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Question of Suffering

I use a program called EverNote to store interesting articles I see in printed sources. It allows me to take a photo of the item using my iPhone and store it on a server for later reference either from the phone or on my Mac. I was scanning through this material today looking for a news article to blog about and found one concerning a pastor’s response to the classic problem of evil, which he phrased as “the question of suffering”.

Basically the problem of evil goes something like this: if god is good, omniscient and omnipotent (or even if he isn’t but has near omnipotence) why is there so much evil in the world, why do bad things happen to good people, and why do the promises of help from god never eventuate?

I get various responses from Christians who I confront with this problem. Some say that God is doing good things but we can’t expect to have no bad things or we wouldn’t understand what good is. Some say the bad things are sent by God for some mysterious purpose which we don’t understand. Some say that God isn’t good and we should believe in him and obey him because of his power. And some say there is an answer but we don’t know what it is (or that they are thinking about it and will get back to me with the answer).

In the article the author claimed “The question of suffering always emerges in debates about religion. It is possibly the major reason many reject religion, or a God of any kind.” I don’t necessarily agree. Its an interesting question but not one that many atheists I know take too seriously because goodness is so subjective and, depending on how you read the Bible, whether God is good, bad or neutral is very much open to interpretation. Most atheists I know (including myself) don’t believe in a god simply because there is no evidence he exists.

Many people see the Holocaust as the ultimate act of evil (and I think that’s possibly true) so the author talks about two reactions of survivors: one who wanted to sue God for negligence for letting it happen, and another who seemed to become even more dedicated and convinced of God’s love. I presume the person who wanted to sue god was doing it as a rhetorical point and in fact didn’t really think there was a god (who would try to sue a god if he really thought one existed).

If people are determined to believe God exists and loves them they will use ridiculous events to support that idea. If someone survives a bad event (like a tsunami, plane crash, or war) they will thank God. But what about all the people who did die or suffer because of that event? Surely God is also responsible for them. On balance I don’t think they should be thanking God at all. If there was any reason to think he did exist I think I would be more likely to despise him than love him!

Next the author resorts to the tired old idea that we need God to define good, morality, etc. He says “If life is just random there is no point in complaining because who are we complaining to?” and “In a godless universe the ethics behind [Nazi concentration camps] are irrelevant.” I’m afraid I disagree again. Morality doesn’t require God. Morality can just as easily be seen as a set of basic social rules that all reasonable humans agree to follow. So if an evil regime arises, such as the Nazis, then we should complain to them and the people who allowed them to exist, not an imaginary god.

Finally we get a fairly standard claim that what Christianity supposedly offers is actually real. He says “Christianity claims that God, through Jesus, is making all things new, will bring justice and healing, and holds out an offer for people to share in it. [Coming through hardship a believer could say] God’s love is deeper still. Maybe that is something worth looking into?” Sure, that is worth looking into. Many people have looked into it, found it was a load of nonsense, and rejected it. Its only the people who have accepted it without “looking into it” who are convinced its true.

So I’m afraid there is no convincing answer here to the problem of evil. At least not for the believer. Atheists have no trouble explaining it at all because in a neutral universe we would expect both good and bad things to happen about the same to good and bad people. We would expect good and bad to be defined in terms of social rules which allow people to live together. And we would expect events to proceed with no sign that a god is involved. That’s exactly what we do see. So the problem of evil is not a problem at all as long as you take the pastor’s advice and “look into it”.

  1. seneca
    November 6, 2009 at 7:22 am

    We are my dog. He sees the Sun come up and sees the Sun set. He is incapable of understanding the evidence right in front of him, that the Earth circles the Sun. Like my dog, we see, but we do not see.

    We are not wired smart enough to understand God, if there is one, or to understand the nature of the universe.

    Unfortunately, we will die not knowing what it is all about.


  2. ojb42
    November 8, 2009 at 2:38 am

    That’s a very negative way to look at it. I’m not saying you’re not right because many scientists and philosophers have commented that its unrealistic to expect to be able to fully understand the universe.

    But even if we accept that we will never fully understand everything about the universe (or god if you prefer) that’s no reason to stop trying. And if there is something we don’t understand we should say so instead of resorting to the “appeal to ignorance” and substituting gaps in our knowledge with superstition.

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