Category Archives: Problem of Evil (Problem of Suffering)

My quadrilemma

Here is just one simple example of the problem of evil:

On Sunday, parents and kids from my son’s Cub Scout den packed food at a place called Kids Against Hunger. Before we started work, the staff showed us a video about the cause. One statistic cited in the video was that more than half of children in Haiti die of malnutrition before the age of 15. Whether that statistic is completely accurate or not, it’s safe to say that many children die of malnutrition in Haiti through no fault of their own.

Children eating food provided via Kids Against HungerAre we supposed to believe (and tell our children!) that there is a god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering but (for good but mysterious reasons) allows many of them to starve to death?

Clearly there is no god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering. So here’s the quadrilemma: Is there a powerless god, an apathetic god, a powerless and apathetic god, or no god? (Answer: It doesn’t matter which. As the A-Unicornist writes, “the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist.”)

This isn’t a recreational mental exercise. How we think about this stuff has very real consequences. For example, if we believe in a God who *could* alleviate suffering anywhere and everywhere if he really wanted to, then we must conclude that he doesn’t really want to, because the suffering is there (and always has been, in abundance). And if God himself thinks there is a good reason for people to suffer, why should we bother to help them?

Now I know what you, my dear apologist, are thinking: “People suffer *so* we can help them.” Well, that’s a shitty reason. Do you really think a benevolent god operates that way, that it’s ‘all-loving’ to allow (or cause) many people to suffer and die because *some* good will come from *some* people helping *some* of them?

“Life isn’t fair, but God is good” — this is true only if “good” means “less cruel than he could have been.”

Miracles are not impressive

ImageA woman is walking with her young son on the beach when a tidal wave suddenly appears and sweeps the boy out to sea. The mother immediately falls to her knees and starts praying, “Oh Lord, please return my son to me. I will be so grateful!” A moment later, another wave brings the boy back and sets him down on the shore, completely unharmed. The mother looks up at the sky and says curtly, “He had a hat.”

This joke takes aim at those who fail to appreciate what they have received, no matter how grand or miraculous, and instead focus on what they have lost or never had.

But the mother in this joke has a valid point. If an all-powerful god would intervene to save a boy, why would he neglect to also recover the boy’s hat?

It would certainly be petty to begrudge a ‘mortal’ — such as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer — for only saving a child from drowning and failing to save his hat. But a presumably all-powerful god who does mediocre miracles deserves to be called out. And every miracle in the Bible that I can think of is mediocre — that is, much less impressive than it could be — especially when you think of it in the context of God’s supposed omnipotence.

Here are few biblical miracles that come to mind:

  • Jesus turning water into wine: Why did he need ingredients? Why not just create wine from nothing?
  • God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake to prove Moses and Aaron were speaking for God: Why didn’t God just appear to Pharaoh and speak for himself? And why did he use a ‘miracle’ that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to imitate without supernatural aid?
  • God making the sun stand still (never mind the physics) so the Israelites had more daylight hours to kill the Amorites : Why didn’t God just kill the Amorites (painlessly) and spare everyone the trauma of war?

Apologists would answer these challenges in the same way they answer the problem of evil in general — by invoking God’s ‘mysterious ways’ and his sovereignty: God could make life 100 percent pleasure, 0 percent pain, for everyone, but he opts not to do that for reasons that we cannot understand, and it is not our place to question him. (That sounds a little like what we kids used to say to each other on the playground about daredevil feats: “I can do that; I just don’t feel like it.”)

I regard the Bible as folklore and its miracle stories as fiction. So in my view, the problem of mediocre miracles has a simple and satisfying explanation: The Bible’s authors were not thinking big enough. They established ‘problem situations’ and then treated the key constraints of those situations as if they applied to God:

  • Given only water, Jesus makes wine.
  • Given only a staff, God makes a snake.
  • Given only a star and a planet, God makes a day last longer for people at certain longitudes.

Why is there a battle?

ImageWhen I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child — and again when I watched the 2005 movie — I was deeply disturbed by the battle and its implications. Why does Aslan, the all-loving, all-powerful king of Narnia, stand up an army and make it fight a battle against the white witch’s army?

If he needs an army in order to accomplish his will, then he is not all-powerful. If he doesn’t need the army, then he is sending four children and countless Narnian creatures into combat unnecessarily. My thanks to C.S. Lewis for this handy illustration of the problem of evil.

Why not rig all the outcomes?

ImageI first read the story of Joseph (of “dream coat” fame) when I was a teen-ager. It has a great plot:

  1. A young man is sold into slavery by his brothers because they resent his favorite-son status and his spiritual gifts.
  2. He ascends in a few giant steps from slave to ridiculously powerful Egyptian government official (1) because he is faithful to God and (2) because God has a clever plan.
  3. The brothers become victims of a famine, but God has enabled Joseph to predict the famine and prepare Egypt by storing food, so the brothers come to Egypt to beg for food. They meet with Joseph (wow, he’s powerful but accessible!), but they don’t recognize him — after all, he has aged, he’s dressed like an Egyptian, and at the top of a country’s government is the last place they would expect to see him.
  4. After a dramatic build-up, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and declares: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

I found this idea fascinating: God can allow people to do evil and somehow engineer the results to be good. At the time, it made my mind race. God obviously ‘allows’ people to do bad things, but in this case, the bad things were instrumental in God’s plan. Another notable example of this phenomenon is the betrayal and execution of Jesus. In such cases, did God want the people to do evil? If not, how did something happen that God didn’t want to happen?

As a teen-ager, I thought: “God is going to have his way anyway, but he can do it with or without our cooperation.” I wanted to believe that God didn’t require for people to do evil, but since they were going to do evil anyway, God used them to accomplish something good. I was trying to let God off the hook.

But (1) God should not need my help getting off a hook, and (2) I was projecting human limitations onto God.

We humans want and seek for things to happen without knowing they will happen or being able to ensure that they will happen. We hope to get promoted; we try to stick to our diets. These are reflections of our wills. But God presumably has the ability to control all events and certainty about the effects of what he does (or allows people to do).  So whatever happens, it’s God’s will, right?

In any case, if God is able to allow people ‘free will’ to do evil and still rig the outcomes ‘for good,’ he should be able to rig the outcome of every evil act so the victim is protected or even rewarded. Haven’t seen much of that in recorded history. Either he’s opting not to rig outcomes, or the suffering is the intended outcome!

Higher standards for the omnipotent!

But what about the second assumption, that if God is omnibenevolent, then He prefers a world without evil over a world with evil? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world. 

— Wiiliam Lane Craig, writing on the problem of evil

Craig’s parenting analogy is seriously flawed because it suggests that God and human parents are under the same constraints.

As humans, we may be justified in sometimes allowing or causing others to suffer, but only to the extent that it is necessary to achieve a greater good — for example, to spare them (or others) worse suffering or, in some cases, to bring them (or others) some kind of reward.

For example, we allow our children to endure the pain of vaccinations in order to protect them against diseases, which can bring misery, debilitation or death.

Similarly, military recruits are subjected to mental, physical and emotional stresses in order to help them succeed and survive in combat. “More sweat in training, less blood in battle.”

As we mature, we learn to accept trade-offs as part of life — as long as they are truly necessary. We don’t get shots for diseases that don’t exist, and if there were no such thing as war, there would be no boot camps to persevere through.

Human parents can honestly tell their kids, “I wish this trade-off did not exist, but it does.”

But God designed the whole scheme, so he willed that there would be trade-offs. How could he then wish things were different?

We take it as a given that we can’t eat and drink whatever we want and still have healthy bodies. But if our bodies had been designed differently, there would be no such trade-off.

Christian apologists may claim that God withholds some pleasures from us and subjects us to some suffering now so we have the opportunity for an afterlife of extreme pleasure and absolutely no suffering. In other words, our complete happiness and our complete lack of suffering is God’s goal. However, God imposes a restriction on how we can get to that state: That extreme pleasure without suffering is only possible for those who are in a ‘consensual’ love relationship with God. If this is true, it isn’t just ‘the way it is’ — it is a condition of our existence that was imposed by God. So why does this trade-off exist? Either God needs a relationship with us — in which case our pain is for his gain — or God designed us to need a relationship with him. No matter which is the case, God willingly imposes a trade-off that should not have been necessary.

Actually, it is impossible to be human and not suffer, because suffering is simply experiencing something we don’t like. We suffer continually just by virtue of not being able to do everything that is pleasurable and not being able to avoid everything that is unpleasant. The difference between what we normally call ‘discomfort’ and what we normally call ‘suffering’ is one of degree. So basically, if God created us, he willed for us to suffer simply by making us as natural beings.

Parents and drill sergeants can’t control the external forces that make it necessary to train and ‘discipline’ those in their care. But for an omnipotent god, there are no external forces. It’s time to stop letting God off the hook and pretending his hands are tied. Is our pain for his benefit or for ours? If it’s for his benefit, then yeah, it makes sense: He is sadistic. But if it’s for our benefit, what exactly is the reward that is worth whatever kind and amount of pain we might experience?

Irreconcilable and not worth reconciling

ImageI challenge you to do a web search on “reconciling tragedy with God” and find one search result that adequately does that.

Find one blog post or book excerpt that explains, to your satisfaction (not its author’s satisfaction), why the suffering that humans experience every day — not just in Connecticut last Friday but everywhere all the time — is a necessary part of the “perfect will” of a god who “is love.”

Looking on the bright side is not enough. The challenge is to explain why there has to be a dark side in the first place.

The best anyone can do in this regard is to say “We can’t know God’s purpose in allowing [or, rather, designing!]  this kind of suffering.” This is a non-explanation. If a god is so sovereign and mysterious that nothing he does ever has to make sense to us, then “reconciling tragedy with God” is a pointless exercise.

Bizarrely, belief in this kind of god is no more consoling than believing in no god. Either way, there is no guarantee that you or someone you care about won’t be the next to experience unspeakable fear or pain. So what does it mean when you assert that God is “good” and “in control” and “merciful” and “never gives you more than you can handle” and “answers prayer” and “cares about his children”? The only way for these things to be true of God is for us to strip them of the meanings that they have for everyone else.

Please, for your own peace of mind, admit (or at least consider the possibility) that all the senseless anguish in the world is really senseless, that there is no divine plan that it all ties into, and that it really is completely on us to watch out for each other.