Direct continuation of: The Great Problem of Evil, Part II
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.
The Problem of Evil is an argument against the existence of God that asks two questions: 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?
Properly formatted, the objection goes like this:
- God, as described by the major religions, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.
- Any all-knowing entity would know of all the needless suffering that takes place, if there is any.
- Any all-powerful entity would be capable of ameliorating needless suffering greatly, if not outright eliminating it.
- Any all-good entity would desire to eliminate needless suffering to the best of its ability.
- Any all-good entity would not create creatures, diseases, and/or defects which cause needless suffering.
- Our world contains needless suffering.
- Therefore from 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, God is either not all-good, not all-powerful, or not all-knowing.
- Therefore from 1 and 7, the God as described by the major religions does not exist.
With an additional argument establishing the truth of premise 6:
- 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).
In the first post of this three part series, I analyzed several objections: suffering can’t be identified without God, no suffering is needless because all suffering exists for some sort of higher purpose, and that suffering is necessary for free will to exist. Now I will look at several more objections.
In the second post, I analyzed yet more objections: that suffering is necessary for people to have the opportunity to be heroes; suffering is caused by sin, and God is powerless to prevent it, and that suffering is necessary for us to live in a world with consistent physics.
Now I will consider and rebut even more theodicies.
Is Suffering Necessary to Test Us?
This theodicy argues that premise 6 is incorrect, and that suffering exists for God to be able to determine our faith. The best example of this is the book of Job, where God causes Job, an innocent man, to suffer in order to prove that his faith is not based solely on the comfort and grace God has provided on him. However, like the other appeals to a higher good, it too fails for implying that (1) we shouldn’t reduce suffering because that would lead to less opportunities for God to test people’s faith and (2) we are excused in creating suffering since it leads to God being able to test more people’s faith.
However, this flies straight into God’s all-knowing nature — God should know the strength of everyone’s faith without needing to specifically test them with suffering. If he isn’t capable of doing this, then the fact that he judges us fit for eternal damnation anyway would make him immoral. Either way, it should be considered immoral to inflict suffering on anyone for simple knowledge of their faith — especially the great amount of suffering felt by Job.
One might mention that God doesn’t test our faith for his knowledge, since he is all-knowing, but that he tests our faith so that we know how strong our faith is. However, this is a completely different theodicy — one concedes that God isn’t using suffering to test us, but instead using suffering to aid our spiritual growth, a theodicy I rebutted earlier.
Is Suffering Necessary to Show God’s Goodness?
This theodicy also argues that premise 6 is incorrect, and that suffering exists for God to display his goodness — that we would have no way of properly understanding that God is good without some suffering to compare him to. How would we know God is all-good if we have know idea of knowing what “all-good” means?
First, as this is yet another appeal to a higher good, it too fails for implying that (1) we shouldn’t reduce suffering because that would lead to less opportunities for God to show his goodness and (2) we are excused in creating suffering since it leads to God having more opportunities to show his goodness.
Also, the idea that God must cause people to suffer to see how many all-good qualities he has is contradictory. This is the same as the fireman who goes around setting fire to people’s houses so they can see how necessary the fire department is, or the judge who commits crime so that people can see how necessary the justice system is. It makes no sense to act on bad qualities (qualities that create suffering) to prove your good qualities. There is nothing all-good about saving people from a danger that you made.
Do We Suffer Because We Deserve It?
This theodicy suggests that God created and maintains suffering because we sinful humans deserve it. Yet we can immediately question this on the same basis we have repeatedly questioned most other theodicies: it also means that (1) we shouldn’t reduce suffering because that would lessen a deserved punishment and (2) we are excused in creating suffering because it is part of the deserved punishment.
Yet, this idea suffers into the classic problem of good things happening to bad people and bad things happening to good people. It is clearly the case that we do not live in a universe with a good karma system, where bad things are carefully and consistently doled out to people in exactly the proportion they deserve. Instead, suffering seems divided on far less purposed means — earthquakes don’t strike the sinful, but those on fault lines; and criminals don’t attack other criminals, but other innocent people.
The answer to this frequently is that we all have sinful natures, and that the wages of sins are death. According to this theodicy, none of us even have the right to be alive — but luckily we have the grace of God. But if this were true, it would be considered moral to kill anyone you wish, since they don’t deserve to be alive anyway. It is clear that suffering is being doled out on those who do not deserve it, and this theodicy fails.
Can God Do What He Wants?
Another theodicy is that this is God’s world that he created, and therefore he can do whatever he wants. This is the theodicy used commonly by famous apologist William Lane Craig, who says that this is God’s world that he created and therefore he gets free reign to do whatever he wishes.
Yet this theodicy immediately fails, because while God can do whatever he wants, this does not imply that we must judge him to be all-good. A God who does whatever he pleases without compassion or consideration of his creation is rightly deemed evil. Suggesting anything else would be upholding the repugnant and morally false idea that “might makes right”.
This theodicy is frequently backed up by the idea that since moral obligations come from God, God is immune to all moral obligations. Yet, this makes calling God “all-good” completely meaningless, since it means nothing to follow your own obligations. If God’s obligations don’t entail the desire to reduce needless suffering, then we indeed have a basis to judge him to be evil.
Does God Work in Mysterious Ways?
A very common defense for the Problem of Evil is that we simply cannot know the mind of God, and that he allows needless suffering for some completely unknown reason possibly beyond all human understanding, and he is still all-good for this unknown reason. Yet this defense suggests that the Problem of Evil has indeed won — there is no cogent reason why God both created suffering and is not ameliorating it.
This theodicy completely abandons any notion of God’s goodness — we are essentially saying that God is all-good but we have no reason or understanding to why we are saying this, which amounts to a meaningless claim. If we don’t understand God’s actions, we must also concede that we don’t understand God’s goodness, and therefore have no idea if God is good or evil. God could be evil and tricking us into thinking he is good, for all we know.
This is made weirder by the fact that most theists scramble to call God good the moment we see an answered prayer or the power of love, and only cry unknown purposes when we accuse God of evil — point to the existence of love and God is clearly good, but point to the existence of loa loa and God is mysterious. This is both entirely inconsistent and a perfect example of special pleading. We should easily be able of calling God evil for all of the suffering in the world just as easily as we call God good for all of the joy in the world.
Lastly, if God has an ultimate, unknown purpose for all of this suffering, how do we know we don’t thwart it by curing disease and stopping crime? We could be thwarting God’s plan. God could give us the knowledge of what his plan is (even create us in a way that we would understand it), but he does not. If God is all-powerful, he could easily grant us knowledge of his plan — the only thing that excuses this is either malevolence or nonexistence.
Do Atheists Have a Basis to Judge God?
This very last theodicy is almost a jeer — “Nahh, this problem of evil is irrelevant because you can’t judge God.” However, this ignores the fact that people judge god on a daily basis — everyone who judges God to be all-good, for example. Unless this label “all-good” is absolutely meaningless, we would expect God to act like any other person who is good, if not better. If god was compassionate (a trait of a good person), we would expect God to ameliorate all of the suffering within his power to do so. Yet, God does not. Therefore, the label of “all-good” as given to God is either meaningless or undeserved. This is the entire Problem of Evil.
We know that suffering is something that we ought to judge harshly, since it is universal among humans that no one wants to suffer. We also know this from any formation of morality (my own forthcoming), that we ought to condemn those who allow others to suffer needlessly or even cause suffering themselves. Doing either is uncompassionate, and therefore God is uncompassionate. Since any formulation of all-good or even perfectly just entails compassion, God is not all-good or perfectly just.
Therefore, we can condemn anyone who fails to ameliorate all of the suffering within their power, including God. Given that God is an all-powerful being, he would not be inconvenienced in the slightest by doing so either. This makes him a moral monster, clearly not worthy of worship.
The Problem of Evil still stands — after analyzing fourteen different theodicies, there is no excuse for why God does not work to ameliorate needless suffering, or why he created needless suffering in the first place. Therefore, an all-good God does not exist.
Imagine what our world would be like if God came down and worked with our justice system, using his perfect knowledge to immediately identify those deserving punishment and help capture them. Doing so would immediately reveal he exists and is all-good, and therefore cause billions to flock to the one true religion, saving all of these souls. Additionally, no one would have to suffer wrongful imprisonment and everyone would benefit from the drastically reduced crime rates, since every criminal would know they would instantly be caught. And this could all be done without even coming close to violating anyone’s free will.
Imagine what our world would be like if the holy text of the one true religion contained specifications on the germ theory of disease and modern medicine thousands of years before humans invented the medicine on their own. Again, God’s existence and the one true religion would be undeniably proven, and billions of souls would be saved from damnation. Additionally, billions of people would be saved the suffering and short deaths caused by the world’s most ferocious diseases, even if these were only the product of physics God had no way of fixing.
Both of these solutions not only prove God’s glory beyond a doubt, but give billions of people the information they need to make an informed choice to accept God and dramatically reduce suffering. There is absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t expect God to do this, because not only do all fourteen theodicies individually fail to justify God’s action, but these two suggestions dodge all fourteen theodicies.
Moreover, if these two solutions were easily invented by a mere mortal college student, imagine what an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God could come up with. In noticing that God does not undertake either of these two options or anything better is strong evidence that God does not exist, is not all-powerful, is not all-knowing, or is not all-good. We therefore have compelling evidence that the God as described by Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or several other traditions does not exist.
For a fun parable that explains the Problem of Evil and defends it against twelve theodicies, see Mark Vuletic’s “Twelve Officers”
A Call to Action
Instead of counting on a God who never comes, we should realize the true nature of the universe and notice that suffering is dispensed randomly and uncompassionately. However, if the universe does not care about us, this just means that is more urgent that we all get together and care about ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, humanity has made great stride in ameliorating suffering to date, and we can only expect to make more progress.
I admit that a belief in God has indeed inspired people to combat suffering and I understand that such a belief also gives people comfort in times of trouble. However, for others a belief in God breeds complacency — they do nothing about the needless suffering around us because they think God will come and make it all better, or everything will be fine once they reach Heaven. There’s no good reason to think this is the case, and it is dangerous to consider inaction.
Whenever a disaster strikes, there is always a small minority of the religious who cheer that a group saw their God mandated punishment, and do nothing to help them. Diseases throughout history — the Black Plague, AIDS, and malaria — have all been rationalized away as what the sinners deserve. While I think the Problem of Evil is a compelling reason to adopt atheism, I think it is more than that — it is a problem to be solved by humanity, since there is no divine to help us. The Problem of Evil is not only a call to nonbelief, but a call to compassionate action. There is suffering in this world, and unless we’re just as bad as God, we also ought to ameliorate or eliminate it.
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.