The World Is Full Of Awfulness

The problem of evil is perhaps one of the strongest arguments against the character of a God who is described as loving and powerful.  Skeptics challenge Christian theists with this objection in an effort to show an inconsistency between the description of God as presented in the Bible and what appears to be needless suffering.  However, some Christians (and Theists of every stripe) also wrestle with this seeming paradoxical reality.  Why is the problem of evil so powerful?  Why do so many people struggle with this issue, regardless of their theological bent?  Can the existence of evil and the existence of God as described in the Bible coexist without contradiction?

The intellectual objection is a logical argument against the existence of God.

  • The Bible claims that a loving and powerful God exists
  • Seemingly needless evil in the world exists
  • A loving and powerful God would not allow such evil
  • Therefore the God as described in the Bible does not exist

What the intellectual objection does not take into account is our limited perspective.  We only know the here-and-now from our vantage point.  It is certainly possible that a loving and powerful God exists and has sufficient moral reasons to permit the amount of evil we experience.  And as long as it is possible that there is a morally sufficient reason to permit the evil we experience, the objection fails.

The second objection is an emotional one, and the most difficult to overcome.   The world appears to be filled with unnecessary and pointless evil, both in quality and quantity. It seems doubtful that there could be a God who has a morally sufficient reason for allowing the evil and suffering we experience.  The questions “God, why me?” and “why do bad things happen to good people?” are not unreasonable.

So, is God’s existence probable?  Probabilities are determined by the background information we consider.  For example, suppose John lives in Texas, and 70% of people who live in Texas prefer Coke to Pepsi.  The probability of John preferring Coke to Pepsi is highly probable.  But if we learn that John is not a native to Texas, but is from Connecticut, and 70% people from Connecticut prefer Pepsi to Coke, this gives us new information to consider and it could be said that it is unlikely John would prefer Coke to Pepsi.  Probabilities are relative to background information.  Likewise, when the full scope of the evidence for God’s existence is considered, it is probable that God exists.

If we only consider evil and suffering when we contemplate the existence of God, then it’s easy to see why so many people conclude that God’s existence is improbable.  But, the existence of evil and suffering is not the only relevant evidence for God’s existence.  For instance, cosmological arguments point to a Creator for the universe. The teleological argument points to an Intelligent Designer for the universe in all its complexity.  Arguments for objective morality point to a transcendent foundation.  These arguments and others for the existence of God and the reliability and authority of the Bible need to be taken into account as a whole.  Therefore, isolating the problem of evil and suffering in exclusion to all the relevant evidence would not be painting a complete picture.

So what’s wrong with these defenses of the coexistence of a good God and the presence of evil?  They do not satisfy our condition — be it our physical afflictions, or feelings of emotional abandonment.  Even though we can know and trust that there may be morally sufficient reasons for God to allow suffering, it doesn’t relieve the suffering.  There is a frustration, and possibly antagonism with knowing there might be a good reason for our suffering that is inaccessible to us.  

Of course, it only works like this with bad things.  Think about how you would feel if your boss called you into his office to inform you he was firing you, but refused to tell you why.  Were you a bad employee; or that he cannot afford to keep you? Or is it because he just doesn’t like your shoes.  Suppose your spouse died on the operating table, but the doctors won’t tell you why, or how.  Was it an unavoidable, unforeseeable circumstance outside the power of the surgeon’s control?  Or was it because they all went to lunch halfway through shutting off all the equipment leaving your spouse unattended to bleed to death?  You just don’t know, and that can feel just as bad.  But how much would it consume you to be left in the dark about why you received a hefty pay raise at work, could you handle not knowing why?

It seems to be more a problem of ignorance more so than a problem of circumstance.  I think most of us could handle even severe adversity if we were privvy to why it were happening.  This is the reason the problem of evil and suffering is so compelling and persistant.  We have a natural drive to find answers.  When we don’t have an answer, we speculate—that it could be anything, or nothing at all.  And that’s really the problem of the problem of evil and suffering.

Comments

  1. You seem to be arguing that there are a preponderance of weak, unconvincing arguments for theism, therefore it is inappropriate to object to the weakness or unconvincingness of any one argument because there are so many others.

    You say, “And as long as it is possible that there is a morally sufficient reason to permit the evil we experience, the objection fails.” But you seem to understand that possible is not the same thing as probable, because you then launch into a discussion of probability. But what is your reason for considering all this probable? Keep in mind that the problem of evil is specific to a loving, benevolent god as in Christianity — not just some vague supernatural creator being as in the other “arguments” you mention. Why is it probable that a loving god has some reason for making millions of children die of starvation? Why is it probable that a loving god had some reason for the bubonic plague, for ebola, for AIDS? As you wrote, “Probabilities are determined by the background information we consider.” I suspect that you find this loving god probable because you are considering him to exist from the get-go.

    • I think you really have to stretch in order to interpret what I wrote as an acknowledgement of a preponderance of weak arguments for theism. In fact, I don’t even consider this a defense of theism, per se. What I am saying is that if the only thing you consider is the existence of evil and suffering when you are trying to determine whether God exists, or even probably exists, then you are not taking into account the full scope of the evidence for the existence of God, and will likely conclude God likely does not exist based on incomplete information.

      I actually believe the POE has been adequately answered intellectually. it is people’s emotions and feelings which hinder their resolution of God and the POE. It is not a liability on the part of the theodicy, but it’s a liability on the part of the individual.

      Perhaps it isn’t entirely clear to you that I tend to argue from a minimum. What I mean is, I will grant for sake of argument often a point a skeptic has made, then offer a reason why I still believe the conclusion fails. In this case, I fully understand the difference between possibility and probability. But the fact that it is even possible that there could exist a morally sufficient reason to permit the quality and quantity of suffering is enough to defeat the objection (intellectually) that evil and suffering and a loving and powerful God cannot coexist.

      “Keep in mind that the problem of evil is specific to a loving, benevolent god as in Christianity — not just some vague supernatural creator being as in the other “arguments” you mention. Why is it probable that a loving god has some reason for making millions of children die of starvation? Why is it probable that a loving god had some reason for the bubonic plague, for ebola, for AIDS?”

      (Allowing and causing are completely different btw) You’re kind of making my point here for me. It is the unknown which makes the POE so persuasive. It is emotionally captivating, and if we do not have an insight into why a loving and powerful God would permit what is permitted, we reject the idea that there may be a morally sufficient reason to allow it because we are not privvy to all the answers.

      On a side note, why are you so certain that I start with God existing and then attempt to prove it, instead of having been convinced by arguments and concluding God exists? I’m not going to hyjack the comment section here with this, but there isn’t anywhere else to do it, so I’d like you to just elaborate that briefly. I have not always been a Christian, only 6-7 years, and I have not always been a theist. So why do you continue to talk at me as if I presume God? Do you really expect me to begin every commentary with an argument for God’s existence?

  2. Allowing and causing are not completely different when you’re talking about an omnipotent being, in charge of the entire universe, without whose will nothing happens.

    I don’t think you were acknowledging a preponderance of weak arguments. I think you were citing what you considered a preponderance of arguments, all of which I have studied and found to be deeply, deeply lacking. If this is all you can come up with as evidence for the Christian god’s existence:

    But, the existence of evil and suffering is not the only relevant evidence for God’s existence. For instance, cosmological arguments point to a Creator for the universe. The teleological argument points to an Intelligent Designer for the universe in all its complexity. Arguments for objective morality point to a transcendent foundation. These arguments and others for the existence of God and the reliability and authority of the Bible need to be taken into account as a whole.

    …you have to be presuming God in order to believe any of those count as “evidence.” (For example: objective morality doesn’t “point” to the existence of God in any way, unless by “God” you mean some general abstract moral truth. The Christian god is a person, not “the concept of kindness” or some such New Age nonsense. Also, I have yet to see any reason why the Bible should be considered a reliable text except as a description of the mythology believed in by an ancient tribe of people.) If you think objective morality allows you to leap to God, or if you think that the appearance of complexity allows you to leap to God, you are making some pretty big logical leaps.

    I don’t expect you to derive your entire belief system in every post. But if you’re going to claim to defeat one objection to Christianity mostly by nodding in the general direction of entirely different concepts, none of which hold water, you’re going to have to do a little more work to be convincing.

    • Your idea of omnipotence discounts the free agency of man. Sure God allows things to happen through a permissive will, but not necessaritly through a declaritive will. In the same way, when I was 6 years old, my grandfather had just finished mowing his lawn and the muffler on the mower was still hot. As I went to touch it, he warned me it was hot, and I would get burned. I touched it and got burned. He could have stopped me, he didn’t. He didn’t cause me to touch it even though he was in a position to prevent me from it. I learned to never touch things that people say are hot.

      I’m not taking this time to convince you those arguments are definitive proof. I can’t make you believe anything. But just because you find them lacking and weak, does not mean they are not sound and valid. Remember…free agency? I think objective morality would point to a personal being (not the topic of discussion) and not an abstract concept. Abstract things do not stand in causal relation to anything. An abstract concept or idea is not binding or obligatory.

      Well, I’ve made my points about the POE above. This is not meant to be pages long treatments of issues, I’m not sure what else you want. If it is possible (perhaps it needs to be probable in order for you to believe it, but it only needs to be possible to be a valid sound argument) that a loving and powerful God could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil and suffering, then a loving God and the presence of evil and suffering are not mutually exclusive. One does not logically necessitate the exclusion of the other. You might not be compelled, but there isn’t much I can do about that.

  3. Oh, additionally: If you are willing to, essentially, suspend your disbelief because of mortal ignorance in the face of what seems like evil acts perpetrated by your god, I’m curious if you also suspend judgment of apparently good acts — abundant harvests, peaceful conflict resolution, cures for diseases, the job promotion you really wanted. Do you thank your god for his love then, or do you hesitate to use your inferior understanding of the world to assume his intentions?

    • I don’t attribute every found nickel on the side walk to divine intervention. I also don’t need to know why a particular prayer is answered. I don’t need to know all the whys in order to be thankful.

    • Let me ask you this. Have you ever been through something you really wished you didn’t, wished it would stop/go away/didn’t have to experience, only to realize something beneficial resulted in the end?

      I remember something insightful from the movie Bruce Almighty, remember when he was at his computer and was attempting to answer prayers, but got fed up and approved them all? Do you remember the resulting chaos? can you think of something you have wanted in life only not to get it and realize, you were better off in the long run for not getting it?

      We don’t need to the whys to understand and realize there can be good from suffering or an evil event.

      This may be a “Pastorism” so I’m not quoting it authoritativly. There have been women who were raped, became pregnant and didn’t have an abortion. Later in life they became pro-life advocates and counceling pregnant teens to keep the baby. How many children have been born who would otherwise have been aborted if not for women who had experienced the evil of rape? Good can come from evil.

  4. If it could be demonstrated that these arguments were sound and valid, I would not find them lacking and weak. I don’t find them lacking and weak out of some sheer will to reject them. I’ve actually considered them, and they don’t make sense to me.

    It sounds to me like your grandfather was being kind of a jerk. Now, maybe he was a little bit farther away and chose not to drop what he was carrying and run to you, or maybe he was looking away and didn’t see you. But if I was sitting right next to a little child about to burn themselves, I wouldn’t sit quietly and watch. (Would you say to a child, “Don’t swim in those shark-infested waters!” and then just sun yourself on the pier while the kid got his limbs chewed off? That’ll teach him never to swim with sharks again!) The thing is, God isn’t too busy, or unable to see what’s happening everywhere — right? Every time God makes a decision not to stop something, he’s making a decision that he’d rather it happen than that it not happen. He gets to choose whether everything happens or doesn’t. Isn’t that what “nothing outside of his will” means?

    Now, I’m not saying that I’ve never been initially disappointed by something only to find a silver lining in it later. I’ve also occasionally gotten something I hoped for and been disappointed by the result. I’m just saying that good things and bad things seem to happen in roughly the proportions I would expect from a chaotic and random world, one not guided by any benevolent forces. I’m unconvinced that there’s any way that nation-wrecking national disasters could be seen as “for the greater good.” Of course some good things can come out of suffering, but it seems pretty monstrous to say that the suffering was absolutely necessary in order to make the good outcome happen — especially when you are working in a framework with an omnipotent deity. Many people who were molested as children have become very outspoken activists against child molestation. I’m sure their efforts have helped many people. But do you really think that it wouldn’t be a better world if, for example, God had chosen to make a world where nobody had the desire to molest children in the first place?

  5. Terrance H. says:

    NPQ,

    If God were to stop something, then that would discount the point of free will, don’t you find?

    I have my own questions, as John well knows. But I have comfort in knowing that we humans beings, for the most part, have the power to prevent sickness, death, and suffering if only the apathy would cease. So many people are armchair liberals and humanists – no offense. They sit around and scoff at others, highlighting the sordid condition of the human spirit. But guess what? All they ever do is sit around and highlight the squalor. Most of them make no effort to alleviate it.

    This, I think, can be proved by a simple study that showed conservatives give more money to charitable causes, volunteer more of their time, and give more blood. Liberals are generally the group most likely to complain, and they, on average, do far less than those who do not complain. Interesting, I thought.

  6. rautakyy says:

    John Barron Jr, what if the nazis actually had a very good reason to do all the atrocities they committed? If you do not know for sure they did not have a good and benevolent reason for their actions, if you are not in posession of absolute knowledge about that, you have then a reason to believe they could have had some mysterious unknown reasons, and just maybe the jews should have been destroyed to the last man? Would you agree? I would not. We humans evaluate the world and gods according to our knowledge, not according to what we might not know. No gods should expect us to give them credit on things we are totally unaware of.

    It is not enough for a sane man to accept a god is benevolent, if the said god put malaria on the humanity or did not stop some evil supernatural entity from doing so. Yes, we have medicine for malaria nowadays, but for centuries humanity did not have any means to cure it. And that has nothing to do with free will. No, it does not prove there are no gods. It only proves they are not omnipotent or benevolent. As these are claims made for the case of the god of the chrisians, it is that particular god that looses plausibility by the simple observation of the world.

    • John Barron says:

      Unfortunately for your point, we know why the Nazis did what they did and don’t have to speculate.

  7. rautakyy says:

    Hahaha! Yes, we think we know, but I am asking do you know for absolute certainty, or is your truth only the most likely possibility within the information you have? It is not, however my point. It is yours. That the uncertainty of information is enough for us to assume what seems evil, is propably not, because we are to assume the perpetrator is a good guy since his supporters claim so.

    The fact that we have an understanding about why the nazis did what they did, is the very reason I used this example. It was their actions that determine them as evil, not their party policy program. The fact that it says in their policy that it is good to kill all the jews, does not make it so. Any more than the fact that the bible claims god is benevolent and omnipotent, make a god to be that. It is the claimed actions as well as inaction of the alledged god that determine wether this deity has benevolent nature or omnipotent capabilities. Do you understand?

    If any of the claimed properties of said god contradict each other they make the whole assumption of a god, or any god for that matter, less plausible.

  8. God did not create evil. God created a choice. There cannot be love without the possibility of evil. Man actualized the evil by choosing to disobey God. We brought on evil because we chose it, not because God allowed it. God created us with the capacity to love. Robots do not love. They only act according to their programming. God did not make us robots. But, with the ability to love must logically be the ability to do evil.

    So, the existence of evil is actually evidence of a God.

  9. Yes, I also see the existence of good and evil as a reason to believe a transcendent moral God exists. I just can’t bring myself to believe it’s all just preference. Our own experience even speaks against that. We might be able to talk ourselves into rationalizing raping then killing children is ok. But then again, we would need to be talked into it. It couldn’t just be decided one day that it is good.

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