledge have reasonable assurance that any particular natural sequence in which we happened to be prospectively interested would not be interrupted by Divine act because of some tragic consequence to human beings which God foresaw and of which we had no inkling. But confidence in the predictability of natural events is a necessary precondition of our undertaking purposive projects of any magnitude including our moral and spiritual projects. We may reasonably conclude therefore (Tennant and C. S. Lewis suggest) that it is intrinsically impossible for the sufferings we deplore to be absent from ‘the best possible world’.
This seems to me a most interesting and carefully considered attempt to cope with our perplexing problem and worthy of all respect. Nevertheless I cannot persuade myself that it will in the end really do. Granting all three of the basic propositions and granting that some suffering not in itself desirable is an inevitable incident in even the best conceivable world-order it still does not appear to me to follow that the special kind of undeserved suffering that constitutes our problem is an ‘inevitable incident’. The question that seems to me to demand and nowhere (as far as I know) to receive an answer is this—‘Why not a world in which all the conditions named in the basic propositions obtain but in which the body-mind structure of beings with the capacity to suffer has been so determined by the Creator that agony at once intense and prolonged just cannot be experienced?’ It is surely not obvious that it is intrinsically impossible for things to be so arranged by the Creator. Indeed to put it rather crudely it is hard to see why it should be any more troublesome for the Creator to determine the body-mind structure in this way than in the way that He has in fact chosen.
And there is a further question which I think one cannot altogether escape when one reflects upon the merits of this second type of solution. Suppose its advocates to be right and us to be wrong about the inevitability of even the more shocking kinds of suffering in a world that is a fit theatre for moral endeavour. Is it so certain that if this is the price that has to be paid for such a world the existence of such a world is better than its non-existence? Is it really established therefore that the creation of our world is consistent with the hypothesis of God's goodness as well as of His omnipotence? At the very least we are bound to recognise I think that there have been many good and thoughtful men who have not felt it possible ‘on soul and conscience’ to return an affirmative answer.
6. Whatever its defects however the second type of solution does have the great merit of making clear that the problem of suffering must be considered in relation to the total conditions of the best conceivable world; and the third type of solution which we are to consider that based on ‘the hope of immortality’ seems to me to gain in effectiveness if regarded as a supplement to the second type rather than as standing by itself. Its special point is the suggestion that there is no sort of suffering however ‘cruel’ that cannot be reconciled with the hypothesis of a supremely good and omnipotent God provided we suppose the sufferer to be compensated in a future life by an equivalent or greater happiness.
This I think is the type of solution towards which the plain man most naturally leans when he reflects on the problem of suffering; just as the theologian tends towards the first type and the philosopher towards the second. The plain man is not likely to be impressed by paradoxes like that of universal human wickedness nor by abstract discussions about the distinction between absolute and relative impossibility. But he is well at home with the notion of joy compensating sorrow; and even though he would not always call himself ‘religious’ he is seldom prepared to rule out as impossible the hypothesis of an after life. Indeed this is probably to under-state the case. It would seem that most men find it difficult really to believe in their own final extinction. When e.g. Stephen Leacock humorously confesses a dislike for life-assurance agents because they always try to persuade him that he will one day die ‘which is not the case’ the joke makes its point for us through our recognition that despite its prima facie absurdity something very like this disbelief in our own death lies deep down in the minds of most of us.
The immortality type of solution is of course devoid of value for those who are completely convinced that there is no after life. But it will have some value (assuming it has no fatal internal defect) for all who accept immortality as a possibility; and its value will be enhanced for those who deem immortality to be not merely possible but probable and in proportion to the degree of probability they attach to it. This means I think that it has some value though it may be slight for most men and even for most philosophers. For even among philosophers (a category which does not automatically include scientists however eminent in their own field who think fit to publish causeries upon philosophical questions) forthright denial of a future life has been comparatively rare. Moreover philosophers who do deny it without qualification commonly do so on the basis of a doctrine about the self and about the self's relation to its body which in my opinion at any rate is radically false. It may be recalled that the upshot of our analysis of the self in last year's course of lectures so far as our present question is concerned was that our knowledge of the self and its relation to its body leaves it an entirely open question whether the soul does or does not survive the destruction of its earthly tenement.
For myself therefore holding as I do that a future life is a real possibility the immortality type of solution is by no means one to be lightly dismissed. Let us then look at it more closely.
It must be conceded to it I think that within the ambit of our ordinary lives the principle of joy compensating sorrow is familiar and readily accepted. A man who has experienced much severe suffering which seems to him undeserved does not as a rule rail against fate does not complain that life has been ‘unfair’ to him so long as he can call to mind much keen happiness which he feels to be no more merited than his misfortunes. He accepts the joys as counter-balancing and cancelling out the sorrows. Nor do I see on what ground it could be denied that this simple principle of compensation is equally applicable where the joys that are to balance the sorrows occur not in the individual's earthly life but in a life hereafter. The one proviso is that this future life must be such that the individual who enjoys its felicities is aware of being the same self who in earthly life suffered the excess of pain or sorrow. The retention of personal identity does seem to be a sine qua non of any immortality that can serve the purpose of compensating earthly suffering. This proviso however entails no more (though of course also no less) difficulty than the hypothesis of the immortality of the soul itself. For it is not the soul that is immortal on any hypothesis which does not allow to the future experiencing subject consciousness of his identity with the subject of the past experiences.
Yet there is one serious difficulty which the immortality solution must find some way of meeting. It can be stated as follows:
Let us agree that granted the possibility of appropriate future compensation even the worst abominations of suffering in this life do not necessarily entail injustice in the human situation taken as a whole. The world of God's creation may after all be at least a ‘good’ world. But can it be the ‘best conceivable’ world?—as it ought to be on the assumption that it is created by a Being perfect in power and goodness. If there was force in the objection we raised earlier to the second type of solution the objection that there is no evident reason why such a Being should not have so determined the mind-body structure of man as to make impossible the extravagant sufferings that appal our moral sensibilities this seems very doubtful. For there seems in that case no difficulty in conceiving a world in which such sufferings do not occur yet in which the joys of an after-life which it was suggested might compensate them do occur—not by way of compensation (which is no longer required) but simply as an act of grace. Such a world other things being equal would be a better world than one in which these same joys are compensations for past miseries. Happiness is a good so that other things being equal one world is better than another if it contains more happiness; and obviously there is more happiness in a world in which the joys of an after-life are not just a ‘plus’ that cancels out with a previous ‘minus’.
I think that this objection can be countered only by challenging an assumption which underlay our criticism of the second type of solution. While we agreed that the best conceivable world must be one which affords opportunity for the achievement of the highest moral values and that a necessary condition of such a world is the occurrence of much suffering that is undeserved it seemed to us that this condition could be adequately fulfilled without permitting the possibility of certain horrifying kinds of suffering that men and women are sometimes called upon to endure. But perhaps our assumption was over-hasty. An advocate of the immortality solution might retort with the pertinent question ‘On what principle do you presume to limit the degree of suffering in a world that is to be a theatre for the achievement of the highest moral values?’ The difficulty of fixing a limit is apparent when one remembers that one's admiration for a man who follows the path of duty in despite of the personal suffering it entails or may be expected to entail is (other things being equal) roughly proportionate to the magnitude of the suffering entailed or expected. The implication would seem to be that the greater the suffering that can occur the greater the moral value it is open to men to achieve. But if this is so how can it be possible to put any limit to the degree of suffering that should be permitted in a world that is to be the best possible theatre for moral endeavour? And the ‘immortality’ advocate might complete his defence in some such terms as these. ‘We are willing to grant you that the ‘best conceivable’ world is not necessarily identical with that which is the best conceivable regarded solely from the standpoint of opportunities for moral achievement. If happiness is a good (and we do not deny it) its claim to inclusion in the best conceivable world cannot be ignored. You are fully entitled to insist that a Creator whom we can honestly esteem as supremely good must not show himself indifferent to the happiness of the creatures he calls into being. But that is just where our hypothesis of immortality comes in. If one knew that this earthly life was all then there would be much point in arguing that man's Creator either was not omnipotent or on the count of his inadequate concern for human happiness was not perfect in goodness. But it is not known that this earthly life is all. An after-life is a real possibility; and if it is possible it is also possible that it should be of such a kind as to satisfy completely the legitimate demand that a Creator who is perfect in goodness should have a concern for the happiness of his creatures. Hence your objection to the solution we propose breaks down.’
Is this defence a valid one? On the whole I incline to accept it—a little tentatively perhaps for I cannot feel as confident as I should like that there are not flaws in it which I have failed to detect. I conclude accordingly that the facts of human suffering are not demonstrably fatal to Rational Theism; though they do confront it with a formidable problem of which I can see no plausible solution that does not depend upon the hypothesis of appropriate compensation in a future life.
7. I have examined in this lecture what I take to be the three most important ways in which Rational Theists have sought to reconcile with their faith the grimmer facts of human suffering. Perhaps it will seem to some that there is a fourth way which has a comparable claim to consideration. I have in mind the view that the whole project of seeking to ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the world which God creates is in principle absurd; indeed irreligious since it implies that mere finite minds can plumb the depths of the Creative Mind and thereby denies in effect the immensity of the gulf which for the truly religious man must always be humbly acknowledged as separating the creature from his Creator. The real solution of the problem of suffering it is suggested lies in seeing that it is not a problem that can have intelligible meaning for finite minds at all.
I have excluded this type of ‘solution’ quite deliberately because it seems to me that whatever its virtues ‘in the abstract’ it is not a type of solution open to Rational Theists. If we are Rational as distinct from Supra-rational Theists we are committed to the view that the qualities of goodness power etc. ascribed to God are to be interpreted in their literal significance; i.e. in the meanings these qualities have for our experience. But this implies that the workings of the Divine Mind are in principle intelligible to the human mind. And to admit this is surely to deny one's self any right to plead man's impotence to fathom the ‘inscrutable purposes’ of God against those who argue that there are facts of experience incompatible with the purpose of a Creator who is perfect in goodness and power in the literal signification of these terms.
I am not saying let it be noted that it is not an absurdity for human minds to set out to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. I am only saying that it should not be deemed absurd from the standpoint of Rational Theism. For myself I believe that it is an absurdity. But that is because I take the element of ‘mystery’ in the Godhead in much fuller earnest than Rational Theism chooses to do. On the Supra-rationalist view that qualities like goodness and power cannot have more than a symbolic import when ascribed to God any attempt to understand the manifestations of God in terms of these qualities as literally interpreted is ex hypothesi absurd. The question how we are to justify the ways of God to man is not for supra-rational Theism a question that it is difficult to answer. It is a question that it is ridiculous to raise.
But this is to anticipate. We have not yet passed beyond ‘Rational’ Theism; and since I have admitted that Rational Theism is not disproved by the difficulties over human suffering no need to pass beyond it has yet appeared. Rational Theism has survived the charge of being inconsistent with acknowledged facts of experience. Can it also survive the charge of being inconsistent with itself? That is the question to which we shall turn in the next lecture.
From the book: