The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools -- Part 5: Why is There Suffering in the World? -- Eight Theories

We were dealing with Aeschylus's view of how one might reconcile the goodness of God with the fact that so many good people suffer, as do children and infants, and yet so many bad people prosper. Why was the natural world created in such a way that animals suffer? Why is nature so cruel if it comes from God's hand? What purpose does all this suffering serve? Every culture wrestles with questions like these, and we discussed eight theories that attempt to answer them.

1.) There is no purpose in the universe, no rhyme or reason, no plan or design, no God or afterlife. Things simply happen, and we must endure them. Once we accept the universe as it is, our psychology changes, and we become mature human beings.

2.) Two Gods exist, one good and one evil, who are locked in eternal combat. Sometimes, Ormazd, the good God, is victorious; at times, Ahriman, the bad God, prevails. This theory of cosmic dualism influenced the Jews in the 6th century BCE during their Babylonian Exile, which affected the Jewish view of the Devil.

3.) Fate wills it. ("It was meant to be." "Things happen for a reason." "When it's your time to go, you will go, no matter how healthy your lifestyle!") Fate in the ancient world was viewed as more powerful than the gods. Greek mythology personified Fate as three sisters, one of whom, Clotho, spins out the thread of life upon the loom of time; the second, Lachesis, measures its length; and the third, Atropos, cuts it, thereby ending our lives. One cannot change Fate. It is pitiless and inexorable, and wisdom consists in submitting to it.

4.) The Greek philosopher Epicurus is said to have worked out four possible answers to the problem of evil. Either God wants to prevent evil, but he can't, which would mean that, although God is good, he is also weak. This possibility was rejected as unworthy of God.

5.) Or God can prevent evil, but he won't. Here, God is all-powerful and evil, since he lets evil happen. This view was also rejected because an omnipotent God who was evil was unthinkable.

6.) Or God can't prevent evil and wouldn't even if he could. This would mean that God was both evil and weak, a view also rejected as an insult to God.

7.) Or God can prevent evil and wants to, but for some mysterious reason doesn't. This answer was accepted, and was as far as the ancient mind reached in solving this problem.

8.) The theologians of early Christianity were influenced by this view and developed it further with insights from both the Old and New Testaments. An all-good and omnipotent God chooses not to prevent bad things from happening because he may be trying to test us, bring us closer to himself by reminding us of life's true purpose lest we be tempted to lose our way, or punish us for past wrongdoing. We can never know the reason, but only accept God's will in humble submission, trusting that he knows what is best for us.

Questions and Student Responses

1.) Are these theories facts, value judgments, explanatory or metaphysical hypotheses, and why? Choose any three of these theories and make a case that each view is right.

Students felt that these theories were both explanatory and metaphysical hypotheses that tried to explain the nature of ultimate reality, but could neither be proven nor disproven. They were statements of faith or hope rather than demonstrable claims about any knowable reality. None of these theories could provide evidence for their claims. They were based on assumptions beyond empirical verification. One should, therefore, accept whatever theory worked best for oneself, since no one could say which view was right. They were all creations of the human imagination to cope with adversity. Students had their individual preferences, which were based solely on feeling, while other theories repelled them.

It was pointless to try to convince others of the truth of one's theory -- either one saw it that way or one didn't. Yet every student felt that his or her theory was right. This discovery of subjective feeling as the only answer for questions like these came as a surprise to students. They began to understand why there is such a diversity of opinion about philosophical questions, and why tolerance toward other viewpoints is the natural result of philosophy.

Other students were taken aback by so many theories since they had grown up with a theory which they didn't even realize was a theory, but an indisputable "fact." These students just listened silently while trying to process this realization. Still others felt that it was first necessary to establish the existence and nature of God before one could meaningfully discuss the problem of suffering.

2.) What are the pros and cons of each theory?

Theory One. There was much disagreement about this theory. Some felt that it would, indeed, change your psychology. You would make your own rules, be responsible to yourself alone, be self-sufficient, have a take-charge attitude, and never be someone who "waited for Godot" to solve your problems. Students saw this as a realistic, honest, and courageous vision of life, although difficult to live up to. It commanded respect for its dignified, yet forbiddingly heroic, acceptance of life. Others were appalled by this theory, which seemed frightening, depressing, and so egocentric that it could unhinge a person. These students couldn't imagine how anyone could possibly lead a good life without an objective moral code, since at the first whiff of temptation one's own moral standards would crumble to dust. They dismissed this theory as an invitation to license.

Theory Two. Although students could understand the "Devil" aspect of this theory well enough, they couldn't relate to two Gods, one good and one evil, which seemed somewhat cartoonish to them. However, when told that Augustine in the 4th century CE was a Manichean with similar views before becoming a Christian, some seemed interested, but, in general, this theory was not a live option for students.

Theory Three. This struck students as the antithesis of theory one in that it drained life of any responsibility. "Why even try with such a demoralizing outlook? One is defeated even before one begins!" They felt that, even more than theory one, this theory could change one's personality -- for the worse. Its fatalism would kill all incentive to improve oneself, induce permanent immaturity, and devastate any sense of control over one's life. One had a built-in excuse for blaming fate for one's failure in not even trying. It was a poisonous attitude that reduced one to a marionette in a dreary and pointless life without striving. It would doom one to unhappiness because one's life would be one long self-fulfilling prophecy. Others saw it as a convenient tool of the powerful for brainwashing their people into accepting whatever happened as God's will, thereby discouraging revolt against social injustice.

Theory Four. Somewhat whimsically, students felt sorry for this God, who, though well-meaning, was too weak to do anything about preventing evil. This sense of helplessness would induce him to seek therapy for an inferiority complex.

Theories Five and Six. Students loathed these two theories and wondered how one could trust such Gods, although God number six was weak and couldn't cause as much evil as five.

Theories Seven and Eight. Students were of two minds about these theories. Some were impressed by God's mystery and his unconcern about not being understood. They preferred a God of silence in keeping with his majesty, as well as his testing the faith of his followers, who should never demand reasons from God. Explaining himself to his creatures would only diminish the reverence and awe which should be felt in his presence. It was also comforting to know that whatever happened, God intended it to happen as part of his providential plan for you. Others wondered why God would want to keep so aloof from his creatures, who were, after all, his children, since his silence could also betoken indifference toward them or dislike in subjecting them to torture to "test" them in ways that contradicted his being an all-good God. Others felt that his silence could also be construed as non-existence or the silence of an imaginary friend, and that "Providence" could simply be chance or fate.

3.) On what basis would someone choose a theory?

Students felt that, since you really couldn't prove any of these theories, you would base your choice on emotion or feelings about what would bring the most comfort to survive as a person. You could find inner strength by trying to carry on the best way you could, being strong for your family, or keeping your problems to yourself rather than indulging in self-pity, which would weaken you.

Others felt that they could better cope by sharing their problems with others for feedback, sympathy, and support. There was a hushed atmosphere as students shared stories of family members, relatives, and friends who coped or were coping with all sorts of problems, which made their own problems seemed trivial by comparison. Nietzsche's aphorism of "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" was also cited, as were the importance inner toughness, minimizing one's cross by cheerful resignation, asking God's help, or having no other choice but carrying on. Others thought that some would despair or be broken by suffering and couldn't understand what could be a sadistic streak in God, since he would already have foreseen this happening and could have prevented it.


The best discussions usually end in inconclusiveness and thoughtful silence after a broad range of opinion has been heard. Should balance be lacking, the teacher plays the devil's advocate by citing other opinions, so that both sides of the question receive a fair hearing. Students understand nothing if they hear only one viewpoint. In fact, they want to hear all the relevant theories and frankly expect to hear them in their senior year.

Many would even be insulted if they thought they were being "protected" from theories, as though they were too immature to hear them. Students want to understand the larger controversy that surrounds every question because it's only in the confrontation with different opinions that they can begin to think critically and be challenged to question their basic assumptions.

In a philosophy class, students can step out of time and refresh themselves by sharing the contemplative mood such discourse induces. These discussions can be the high point of a student's day when issues that matter are celebrated by open inquiry. The result can be a renewal of spirit that comes not from ready-made answers, but by immersion in deeply-felt questions which come alive when students sense their importance in keeping them human. However, class discussion, as important as it is, only opens up questions. Spending time with them alone is the only way of exploring them deeply and to make them one's own.

Animal Suffering

One final note. When it came to discussing the suffering of animals, I first made it clear that I wasn't referring to animal cruelty inflicted by man, but to the predatory nature of creation itself, whereby the strong prey upon the weak. Only infrequently could the question be discussed, because students became so distressed when they began to see the full import of the question, that I felt compelled to move on to another topic. It was more than apparent that those partial to theory eight were more profoundly troubled by God's allowing the suffering of innocent animals in no need of redemption than that undergone by human beings.