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Intelligent Design and the Problem of Pain

Photo: Melissa Wehmann Sewell (1953-1991) with Chris, by Granville Sewell.

It is often claimed that the design inference is a religious conclusion. It is not. It is an obvious scientific conclusion which is easy to draw from the evidence all around us, especially in the living world.

It is the refusal to draw the obvious conclusion of design that is based primarily on philosophical and religious objections. But some of these are pretty powerful objections. Given that we have been so successful in solving other scientific mysteries without explicitly invoking design, why should we not eventually solve the most difficult of all and explain the origin and evolution of life without design? I attempted to address this question in a video, “Why Evolution Is Different.

Understanding Atheists

But much more difficult is the question of why, if we were purposefully designed, there is so much suffering in our world. A related question is, why is our designer so “silent”? I would argue that it is difficult to imagine a world which exhibits design in a more spectacular way. Yet we can all still understand why atheists like Jerry Coyne ask, Why doesn’t God sit down for an interview and remove all doubt?

Since I believe the most powerful objections to design are religious and philosophical, not scientific, I felt my 2015 Discovery Institute Press book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design would not be complete without some attempt to address these very difficult objections. So I wrote an essay “Is God Really Good?” and included it as an “Epilogue” to clearly separate it from the scientific chapters. It primarily attempts to deal with the problem of pain, but also indirectly addresses, at the end, the “silence” of God. I am revisiting the subject now in a series of posts.

Is God Really Good?

Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the question which Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his highly acclaimed 1981 book by that name called “the only question which really matters” to his congregation. It is a question which has been asked by philosophers and ordinary human beings throughout the ages; if not the most-asked question, certainly the most passionately asked. It was certainly the first question that occurred to me in 1987 when I was told that my beloved wife, Melissa, 34 years old and the mother of our two small children (Chris and Kevin), had cancer of the nose and sinuses, and in 1990 when we discovered that the cancer had recurred. The suffering she bravely endured during those years was beyond description, from the aggressive chemotherapy treatments, each of which required hospitalization for severe nausea and other side effects, from the radiation therapy, and from three major surgeries. 

Before the last surgery, during which they would remove her left eye and half of her teeth, she said, Well, many people would be happy to have one eye. The cancer recurred two months after this surgery and I was terribly depressed for many years after her death. Since I am a pretty logical person, it never occurred to me to ask “Does God really exist?” but I certainly wondered, “Is God really good?” 

No Shortage of Scientific Evidence 

I think most people who claim not to believe in God say this not because of any shortage of evidence for design in Nature, but because it is sometimes so hard to see evidence that God cares about us, and they prefer not to believe in God at all than to believe in a God who doesn’t care. 

Of course, Christians point to the life and death of Jesus as the ultimate proof that God does care about us, because He came to live and suffer with us. Jesus asked the same question we have all asked at some time in our lives: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But while it is comforting to think that, despite all evidence to the contrary, God really does care about us, that still does not explain why the world God made is sometimes so cruel.

A wonderful little article in UpReach by Batsell Barrett Baxter, entitled “Is God Really Good?”, contains some insights into the “problem of pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it, which I have found very useful. I will follow Baxter’s outline in presenting my own thoughts on this question, and I would like to begin with his conclusion: “As I have faced the tragedy of evil in our world and have tried to analyze its origin, I have come to the conclusion that it was an inevitable accompaniment of our greatest blessings and benefits.” In his outline, Baxter lists some examples of blessings which have, as inevitable consequences, unhappy side effects. None of these points is likely to make suffering in its severest forms any easier to accept, and we may be left wondering whether these blessings are really worth the high cost. But I believe they do at least point us in the right direction.

Next, “Intelligent Design and the Regularity of Natural Law.”

This series is adapted from Dr. Sewell’s book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design.