I’ve been writing a lot about the Problem of Evil, and fortunately or unfortunately, I’m about to get back into the fray. As a recap, my views are explicitly stated in “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil” and “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 4: Skeptical Theism”. In the end, I landed upon this argument, which I called The Almost Problem of Evil.
I’ve updated it a little bit since it’s previous incarnation:
P1: The only sufficient reasons for an entity to allow suffering are either (1) that entity was not capable of preventing the suffering and/or (2) preventing that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result (a higher good).
P2: We cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent unless we know that he has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P3: God is capable of doing everything that is logically possible.
P4: For every instance of suffering, it’s prevention is logically possible (even though that prevention might just cause more suffering).
C5: Therefore from P1-5, the only sufficient reason for God to allow suffering is that the prevention of that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result.
P6: Either (a) we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are, (b) the existence of suffering is enough evidence to infer God has no reasons, or (c) a theodicy exists which can allow us to infer God does have sufficient reasons.
P7: If we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are (skeptical theism), we cannot know whether or not God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P8: No such theodicy exists that would allow us to infer that God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
C9: Therefore from C5 and P6-8, we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent.
P10: If we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
C11: Therefore from C9 and P10, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
The Theodicy In Question
Cl is a Christian blogger who runs TheWarfareIsMental.Net who I interact on quite a frequent basis, having a now-cancelled debate on suffering that balooned into this discussion on the Problem of Evil, a separate discussion on imperfection, and another separate discussion on to what extent the Bible contains advanced knowledge of sanitation.
Cl has responded to this argument suggesting that P4 is false, because he has a theodicy that allows would allow us to infer that God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering. In his essay “Why I Said Skeptical Theism is For the Birds”, he refers back to his old essay “The Evidential Problem of Evil” (which I summarized in “Revisiting the Problem of Evil”), and outlines this sketch of a theodicy:
1. A good God would only permit suffering if there was a higher good;
2. Suffering is temporal and transitory;
3. The joy God promises is eternal and immovable;
4. Eternal joy equates is a higher good compared to temporal suffering;
5. A higher good exists;
6. It is not necessary to invoke ST to defang the POE.
To Whom Joy Does Heaven Bring?
There are a few different ways this theodicy could play out — that Heaven means that everyone’s lives are the best they could be (and thus outweigh any suffering within those lives) or that Heaven means that there will be more total joy than suffering altogether, whether that’s counted as total joy in the abstract or total people experiencing joy.
The problem with the first idea — that everyone’s lives are the best they could be because of Heaven — is that it’s not clear that everyone goes to Heaven. Note that now we enter a complex swamp of playing Twenty Questions with theology, a game where there are never winners and I want to stay out of as much as possible.
Who Goes to Heaven?
But suffice to say, there is an extensively wide range of opinions/interpretations on just who gets eternal joy in Heaven — welcome to one of the confusions in religion where there is no method we can use to figure out who is right. Some say that you’re just out of luck if you’re not predestined, others say you need to be some combination of baptized, Jesus-believing, faith-having, of a certain moral caliber (wide variety on this too!), and/or good-works-producing. Whether you need just one, two, three, four or all five of those is open to thousand-year-long debate.
On the other swing of things, you have the view/opinion/interpretation that everyone goes to Heaven, no matter what. Yet this “everyone” is still vague. Does it, for example, include nonhuman animals who die at the hands of natural disasters? Despite repeated refrains of “All Dogs Go to Heaven”, I’ve yet to see anyone seriously suggest a universalism that includes the nonhuman in Heaven as well.
I don’t deny that perhaps we could construct a theology where absolutely every entity capable of suffering in a relevant sense goes to Heaven and is thus “compensated” for this suffering with a relevant and outweighing joy. What I do call into question is that even within the sea of theologies, this specific get-out-of-evil-free theodicy is unproven. Why think that this is the correct view/opinion/interpretation of how Heaven works among the many others? Is it just because of how convenient it would be for making the Problem of Evil go away?
What Is The Alternative?
Another way “joy for everyone” can be solved is by changing what happens in Hell. Some say that Hell is not just a lake of fire, but rather separation of God, or annihilation, or whatever. Again, the theologies can be very intricate and advanced here. Yet they vary tremendously, and many credentialed theologians (professors of religion, say) will disagree with each other on this issue (and many others) a lot. And again, I’ve yet to see a methodology we could use to figure out who’s intricate and advanced theology is more likely to be the correct one. I’ve also yet to see an answer to how Hell can be considered “just”.
But even if Hell is restored to not be a destination of suffering, it seems uncontroversial to suggest it won’t be a place of unfettered joy, either. Thus this second not-Heaven destination does not seem to play much compensatory role for the suffering in the “previous life”.
Thus, we’re back to either demonstrating a thorough-going “Heaven for all, including the nonhumans!” theology, or we move on to the “Heaven means that there will be more total joy than suffering altogether, whether that’s counted as total joy in the abstract or total people experiencing joy”. Let’s move on, for now.
To Infinity and Beyond with Joy!
In “Revisiting the Problem of Evil, Part I”, I spent a fair amount of time summarizing Cl on ways that the world might include more suffering than joy — either there are (a) more people experiencing the joys of Heaven/Earth than the total amount of people experiencing the suffering of Hell/Earth or (b) more total joy involved with Heaven/Earth than total suffering involved with Hell/Earth. Either way, the Problem of Evil goes away, right?
However, I don’t think this is clear. Again, notice the focus on people — what about the suffering of nonhumans? If we presume that such suffering counts, we can notice that nonhuman animals outweigh human animals by hundreds, if not thousands, to one. Thus we need Heaven for all these animals, or (a) fails.
(b) is a bit more resistant, because it could be said that the joy of Heaven is infinite, and thus outweighs all the nonhuman animal suffering on Earth (and the human suffering on Earth too!), because that’s finite. But we can also cast more doubt on both (a) and (b) at once by questioning the balance of things — is it true that more people go to Heaven than Hell? How would we even know?
At minimum to make this theology work, I’ll need some assurance that more people go to Heaven than people go to Hell. Only after we have that, will I get into my worries about whether we have maximal joy, worries about the fate of nonhuman animals, worries about whether the joys of Heaven are really infinite, etc.
Correlation is Not Causation, Heaven-Style
But even if we evaluate Heaven like that, we’re still have something else to worry about — does Heaven really count as a higher good? Now of course, I’ll let it remain uncontroversial that Heaven is a “good”, even if there may be reasons to call this into question (see Adam Lee’s essay “Those Old Pearly Gates” and my essay “More Problems With Ultimate Purpose and Heaven”). But to be a higher good in a sense relevant to the Problem of Evil, it has to be something that justifies the suffering that causes it to take place.
Or, in other words, I already called into question the justifying side of the equation — does the Heaven/Hell/Whatever afterlife system really produce more joy than suffering? But I also want to call into question the causality side of the equation — even if Heaven does produce more joy than suffering, is the suffering here on Earth really necessary for there to be joy in Heaven?
Does Heaven Judge on the Right Criteria?
One might say that in order for Heaven to exist, there has to be a system of judging whether people have acted evil or not, and then put them into the proper afterlife accordingly. This would make Heaven a proper reward for good deeds, and thus necessitate some sort of suffering on Earth caused by people choosing to act out against God’s will and harm people.
Despite arguments offered from compatiblist free will; from a distinction between act and outcome (PDF); from clear sociological, environmental, genetic components for criminal behavior; and from the feebleness of our allegedly god-given minds; I’ll accept this for the sake of argument that yes, this suffering is necessary for Heaven and thus justified by the goods of Heaven. What I will not accept as proven is that Heaven actually is for “judging”.
In order for Heaven to be just, the Heaven admission criteria has to be the actual goodwill of the person admitted — not whether they were baptized, whether they had stumbled upon the correct worldview, etc. If we’re willing to suggest that us atheists might have a modicum of good faith in how we came to reject the existence of a God, then it’s hard to suggest that we’re not worth entry into Heaven like the rest of the “flock”.
Thus, we need a theology where atheists with good faith still get into Heaven (or a demonstration that no such atheist with good faith exists). Can we demonstrate that one exists without appealing to the fact that it would be convenient for a theodicy?
What About Natural Suffering?
But now let’s suppose that we’ve solved all these problems with man-made suffering and the true role of Heaven, and turn our attention to “natural suffering”. Imagine someone suffers a painful injury and eventual death in a landslide, or someone catches a dehabilitating and painful disease. Why do we need this kind of suffering?
I struggle to see how Heaven is at all relevant here in the relevant sense — in what way is this “natural” suffering needed for Heaven to exist? Couldn’t Heaven exist as a way to reward people for good behavior even without the need for landslides and disease? Couldn’t we have Heaven AND no natural suffering? If so, wouldn’t that be better?
That Darn Coddling God, Coddling Us With Those Darn Birth Defects!
Here, Cl may point out that suffering on Earth is finite — “temporal and transitory”. Cl has repeatedly made an analogy to stubbing ones toe — such an event is not readily justified by any theodicy, yet Cl says that it clearly doesn’t give us any reason to doubt that God is good.
Clearly we can excuse one stubbed toe, right? We don’t need some God to coddle us. Thus Cl references my version of the all-good God as some “Cosmic Coddler”, and we can then do away with any Problem of Evil by just unfairly requiring God to coddle us with a good Earth before delivering us into Heaven as well. Well, not so fast, I’d say.
The Extreme Argument
Well, taking this argument all the way, I would actually make the astonishing claim that stubbed toes count as slight evidence against (knowable) goodness. Remember, that we’re not just looking for good, but “perfectly good” — and perfect good means as not just little suffering, but the absolute minimum suffering possible.
Thus if we have suffering that is totally unnecessary, why not get rid of it? Even if it is stubbed toes? Why look to Heaven to trump our transitory suffering with eternal joy, when we could also eliminate a lot of the transitory suffering?
The Normal Argument
But even if Cl doesn’t buy this extreme version of the no suffering requirement, it’s easy to see that the suffering on Earth goes quite above and beyond that of stubbed toes. Just look to malaria, which is widely considered pretty bad. Or, if you may permit me one squeamish-inducing emotion-appealing example, I point us to Harlequin ichthyosis, a skin disease that affects babies, thickening their skin into what appear to be scales, in addition to contracting eyes, ears, and other appendages, restricting movement.
To make matters worse, because of resultant cracked skin in locations where normal skin would fold, the skin is more easily accessible by bacteria, resulting in serious risk of fatal infection. Not so fun, and there’s no current cure. And I remind you that it affects babies, who haven’t personally done anything wrong. Original sin, maybe?
I’d be hard pressed to see how someone could say that Harlequin ichthyosis is the same as a stubbed toe, and that God would be coddling us if he got rid of it, or gave us the cure on the cheap. The fact that those of us on Earth are so motivated to get rid of these kind of diseases shows that it has some level of significance to us — especially to those afflicted. No one in real life just sits by and says “Ah well, it’s merely transitory anyway, and we’ll all be compensated in Heaven”.
P4 in my Almost Problem of Evil is a pretty big move — the business of showing that all theodicies fail is a tall task because there always could be a theodicy waiting in the wings that does demonstrate that God is off-the-hook and knowably good after all. On the other hand, we can’t just assume that such a theodicy exists — the mere possibility of such a theodicy is like the mere possibility of a teapot orbiting Jupiter — it means that it’s possible that God is knowably good, but not that God actually is knowably good.
Thus, I welcome all theodicies that are put forth as an attempt to justify the suffering in the world and defeat the Almost Problem of Evil that I’ve outlined. Yet, I’m still unconvinced by this Heaven theodicy. To review, here are all the currently unproven assumptions that the Heaven Theodicy makes that I would need to be convinced — (1) The entry criteria for Heaven are fair; (2) More people go to Heaven than Hell; and (3) Heaven, or some other theodicy, can justify the existence of natural suffering.
And for the purposes of thoroughness, here are all the further unproven assumptions that I’m willing to accept for the sake of argument — (4) Heaven actually does provide people with infinite joy; (5) it’s impossible for God to create freely willed beings that always choose good; and, well, (6) Heaven exists.
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