On their official website*, Jehovah Witnesses state that the problem of evil and suffering raises the following questions for believers:
- If there is a God, why does God permit suffering to occur in the world?
- How can we justify the existence of God in light of war, cruelty, crime, poverty, sickness and death?
- If there is a God, does God really care about us?
- Why would a supposedly good God allow suffering to even occur?
Jehovah Witnesses acknowledge the reality of suffering (and evil) in the world, however they also believe that God never intended things to be the way they currently are. In fact, they believe that sometime in the future the world will be set free from suffering, and that (once again) it will be a place of perfection (or Paradise). They also believe the foundations for this future scenario are being set in place by God and those who work on behalf of God in the world (i.e. Jehovah Witnesses).
Of course, believing that this world is not perfect and that in the future God will renew all things begs the following question:
"If God's purpose was to establish an earthly paradise free from suffering, why did [God] permit bad things to happen in the first place? Why did [God] wait six thousand years until now to correct what is wrong? Might all those centuries of suffering indicate that God does not really care about us, or even that he does not exist?" (An earth free from suffering, www.watchtower.org [Brackets mine])**
The Jehovah Witnesses response to the problem of evil and suffering is largely concerned with the matter of why God didn’t wipe the slate clean and start again when things began to go wrong.
"God is a God of freedom... [God] knew that we would be happiest with freedom." (The wonderful gift of freewill, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
For a Jehovah Witness, understanding why suffering occurs (and has been allowed to occur) begins with the issue of free will. They believe that freewill is a 'wonderful gift' and that we were given it because God never wanted us to be moral robots. In fact having free will is said to be a fundamental part of our being created in the 'image and likeness' of God (Genesis 1:26). This means we have been given a real choice to live as we want.
However, the freedom God gave us was never intended to give us the right to choose to do anything, something Jehovah Witnesses believe would lead to social anarchy, but simply the freedom to choose to live as God desires us to, or not.
- Total freedom: Freedom to do anything
- Relative freedom: Freedom to act as God has decreed
Choosing to live as God has decreed may seem limited and limiting for some, and may even imply that we have little or no choice at all, but for a Jehovah Witness choosing to live as God has decreed is the only way they believe we can ever be truly happy:
"We were created to be happiest when subject to God's laws for human behaviour. It is similar to being subject to God's physical laws. For instance, if we ignore the law of gravity and jump off a high place, we will be injured or killed." (The wonderful gift of freewill, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
So God has created humanity in such as way that we will only be truly happy when we subject ourselves to God's laws. In other words, humans were never intended to find happiness and success independently of God, or outside of God's Will.
The misuse of free will
Taking the events of Genesis 3 literally, Jehovah Witnesses believe that suffering has occurred in the world due to the sin of Adam and Eve (what is also known as The Fall). Basically, this is the idea that God gave Adam and Eve the choice to live as God commanded them. Although they were told that there would be dire consequences for disobedience (E.g. 'you will surely die' - Genesis 2:17), Adam and Eve are said to have chosen to disobey God. In other words, they took the view that they
knew best, rather than God.
"History has shown the correctness of God's warning to Adam and Eve." (What has been the result of rebellion, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
This view of the origin of evil and suffering resonates with the FREEWILL DEFENSE set out by St. Augustine of Hippo. However, whereas the classic Augustinian freewill defence largely concentrates on the matter of disobedience (and the problems resulting from this), Jehovah Witnesses hone in on the idea that in choosing to disobey God, God's authority has been challenged by Adam and Eve and this is something God must now address.
Learning to be obedient to God
God wants humanity to be obedient, because God knows it is better for them. Of course, humanity has chosen to disobey God and as such God is now faced with the task of trying to get people to see the error of their ways. To do this Jehovah Witnesses believe God is giving us the opportunity to learn why it is futile to try and find happiness apart from God. Just as God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose, so God gives us the freedom, the time and the space to make our own choices. Of course, the consequences of this is that God must also allow us to make mistakes, and also allow the world to be a place where genuine (real) evil and suffering occur due to our mistakes; all so that we might learn to subject ourselves to God's rule once again (pre-Fall).
"Have humans proved to be better rulers than God? If we judge by the record of man's inhumanity to man, surely not... God's permission of human rule for six thousand years forcefully illustrates that man is unable to stop suffering... Worse yet, history has shown that humans independent of God's rule have increased suffering instead of eliminating it." (What has been the result of rebellion, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
This second aspect of the Jehovah Witnesses response to the problem of evil and suffering echoes the IRENAEAN THEODICY as presented by John Hick. In short, this is the idea that God allows the world to be a place where real evil and suffering occurs, in order that we might learn and progress as moral and spiritual beings.
God's long term plan
It is God's intention that humans come to an understanding that they cannot live happy and successful lives apart from God. However, as God created humans with freewill, this means God cannot force humans to make this decision. In order to respect our freedom God must give us time (in many cases, lots of time), to come to realise that we cannot do better than God:
"God's permission of suffering has been painful for us. But [God] has taken a long-range view, knowing the good results that will come in the long run." (What has been the result of rebellion, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
This also means that once humanity has 'learnt its lesson', that there will be no excuse for any rebellion in the future. Were the situation to occur that God's way of doing things was called into question once again, it would not be necessary for thousands of years of suffering to occur in order that people might (once again) 'learn to be obedient'. Jehovah Witnesses believe that once this world has been 'wrapped up' and God's rule has been re-established, that a form of legal precedent will have been set in place:
"Because Jehovah has permitted wickedness and suffering at this time, it will have already been amply proved that nothing that is out of harmony with [God] can prosper. It will have been shown beyond doubt that no independent scheme of men or spirit creatures can bring lasting benefits. Hence, God will then be fully justified in swiftly crushing any rebel." (What has been the result of rebellion, www.watchtower.org [Bracket mine])
So if a new rebellion were to occur, God would no longer be limited by our freewill nor the requirement to give people a chance to learn from their mistakes in order to sort things out. Justice will have already been satisfied, so God would be able to deal with and eradicate the problem there and then!
**It should be noted that Jehovah Witnesses believe in a young-earth creation theory of the world. This is the idea that the earth was created around 6,000 years ago, and is based on a literal reading of Genesis 1 where God is said to have created the world in six days. Some theologians believe that this view of the creation of the world is not only un-scientific, but also hinders a viable response to the problem of evil and suffering (for more on this see An Irenaean Theodicy (John Hick)