In the following extended excerpt from Wandering in Darkness Eleonore Stump provides a response to the overly dismissive critics of theodicy (and defense) (a theodicy seeks to explain why God allows suffering; a defense offers a possible explanation for why God allows suffering). The passage nicely marginalizes the incredulity of the critic even as it illustrates how such incredulity is of little persuasive force to the Christian:
“scornful disparagers of theodicy seem a bit like avuncular Martians whose sole knowledge of human life on earth comes just from videotape footage of medical treatments taking place within a large city hospital. Imagine how the doctors who run the hospital must look to such a Martian. The Martian sees patients being given drugs that make them sick and wretched. He sees patients having their limbs amputated or their internal organs cut out, and he hears the groans of those recovering from surgery. He sees patients dying in the hospital, including those dying as medical teams are doing things to them, and he observes the grief of their families and friends. This litany of misery could continue ad nauseum. The Martian seeing all this will be filled with horror and with moral indignation at the doctors who plainly allow the suffering when they are not in fact actively causing it.
“Any suggestion that the doctors are actually benevolent toward their patients will be met by the Martian with scorn and with incredulity that we would have the face to try advancing such a claim. The Martian knows what he has seen. We can try telling him that the patients are in the hospital in the first place only because they are sick, and he will reply indignantly that in very many cases there was no sign of sickness in them that he could see when they came into the hospital; the signs of sickness appeared only after the doctors went to work on them. We can explain to him that the sickness in question often take specialized skills, which only the doctors have, to diagnose; and he will dismiss our explanation with disdain as special pleading. We can tell him that without the treatments the patients would be sicker or would even die, and he will point out that many of the patients he saw died apparently just because of the doctors’ treatments. We can respond that, on the contrary, many of the patients are in fact cured and live a long time outside the hospital, and then the Martian will turn on us with withering moral disgust at such pie-in-the-sky nonsense as the notion of life outside the hospital. And so on and on.” (Wandering in Darkness, 17-18)
Given this illustration, I can understand why the Martian is skeptical, even disparaging, of attempts to explain the suffering of the patients. But of course, that doesn’t provide a reason for us to be skeptical. We have a different perspective on the suffering than the Martian. We recognize the hospital as a place of healing and restoration.
In the same way that we embed the suffering in the hospital inside a larger narrative in which it is morally justified, so the Christian embeds the suffering of this life inside a larger narrative in which that suffering is morally justified.
The least we might expect from the Martian is the concession that from our perspective the sufferings of the hospital do not provide a reason to deny the goodness and/or capability of the physicians. Likewise, the least the Christian might expect from the atheist is the concession that from the Christian’s perspective the sufferings of this life do not provide a reason to deny the goodness and/or capability of God.