Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy

In my recent series I particularly focused on addressing the Problem of Evil (POE) on the presumption of an evolutionary history of pain, predation, suffering and extinction, etc., (P) and the implied age-old earth. I concluded in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that Christopher Southgate’s “compound evolutionary theodicy” was strictly unnecessary because with the resources of Christian theism there was no POE, apart from the emotional force of P. The following post considers the emotional POE of P in Southgate’s theodicy and possible strategies for an appropriate defense.

The Emotional Force of the Problem of Evil

It is clear that Southgate is not strictly responding to an intellectual problem, but rather an emotional problem. He states, “the crux of the problem is . . . the Christian’s struggle with the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering.”[1] This is exemplified by Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Ivan Karamazov. In response to an innocent child’s suffering, Ivan says, “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha; I’m just, with the upmost respect, handing him back his ticket.” The intuition being that if God allowed evil in the world, his goodness is impugned and he is therefore no longer “a God worthy of worship”[2]

In a very real way, as long as there is pain and suffering and death, the emotional POE will remain with us. Christianity is furnished with rich resources to address this problem, theologically pastorally, and practically.

One such solution offered by Southgate in his compound evolutionary theodicy is his second plank: the “co-suffering” argument. The argument is that God is not one who remains distant, aloft and uncaring, but identifies with the pain of every sentient creature. This argument has two fatal flaws. First, to the emotional problem caused by human pain and suffering this is an appropriate response, for Christ enters into our suffering by becoming incarnate and being crucified. However, this is over-reaching as a solution to animal suffering. Christ’s life was an experience as a man identifying with humans (cf. Heb 4:15), and not as non-human animal.

Second, Christ’s co-suffering with us does not explain how God can be good and yet there be evil and suffering in the world. Instead it provides a balm, removing the sting of being alone facing such a harsh reality. This fact is well and should not be diminished. However, as a defence for only the emotional POE and not a theodicy, it has limited utility for any wider concerns.

An alternative for addressing the emotional POE for P would be an understanding of Michael Murray’s levels of pain experienced by different animals. It is also permissible to speculate that just as the Spirit of God is the helper of humanity and comforter of the redeemed, providing purpose and resolution in the face of adversity, strength and endurance through suffering, so the Spirit of God may similarly help his creatures in the whole of the animal kingdom.

These strategies are ultimately unnecessary, for the emotional state of someone does not determine truth. Appealing to emotions is an important part of the task of persuasion – not for determining what is and is not true. Although such strategies are unnecessary, they are available for those seeking to develop a defence for the emotional POE.


[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Ibid., 10

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] [22] For further development of this see Stuart McEwing, “Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy,” n.p. Thinking Matters. Citied 19 December 2010. Online https://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/12/why-southgates-co-suffering-argument-suffers/ […]

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