The challenges of suffering, pain, and death within creation

For centuries, a debate has raged over the seemingly conflicting existence of evil and an omnibenevolent God. In a lecture in Nanovic Hall on February 8, Professor of Theology Philip Rolnick from the University of St. Thomas endeavored to resolve this paradox. He brought new insight to the debate, aiming to explain the problem of evil while taking into account the modern biological challenge of evolution.

According to Rolnick, a theological response to the problem of evil must address evolution because it is a world in which struggle, pain, and death are inherent. However, Rolnick did not simply aim to reconcile a harsh evolutionary world and an omnibenevolent God. Rolnick radically argued that an evolutionary biosphere creates the best conditions for humanity to choose to do good and love God. Rolnick said, “Biological challenges become theological advantages.”

Rolnick explained that biological challenges create character and motivate development in humans, thereby giving purpose to a creation in which only the strong survive. He said, “The challenges of our evolutionary biosphere become advantages for faith when we let them spur the growth of our own souls and societies.”

Rolnick explained that much of human struggle arises because creation has been left unfinished. This unfinished creation requires humans to work intelligently or to suffer consequences, therefore unlocking the potential of human intelligence. He said, “Creation provides room for meaningful human action.”

In addressing death, Rolnick said, “Death is an enemy that has instrumental value for our good and for the good of creation.” Rolnick explained that without death, humans would be in a position of permanent pleasure-seeking and would have no consequences for wasting time or failing to be productive.

In Rolnick’s opinion, human life is about more than biological outcomes. He sees earthly life as a temporary foray into the material realm in preparation for a heavenly realm. He said, “If the ultimate purpose of human life is to learn to do the will of God, then a difficult setting, one that includes struggle, pain, and death, is the teaching environment most suitable for that purpose.”

He explained that when Christians voluntarily subordinate themselves to the good of others, they “testify to something higher and more enduring than the permanent realm of creation.” He said, “The evolutionary biosphere coerces living things to be concerned with their survival. The Holy Spirit non-coercively invites human persons to a higher and more difficult path to another kind of survival.” He then quoted Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Rolnick asserted that the purpose of suffering is best illuminated in the suffering of Jesus on the cross, saying that, “The weakness of the cross is an attainment of power. Its emptying of self is a celestial fulfilling,” and, “As the Son of Man, Jesus’ final moments revealed a new height of human courage and love … In the midst of our own suffering, remembering Jesus’ suffering can become a kind of communion.”

Ellie Gardey is a freshman living in Lewis Hall studying political science, philosophy, and theology. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at