Ten Questions and Answers on the “Why” of Human Suffering

February 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Catholic Apologetics


Question 1: Is it arrogant to seek an answer to the “why” of suffering if God is “mystery”?

Answer: God is infinitely mysterious, but for love of humanity, God has freely revealed himself, and has communicated what we otherwise could not have known by our own power. The Church teaches that, in revealing himself to us in this way, God has provided ultimate answers to those questions we human beings ask universally about the meaning and purpose of our lives:“By love, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. He has thus provided the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.” (CCC, 68)

The term “superabundant” means excessively more than enough, and it is unmistakable that among those questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of life, the question of the “why” of human suffering is prominent:

“…nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its ‘objective reality’, to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought.” (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Dolores)

In view of the fact that God has superabundantly bestowed upon his Church everything that is needed to answer the question of human suffering (and all other questions of great existential import), it must be concluded that it is in no way arrogant for one to investigate this (once thought to be impenetrable) question. We may do so both in humility and in confident expectation of arriving at an authentic answer by means of what has been already been given to the Church in the Deposit of Faith.


Question 2: How does God view human suffering and death?

Answer: According to the teaching of the Church, human suffering and death are evils. The use of the term “evil” in this context is not to be confused with moral evil such that a suffering or dying person is considered to be somehow ethically in the wrong. Rather, suffering and death are evils in the broad sense of the term “evil” in which it merely denotes the deprivation of a due good.

“I think it useful to inquire into the nature of death; whether it is to be ranked among good or among evil things. Now if death be considered absolutely in itself, without doubt it must be called an evil, because that which is opposed to life we must admit cannot be good.” (Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Life in Christ: The Spiritual Message of the Letter to the Romans)

According to the Church’s teaching concerning God’s original intent for the human person, suffering and death are contrary to God’s plan:

“The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin. Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned is thus the last enemy of man left to be conquered.” (CCC, 1008)

“As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die.” (CCC 376)

God, who is infinite goodness, the enemy of death, and the conqueror of all evil, is entirely in solidarity with humanity concerning both the indignation and horror we experience concerning the prospect of death and its reality:

“Each time, it is a question of Jesus’ encounter with the powers of death, whose ultimate depths he as the Holy One of God can sense in their full horror… Because he is the Son, he sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of … evil that masks itself as life yet constantly serves to destroy, debase, and crush life. Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply all the horror, filth, and baseness that he must drink from the “chalice” prepared for him: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him.” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth)


Question 3: Does God ever intentionally cause human suffering or death (through a natural disaster, for example) as punishment for sin?

Answer: God does not inflict suffering or death as a punishment for sin in any manner whatsoever. As Catholics properly use the term, “punishment” refers only to those painful consequences (whether temporal or eternal) that follow automatically from the very nature of sin itself with no need of any divine retribution administered from the outside. The Church expressly forbids conceiving punishment for sin to be a kind harm inflicted upon sinners by God:

“These two punishments [eternal and temporal (i.e. all forms of punishment)] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (CCC, 1472)

“…this is not punishment in the sense that God has, as it were, drawn up a system of fines and penalties and is wanting to pin one on you. ‘The punishment of God’ is in fact an expression for having missed the right road and then experiencing the consequences that follow from taking the wrong track and wandering away from the right way of living.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World)

“Earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters that strike the innocent and the guilty alike are never punishments from God. To say otherwise would be to offend both God and humanity.” (Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Good Friday Homily, 2011)


Question 4: If God is perfectly opposed to all evil, then why does God not intervene in the world more often to either prevent or at least reduce it?

Answer: Though omnipotent, God has irrevocably set a limit to his own power:

“God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.” (CCC, 1884)

In gratuitous generosity, God has arranged that real power in shaping the world be given to human beings and angels for the sake of imbuing created persons with authentic importance as co-creators. In offering himself totally to creatures, God has given himself away in a most radical manner: All powers and roles of importance that can logically possibly be entrusted to others have, in fact, been given to human beings and angels for the sake of imbuing authentic and irreplaceable importance to each creature made in the image of God:

“We can never give too great prominence to the Scholastic principle that God never does through Himself what may be achieved through created causality… For any result which does not require actually infinite power, God will sooner create a new spiritual being capable of producing that result than produce it Himself.” (Abbot Anscar Vonier, The Human Soul)

There are areas of responsibility that can only be acted upon by God (e.g. the creation of the universe out of nothing, or the governance of the entirety of reality via omniscient providence), and these cannot be given over to creatures due to the limits of logical possibility. Even so, the self-emptying of God is such that many of those actions which can only be accomplished by God himself (such as the forgiveness of sins, or the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) have been entrusted to human beings as intermediaries through the sacramental ministry of the priesthood. According to God’s generosity, if something can possibly be done or mediated by a finite power, God creates a finite creature to do it rather than doing the thing directly. Since this is a true giving, and not merely the appearance of gift, it follows that creatures now have a kind of power in the world that God does not have.

Even though sin and the suffering caused by it is an infinite offense to him, God is (though metaphysically omnipotent) functionally dependent on the actions of creatures obedient to him in order to manifest his will and justice in the world. God is in no way controlling things directly, and if a created person chooses to do evil, then real damage is done.


Question 5: How can human sin cause so much suffering and death in the world?

Answer: In creation, God intended a total communion of love such that each person would be integral to the happiness of all others. There were to be no superfluous persons, and every free action would be maximally important to the happiness of all. In this perfect communion, the exercise of each of the gifts of power given by God was ordained to have a universal effect. That is, in every case, the free actions of any individual would affect every other in a harmonious way for the benefit of all. Such a totally unified communion of persons where each is maximally important to all others is God’s intention for the dignity of every person. However, when the order of the created universe is violated through sin, the gifts of freedom, power and individual importance still retain their universal impact, but now become the means of distribution for disaster and chaos. The world is full of maximally important persons acting in ways that violate the order of creation, and everyone experiences the consequences of the disordered actions of each:

“In this solidarity… the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion.” (CCC, 953)

Small changes in the initial conditions of any interconnected causal system will have large-scale consequences on that system. Consider, for example, the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory, in which an event as seemingly insignificant as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings is known to substantially alter global weather patterns. The same principle applies to human actions: Sinful acts (which are inherently contrary to right relational order) generate a long-range ripple effect of disorder and destruction. Consequently, even nature itself is altered by human sin:

[Due to the original sin]... harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay’. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will ‘return to the ground’, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.” (CCC, 400)


Question 6: If the Church teaches that suffering and death entered the world through the sin of the first pair of human beings, why was there so much suffering and death in nature all the way back to the beginning of life on earth?

Answer: The Church does not give any official teaching on evolution or on the origin of suffering and death in nature prior to the appearance of man. However, there is reason to think that this state of nature being “red in tooth and claw” was also caused by created persons misusing God-given gifts of freedom, power and individual importance.

In accord with that radical self-emptying in which God entrusts to created persons all powers and roles of responsibility that can possibly be handed over, it can be deduced that substantial authority concerning the unfolding of the material order of nature was given to the angels before man arrived on the scene. With power over the material world, the fall of the rebel angels would have registered on creation in serious ways. God’s will is to create harmony and order, but the default of the rebel angels would have caused errors and omissions in the unfolding of this plan:

“Look back over the evolution of the universe. See all of the prehistoric animals that have come into being and passed away. Everywhere in the unfolding of the cosmos there have been biological sprouts that came to dead ends. Everywhere, there are blind alleys. But you ask, ‘Why should the sin of the angels affect the universe? ’Well, one reason might be that lower creation was put under the supervision of some of the angels. And when they rebelled against God, the effects of it in some way registered in the material universe. Nature became dislocated.” (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Original Sin and Angels)


Question 7: If God knew that the gifts of freedom, power, and individual importance would be abused and that this abuse would cause such terrible sufferings, then why did he give these gifts?

Answer: In eternally knowing of the abuse of his maximal self-gift through the sin of created persons, God necessarily either gives all that can be given and does exactly as he would have done as if he did not know that there would be an abuse of the gift, or he holds back his generosity in order to prevent the abuse from happening by giving something less than the total gift which he would have given originally. Necessarily, God either gives fully, as if evil were not a factor, or he gives something less in anticipation of evil.

If God does exactly as he would have done were evil not a consideration at all, then the total gift is given without the least restraint even though he knows it will be abused; God creates exactly those whom he would have created if evil were never to have been a factor, and gives away freedom, power and individual importance fully and without any degree of compromise in response to the threat of evil. However, if God holds back his generosity in anticipation of the evils he knows will follow from the abuse of his undiminished self-gift, then self-withholding in anticipation of evil (rather than uncompromising self-donation) becomes the guiding principle in the order of creation.

Rather than unconditional love and generosity being the principle of divine action, reluctance to love in response to the threat of evil is elevated to the ultimate principle of being. Supplanting the unconditional love of God, the power of evil then takes the helm of the universe. It seems plausible at first glance that God’s goodness would be most exemplified by preventing the abuse of his gifts at the outset, but the deeper reality is that the self-withholding of God that would be necessary to prevent evil is the absolute enthronement of evil.

God may not do evil by diminishing his love towards created persons in order to prevent evil. Therefore, God endures the infinite offense of evil so that evil does not become absolute:

“Oh Eternal Father, how then did you create this creature? I am greatly overwhelmed by this. In fact, as you show, me, I see that you did this for no other reason than that in your light you were forced to give us being by the fire of your charity in spite of all the iniquity we were to commit against you, Oh Eternal Father! It was fire, therefore, that forced you to do so. Oh Ineffable Love, even if in your light you saw all the iniquities your creature was to commit against your infinite goodness, you pretended almost not to see but fixed your eyes on the beauty of your creature whom you, intoxicated with love, loved and through love you drew her to yourself and formed her in your own image and likeness. You, eternal truth, communicated your truth to me, namely, that it was love that forced you to create her…” (St. Catherine of Sienna)


Question 8: Could God not have simply abstained from creating the universe, thereby preventing all evil?

Answer: God did not have to create the universe. The Catechism states:

“We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: ‘For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” (CCC, 295)

God did not have to create, but if he were to have chosen not to create, such a decision must necessarily be based entirely on love alone, and must not be a diminishment of love in response to the threat of evil. In deciding the magnitude of his self-gift to creatures, God allows evil to have no potentially diminishing influence whatsoever; he is fully himself in the face of evil and does not compromise to allow it any negotiating power at all. For God, the threat of evil is simply not considered, and unconditional love is the only principle of action.

Instead of compromising unconditional love, God acts in love alone and creates the world as if evil were not a factor at all. As a consequence of acting in radical fidelity to love, God creates persons with gifts of freedom, power and individual importance in full generosity, without any consideration of whether or not any of them will abuse his gifts by turning to sin.


Question 9: How can it be that there are such great limitations on what God can do in response to the threat of evil if God is truly omnipotent?

Answer: Though omnipotent, God is also perfectly good, and therefore is not morally free to do evil in order to prevent the very evil he opposes. He may never diminish the perfection of love in response to any evil threat:

The omnipotence of God is not an arbitrary power, because God is Good… he cannot act against good, he cannot act against truth, love or freedom, because he himself is good, love, and true freedom; and therefore nothing he does can ever be in contrast with truth, love and freedom.”  (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, July 24, 2009 )

It has been argued throughout history that an omnipotent being would have the power to prevent any and all evils if it so desired; an omniscient being would know of them and know how to prevent them; and a perfectly good being would do all in its power to prevent all evil. Thus, it appears that, if God existed, and were omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, evil would not exist. The reality of evil has, therefore, been used in arguments against the existence of God. Various forms of such arguments have been presented, but the reasoning therein does not consider that the absolute goodness of God entails that God is not morally free to do evil (that is, to diminish the absoluteness of his act of self-donation) in anticipation of or in response to the abuse of his maximal self-gift on the part of created persons.

Because God is not morally free to use evil as the means of preventing evil, God can be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, infinitely offended by human suffering, and yet evil can still exist despite God’s omnipotent opposition to it.


Question 10: We know through the writings of the saints that they understood many of their sufferings as being sent by God. Does this not contradict the idea that God is opposed to suffering and death?

Answer: Though it can appear to be doing so, the language of the saints is never to be understood as denying the perfect opposition between God and evil. For example, St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter as follows:

“Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.” (CCC, 313)

However, this quote is in no way saying that evil is good or that God wills evil. It is not a contradiction of the basic teachings of the Church, but is a statement assuring us of the efficacy of the Redemption, which is the definitive intervention of divine justice against the power of evil.

The language of the saints is never an attribution of evil to the will of God, but is always and only the proclamation of the victory wrought by means of the Redemption. Precisely because God is perfectly opposed to every evil, he has, by means of a decisive intervention into human history, perfectly integrated suffering, death, and even sin into an overarching new order of justice in which everything works together for the good of those who love God.

The words of the saints serve to assure us that we may trust fully in what God has done. Because of the Redemption, the power of evil to permanently harm or diminish us in any way is utterly abolished, and a saint is someone who knows that to the core of their being. When the saints speak as if God and suffering are on the same side, it is because they are living from the standpoint of Christ’s victory in which the power of evil has been entirely taken into God’s hand.

Transformed by grace, the saints are like God: They are free to love unconditionally. In union with Christ, they love with a love that is fully itself despite the threat of evil.