No human being can altogether escape suffering in this life. Christians are keenly aware of the reality of suffering, given that Scripture makes no attempt to camouflage it. The Passion of Jesus, the martyrdom of the Apostles, and the daily potential for martyrdom in the early Church made the Church Fathers self-conscious about the fact of suffering. One Church Father, the Greek Patristic St. Irenaeus (130-200), meditated on suffering in his book Against the Heresies (Adversus Haeresus). He recognized that every Christian had to seek God’s help to cope with suffering. But he also recognized that suffering was a subject for theologians. In fact, suffering became the subject of a special area of study called Theodicy, sometimes called the Problem of Pain, or, more commonly, the Problem of Evil. Theodicy is the attempt to answer those who reject the existence of the Christian God on grounds that his creatures suffer in this world. Greek and Roman intellectuals beleaguered St. Paul, and other early Christians, with this challenge: How could an all-powerful and all-good God create a world with so much suffering? If God is all good, wouldn’t he want the best for his creatures? If he is all-powerful, couldn’t he do something about it? St. Irenaeus realized that this is not a dilemma that a thoughtful Christian should sweep under the rug. Accordingly, he confronted the problem boldly and answered it in a way that has influenced Christian apologists across the centuries–Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and C.S. Lewis among them.
St. Irenaeus’s solution is to declare that the above dilemma is a pseudo-dilemma, not the real deal. If it were a genuine dilemma, the Christian could not find a way to escape it. But Irenaeus observes that it can be readily overcome. The dilemma fails because it ignores the possibility that God has a reason to permit suffering. This reason is nothing less than personal freedom. Because God values our freedom, he allows us to suffer.. God does not cause suffering, but he foresees and permits it. God must value our freedom because he wants us to relate to him; he wants us to be his friend. Friendship is only genuine if the friends volunteer to be in the relationship. Hence, freedom is central to the whole project that God has for us as his special creation. God desires for us the deepest kind of relationship possible: a relationship between persons. Personhood (being a rational mind with free will) is the most significant thing in the universe. God is a person, indeed a community of Triune Persons. And we humans are made in his image and likeness. Freedom goes with personhood, and because we are persons, it is possible for us to have eternal friendship with the Person of God.
Irenaeus’s answer to the problem of suffering is tied into the mystery of freedom. Free persons choose to be the kinds of persons they desire to be. If they are free, they can choose for good or ill; they can choose to be God’s friend or his enemy. But not even God can prevent this arrangement, except not to create them as persons in the first place. The potential to glorify the gift of choice or to abuse it goes with the territory. Hence, as soon as God creates persons, a potential for moral evil is let loose in the world: free persons might cause others to suffer. Furthermore, if God wants to know who his friends are, he must put them in a world in which they can demonstrate their moral quality. This means humans must occupy a world like this one, a world in which there is the potential for adversity. For this reason, God placed humans in a world with a fixed environment, run according to natural laws, so humans could have a stable milieu within which to operate as moral agents. God even calls them to make the world better. But how can you make the world better if you’re not in a world in the first place? Without asking human persons to meet challenges, how could God determine who his friends are? This is a point C.S. Lewis has made astutely in his classic The Problem of Pain, which is an echo for English readers of the Irenaean Theodicy.
The Christian ought not to be in denial about suffering. Pain hurts. Theodicy, however, can fortify us with a perspective: to indicate that God so values our friendship with him that he has created a world in which he allows suffering.