The Problem of Innocent Suffering
by Thomas Katsampes

January 2, 2008

In his book, John Thiel defines innocent suffering as "suffering out of all proportion to the moral culpability of the sufferer." Two extreme examples of innocent suffering would be (1) the Holocaust of World War II, and (2) the suffering of children (e.g. via childhood cancers, birth defects, etc.). The latter is particularly egregious because "not only are children powerless before evil, but they lack moral culpability of any sort." Most, if not all, Christian denominations hold that:
  • God is perfectly good.
  • God is omnipotent (i.e. with God, all things are possible.)
  • God is perfectly just.
  • So, having established these, I now ask the Hume's questions:
  • If God is able to alleviate or eliminate innocent suffering, and does not do so, is He perfectly good?
  • If God wants to alleviate or eliminate innocent suffering, but is not able, is He omnipotent?
  • If God is able and wants to alleviate or eliminate innocent suffering, and does not, is He perfectly just?
  • I'm going to be reading Thiel's book again and this time, I will be taking notes. Thiel's position is essentially that "...the traditional doctrines of covenant and original sin deal with the scandal of innocent suffering before God by denying its existence. This denial derives from a powerful religious desire to protect God from guilt." The desire is good, I would add, because otherwise God would be no better (and no less capricious) than the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. Surely that is NOT the God we worship! My purpose here is certainly not to impugn God - God forbid.

    Thiel offers a theology where one can basically have his cake and eat it too by subsuming the problem of innocent suffering into a Christus Victor theme by noting that Christ has promised to destroy all death and suffering. I don't quite understand HOW it works (hence why I need to read the book again) but after a first read it seems to be quite an attractive idea. I find it attractive because I find it very difficult to accept a theological or philosophical view which denies that people suffer innocently. It is akin to denying the existence of a suspension bridge while one is driving over it. We all innately know that innocent people do in fact suffer, and our theology has to be able to accommodate this stark reality without compromising God's character or attributes. Thiel's goal is such a theology.