When you say that if there was a truly omnipotent God, he could have prevented suffering, do you mean that God could have made things differently? Sure, that’s what we’re trying to visualize now. But if you mean that he could have made a world that was illogical, I’m going to have trouble following you.

I don’t expect you to actually build this perfect world, but it does seem like you should at least be able to imagine it.

And here’s a factor we haven’t talked about yet: subjectivity. People can respond to the same thing in different ways, and interpret it as suffering or not, depending on the context. A hangnail can be unbearable when you’re trying to sleep, but twelve hours of childbirth is worth it when you hold that new little baby. Losing a pint of blood in a Red Cross clinic is not like losing one in a car accident.

What’s more, different people have different responses to suffering overall. Some make a big fuss over nothing, while others endure terrible things without blame or complaining. Though people can’t control what happens to them, they seem to have some control over their response.

Would you make that part of the human mind stronger, and diminish suffering that way? Actually, a number of religions have made significant breakthroughs in that area.

I’m not mocking your desire to create a world without suffering. If we didn’t grieve at suffering and urgently want to end it, we would be less than human. Your desire to do so springs from a strong, sincere love for humankind. But accomplishing it requires major changes in what humankind is like.

You can prevent interpersonal pain by making people who give and receive the same amount of love, without bias or personal preferences. You can standardize physical appearances, so no one would suffer from feeling inadequate or ugly, and no one could choose to love one person and reject someone else. Personalities would have to be standardized too, for the same reason. Old people would be as attractive as young people, and I guess they might as well continue to look young, since nobody is going to die anyway. You can reorganize the natural world, too, so that it is predictable and never dangerous.

This world you’re creating certainly is beautiful; it’s elegant and serene. It’s also a lot simpler. Nothing there can change, because change would mean a fall from perfect bliss. The people living there are simpler too, untroubled and uniformly beautiful, like marble statues in a quiet garden.

In comparison, the world we’ve got now is just so odd, isn’t it? It’s far more complex than seems strictly necessary. Why make such wildly differing landscapes? Why bother with color? Fish are great, but 20,000 species? The more you think about it, the more eccentric, even comical, our world appears.

If you were designing humans for your perfect world, you probably wouldn’t have them digest food the way we do. When you planned how they reproduce, you’d come up with something more dignified. Flatulence has been making humans laugh since the dawn of time, but it just wouldn’t belong in a perfect world. (Besides, laughter can lead to teasing).

The world we’ve got is far from quiet and unchanging. It changes constantly, vigorously, and yet remains the same, like an ocean, like a forest. God doesn’t sit afar off, watching us “from a distance,” as the dumb song has it. There’s no distance. His life permeates creation, filling every bug and every blade of grass, sustaining every molecule. “‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:24), and Isaiah heard the angels agree, “The world is full of the glory of God” (Isaiah 6:3).

Yet there is, undoubtedly, suffering. Behind every overt experience of suffering, there is a gray-noise static of isolation, even loneliness, and the edgy necessity of self-protection. It is easy to spend most of our lives in the dry attic of the mind, worrying and pondering. We retain a sense that we are cut off from something important, something beautiful, and that is surely the tragedy reigning behind all others.

No one knows why things are this way. (A factor we usually disregard, but one assumed by people in most times and places, is that it’s not just us and God here in the universe. There are spiritual forces that are not benign. You laugh, but it might turn out they’re right. They make up a mighty big vote.)

The God who made such a world, and who continued to love his lost children, would try to call them back into communion with him. He would want them to dwell in innermost security and peace, because then nothing they could face would be perceived as suffering. Even when they were hurt and hated, they would give love in return. But how would he go about reaching them?

This entire Planet Earth project is eccentric, so God’s approach to this problem is likely to be unexpected too. What we would expect is for him to try to make contact by speaking in the hearts of some people in every generation, and giving those prophets a message designed to draw his beloved home. Most religions preserve such books.

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