The Problem of Pain: Why Was God AWOL During the Holocaust?

“Pain is the only evil I know,” says the worldly Doctor Core to the priest in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is Freud’s reductionistic philosophy. The whole problem of life is reduced to the conflict between “the pleasure principle” and “the reality principle,” and the summum bonum is reduced to the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of suffering.

This is also the typically modern attitude to suffering. One could fairly well definemodernity, from a spiritual point of view, in these terms. Modernity is usually defined by the dominance of science, yet the operative reason for the dominance of science is not the pursuit of truth but, as Francis Bacon put it, the pursuit of the “knowledge for power.” Not science as such but technology, the son of science, is modernity’s hoped-for savior from the hell of suffering to the hope of a pain-free heaven on earth through physical, medical, and social engineering.

Who wants to attack technology, especially medical technology? In fact, when a friend once asked me what I thought were the three greatest inventions in history, I spontaneously answered: baseball, the symphony orchestra, and anesthetics. (Freud would like that answer: it exemplifies his three methods of coping with suffering: “deflections,” “substitutive satisfactions,” and chemicals.)

No, I want to question not science but Religion—or rather, a religion, the quintessentially American religion of “the pursuit of happiness.” We Americans often feel a knee-jerk sort of dreamy religiosity whenever we hear those “sacred” words. Yet Malcolm Muggeridge calls them some of the silliest words ever said. C.S. Lewis blasphemed against them almost with his dying breath: the last thing he ever wrote was an article entitled, “We Have No Right to Happiness.”

The simplest proof of the stupidity of the idea is that it hasn’t worked. The twentieth century—the century we just defined as worshipping salvation from suffering—can also be fairly defined as the century of the greatest sufferings.

Take the most spectacular example first. Thousands of years from now, when children study their history books, what do you think they will remember most about the twentieth century? I think it will be remembered as the century of genocide. So far, well over 100,000,000 Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, Chinese, Cubans, Cambodians, and other undesirable “classes” of people have been systematically murdered for ideological reasons. (Of course, the ideologists always first redefine it as something other than murder; language is also among the things our century has murdered.) The currently popular class of people marked for approved genocide is, of course, the unborn.

For another thing, a third of the world still goes to bed hungry, despite enormous technological advances in food production and distribution. The gap between the rich and the poor is not narrowing, but increasing—both between rich nations and poor nations and between the rich and the poor in our own nation.

If the Second (socialist) World is largely responsible for the totalitarian genocidal form of suffering, and the Third World is largely the victim of the poverty-and-starvation form of suffering, our own First World has invented its own new and subtle form of suffering: that of a meaningless and boring life. Physical suffering has been radically minimized: when was the last time you felt the equivalent of a sword piercing your flesh? Yet this was a common enough experience in most past societies. Just think for two minutes about living in a world without anesthetics! Yet the increase in new, spiritual sufferings has at least equaled the decrease in the old, physical pains. Depression, stress, and mental illness are rising. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” says the poet—but not the ancient poet. The very word “boredom” does not exist in any pre-modern language. Of course people got tired of chopping wood for ten hours, but they never got bored with life itself. If they had, they would have invented a word for it.

And the inner emptiness or the inner war always becomes an outer emptiness and an outer war, with skyrocketing rates of suicide, divorce (which is the suicide of a marriage), rape, child abuse, crime, drugs, and abortion. Five things that have been all but abolished from our world are: innocence, silence, leisure, simplicity, and peace.

At the beginning of this century, some liberal, optimistic Christians founded a magazine with a title they deemed prophetic: The Christian Century. Moses’ practical advice on how to tell true prophets from false is perfectly applicable here: just wait and see if the prophecies come true. The prosecution rests. The problem of suffering has-not been solved. It is as fresh and insistent as ever.

An Eternal Question

Suffering is one of “the permanent things,” as Russell Kirk calls them; one of those things that are timely because they are timeless. I shall take a two-fold foray into this old jungle. First, I shall run through the classic answer to the problem of suffering that the Christian philosophical tradition has offered: a composite answer with elements from the Bible, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and others. Nothing in it should be unfamiliar to readers educated in the Christian tradition. (Unfortunately, since we can no longer assume that intelligent, educated Christians have been educated in intelligent Christianity, you may regard this summary as a kind of checklist, or useful review.)

Second, I shall look at a very popular current alternative to this answer, namely the answer given by “process theology,” especially Rabbi Harold Kushner’s version of it in his recent best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The habit of looking for truths hidden inside errors—a habit Aquinas excelled in—is unfortunately rather rare today on both sides of the ideological and theological spectrum, and I should like to try to practice some of it. For I think we can find a very valid and very needed kernel of truth at the heart of this old notion of a growing God; an edible nut within this wrinkled old nutshell.

We must first distinguish the theoretical problem from the practical problem. The first is the problem of understanding suffering, especially understanding how it is logically compatible with an all-loving and all-powerful God. This is a problem for philosophy and theology. The second problem is a pastoral, personal, psychological problem: helping people cope with suffering, helping them to suffer well. This is a far harder, higher, and holier task, and I am not fit to address it—to disseminate sanctity, to encourage courage, to build up faith and hope and charity, which are the real “solutions” to suffering. I only address here the “little” problem of understanding how a good God can let His world get so bad and His people get so hurt.

We must also distinguish three different versions of the theoretical problem: (1) the claim that any suffering is incompatible with belief in God; (2) the claim that the amount of suffering we have is incompatible with belief in God; and (3) the claim that the apparently unjust, random, and useless distribution of suffering is incompatible with belief in God. Obviously the third claim is the hardest to answer.

The simplest statement of the problem is Augustine’s: If God were all-good, He would want His creatures to be happy, and if He were all-powerful, He would attain all that He wants. But His creatures are not happy. Therefore God is either not all-good or not all-powerful, or both.

There are only three ways to answer any argument: to find a logical fallacy, a false premise, or an ambiguous term. There is no formal logical fallacy in the argument, and all the premises seem to be true. So the only way to answer the argument is by showing ambiguities. That is exactly what the classic answer does. In fact, it shows at least ten of them, by making ten critical distinctions.

This is the least insulting way to answer an opponent, for it implies that the opponent is half right, or at least sees something true; while the other two ways of answering an argument are really quite insulting and leave no room for conciliation. For a false premise indicates ignorance and a logical fallacy indicates stupidity. About 99 percent of St. Thomas Aquinas’s answers to objections in the Summa take the form of making distinctions to clear up ambiguities.

Moral Distinctions

A first distinction we must make is between what Gabriel Marcel calls problems and mysteries. Suffering is a mystery, but it is often (mis)treated as a problem.

A mystery is a problem that we cannot solve because we are it, we are involved in it, the problem is in the very self that is trying to solve it. Examples of mysteries are: love, sex, death, the union of body and soul, the nature of the self, faith, and hope. Examples of problems are: balancing your checkbook, calculating the number of atoms in the sun, getting a man on the moon, and organizing a business. The scientific method is appropriate and successful for problems because problems can be objectified, repeated, and universalized. Therefore we can expect eventual agreement on their solution.

Not so with mysteries. Science deals with problems; philosophy (in the traditional sense), like religion, deals with mysteries. The “problem” of suffering will never be solved because suffering is a mystery, not a problem. Sometimes the only adequate “solution” to suffering is to suffer it. That’s how God solved it, on Calvary.

A second distinction is between God’s reasons and our reasons. What seems reasonable to us may not be so to God, and what is reasonable to God may not seem so to us. Retaliation and theocracy are examples of the former; martyrdom and ostriches are examples of the latter.

Miraculous interventions such as a lightening bolt to Hitler’s frontal lobe in 1931 seem to us a far more reasonable providential design than God going AWOL during the Holocaust. But the obvious main point and lesson of the Book of Job, the world’s greatest classic on the mystery of suffering, is that we don’t know a hill of beans when it comes to God’s plans. Where were we when He laid the foundations of the earth, anyway? Should we really expect Hamlet to understand what Shakespeare is up to?

A third distinction is between suffering and evil, or between physical evil and spiritual evil. A mugging is a physical evil to the victim but a spiritual evil to the mugger. Suffering is evil, but it is not the worst evil, and it may be a useful or even a necessary means to the greatest good. Unless we suffer, how can we be artists, adventurers, saints, sages, or Red Sox fans?

A fourth distinction is between suffering and injustice. Not all suffering is morally bad, or unjust. The problem of suffering in general can be answered simply by noting the kind of creatures we are: bodies with nerve endings all over. The real problem is not why fire hurts but why it hurt Joan of Arc. After all, it didn’t hurt Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzer’s fiery furnace. It is the apparently irrational and immoral, unjust distribution of suffering, not suffering itself, that bites deepest and counts most against God.

A fifth distinction that helps to solve this problem is between subjective and objective happiness. Augustine’s formulation of the problem complained that God’s creatures are not happy. Well, Job on his dung heap is not subjectively happy, not feeling happy, but he may be objectively happy, or blessed. A tyrant or a lecher may be feeling quite happy, but in fact his self, as distinct from his nerve endings, is wretched, sick, and miserable. Jesus implied that distinction when He said, “Blessed are those who mourn,” i.e., objectively happy are you who are subjectively unhappy. A God of love would want to make His creatures objectively happy, really happy, but that might require subjective unhappiness, or suffering.

A sixth distinction we need to apply to Augustine’s formulation of the problem concerns God’s omnipotence. If God’s power extends only to the physically possible, He cannot perform miracles and is the weak, naturalistic God of process theology. If God’s power extends to the logically possible, then He can perform miracles but not contradictions. And it seems to be a contradiction to create a race of free-willed beings yet guarantee that they never choose evil and bring consequent suffering into their world.

Finally, if God’s power extends even to the logically impossible, as Calvin and Ockham and Descartes maintain, then He can both maintain our free will and prevent us from ever misusing it and bringing any kind of evil upon ourselves. In that case there seems to be no answer at all to the problem of evil: why would God prefer an evil world to a good one? The middle position is the classical Christian answer, between the extremes of process theology and Calvinism.

A seventh distinction is between two meanings of the word “exists.” Evil exists, but not as a substance, entity, thing, or being; it is the absence of a good. God does not create it or do it; all things and events are ontologically good, objectively good, though some are painful to us. But the very stroke of the sword that chops off the head of the victim must be a good stroke. Ens est bonum, all being is good. But not all choices are good, and the consequences of bad choices are bad experiences, sufferings.

A further distinction between two meanings of “exists” is between present and future existence. The simplest solution to the problem of evil is Augustine’s: “God would not allow any evil in any of His works unless His wisdom and power were such that He will bring a greater good to pass in the end from it.” Life is a story, and we’re only at the part where the hero is being tortured, not yet at the part where they all live happily ever after.

An eighth distinction is between God doing evil and God permitting evil. Bereaved parents ask, “Why did God take my child?” God did not take your child. Death took your child. But God took death. God allowed it, because God will conquer death and get your child back in the end, and so will you.

God’s Alternatives

There are three ways God permits evil: (1) by creating a nature and an animal body that can experience pain; (2) by creating free will and allowing us free choice; (3) by not miraculously destroying all evil once it exists. The alternatives to evil, thus, are (1) not creating a universe with living creatures with bodies in it; (2) creating robots rather than free men and women; and (3) interfering a million times a second all over the world to prevent even an evil thought or intention from arising in anyone’s mind by miraculous little zappings of particles of the Beatific Vision slamming into our brains. If we look deeply enough, I think we can readily see that these possibilities would not really be better than the one with Eden, Babel, Calvary, Auschwitz, and the New Jerusalem at the end of the story.

A ninth distinction is between two meanings of “goodness” as applied to God. A God who allows any suffering at all is not good if good means simply kind, for kindness always wants to end suffering. But a God who allows suffering for the greater good of the sufferer, like Job, is good in a deeper, wiser sense than mere kindness. Scripture never pictures God as a grandfather, only as a father. Grandfathers are kind, while fathers are demanding, not because they love less but because they love more. Friends are kind, lovers are demanding, for the same reason. Scripture never pictures God as friend, but as lover, as husband.

God is “a jealous God”—He has hands. He does not merely “value” us for our “personalities” but will not rest until He has brought us to perfection: “You must be perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Most unfashionable!

Finally, a tenth distinction is between two aspects of suffering. First, there is the objective, physical fact (e.g., that the needle is piercing the nerves near the tooth) and second, the subjective, mental reaction to it. Pain is psychosomatic, not just psychic (ghosts and angels feel no pain) or just somatic (corpses feel no pain). Anesthetics short-circuit pain in its physical half, yoga in its mental half.

So does sanctity. Saints want to suffer for God. Though their sufferings are the same physically, they are not the same mentally because the word spoken by the soul to the physical suffering is not No but Yes. Of all the features in sanctity, this is the one that the modern mind finds most incomprehensible and confuses with masochism or mental illness. We should not be surprised at the popularity of this horrendous confusion between the highest and lowest possible states of soul. For when one’s god is maligned, one does not think detachedly and rationally, and saints suffering willingly for love are precisely that: a slap in the face to modernity’s god. (That, incidentally, is why abortionists fear Joan Andrews. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”)

To combine the ten distinctions: the mystery (not problem) of the apparently unjust distribution of suffering (not its mere existence) is understood (but only imperfectly and in general, because we do not have God’s point of view) by noting that a God able to do all that is possible (but not what is intrinsically impossible and simply meaningless) and totally loving (but not merely kind) tolerates (not creates) suffering (physical evil) and sin (moral evil), for the sake of the greater, long-range (but not immediate) objective happiness (but not subjective happiness) of His creatures—if they cooperate with His plan and do not rebel against it by adding their own subjective No to the objective suffering He allows for them. In short, “all things [even sufferings] work together for good for those who love God.” It is not possible to prove this, but it is possible to believe it, and it is not possible to disprove it.

But even all this is not enough. This may satisfy the head, but not the heart. Apologetics is for the whole person, not just the reason (though apologetics may not soften or compromise reason). De jure, in essence, in theory, “man is a rational animal,” but de facto, in existence, in fact, man is not a man but a child. There are no grown ups. We are all willful, to some extent; no one’s reason is unmoved by his will, passions, fears, and sufferings. Freud is not wholly wrong: much (but not all) of our reasoning is rationalizing. How is apologetics to address our soft underside in dealing with the problem of suffering?

Savior, Not Philosopher

Fortunately, God went ahead of us and did just that already. Instead of sending a philosopher He sent a Savior. Instead of Socrates or Buddha, Jesus. Instead of rising above suffering, he stepped into its awful heart. And He, the Way, is our way. Christians are not Stoics. Christians weep, for their Lord wept. God Himself must have felt that a merely spiritual, merely mental solution to the problem of suffering was incomplete for us embodied and temporal creatures.

There is a parallel in Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu—a book I believe has been unfairly maligned by conservatives. At the beginning of this book Teilhard speaks of the problem of the sanctification of ordinary, daily human action as the critical practical problem of our day for most Christians. The traditional solution is to do whatever we do with a good and holy intention. “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is profound, necessary, and basic, but incomplete, says Teilhard, for “though it pours a priceless soul into our actions, it does not confer hope of resurrection upon their bodies. Yet this is what we need if our joy is to be full.” Not only the operatio but also the opus, not only the exercise of working but also the material work itself, must have eternal value. Christ sanctified and saved not only souls but also bodies; not only minds but also matter. Christ is cosmic.

Teilhard’s “new” solution is really as old as the Fathers of the Church, who knew “the cosmic Christ” very well, for they read of Him in the Prologue to John’s Gospel, Romans 8, and Colossians.

There is a parallel in process theology. A religion of eternity alone is incomplete. Christianity is a religion of time and history and story and drama, not just of abstract, timeless truths and principles. This is quite true; the Bible is essentially a book of stories, of events: God creates, man falls, God redeems by sending prophets to His chosen people, sending His Son to die and rise, and sending His Spirit to be the soul of His Church. It is the most dramatic story ever told. It is a war story, the story (as C.S. Lewis puts it) of how the rightful king has landed in enemy-occupied territory and is now commanding a guerrilla operation. To be a Christian is to be a spy.

Everything affirmed by process theology is true. Only what is denied is false: that the God who works in time can also exist wholly outside time, that the God who is imminent in time by His free choice is transcendent and eternal by His own essential nature. We could hardly expect the process theologian to swallow the incredible paradox of the eternal divine life that has no beginning getting a beginning (in Bethlehem, and in us in Baptism)—at least not if the process theologian didn’t call himself a Christian.

But Christianity has swallowed this mystery millennia ago, and digested and defined it. The old, abstract “bad Scholasticism” that process theology reacts against was a kind of cosmic Docetism, but process theology is a kind of cosmic Arianism. Christian orthodoxy denies neither the divine (and eternal) nor the human (and temporal) nature of Christ—or of the Father’s activity. That activity originates in eternity but it reaches down to touch and change time. The First Cause, uncaused and unchanged Himself, causes and changes all things. Like God’s finger touching Adam’s finger in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling, God’s eternity touches all our present moments.

What does this have to do with the problem of suffering? It gives us a God who is here beside us in the trenches. Orthodox Christians are still far too shy of affirming this divine presence and intimacy, probably out of fear of the ever-popular heresies of pantheism and naturalism. Nearly every one of hundreds of student papers about deaths they have experienced that I have read in my Death and Dying classes have expressed anger that God could “take away” their friends, parents, or grandparents. They picture God in Heaven fishing for souls with a hook of death, or God operating a “Star Trek” kind of transporter beam from a heavenly spaceship: “Beam them up, Scotty.” They are resentful at God for being aloof and untouched by their suffering.

They forget that we know God adequately only through Christ, and Christ’s attitude toward suffering is just the opposite of aloof and untouched. It is simply and perfectly expressed in the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35. At Lazarus’ tomb, “Jesus wept.” “Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!” They got the point immediately; why is it so hard for us?

There are two doctrines in classical Christian theology that already contain all the truth in process theology: one concerning the Son and one concerning the Father. The first is, or course, the Incarnation. By the Incarnation, God the Son becomes something even more than a process theologian: a process theos (God). And He “solves” the “problem” of suffering—by suffering it. But what about the Father?

The deepest root of process theology, I think, is the desire to give God the Father emotions and passions so that He can love and care. This is why God is put into time and process. The only way most people can conceive of love is as an emotion, a passion, a process in time. So for them it’s either give up on God’s love or give up on God’s eternity. But if they give up on God’s love, they give up on the only satisfying, livable, endurable answer to the problem of suffering.

If push comes to shove and one of these two things has to be sacrificed, then of course it is better to sacrifice God’s eternity rather than God’s love. But it is not necessary to sacrifice either if only we distinguish love from falling in love, love as will from love as emotion, agape from eros, love’s action from love’s passion. God does not fall in love because He is love, as the sea does not get wet because it is wet. He does not becomeloving because He is loving—totally, infinitely loving.

God’s love is agape, not need and desire. Because it is purely active, it need not be in time, in process. Only things that are passive, potential, pushed around—only such things are in time. To say the God of love is eternal is not to say He is a glacier but an infinite, burning sea of volcanic love. Classical theology’s removal of God from time does exactly the opposite from what process theology accuses it of doing: it makes God more loving, not less, for it makes His love totally active, not reactive.

Denying God emotions does not lessen His love. It is emotions that lessen, or dilute the infinite divine love into a finite, temporal container. Emotions are necessary and proper and good for us, of course, but not for God—just as learning through sense experience is necessary and proper and good for us but not for God. The God of process theology is far too anthropomorphic—exactly the charge thrown at traditional theology by modernists!

Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People presents an attractive alternative to the aloof, uncaring God of fatalism. His attacks on fatalism and the theology of mere omnipotence, where everything is simply “God’s will,” are the good-tasting bait in the first chapter that sweetens the hook of the others. His finite but loving God can at least still be loved, unlike the infinite but unloving God of fatalism. The God of process theology cares, He loves, He is with us as we suffer.

But so is the God of traditional theology—and not at the expense of His eternity. In fact, precisely because He is eternal, He is the eternal contemporary of all events. Precisely because, unlike us, God has no past or future, therefore He is present to us now, present to our suffering.

People ask, Where was God in the Holocaust? We are tempted to reply, as some did recently: He was nowhere to be found. It is true that God cannot be found in the doingof evil, let alone evil of those dimensions. But He can be found in the suffering of evil. The truth is that God was there. I think He was with His chosen people in the gas ovens. “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”

The arms of the Cross are big enough to touch all times and places. Christ died for the sins of all men. He suffered with and on behalf of all. The Father’s love was present there, too, as His spirit brooded over our bent world with ah! bright wings.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

The Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture is a project of The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

Phone: (603) 880-8308
Fax: (603) 880-9280
Contact via email

Copyright © 2024 Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. All rights reserved.