This is a recanted essay!: As a result of feedback with others who have read this, I now recognize this essay as misleadingly incomplete and partially inaccurate. I keep it up as a record of how I have previously thought, but do not stand by all of it.
It comes as a surprise to no one that we live in a world filled with much suffering.
As you read this sentence, thousands of people will die from one cause or another — plagues, earthquakes, wars, genocide, and disease are among the few. Even more people suffer from less deadly evil — everything from prejudice and bigotry to outright slavery.
Our global history has also been marred by great tragedies — Smallpox is credited with taking 300 million lives; Black Death claimed some hundred million lives; the Spanish Flu claimed around 50 millions lives; the Holocaust claimed several million in overtly painful ways; the Rwandian Genocide saw the slaughter of 500,000 people; and the recent Haiti Earthquake claimed over 200,000 lives… and that’s just a few of our history’s many disasters.
We also live in a world with some particularly scary creatures. The Loa loa worm is A parasite that finds its way into a human eye after a bug bite, where it then begins to very painfully bore through the eye, sometimes leading to blindness. This creature only lives in a human host.
There also exists other parasites such as the guinea worm, which infects those in the sub-Saharan Africa, drilling through the intestinal wall. The worm then grows to a length of three feet after a year, taking up permanent residence under the skin, causing intense pain.
Humans are also prone to epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic disorder which has afflicted several hundred thousand people with extremely fragile skin. This skin is so fragile that even slight pressure on it produces blisters on the scale of second-degree burns. Other symptoms include massive scaring, loss of teeth and fingernails, and even outright disfiguration and blindness. Moreover, the disease onsets at birth, meaning that the suffering starts when the subject is only an infant. There is no current cure.
There’s also Harlequin ichtyosis a skin disease that thickens the skin of babies, creating 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.
Of course, we have done a lot as a species to combat this and have made great strides. Slavery has been nearly eliminated, along with many disease. Smallpox and Polio have been completely eradicated. Infant mortality has gone way down and life expectancy has gone way up. While an unacceptably many still die of preventable diseases, the fact that many diseases are indeed preventable and that this rate of death has gone down so dramatically is a miracle.
Yes, science has produced many regular, repeatable, and testable miracles. If science was a religion, it would be a very worthy religion to follow. The same cannot be said about God — many claim him to be all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, yet he does nothing to exercise this power to save us from the suffering.
If God oversees the world, he is overseeing a world with Loa loa, the guniea worm, epidermolysis bullosa, Harlequin ichtyosis, Malaria, AIDS, Ebola, tuberculosis, polio, bubonic plague, syphillis, smallpox, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and thousands of other painful killers. He is overseeing a world where people get raped, a world with child soldiers, a world with the threat of nuclear warfare, a world with violent murder and hate crime. We can only ask why an all-good God would sit by and watch such horrible suffering?
Formatting the Problem of Evil
Now you may stop me here and recognize this “Problem of Evil” — the most classic and heavily debated argument against the existence of God. One may assert this argument tired, contrived, or an emotional argument based on false assumptions. Yet, many apologists regularly concede this argument to be the most powerful in the atheist’s arsenal, and I consider it, at least in the form I present, to be both compelling and unresolved.
What is this argument, you may ask? It dates back 2,500 years ago, and is attributed to the Roman philosopher Epicurus. Essentially it is two questions in one: Why did God create a world with all this suffering? Why does God do so little to remove this suffering, when this is clearly within his power? (But of course Epicurus was talking about the Greek gods, not the God of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.)
Properly formatted, the objection goes like this:
- Needless suffering, by definition, is any suffering that doesn’t exist because of a higher good.
- Needless suffering, by definition, could be eliminated with no consequences.
- Any all-good entity desires to eliminate all needless suffering.
- Any all-knowing entity would know of all needless suffering, if any needless suffering exists.
- Any all-powerful entity would be capable of eliminating all needless suffering.
- Our world contains needless suffering.
- Therefore from 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and 6, an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing entity cannot exist.
- God, as described by the major religions is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing.
- Therefore from 7 and 8, God as described by the major religions does not exist.
Can We Identify Suffering Without God?
Since this problem is so old, so classic, and so well-cited, potential answers are a dime a dozen. Answering this objection is actually so established that any such answer that attempts to reconcile suffering with God’s goodness get a special name — theodicy.
A common theodicy is popularized by C. S. Lewis goes as follows:
My argument against God [when I was an atheist] was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
– Mere Christianity, 1952, p. 31
The suggestion here attacks premise 6 with the suggestion that we cannot say that our world contains needless suffering (a crooked line) without first having some concept of a perfect good (the straight line) to compare it to. Since, for C. S. Lewis, this perfect good is considered to be God, we must assume God’s existence in order to state the Problem of Evil. However, here you probably see the flaw in the argument — why say that the perfect good is considered to be God? Indeed, this is begging the question, since the goodness of God is exactly what is in question here.
Perhaps we can seek more understanding by asking what “needless suffering” is. Premises 1 and 2 define “needless suffering” in some detail, but more explanation can be given. Specifically, we can recognize suffering by looking for people who appear to be in an undesired emotional or physical state, and recognize a better world by imaging what the world would look like if this suffering did not exist.
It doesn’t take much thinking to recognize that a world without Loa loa, the guniea worm, epidermolysis bullosa, Harlequin ichtyosis, Malaria, AIDS, Ebola, tuberculosis, polio, bubonic plague, syphillis, and smallpox would indeed be a better world. We are therefore comparing our crooked line of suffering not to the straight line of God, but to the straight line of our conception of a perfect world.
Since the person understands what a world without this suffering looks like, the person has a point of comparison that can be made — we have a straight line that we can look at, without needing to reference a God.
Is Any Suffering Needless?
This is perhaps the biggest objection to the Problem of Evil — that God remains all-good because he has eliminated all the suffering that is truly needless, and the only suffering that exists right now is due to a higher good. But what is a higher good, exactly?
Imagine the suffering of someone running around a track sweating and panting, but who receives the higher good of exercise, preventing him from suffering even worse from obesity. Or imagine the suffering of someone who gets a painful injection, but receives the higher good of freedom from disease. If someone gets more benefit from the suffering than they suffer, then the suffering is not needless — instead it exists because of a higher good.
The quintessential example used by apologists is that of the bear with its foot caught in a trap, in anguish. The doctor comes along and wants to free the bear and end its suffering, but must tranquilize the bear to do so. The bear, unable to see the bigger picture, condemns the suffering endured from the tranquilizer dart and further declares the veterinarian to be evil. However, the suffering of the bear was not needless because it resulted in a higher good.
Of course, this analogy fails on two accounts. First, it suggests that God is rather unimaginative — while the doctor must tranquilize the bear, the omnipotent God could just teleport the bear out of the trap, or make the trap turn into a flower, or any variety of possible options that eliminate the need for the bear to suffer at all.
Secondly, it suggests that all suffering exists for a very good, God-given reason. However, this implies a very startling implication: if the world currently perfect and all suffering exists for higher goods, any change in the world to ameliorate suffering would remove higher goods. Quite surprisingly, any attempt to reduce suffering for someone would actually be making the world worse.
If suffering is not needless, then eliminating that suffering also eliminates the higher good, and we are worse off overall by eliminating that suffering. This means that any suffering we are better off without is needless suffering. And it turns out there is a lot of suffering we are better off without; any notion that suffering exists for some greater good is a notion that crippling polio and smallpox was necessary, and that the world is now worse because we eradicated these diseases. Clearly, “God allows suffering for greater good.” and “God wants us to work to ameliorate suffering” are entirely incompatible statements.
Not only that, but any person could cause others to suffer and claim that this suffering is necessary for a greater good, and therefore permitted by God. Since God as described by the major religions is said to command humanity to not preform certain acts of suffering on others, this means that there exists suffering God does not want, which would presumably be needless suffering. If an evil person tortures another, it is agreed that the suffering caused by the torture was indeed needless.
These two facts make a strong case that needless suffering exists. Secondly, since we can eliminate this needless suffering by ourselves, surely an all-knowing God would know how to do so much better, an all-powerful God would be capable of doing so, and an all-good God would want to do. This is the very problem of evil that we just tried to defeat, back again undaunted.
Put in a logical argument:
- If an instance of suffering that is necessary (because of a higher good) were prevented, then that higher good would also be prevented.
- Therefore from 10, preventing necessary suffering makes us worse off.
- There are some instances of suffering that were prevented where we did not become worse off.
- Therefore from 11 and 12, needless suffering exists (and 6 is true).
Is the Suffering Necessary for Free Will?
Another very common theodicy most recently popularized by philosopher Alvin Plantinga is what is known as the Free Will Defense. This defense attacks premises 3 and 5 by stating that (A) since all needless suffering comes from freely willed actions and (B) God does not have the power to affect freely willed actions, therefore God is powerless to stop needless suffering. However, this objection too fails to defend God’s goodness.
First, we can first try to disprove the Free Will Defense by attacking premise A, and demonstrate that there is some needless suffering that does not come from freely willed actions. Certainly some suffering comes from freely willed actions by humans, such as murder or torture, but many suffering is the result of natural causes — one need only point to infectious creatures such as loa loa, devastating disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, or debilitating diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa. How are these great sources of suffering caused by free will?
Quite typically the solution here is to point to some sort of “cosmic warfare” and suggest that all of these natural sources of suffering are caused by the free will of fallen angels; most notably Satan. Yet this first remains purely ad hoc, because there is no indication is given that fallen angels exist or that they have any ability to cause natural disasters or create infectious creatures.
For example, we already have full scientific accounts of the origin of natural disasters that don’t involve or require the intervention of fallen angels, and there is no indication that fallen angels cause natural suffering anywhere, even in holy texts — the Devil is said to tempt people to do bad things, not create hurricanes. Lastly, the book of Job seems to demonstrate that the Devil can only hurt people with God’s permission, and cannot control the weather. Thus, this excuse was essentially made up in order to save God from the Problem of Evil.
Second, we can try to disprove the Free Will Defense by attacking premise B, and demonstrate that God does have the power to affect freely willed actions. Most commonly this objection is phrased in the terms that God could have eliminated free will altogether, and made beings that only did good. While perhaps God could have created a universe where acting immorally was just as impossible as defying thermodynamics, this is not the objection I intend to make. I agree that such an objection cannot be proven and I agree that free will is probably worth the suffering.
However, this still is no excuse for God, for he definitely has the power to influence events. Throughout the Old Testament, God again and again institutes harsh punishment upon those who act contrary to his will. If he truly had no influence over the actions of humanity, there would be no point in his punishing the wicked, and he would be less omnipotent than human beings. This leads to the conclusion that God is capable of influencing the actions of others for good, and therefore he could reduce suffering caused by both humans and any fallen angels. Yet, he does not do so.
Harsh punishment isn’t even needed. God could simply appear to those who do wrong and educate them, a lot like the three ghosts who appeared to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Furthermore, God, being omnipotent, is quite capable of instituting a simple karma system in which bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, and therefore any non-masochistic person (or fallen angel) would do good as it would be obviously in his or her self-interest. God could reduce suffering without even having to act!
Doing so might even be better than creating a Hell, for we could get instant feedback in our current world of what happens when you act uncompassionately or fail to worship God. God could even help our justice system by providing perfect knowledge of who is guilty and how to catch them, preventing any innocent person from being wrongly incriminated and preventing any guilty person from wrongly going free.
One might suggest that this justice system or karma system is exactly what God has created — he has a Heaven where good things happen to good people and a Hell where bad things happen to bad people. Yet this actually concedes the Free Will Defense fails and admits that there is needless suffering in our world that God is not trying to prevent. Instead, this is switching to an entirely different argument: that the needless suffering in our world is inconsequential, because everything will be fine in Heaven and Hell.
We’ll look at that next, along with many more objections, in the next part.
Continued by: The Great Problem of Evil, Part II
Before commenting further, please note that this is a recanted essay that I no longer agree with.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.