Acclaimed author Rupert Shortt introduces ‘The Hardest Problem’


How can a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God permit evil and suffering on a grand scale? One vital reply found in various faiths runs as follows. Granting the incompleteness of an argument should not be seen as implying that it lacks worth. If we bring a model derived from a computer program or the natural sciences to the problem of pain, we will end up in trouble. If on the other hand thoughtful believers say that they have certain core beliefs, and an intimation of how they might hang together – or certain tools that seem productive in what will probably be an abiding quest – then perhaps this path will be far more appropriate to the matter in hand. 

Does the landscape perhaps look a little different in this light? Only the chronically insensitive – namely those wedded to an arithmetical model of doing things – suppose that horrors including the slave trade, the caste system and the gulag can ever be retrospectively vindicated in a straightforward way. The same applies to the death from dysentery of a baby in Africa today. Pain is not ‘God’s megaphone to the world’, in the notorious expression – later taken back – of C.S. Lewis. Once more, there is a limit in principle to what can be achieved by rationalistic discourse. The ground on which the argument develops will be moral and practical to a high degree. It can never be circumvented by logic alone. Ask reflective Jews, Christians or Muslims how to square the circle, and they are likely to insist that the resources of faith do not provide a demonstrative solution to questions about the volume of suffering in the world, but rather a resolve never to abandon the way of love. 

They may also say that there remains a place for muscular philosophical thinking in appropriate contexts side by side with other approaches. To start with, it is essential to know what the three Abrahamic faiths say about God’s standing vis-à-vis the world. Classical theism does not picture God as a director – still less an engineer or watchmaker (as deists and some Christians influenced by deism hold) – who wound up a spring and retreated to let creation take care of itself. Adjusting the analogy, God is not another powerful piece on the chessboard or a character in our drama, but more like an author in relation to his or her characters, namely on a different plane altogether. 

That means creation is held to be going on here and now: not in the sense that the world requires constant tinkering from on high (material reality has its own coherence described by the laws of physics), but because God holds everything in being moment by moment at a deeper level. Among the implications of these tenets are that God is therefore not observing us from a distance ruminating on whether or not to get closer. Divine involvement in creation is already deeper and more intimate than we can imagine. While activated by God, however, the world is different from him – hence our free will – and what is not God will by definition be subject to imperfection, decay, collision, conflict. Viewing their respective doctrines in the round, believers can infer that God’s role is neither to cause tragedy nor to resolve it by our own canons of resolution. His relation to strife lies instead in the resources he offers for transfiguring it and taking it forward.

Though brief and pitched at the general reader, The Hardest Problem includes reflection on prayer, miracle – and the coherence of belief in God as such. One of the most impressive messages I received as my researches developed came from a priest caring fulltime for his wife, who lives with a severe disability. Knowing that he had previously served as a school chaplain, I asked how he handled students’ questions about whether God responds to petitions for help. Many people plainly seek divine intervention on all sorts of levels – from sending rain for crops to aiding the chronically sick. 

‘My response was twofold,’ he replied. ‘Firstly that I would prefer the kind of prayer that offers up worries about the drought to the kind that asks God to turn on the tap. There’s a scriptural warrant for that kind of prayer (see 1 Peter 5:7) and as a spiritual director I encourage such explicitness partly because it helps to externalise the concern or worry. Secondly I made the obvious but important point that what might help a drought-stricken farmer might be a disaster for the householders down the valley whose homes could be flooded if his prayer were answered. My grandmother’s reproof of selfishness – “You’re not the only pebble on the beach” – also got quoted. I don’t expect the universe to be run for my personal benefit or convenience. I believe in God, not in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. As regards the issue that most faces me personally with questions regarding theodicy – [my wife’s] neurodegenerative condition – my prayer is not for a healing miracle but for the spiritual resources we both need to deal with it. Thus far, I find those prayers are answered.’


Rupert Shortt is a research associate at the University of Cambridge and was religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement from 2000 to 2020. The Hardest Problem: God, Evil and Suffering is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99).