The notion that God permits atrocity is more bearable than the grim alternative
am n is something that unites all humanity at times. It comes in countless different forms, in grossly unequal doses, and bears no relation to behaviour or virtue, worth or justice. I have been thinking about pain recently, having been subject to what is called a clinical depression of such intensity as to render me prostrate with every kind of agony, not so much physical as metaphysical, the affliction entering every cell of the body and aspect of the mind, so as to turn it into an instrument of exquisite torture of a kind I could never have imagined. Pain is both objective and subjective, all-enveloping yet punctilious in its specific target, always intensifying yet consistent in its thrust. The only mitigating factor is that when it ceases the memory of its precise nature fades swiftly.
At this moment countless millions are in pain of varying intensity all over the world. In the latest hospitals of the West, where the entire pharmacopoeia of the modern drug industry is available and operations of dazzling complexity are now routine, there is still much pain to be endured, from acute discomfort to sheer agony. In mental hospitals for severely psychopathic cases there are degrees of pain endured, permanently, of which we can have no conception, sufferers being forced to hang continually and inarticulately on those 'cliffs of fall' of which Gerard Manley Hopkins, who endured them, gives some inkling in the terrifying sonnets he wrote about his experiences.
As we look round the world as a whole, the dimensions of the pain-mountains — vast, endless, craggy ranges of Himalayan monstrosity — stretch to infinity. Many hospitals are themselves nests of poisonous infections, without the right drugs or equipment, with few fully trained staff; places of horror and hopelessness where only pity is in plentiful supply. Countless men, women and children have no access to hospitals, even of this primitive kind, and endure what providence inflicts on them in stoicism or despair. They are flayed by most of the old scourges, together with new ones such as Aids, and the consequences of the vicious civil and border wars that have become habitual in many parts of the world. New terms for these evils, such as 'ethnic cleansing', have to be coined. The devastation of Bosnia has to be seen to be believed, and behind the ruins lie unending tales of human suffering that go unrecorded and unheard; only the screams of the victims punctuating the deadly silence of crimes for which there is no remedy or redress in this world.
One of the commonest instruments of modern pain is the land-mine, cheaply manufactured and sold by the million to armies and guerrillas all over the world, virtually without control, laid down in vast numbers over huge areas, unrecorded in most cases so that when the so-called 'emergency' is over, they remain for decades, secret but still deadly, to kill the innocent. Children who were not even born when they were laid, at play or simply taking a short cut across fields, have feet or hands blown off by these cruel devices and, if they survive at all, face lives of pain and deprivation. Valiant spirits have campaigned for the removal of these killing fields — sometimes with effect — but the total increases rather than diminishes. And this is only one instance of how the spread of a modern weapon has created a new dimension to the endless, sombre catalogue of the pain which humanity must undergo, now and, as it seems, for ever.
Why must it be so? Is there any ultimate purpose in pain and suffering? In some special cases pain can redeem, can transform a person into someone new and nobler, can produce works of genius in art and music and literature. Most people can learn something from pain. But the overwhelming majority of the pain inflicted on individuals appears, to us at least, pointless and meaningless, incomprehensible and wholly destructive, an unending scream of torment unrolling mindlessly through history. How, they ask, can God permit it? Worse, how can God organise, systematise and inflict it? What possible justification can there be for this huge amount of misery, most of it endured by the innocent?
This touches on the most difficult and so far unsolved problem of theology. All those who write about God agree on divine benevolence. Most accept divine omnipotence too. How to square these qualities with the existence of evil, so often appearing permanently triumphant, and still more with the daily, perpetual systemic infliction of pain on millions of people whose innocence is self-evident or whose petty offences bear no relation to the degree and intensity of punishment by pain? Theologians have long struggled with this argument to which Leibniz, in the early 18th century, gave the name `theodicy': the examination of God's own moral behaviour. But none of them has come up
with a satisfactory answer. The licence God apparently gives to the commission of unpunished evil, and the infliction of pain on the innocent, is undoubtedly the commonest reason why intelligent men and women cease to believe in a deity. The immensity of the pain endured and inflicted, of which they can all quote particular instances, is too much for any fading belief they may once have had in a benevolent despot of the universe. They retreat into the resignation of agnosticism or despair.
One has to struggle, inch by inch, not to join them. I try to do so as follows. Only in the last few decades, when we have built machines that resemble the human brain, have we become aware of the sheer power and complexities of intelligence. And we are now aware too that we are only at the beginning of an endless voyage of discovery into the power of the mind. Our own minds are powerful enough to perceive the possibility of God's existence — even of its necessity — and of the nature of an intelligence inconceivably greater than our own. What we are enlarging, day by day, is essentially a new dimension of our own ignorance. How can we then cut short an argument that may depend on emotional and spiritual complexities of which we cannot possibly be aware and may not even begin to grasp until many centuries of scientific advance have been accomplished? Knowing as yet only a fragment of the facets of existence, in the widest sense, we would indeed be foolish to pronounce judgment on a being whose workings we do not as yet — and may never — understand; or to dismiss Him, in rage and despair, as non-existent.
The alternative to suspending judgment is far more terrifying. It is to conclude that the amount of pain in the world serves no purpose at all; that the existence of the human race, with all its delights and dramas as well as suffering, is a meaningless accident; that life is totally without aim or principle, plan or design or explanation, beginning in pain, ending in pain and followed by senseless annihilation; that no one is in charge, ever has been or ever will be, and that life will continue its motiveless course until another meaningless accident extinguishes the whole. I find this explanation totally unbearable and far more merciless than the vision of a God who permits dreadful things to occur which we cannot understand but which one day we may come to comprehend as the wisdom which passeth all understanding.