Every night I go to sleep and have the most terrible dreams imaginable. I am torn to shreds by wild animals, my children die, I am forced to kill home intruders to protect my family, I show up to finals three hours late or without having studied, I am maimed, and a thousand variations on that theme. Occasionally, I am Superman, but even then, I usually develop some sort of flying disability just when it becomes important and I sort of drag along the ground rather than flying properly.
While I am dreaming, the horrific things I experience often seem as real as anything I have ever experienced. My dreams can be truly terrifying. My heart really does race. We can say “it was just a dream” once we have woken up, but that doesn’t help us in the moment of pain during the actual dream. The beautiful thing about dreams is that they fade away into forgetfullness shortly after waking. I can’t remember my dreams from last night, for example. But, the fact that I don’t remember my dream does not change the fact that while I was being mauled by a bear last night it was terrifying and painful. Really painful.
Now, I have noticed that in discussions of the problem of evil, dreams don’t come up too often. I find that interesting. Given the frequency of bad dreams, and the sheer numbers of hours we spend dreaming, you would think this kind of suffering would get a mention or two when we list our grievances. But it does not. Why? The answer seems obvious enough, it is that we forget our bad dreams and the reality of the experience fades as we wake up. I am forced to conclude that I am not very upset about terrible suffering as long as I forget it. Could this realization provide the basis for a theodicy? If I wake up in the spirit world some day and my memory of this life fades away like a dream, will the problem of evil look different than it does now? Maybe like a person who is morally indignant about bad dreams?
What would such a theodicy look like? It would not explain suffering by arguing that it is unreal, because I really do suffer during my bad dreams. It would not be an argument that suffering is explained by a God’s priviledged perspective. After all, it is not perspective that keeps me from being angry about my dreams. Rather, the trick seems to be that if I forget something, it is as if it never happened. It is hard to be angry about things I don’t remember. That’s not to say it things I don’t remember can’t have any lasting effects. It is entirely possible that we live out hypothetical situations in our dreams as a way for our minds to sort out various responses to possible crisis scenarios. When my brother came to my mother as a small boy with his hand over his eye and blood running down his face from under his hand, my mother says she was amazed at how calmly and quickly she reacted. Who knows but what her response was due in part to living out similar scenarios every night of her adult life. You don’t have to remember something for it to have had an impact. However, if I don’t remember it, I am never very angry about it. Maybe the evils of this life will be like that some day.
It seems like a pretty crappy theodicy, but then, I do let a lot of pretty terrible stuff slide if it was just a dream. So, maybe there’s something to it afterall. I don’t know.