Monday, January 31, 2011

Pain and Evil

Another distinction St Thomas Aquinas makes that is quite relevant to our time is the difference between pain and evil. When we talk about objections to the existence of God we talk about the Problem of Pain and the Problem of Evil as two ways of stating the same objection. According to a Christian mindset they are. But many people don't think that way. The answer to the Problem of Evil comes from the fact that God has given us free will. But the problem of pain is different. Evil is one source of pain. There are others. Love is a source of pain. If we love to play football we will suffer the pain of practicing. Pain itself is not evil. The pain that flows directly from our evil choices is a blessing. It allows us to see graphic evidence that what we have done is evil. We may choose to ignore that evidence but at least it is there. If punching you in the nose is evil then the pain that you feel after I hit you will help me understand that ... or not.

Really all the consequences of evil are good. The only true evil is when humans are given the freedom to choose good or evil and choose evil. Everything else is good. Think about sickness and death. They are punishments for our sinful nature and not always for sinful acts. They remind us that we live in a fallen world. Everything in our spirit says these things are wrong. They should not be. They don't prove God does not exists but they do show God has made us for a better place. If such intense suffer really is meaningless then it would be hard to understand how God allows it. But it is an invitation to stop focusing on the things of this world and start storing up for yourself treasure in heaven. We may choose to ignore the invitation but the invitation itself is good.

When people voice objections like, "If there is a God why do so many bad things happen?" they are not typically thinking of the problem of evil even though Christians often answer like they are. They don't normally wonder why God does not prevent them from committing some sin or other. Sometimes addicts who have tried and failed to quit might ask this but that is not typical. What they want to know is why this world seems so broken. Why do innocents sometimes suffer more than those who are guilty? Why have I experienced so much pain in my life?

I find the more personal the question gets the less likely people are to jump to the conclusion that there is no God. The new atheists who work up moral outrage at this or that injustice to show there must not be a God are not often personally experiencing that pain. People who are in real pain have trouble believing God loves them but they also have trouble accepting a world where there is no path to peace. The problem with the ladder position is much more real to them than it is with the person just using the existence of suffering to make an intellectual point.

But there is always that jump. That suffering is always wrong. It reminds me of the quote from Spe Salvi at the top of this blog, "without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality." So they have begged the question. They have assumed there is no deeper truth than the sentimentality they appeal to. It could be an honest mistake. Many people teach something they call Christianity that actually does reduce to sentimentality.That is why Pope Benedict saw the need to write that encyclical.

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