It seems the most common explanation for why a person either can’t believe in the Christian God, or abandons their Christian faith, is the existence of evil and suffering.
The classic response goes like this: If God is all-good, he wouldn’t allow evil/suffering. If God were all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow evil/suffering. So, either God is either not all-good or not all-powerful, or perhaps, both.
The major objection being: there is no way an omnibenevolent and omnipotent Being would allow evil/suffering.
First, let’s get one type of suffering out of the way with celerity, viz., suffering caused by someone else’s evil choices. Every time someone is murdered, beat up, raped, lied to, betrayed, etc., it’s because a human has made an evil choice. So, to be clear, when a free-willed moral agent decides not to do the right/good thing, but instead chooses the bad/wrong/evil thing, it can involve causing another person to suffer.
And of course, it sure is easy to focus on the suffering other people cause with their evil choices, and not pay attention to the suffering that we cause when we choose to do evil. Evil choices aren’t just done in other people. Suffering isn’t just caused by other people. We do it. And we do it well.
This kind of suffering, i.e., suffering caused by someone’s evil choices, isn’t usually that difficult for people to accept rationally.
So, to answer the question, “Where is God when people suffer from another human’s evil choices?” We say with ease: He’s certainly aware and very, very disappointed that the person is doing the evil. God hates evil. The one doing evil could have just as easily done the right thing. This is why hell is a moral necessity: moral agents who choose evil will receive a response from God. And they won’t like it. Our evil choices do not go unnoticed.
And remember, free will is a great, great good. It allows for morality, good choices, and good character. It allows us to do genuine good deeds to other humans, animals, and creation.
So, to say it once more before moving on: there is no reason to have outrage over suffering caused by the evil choices humans make. It is not God’s fault at all that a person chooses evil and causes suffering; it’s humanity’s fault. It is simply ridiculous to blame God for a person’s choices. Be mad at them! Be outraged at them! God is not to blame for what a free-willed moral agent chooses. This is why evil has nothing to do with God’s goodness (humans are to blame) or power (God doesn’t control our free will).
Second, there is a kind of suffering that any rational human basically accepts. This is the kind of suffering we experience when we’re the cause of the suffering, or when we’ve given someone else permission to cause me to suffer. When my muscles hurt after I’ve been to the gym, it’s perfectly acceptable to me. It’s my fault. I chose it. That suffering is acceptable and fair. When I suffer at the doctor’s office when the needle is inserted into my arm, it’s perfectly acceptable to me. It’s my fault that I went to the doctor when sick. I chose to be in this position and knew the consequences. There is no moral outcry over this kind of suffering.
The same is true for suffering that other people experience when they are the cause of the suffering. When someone crushes a can on their forehead and it causes a terrible headache later, that’s perfectly acceptable to me. It’s his fault. That suffering is acceptable and fair. There is no moral outcry over this kind of suffering.
The kind of suffering that demands an explanation by most people is when a person suffers for a reason that is not caused by the person. That is, people especially demand to know why suffering occurs when a person is a victim.
It is basic human psychology – we all want to know why we’re experiencing suffering to determine if the suffering is fair or not. One of the most disturbing things I’ve ever heard was a woman on a 911 call. She was fighting off an attacker who was about to rape her. She yelled out, repeatedly, “Why?! Why?! Why?! Why?!” through her tears. Now, do we really think that she wanted an intellectual reason for why she was about to be raped so that being raped would be OK with her? Nonsense. The reason why she bursts out with those repeated demands to know why is because of humanity’s deep rooted sense of justice. It’s not fair that this man is about to rape her. It’s not fair. She wants to know why he would do this to her when she’s done nothing to deserve it. If he were to give her a reason that he thought was justification, would she had said, “Oh. I get it. Go ahead and rape me?”
Of course not. She’s a victim. I imagine another thing she would have screamed out had it occurred to her in that horrible event is, “Don’t do this! This isn’t fair! I don’t deserve this!” And she’d be right. She would be vindicated; he should be in prison, being raped.
My point now is this: the moral outcry people have toward suffering really only occurs when a person feels that the suffering isn’t fair. When it’s not deserved. When the person who is suffering isn’t the cause of the suffering, or didn’t give someone else permission to cause the person suffering.
So, the real problem with suffering is this: there is suffering in the world that is not the person’s fault. That’s what bothers people. And the demand humans have from God is this: “Why do you allow suffering for which there seems to be no justification? That is, why do humans suffer at times when it wasn’t their fault? Why would God cause or allow that kind of suffering?”
I have a few things to say in response. That comes in Part 2.