This is my opening statement in the debate I had with David Wood on the problem of suffering and God.
Christian philosopher James F. Sennett has said: “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.”
I’m arguing against the theistic conception of God, who is believed to be all powerful, or omnipotent, perfectly good, or omnibenelovent and all-knowing, or omniscient. The problem of evil is an internal one to these three theistic beliefs which is expressed in both deductive and evidential arguments concerning both moral and natural evils. I’m going to hopefully combine all of these elements into a novel approach to the problem.
As I do this, keep in mind what Corey Washington said in a debate with William Lane Craig: “We’ve got to hold theists to what they say…if they say God is omnibenelovent, God is omnibenelovent, if they say God is omnipotent, God is omnipotent. We can’t let theists to sort of play with these words. They mean what they mean. And if God is omnibenelovent, God will not have any more harm in this world than is necessary for accomplishing…greater goods.”
Here’s the problem: If God is perfectly good, all knowing, and all powerful, then the issue of why there is so much suffering in the world requires an explanation. The reason is that a perfectly good God would be opposed to it, an all-powerful God would be capable of eliminating it, and an all-knowing God would know what to do about it.
So, the extent of intense suffering in the world means for the theist that: either God is not powerful enough to eliminate it, or God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is just not smart enough to know what to do about it. The stubborn fact of intense suffering in the world means that something is wrong with God’s ability, or his goodness, or his knowledge.
Many theists believe God set the Israelites free from slavery, but he did nothing for the many people who were born and died as slaves in the American south. These theists believe God parted the Red Sea, but he did nothing about the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. Many theists believe God provided manna from heaven, but he does nothing for the more than 40,000 people who starve every single day in the world. Those who don’t die suffer extensively from hunger pains and malnutrition all of their short lives. Many theists believe God made an axe head to float, but he allowed the Titanic to sink. Many theists believe God added 15 years to King Hezekiah’s life, but he does nothing for children who live short lives and die of leukemia. Many theists believe God restored sanity to Nebuchadnezzar but he does nothing for the many people suffering from schizophrenia and dementia today. Many theists believe Jesus healed people, but God does nothing to stop pandemics which have destroyed whole populations of people. Lethal parasites kill one human being every ten seconds. There are many handicapped people, and babies born with birth defects that God does not heal. As God idly sits by, well over 100 million people were slaughtered in the last century due to genocides, and wars. Well over 100 million animals are slaughtered every year for American consumption alone, while animals viciously prey on each other.
Let me tell you about a man named Robert, who for four and a half years heard cruel voices in his head. The cruelest voice said that Satan was going to force him to murder his daughter. You may say that these voices were all lies and should have been treated as such. If you say that, then you don't understand the horror or schizophrenia. You wholeheartedly believe these voices. He was so convinced Satan was going to force him to murder his daughter, that he fought the urge to commit suicide on a daily basis so he wouldn’t be the instrument of his daughter's death. Nothing that he tried helped him either, and he tried it all: exorcisms, repentance from every known sin, medications, and counseling. His wife eventually divorced him in fear he may have been a threat to his daughter, leaving him to live alone in a psychotic state. He’s recovered a great deal. But why didn’t God care?
Then there’s former American slave, Frederick Douglass, who described how his Christian master whipped his aunt right before his young eyes. “He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor.” “No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.” Now why didn’t God ever explicitly condemn slavery? Stories like these could fill several libraries.
I’ll begin by assuming for the sake of argument that God exists.
Then why did God create something in the first place? Theists will typically defend the goodness of God by arguing he could not have created a world without some suffering and evil. But what reason is there for creating anything at all? Theists typically respond by saying creation was an expression of God’s love. But wasn’t God already complete in love? If love must be expressed, then God needed to create, and that means he lacked something. Besides, a perfectly good God should not have created anything at all, if by creating something, anything, it also brought about so much intense suffering. By doing so he actually reduced the amount of total goodness there is, since God alone purportedly has absolute goodness.
I could end my argument here, but let’s say God decided to create something anyway. Then why didn’t God just create a heavenly world? Theists typically believe that a heaven awaits faithful believers when they die, where there will be no “death, or mourning or crying or pain,” where believers will have incorruptible bodies, in a perfect existence. So why didn’t God just create such a perfect existence in the first place? If there’s free will in heaven without sin, then God could’ve created such a world. To say God initially did create such a world but that there was an angelic rebellion in it merely places the problem of evil back in time. How is it possible to be in the direct presence of a being that has absolute goodness and unlimited power and still desire to rebel against him? Even if this is possible, why didn’t God prevent such a rebellion? Pierre Bayle argued: “One might as well compare the Godhead with a father who had let the legs of his children be broken in order to display before an entire city the skill which he has is setting bones; One might as well compare the Godhead with a monarch who would allow strife and seditions to spring up throughout his kingdom in order to acquire the glory of having put an end to them.”
Again, I could end my argument here. But let’s say God decided to create a fleshly world anyway. Then why did God create us with free will? God shouldn’t have given free will to his creatures if by doing so he knew it would lead to intense suffering. The giver of a gift is blameworthy if he gives gifts to those whom he knows will terribly abuse those gifts. Any mother who gives a razor blade to a two year old is culpable if that child hurts himself or others with it. If, however, God did not give us free will, then Calvinistic theology must justify why our world brings God more glory than a different world where he decrees from eternity that his creatures all perfectly obey him.
Again, I could end my argument here. But let’s say God decided to create a fleshly world with free creatures in it anyway. Then what is the purpose of creating such a world? It appears to be a cruel game of hide and seek, where God hides and we must find him, and only the few who find him will be rewarded while the many who don’t, are punished when they die. If God has foreknowledge then why didn’t he just foreknow who would find him even before creating them, and simply place them in heaven in the first place?...then there’d be no one punished for not finding him. If this world is to teach us the virtues of courage, patience, and generosity in the midst of suffering, then those virtues are irrelevant in a heavenly bliss where there is no suffering or pain.
In any case, God should’ve had three main moral concerns when creating such a world:
Concern One: that we don’t abuse the freedom God gave us. God should not allow any genocides like the Holocaust; no Joseph Mengele’s who tortured concentration camp prisoners; no atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima; no gulags, no 9/11’s, no Cambodian children stepping on land mines, no Columbine shootings, no Jeffery Dahlmers, no gang rapes, or brutal slavery.
Good mothers give their children more and more freedom to do what they want so long as they are responsible with their freedom. And if children abuse this freedom, their mothers will discipline them by taking away their ability to make these choices. It’s that simple. If my mother sat by and did nothing while my older brother beat me to death, and if she had the means to stop him and didn’t, then she is morally responsible for letting me die. She could even be considered an accomplice.
God could keep us from abusing our freedom. He could’ve created us with a stronger propensity to dislike doing wrong just like we have an aversion to drinking motor oil. We could still drink it if we wanted to, but it’s nauseating.
God could also implant thoughts into a person’s head to prevent him from doing evil; much like in Robert’s case above, except these thoughts would be good ones.
God has many other means at his disposal here, if we concede for the moment the existence of this present world: One childhood fatal disease or a heart attack could have killed Hitler and prevented WWII. Timothy McVeigh could have had a flat tire or engine failure while driving to Oklahoma City with that truck bomb. Several of the militants who were going to fly planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 could’ve been robbed and beaten by New York thugs (there’s utilitarianism at its best).
A poisonous snakebite could’ve sent Saddam Hussein to an early grave averting the Iraq war before it happened. The poison that Saddam Hussein threw on the Kurds, and the Zyklon-B pellets dropped down into the Auschwitz gas chambers could have simply “malfunctioned” by being miraculously neutralized (just like Jesus supposedly turned water into wine). Sure, it would puzzle them, but there are a great many things that take place in our world that are not explainable. Even if they concluded God performed a miracle here, what’s the harm? Doesn’t God want us to believe in him?
Concern Two: that the environment God places us in will not cause us excessive suffering. God should not allow any pandemics, like the Spanish Influenza of 1918 which killed 20 million people, no tornado’s, no floods, no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no devastating fires, no volcanic eruptions, no lethal parasites, or major diseases like cancer, polio, malaria, pneumonia or AIDS. There should be no poisonous creatures like the brown recluse spider, and no poisonous plants like Yew (eat it and you die within minutes).
If God exists and wants us to believe in him, then he should’ve made it a priority to prevent religious diversity by clearly revealing himself in this world such that only people who refuse to believe would do so. In this way he’d prevent all religious wars, Crusades, Inquisitions and witch burnings. There’d be no religiously motivated suicide bombers, no Muslim terrorists, and no kamikaze pilots.
If God exists he should stop all natural disasters too, like the Indonesian tsunami. If God had prevented it, none of us would ever have known he kept it from happening, precisely because it didn’t happen. Any person who is supposed to be good would be morally obligated to prevent it, especially if all it took was a “snap” of his fingers to do so. Why didn’t God stop it?
If the theist claims natural disasters are the result of sin, then the punishments simply do not fit the crimes. God’s purported punishments are barbaric when compared to our own. We simply put criminals in jail. We don’t break both arms of an infant because her father lied at the office.
If God allows these disasters for a greater good, what’s the greater good here? Any paltry benefits to the victims could’ve been gained by other means. To say the victims are going to be rewarded in heaven for their suffering can never morally justify why they suffered in the first place, otherwise the final eternal state, even if it’s pleasant for them, only compensates them for their sufferings. This same reasoning could justify us torturing anyone, so long as we later compensated them for their sufferings.
If God exists he should not have created predation in the natural world, either. The amount of creaturely suffering here is atrocious as creatures prey on one another to feed themselves. There is no good reason for this and every reason against it. All creatures should be vegetarians. And in order to be sure there is enough vegetation for us all, God could’ve reduced our mating cycles and/or made edible vegetation to grow as plenteous as wild weeds do today.
Paul Draper has argued that “the theory of evolution of species by means of natural selection explains numerous facts much better than the alternative hypothesis, that each species of plant and animal was independently created by God.” Specifically Draper argues, “Both pain and pleasure contributes to two central biological goals of individual organisms, namely survival and reproduction.” But since God doesn’t need the biological usefulness of pain and pleasure in attaining these twin goals, and since God additionally needs good moral reasons for allowing for pain, theism is antecedently more implausible than say, atheism. This is particularly persuasive when we consider how long sentient animals had to suffer through this evolutionary process before the arrival humans.
In fact, there is no good reason for God to have created animals at all, especially since theists do not consider them part of any eternal scheme, nor are there any moral lessons that animals need to learn from their sufferings. As a result, William Rowe’s argument about a fawn that is burned in a forest fire and left to die a slow death without any human witness is gratuitous evil, plain and simple. It serves no greater good.
The theist may object that by making these changes it might go against the laws of nature and/or upset our fine tuned ecosystem. However, the theist faces a dilemma here: if God created the laws of nature in the first place, then he could’ve created a different set of laws, and if he didn’t create these laws, then where did they come from? Besides, since this present ecosystem is causing so much intense suffering, the question for the theist is why this ecosystem is more important to God than one without so much suffering that constantly needs divine maintenance. People should matter more to God than a fined tuned ecosystem.
If changing the environment in any of these ways requires some adjustment that does not accord with any known laws of nature, what’s the problem? The ordering of the world by general laws “seems nowise necessary” to God, as David Hume argued. The theist typically believes God created the universe out of nothing, and if he can do that, he can do anything in his world. He could even perform one or more perpetual miracles here. As far as the theist knows, the whole world operates by perpetual miracles anyway. Are all things possible with God, or not?
Concern Three: that our bodies will provide a reasonable measure of wellbeing for us. I want you to think outside the box here. All that seems to be required for this is that we have rational powers to think and to choose, the ability to express our thoughts, and bodies that will allow us to exercise our choices. So we could’ve been created much differently…easily.
God could’ve created all human beings with one color of skin. There has been too much killing, slavery, and wars because we are not one race with one language.
God could’ve created us with much stronger immune systems such that there would be no pandemics which have decimated whole populations of people. At the very least, he could’ve given us the knowledge to cure these diseases the day after he created us, but he didn’t even do that.
God could’ve created us with self-regenerating bodies. When we receive a cut, it heals itself over time, as does a sprained ankle, or even a broken bone. But why can’t an injured spinal cord be made to heal itself, or an amputated leg grow back in a few weeks? If that’s all we experienced in this world we wouldn’t know any different.
We find a lot of things in nature that God could’ve done for us. He could’ve made us all vegetarians, as I mentioned, given us wings on our backs so we could fly to safety if we fell off a cliff, and gills to keep us from drowning.
Only if the theist expects very little from such a being can he defend what God has done. Either God isn’t smart enough to figure out how to create a good world, or he doesn’t have the power to do it, or he just doesn’t care. These are the logical options.
In response, theists resort to claiming we just cannot fathom God’s omniscient ways. But this begs the question, because it assumes God exists. What needs to be shown is that God exists, and the empirical evidence of evil is against this. In addition, the theistic response here cuts both ways. We’re told God is so omniscient that we can’t understand his purposes, and this is true, we can’t begin to grasp why there is so much evil in the world, if God exists. But if God is as omniscient as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world, especially since we do have a good idea how he could’ve created differently.
One main reason a theist claims to believe in a good God is that the arguments for God’s existence outweigh the empirical evidence of evil in the world. But as soon as we study those arguments in any depth, they are less than persuasive. The design argument, for instance, is undermined by the extent of evil in the world.
Besides, these arguments don’t lead exclusively to theism or to any particular type of theism either, whether it’s Judaism, Islam, or the many branches of Christianity. Choosing between theistic religions depends additionally on historical evidence, usually coming from a pre-scientific and superstitious people, even though practically anything can be rationally denied in history.
The main reason people accept a particular type of theism, or none at all, depends to a very large extent on when and where they were born, called the “accidents of birth.” For, if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Sunni Muslim right now. If you were born in India you’d be a Hindu. If you were born in Japan you’d be a Shintoist, and if you were born in Thailand you’d be a Buddhist. Deny it all you want to, but these are the sociological facts.
In conclusion, I personally think any single one of these problems makes the existence of God implausible, but taken together they are insurmountable obstacles to the belief in the theistic God.
This is my opening statement in the debate I had with David Wood on the problem of suffering and God.