Debate: The Problem of Suffering

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

While debating the moral argument for God from the question I posed: “Do Atheists Judge God’s Morality?” at AskAnAtheist.wordpress.com, (you can also read that debate here), this debate happened. It follows the same type of discussion but later focuses on the problem of evil and suffering, often the biggest deterrent an atheist sees to accepting the reality of God.

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Happy Heretic

Forget the bible and god which are created by humans. Look around and it is usually obvious what is right and what is wrong. A good guide is provided by Buddhism which is a non-theistic path – if it causes more suffering it is wrong; if it relieves suffering and leads to happiness it is right. The Buddha insisted you make your own mind up. Slavish observance of holy books leads to mega ****loads of suffering therefore…..

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Anonymous

Bad answer.

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Happy Heretic

Bad answer, ‘cos it challenges your brainwashed views? Bad answer ‘cos it pulls open your blinkers ? Or maybe bad answer ‘cos it is true.

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Mike Johnson

I’m guessing ‘bad answer’ because it really isn’t an answer or a challenge to theism. You say morality is obvious (correct) but say nothing to account for its source. You say Buddhism is a “good guide” but offer no foundation for “good.”

And suffering does not necessarily equate to evil. There is pain and suffering in childbirth, healing, some forms of exercise, and telling and hearing the truth, and these are good things. There can be happiness in painless activities such as lying, adopting ignorance, smoking weed, or murdering someone with chloroform, and these are obviously wrong.

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Don

>You say Buddhism is a “good guide” but offer no foundation for “good.”

Atheists don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality. We can and do, but that is irrelevant to whether God provides a basis for morality.

>And suffering does not necessarily equate to evil. There is pain and suffering in childbirth, healing, some forms of exercise, and telling and hearing the truth, and these are good things.

They are only good things when they are necessary to achieve a greater good. An omnipotent God would never have to use suffering. He could accomplish any logically possible end via any logically possible means.

We know he left many horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. If he could have created a kinder world and just didn’t, then that is chilling. It seems he just likes suffering.

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Mike Johnson

“Atheists don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality. We can and do, but that is irrelevant to whether God provides a basis for morality.”

But in the attempt, an atheistic basis for morality is incoherent. The only logical source for morality is something that would have to be remarkably similar to the God described in the Bible, if not God Himself. As I’ve argued above, (Dec. 7 post), and the point of this thread, the mere fact that you pass moral judgment on the character of the Christian God shows that you already assume your moral obligations have enough scope and immutability and authority to actually obligate God. Can you do otherwise?

“An omnipotent God would never have to use suffering. He could accomplish any logically possible end via any logically possible means. We know he left many horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. If he could have created a kinder world and just didn’t, then that is chilling. It seems he just likes suffering.”

This was a “kinder world” when God created it (Gen. 1). It was mankind who sinned by choosing to rebel against God’s good moral law. Is it “logically possible” to create man without a free will with which to make choices? Yes, but what kind of world would that be? In His omnipotence, God could intervene and stop our sin right before we do it by suddenly changing the course of our actions and thoughts when we are headed in the wrong direction. But what sort of maddening experience would that be, every hour of every day, waking up in a new place in spacetime with new thoughts? In His omniscience, He could logically prevent the desire from which sin always grows. But how miserable would we be without desire? God could remove everything and everybody in our lives that could tempt us and lead to evil desires. But since any thing and any person can be a temptation, what would be left?

Out of love, God made a “good” creation. Humans messed it up, and God, again out of love, provided a solution to our mess through the atoning sacrifice of His Son on the cross. And obviously suffering was a crucial part of that, but it passes your own requirement for acceptable suffering: It was “necessary to achieve a greater good”, which was redemption. This was the only suffering that pleased God.

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Happy Heretic

OK. You can not show me this god that you posit. ( For he is imagined), but suffering is not imagined, and the world has plenty of that. Forget biblical ideas about ‘evil’. Buddhism asks you to look around and decide for your self. If something causes more suffering it is unskilful, if it reduces suffering, causes happiness and freedom, it is skilful. It is a simple but far reaching and profound basis for morality without divine intervention which, if we consider the history of theism has been a cause of immense suffering. ( One might even call that evil if one thought in these atavistic terms.)

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Don

>But in the attempt, an atheistic basis for morality is incoherent. The only logical source for morality is something that would have to be remarkably similar to the God described in the Bible, if not God Himself.

This is a good discussion to have, but it certainly is not a necessary conclusion. There are many candidates for naturalistic morality. But again, that has nothing to do with this thread.

>the mere fact that you pass moral judgment on the character of the Christian God shows that you already assume your moral obligations have enough scope and immutability and authority to actually obligate God.

No. I am arguing on Christianity. Yahweh fails to be loving under Christianity. He is sovereign and under no jurisdiction that could pronounce him good or evil. To say he is Good without applying an external standard is like saying Kim Jong Un is good. We can say that, and hope that every action he takes is the best possible thing for the country, but then good becomes meaningless. He can order opposite things and we would have to say they were both good.

So, either goodness does not apply to God, or we apply some standard of goodness to him and see how he measures up. Yahweh only measures up against an authoritarian standard that renders Goodness empty.

>This was a “kinder world” when God created it (Gen. 1). It was mankind who sinned by choosing to rebel against God’s good moral law.

Come now. Are you prepared to dump science? Do you accept that the world was a paradise before The Fall? If so, you render yourself unconversable on countless topics. But EVEN IF, this were true, God had some choice in what followed from The Fall. After The Fall, women didn’t start exploding during childbirth. Their pain was multiplied. God had choices. Thus, it seems that even if ALL the suffering was caused by The Fall, God still determined what is possible and what is not.

We can’t kill with our thoughts. God left this power out of creation. It seems he could have left more horrors out, say pediatric cancer.

Here’s a funny video that makes this point:

Mr. Diety Episode 1: Mr. Deity and the Evil

>Is it “logically possible” to create man without a free will with which to make choices?

Much suffering has nothing to do with human free will. EVEN IF it was ALL caused by human choices, it is not just for infants to suffer because of the sins of others.

>Humans messed it up

Horrendous animal suffering existed for eons before The Fall. EVEN IF we say it didn’t, we drop science and say that the lion lay down with the lamb in the pre-Cambrian, it would be unjust for an infant to suffer a birth defect for the sins of her ancestors.

>God, again out of love, provided a solution to our mess through the atoning sacrifice of His Son on the cross.

But he could have just forgiven us. The brutal spectacle of the cross was optional. Again, it seems he just chooses more bloody methods than he has to. He has options and excellent connections. He could have ‘saved’ us in any way at all.

It seems reasonable to say that an omnipotent God could have achieved all his aims with less suffering than we observe. If he couldn’t, if ALL of it is necessary, then God is locked in. He can’t answer prayer. He is more like a force of nature, a bystander to creation.

God either can’t or won’t reduce suffering further. And he could do it without infringing on our free will. Humans don’t have a bomb that can destroy the solar system. God set things up so that we haven’t discovered it yet, or it isn’t possible. He could have set things up so that we couldn’t have made nuclear weapons, without infringing on our free will. Hiroshima was made possible by God’s choices, too. With great power comes great responsibility.

Any conceivable god is weak, evil or absent.

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Mike Johnson

” I am arguing on Christianity.”

As an atheist, you morally condemn God using morality that, according to your own worldview, can have no jurisdiction over Him. In that respect you are arguing from atheism (but making a pretty good case for theism).

On Christianity, God is beyond condemnation from anyone because He doesn’t reside below any moral law but also because He doesn’t contradict His own moral law. Any and all good comes from God as part of His nature. He didn’t decide to be good; good doesn’t exist apart from Him. There is no comparison to Kim Jong Un’s moral compass and God’s moral law, because Kim is a follower and God is ultimately the leader. Kim recognizes objective moral law and tries to follow it, often poorly, and can be shown to contradict himself. All humans fail at this at some point. God cannot be shown to contradict Himself. It is reasonable to think that moral law has an external origin (Christianity claims it comes from God) but there is no reason to assume that God would need some external standard to pronounce Him good. Then we’re on to an infinite regress.

There is really nothing that shows we have to “dump science” to accept a historical Genesis account as there is plenty of conversation out there about that, most of which will be way off topic here. The Bible makes clear that man’s sin began with the fall in Genesis 3, but there was probably a certain amount of pain before then. I don’t think we can blame all pain and suffering on sin. Adam may have stepped on a stick, and Eve’s pain during childbirth “increased”,; it didn’t suddenly appear. Much more pain and suffering is present in the world because of the decaying effects of sin and we often react to it sinfully. God didn’t create cancer; cancerous cells are most likely a biological effect of sin—not necessarily directly the sin of the one with cancer, but the sinful condition of the world (Romans 8:19-22).

And of course God retains the ability to choose, but He clearly allows us the ability to choose between right and wrong. And God rightly judges and must punish sin, of which pain and suffering is often part of those consequences. Is it fair for sin to go unpunished? Justice is something we all crave because we are made in the image of a just God. It’s a logical absurdity to expect God to deal with some sins and forgive other sins. He couldn’t “have ‘saved’ us in any way at all” because logic is also a part of His nature—He cannot arbitrarily ignore sin and still be just. The very nature of justice is that payment is made for crime, by someone. The only payment that could be made for all sin perfectly is the blood of a perfect sacrifice. Only God is perfect and sinless and therefore adequate payment.

Thanks for the video link. It fails however because it completely ignores the reality of sin and its role in pain and suffering—God allows evil in that He allows us freedom to choose good or evil. The God represented in the video isn’t true to the Biblical form. And to suggest that if “Mr. Deity” allowed disease and natural disasters then no one would believe in Him doesn’t square with the present reality of a world that is conservatively 90% theistic, in spite of disease and natural disasters. But yes, it was funny. 🙂

I’ve explained why God just couldn’t logically set up the world in some way that doesn’t take away both our opportunity to sin and our freedom. It’s true that children often suffer from no direct action of their own, and I admit there is no easy way to talk about that. But sin always has consequences that affect others, and we expect that. If the CEO of a company goes to jail for insider trading, the company may suffer and jobs may be lost as a result his choices. We then blame the CEO and his sin rather than the system of cause and effect that is a necessary reality. If God is the Creator and Author of life, He has the right to allow life and to allow it to be taken away. He could have morally good reasons for doing so according to a plan that we should have no expectation as finite humans to be able to know or foresee.

“God either can’t or won’t reduce suffering”.

God does reveal enough of His plan, which involves redemption (John 3:16) and a new creation (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the end of unneeded suffering. I understand that it’s hard to see past all that is wrong with the world now. It may seem easier to say any conceivable god is weak, evil or absent. But weakness just doesn’t fit a God who created the universe, and evil doesn’t fit a God who represents good, and absence doesn’t fit a God everyone seems to want to talk about (and to) so much. Without power, goodness or presence I don’t think He would have the following He has, or at least without power and presence, wouldn’t be able to trick anyone into following Him. The good news about faith is that you don’t need 100% certainty to put it in something. Nobody has 100% certainty about crossing the street safely, yet we all take the steps, despite the fact that some don’t make it across alive. Faith requires reasonable belief.

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Don

” I am arguing on Christianity.” As an atheist, you morally condemn God using morality that, according to your own worldview, can have no jurisdiction over Him. In that respect you are arguing from atheism (but making a pretty good case for theism).

My worldview is irrelevant. Suppose Golda Meir was accused of murder and Hitler is the prosecuting attorney. His worldview would have no bearing on the case. He could present facts and definitions that would hold no matter what he thought. That’s what I’m doing. Comments about me are irrelevant.

I am pointing out contradictions within Christianity. Jesus told us to love God and our neighbor. But that requires us to love a God who does not love our neighbor as much as he could. The facts show that God could have created a kinder world and still reached all his aims. Thus, there is more suffering than is necessary for Him for any purpose.

>On Christianity, God is beyond condemnation from anyone because He doesn’t reside below any moral law

Yes, you can say this, but then Good loses all meaning. God is not Good in this scenario because there is no way to judge him to be Good. He is simply God, and if we follow him, we are following mere Power, not Goodness. He may not be evil. Goodness may simply not apply to him. But we can’t say he’s good, either.

>God cannot be shown to contradict Himself.

If God allows more suffering than is necessary, then he is not as Good as he could be. We know God left some horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. There is no contradiction in a world without Stevens-Johnson syndrome, for example, yet there it is. God had something to do with that.

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To keep God, we must admit he is not as loving as he could be and he plays favorites. I can’t follow such a God and love my neighbor, because following him requires that I sign on to a regime that could, with no effort at all, treat my fellows better, but simply doesn’t.

>there is no reason to assume that God would need some external standard to pronounce Him good.

For Goodness to have any meaning, there must be some standard. This is a general rule. Many victims of abuse say their abuser loves them no matter how he treats them. (This is Job’s situation.) If ‘love’ can mean anything, then it means nothing.

>cancerous cells are most likely a biological effect of sin—not necessarily directly the sin of the one with cancer, but the sinful condition of the world (Romans 8:19-22).

This is plainly unjustified scientifically, and it would be unfair even if it were true.

>Is it fair for sin to go unpunished?

Are you suggesting that having a child born without a brain is a suitable punishment for something? If we say it is, then Justice means nothing. 1,000 kids die every hour of starvation. The sheer amounts of suffering make a mockery of any notion that our world is Just. And if we say it is Just in some inscrutable way, then we are simply saying we don’t know HOW it is Just. This is the same as saying we don’t know IF it is Just. If Justice can mean anything, then it means nothing.

>He couldn’t “have ‘saved’ us in any way at all” because logic is also a part of His nature

There is nothing illogical in God doing something kinder than the Crucifixion. Pepsi can make its ads violent, sexy or soothing. They have choices, and so does God.

>It’s true that children often suffer from no direct action of their own, and I admit there is no easy way to talk about that.

This is all we need to cast doubt on God’s goodness. It boils down to our emphasis: do we place more weight on an invisible, disputed God, or the solid, incontrovertible agony of our fellows?

>But sin always has consequences that affect others

Give God some credit. He could be a perfect accountant and have set things up so that sin accrues, fairly and proportionately, to each sinner.

>If God is the Creator and Author of life, He has the right to allow life and to allow it to be taken away.

Ok, but then he is a tyrant. I have 3 kids, but I don’t have the right to kill them. Once a being is conscious, we don’t own them. If God uses kids for his purposes, then he is a sadistic psychopath, ESPECIALLY because it would never be necessary for him for any purpose. He could accomplish anything at all without using kids.

>redemption (John 3:16) and a new creation (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the end of unneeded suffering.

What is God waiting for? If he can end suffering, it seems sadistic to stand by for centuries letting some sort of script unfold.

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Mike Johnson

Any legal judgment appeals to a higher law, so you’re right that personal views of right and wrong don’t really matter in that case. Any moral judgment also appeals to a higher law, correct? If not, then we are appealing to the very thing you imply should have no bearing on the case—our own worldview. And if moral judgment is an exception to that, then why? If relative morality is true, then no two person’s moral claims are guaranteed to be the same, and all claims are meaningless. I don’t think you believe that your claims are meaningless.

Clearly, we don’t live as if morality was conceived by humans. Morality presents itself as universal law over and above humanity. Christianity makes perfect sense of objective moral law, and atheism really doesn’t know what to do with it. The reason your worldview IS relevant is because your arguments are based on an atheistic worldview and are self-defeating. Your claim that God is immoral is grounded in objective moral law that couldn’t exist without God, or some other being that has many of God’s attributes, including the intelligence and transcendence to place His law on our hearts.

You are free to critique Christianity and morally condemn God for “not loving our neighbor as much as he could.” But in doing so you are obviously expecting any God to respect the same moral codes humans respect (or at least the ones you respect). If atheism is true, then any being outside of humanity cannot be held accountable to human law. If theism is true, then moral law would naturally be seen as something that is relevant to our understanding of God.

If Good comes from God, then good isn’t meaningless; God gives meaning to good. Isn’t the reason you reject an ultimate standard for good because you reject God? You hold the concept of God up to a human standard for good, (so you can’t really say “goodness may not apply to him”) and a human standard can have no logical jurisdiction over Him. Good has to come from somewhere, and if everyone uses it to measure God to discuss whether He is good or evil or something else, then on the level of God is where we would find the source of good.

Your note and your voice against Stevens-Johnson syndrome and other disease make a very compelling argument. You have my respect. I don’t have any love for the degree of suffering and death in the world either. You seem to have an ideal in mind of a degree of love and fairness we should expect from God, that He “does not love our neighbor as much as he could”; that “there is more suffering that is necessary”; that He “could have created a kinder world.”; that “He could have omitted one more” horror; that “He is not as good…” or “…loving as He could be”; that He should treat us “better”.

The fact is that everyone sins, whether we think that sin is big or small (1 John 1:18; Rom. 3:23). At what level on the severe-o-meter should God start judging? If God only judged sin according to the degree of the sin, how would you match the judgment to the severity of the sin? And how would you determine the severity of the sin? How could we know the severity of some sins that may seem smaller but have far-reaching and long-lasting effects? And how do we put sin-value on the murder of a homeless man who has no family or friends? Would that earn a more or less severe punishment than a boy whose mere words scar another boy for a lifetime? If a clerical error causes a murder to go free and he goes on killing, who is worse, the murderer or the clerk? I think this type of justice administration is much better suited for a omniscient God. It seems you expect such a God to handle this task with His goodness and justice, but you condemn Him, according to a human and therefore irrelevant system of morals, for not doing it “right”, trumping His infinite knowledge with your finite knowledge. Is this reasonable?

Even a newborn child, for which it’s hard to imagine disease as a fitting punishment, is infected with a sin nature. There are no easy answers for the mother of a child dead at birth or born with disease or deformity, but there are answers. A creator is an owner of that which he creates. Owning people is not immoral when it is God who owns them, because only the Creator has that right. If He owns us, He has the right to give and take away (Job 1:21). When we say He doesn’t own us, we imagine ourselves bigger than God. That much we can know and understand, but it’s by faith that we can trust God has good reasons for what He does that in the end outweigh the death or suffering we endure. And there’s no rational reason to expect that He would not have good reasons and therefore no contradiction in His character.

The “agony of our fellows” is undeniable, but your conclusions for the reason behind the agony is. Why make the assumption that a God who would create, provide a world for, seek fellowship with, and redeem human beings would also allow them to suffer for unjust purposes? I imagine that my 3 year old son assumes that all of our discipline is unjust. If I deny him a second cookie before dinner, put him in a time-out for hitting someone, or forcefully prevent him from running into the street, he will think that I’m unfair, that I could be kinder, that I’m not as good or loving as he thinks I should be. As a parent I know and see many things that he cannot. He won’t understand this until he’s older. I’m not comparing the discipline or correction of a child to grown-up suffering and death except to say that to a child who thinks he’s been treated unjustly, it is every bit of a tragedy as the ones adults experience. Most tragedies adults can get through without screaming or tantrums. Any God that fits His description in the Bible will have knowledge and foresight that we can’t possibly have and an ultimate plan we can’t possibly see. If we trust and obey God as a child should a father and accept His Son’s sacrifice as the solution to the sin that condemns us all, there is still no guarantee of a pain-free life on earth. But we are not relegated to a life, and more importantly an eternity, of isolation from our Creator and the potential joy that brings.

It’s obvious you have a very clear grasp of the amount of evil and pain in this world. God agrees that our pain is not the ideal, and there is of course cause to doubt—but it doesn’t have to end there. I suggest that it isn’t by reason that you reject God, but by your own will. You haven’t shown any real contradictions within Christianity and have actually helped prove the origin of morality to be well outside of human convention. I would recommend taking a look at Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering, it’s very good. The question/answer format in your note reminded me of some of his style (he’s a fan of Socrates). There’s an audio by Dr. Kreeft which is along the same vein as his book. I listened to the first part, he gets into the good stuff pretty early on. Thanks for the discussion, I’ve enjoyed it. 🙂 Enjoy your weekend.

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Don

Having a limited awareness and knowledge does not apply in this case. Remember, there are two kinds of claims we make, analytic/relations of ideas (like ‘bachelors are unmarried’) and synthetic/matters of fact (like ‘all swans are white’).

We don’t need perfect knowledge to make the first type of statement. And we can’t be wrong about them. They follow from definitions.

I’m not making factual statements about God’s goodness. I’m evaluating ‘relations of ideas’: is he Good by a given definition.

And if we don’t evaluate him against a standard other than himself, Goodness loses all meaning.

Kreeft says “the protagonist must undergo suffering before the final triumph of good over evil. He urges us to view ourselves as protagonists in the midst of our own life stories. If good finally triumphs, as Christians believe, then the story is worthwhile, even with its inevitable suffering.”

Please notice the word “must”. Defenders of God use such words to constrain God’s great power. They want to say that even God is required to do certain things. I don’t know how they justify this, except to save God’s skin.

I can’t see why God humans “must’ undergo suffering. It seems that God could have ordained something involving less suffering and still achieved all his aims.

The answer, of course, is staring us in the face. We are animals living in the natural world. It appears that our world was not set up this way on purpose, and that is a huge relief. Otherwise we would live in a divine petri dish.

[link]

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Mike Johnson

Don,

“Kreeft says ‘the protagonist must undergo suffering before the final triumph of good over evil…’ Please notice the word ‘must’.”

I don’t remember that part in Kreeft’s audio, but I don’t think it’s useful to get hung up on the word “must” when it seems that logic is what requires suffering. Because logic is part of who God is, of course He is bound to it. He cannot create freedom and not allow freedom to choose evil, because that potential exists in every single choice we make. Thankfully God chose not to create a world full of amoral robots, and if we had no freedom to choose I think we might wish for suffering in order to make freedom possible—if we even had the freedom to wish for something. Would a little less freedom be an amicable trade for a little less suffering? Would it be acceptable for God to remove almost all freedom in order to remove almost all suffering? A logical Creator created a universe where logic exists, and it’s no more reasonable to expect God to lessen suffering without lessening freedom than it is to expect Him to make a round square or a rock too heavy for Him to lift. It’s simply absurd.

To say we are merely animals and nature is all there is I think is the most unsatisfying answer because it only leads to more unanswerable questions: The most basic being the proposition that nature caused nature. What, then, made nature? Logically we need something supernatural to create something natural. The moral question is absolutely unanswerable on naturalism because absolutely every moral evaluation we make appeals to obligations that could not possibly have evolved. At least the maltheist or misotheist could point to a basis of God’s moral law to condemn God. Moral evolution would create relativistic rules that simply don’t apply to God or anyone else for that matter. Of course even if we could explain life without God, we would still have suffering and death, but no hope for overcoming either.

In your animal farm note you wrote that if God exists, we’re screwed. But if you imagine that the God described in the Bible exists, then you ought to imagine that how the Bible portrays Him is also true. There is nothing Biblical that suggests we are merely a science project for Him to observe and squash when He’s finished. “He must also be good, fair, just and loving,” and the Bible says He is (Jer. 29:11; Ps. 19:9; 1 John 4:16). Although “fairness” would mean we got what we deserved, and as sinners we deserve death, which God offers salvation from. So I’ll give you that God is not fair. If God exists as He is described in the Bible, then we can’t really say that hell is on earth, that God saves based on our getting on His good side, or that suffering is the result of divine meanness. Christianity doesn’t actually teach that. On Christianity, there is no way humans can fully comprehend God (1 Cor. 2:11). That means that in order to conclude that God is not good and suffering is unnecessary, you must claim to know the mind and plan of God, or that you’re talking about a different god.

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Don

> He cannot create freedom and not allow freedom to choose evil, , because that potential exists in every single choice we make.

Not all evil is due to human choices. That is ‘moral evil’. We still have ‘natural evil’. Natural evil seems due to natural law, which God set up. If he had any choice in the matter, it seems he set up this world to be more brutal than he could have.

>Logically we need something supernatural to create something natural.

We don’t know for sure this is a necessary relation. It’s a good discussion to have, but there’s no contradiction in saying a natural world could exist without a supernatural one.

>The moral question is absolutely unanswerable on naturalism because absolutely every moral evaluation we make appeals to obligations that could not possibly have evolved.

Do you claim that morals are actually IMPOSSIBLE on naturalism? That’s a strong claim. There are many naturalistic approaches to morality. The best ones in my opinion follow from our evolution as social animals. If you don’t find them satisfying, that’s one thing. But it’s much harder to say that they aren’t ‘moralities’.

At any rate, this has nothing to do with whether God is Good. Atheists just don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality to show that theistic morality fails. We can show that it is authoritarian (and thus amoral), contradictory, bogus or incoherent.

>as sinners we deserve death, which God offers salvation from.

But we know infants suffer horribly. They don’t deserve death. And if we say they do, then we must say God is using his own, higher version of Justice. If we can’t comprehend HOW his system is Just, this is the same as admitting that we don’t know WHETHER it is Just.

>On Christianity, there is no way humans can fully comprehend God (1 Cor. 2:11).

Ok, but then you don’t know if he is good, either. Christians should want to avoid this version of a fine-tuning argument: That God is all-powerful and at choice, but is weak or constrained in exactly the right way to account for each and every instance of animal and human suffering that has occurred or ever will occur.

What if you ended up in heaven, but alone? Would you still sing God’s praises? Or would you feel a pang for humanity, not at its poor choices, but at the injustice of their fate?

If there is no state of affairs where you would say God is not Good, then Good means nothing.

I heard this from a Christian this week:

“I believe I’m an enemy of God because of what I’ve done and you believe you’re an enemy of God because of what he’s done (or hasn’t done).”

He and I agree on this.

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Mike Johnson

“Not all evil is due to human choices. That is ‘moral evil’. We still have ‘natural evil’. Natural evil seems due to natural law, which God set up. If he had any choice in the matter, it seems he set up this world to be more brutal than he could have.”

The curse from Adam’s sin in Genesis 3:17-19 shows a change in how nature would respond, including “painful toil” and the prevalence of “thorns and thistles”, and a change in the resilience of the human body: “from dust you are and from dust you will return.” In Romans 8:20-21, Paul says that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…”. God allows the world to reflect the consequences of man’s sin on creation. God set up nature, but it was sin that brought widespread natural disaster. What you call “natural evil” was not inherently evil from the beginning.

“…there’s no contradiction in saying a natural world could exist without a supernatural one.”

Yet everything we empirically observe about nature involves causation. Hence, the “Law of Cause and Effect.” Assuming that nature is ultimately uncaused makes a lot of unnecessary assumptions.

“Do you claim that morals are actually IMPOSSIBLE on naturalism? That’s a strong claim. There are many naturalistic approaches to morality. The best ones in my opinion follow from our evolution as social animals. If you don’t find them satisfying, that’s one thing. But it’s much harder to say that they aren’t ‘moralities’.”

Morality as we relate to it could not exist on naturalism because we clearly appeal to something beyond nature. Or at least our appeal goes higher than the highest intelligence we can imagine in nature (and as I said, it’s a big enough umbrella to include supernatural creators.) In my discussion with The Atheist [another poster/owner of askanatheist.wordpress.com]  I laid out my understanding of the distinctions between human morality and animal “morality” …
http://askanatheist.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/do-atheists-judge-gods-morality/#comment-45647
http://askanatheist.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/do-atheists-judge-gods-morality/#comment-45689

“Atheists just don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality to show that theistic morality fails. We can show that it is authoritarian (and thus amoral), contradictory, bogus or incoherent.”

But you haven’t shown any of that. 🙂 God is authority, but if authoritarian submission means blind submission, that isn’t what God requires. We are given a free will to choose and a mind with which to reason it out (Isaiah 1:18). The last 3 adjectives only hold on the assumption of the first, which doesn’t hold. It’s also wrong to assume that because God doesn’t, that God can’t for lack of power or knowledge (re: a “weak or constrained” God).

“But we know infants suffer horribly. They don’t deserve death. And if we say they do, then we must say God is using his own, higher version of Justice. If we can’t comprehend HOW his system is Just, this is the same as admitting that we don’t know WHETHER it is Just.”

Within Christianity, there is no reason to expect we can fully comprehend God’s justice, no more than a baby is expected to understand why she needs surgery. There is enough revelation of God that we can comprehend by looking at what Christ did for us: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.” (Rom. 3:23-25). Whatever the details of God’s plan are, we can see that it is redemptive in nature, and that He is just, righteous and merciful.

And yes, we can know if God is good because the Bible describes God as the source of good. If you insist on an external definition to define God as good, then I have to insist on an external definition for what you consider good. Within Christianity, however, there is no contradiction in the attributes of a sovereign God. And again, to say there is “too much” suffering begs the question, how much is too much? Others may have differing views about the degree of acceptable suffering. Isn’t there the potential of much more suffering and evil? And if it were cut in half, or a tenth, wouldn’t we still complain? There is enough we can observe about God’s power (ie. creation) to trust that He is not powerless in the face of evil and suffering. There is enough we can know from Scripture about His goodness that we can have faith that He is not just a brute arbitrarily permitting certain evil and suffering. I hate that children suffer and the sin that bought about the world’s corruption and decay, but while the creatures can question the Creator as Job did, we aren’t guaranteed an answer or the right to accuse. (Job 40:8; Rom. 9:20)

Christianity is internally consistent, and its Gospel calls us not to strain over the question of whether God is just, but rather ask if we are just. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).

“What if you ended up in heaven, but alone? Would you still sing God’s praises? Or would you feel a pang for humanity, not at its poor choices, but at the injustice of their fate?”

There’s no reason to think I would be alone, but even in that case I think the presence of God would satisfy. I also assume that my knowledge will be much more complete than it is now and I won’t view the condemnation of souls lost in sin as unjust. That much I can actually understand now.

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Don

>God allows the world to reflect the consequences of man’s sin on creation.

If God had any choice in what consequences followed from the Fall, then he is not as loving as he could be.

>“What if you ended up in heaven, but alone?
>even in that case I think the presence of God would satisfy

This is Christianity. We can’t love God and our neighbor at the same time. We can’t follow the First and Second Great Commandments at the same time. This is the central contradiction of Jesus’ teaching.

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Mike Johnson

“If God had any choice in what consequences followed from the Fall, then he is not as loving as he could be.”

I still don’t understand what you have in mind for the ideal of “as loving as [God] could be.” Would you settle for anything other than a complete absence of evil and suffering? “Not as loving” sounds as if you were hoping for something along a sliding scale ranging from the evil and suffering we know now to an absolutely sinless and painless world. What does your ideal balance of freedom/suffering look like? At what point on the scale would belief in a good God become tenable for you?

“We can’t love God and our neighbor at the same time. We can’t follow the First and Second Great Commandments at the same time. This is the central contradiction of Jesus’ teaching. “

The greatest commandment is loving God, which means IF I had to choose between people and God, I should choose God. The “second is like it” (Mat. 22:39) because God also commands us to love our neighbor, and through obedience of that we show love for God, and because people are made in the image of God. It’s important, but secondary, to love people. In any case, we can have both, because we are neither alone here nor will we be alone in heaven.

You say you have made the choice to love people over God because your concept of God is one who doesn’t love, or at least doesn’t demonstrate that He loves us “enough”. I don’t believe the dichotomy that forces your rejection of God exists, but rather it’s an illusion stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of God. Suffering and evil in the world are the result of sin. Sin is a choice made by people because we have freedom to choose. Any revocation of that opportunity is a revocation of freedom. Zero pain = zero freedom.

God is logical and not free to contradict Himself and therefore didn’t create an illogical world where sin isn’t allowed and at the same time freedom is still available. Because of this, we are able to comprehend and make sense of the world. Evil and suffering wasn’t part of God’s original creation, and while He allows it out of logical necessity and for other reasons naturally beyond us, God’s love and compassion far outweigh and outlast His judgment and the pain He allows. Among many other selfless acts, Christ’s atoning sacrifice covering ALL sin is the greatest example of this. To focus on and draw conclusions from only one part of God is not making an accurate judgment of God—a judgment that (pointing to the point of this forum) we shouldn’t be allowed to make anyway if there is no moral Law-giver.

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Don

I believe we’ve covered this ground. Not all pain is the result of free will. Animal suffering preceded humans. Even if The Fall introduced all the suffering we see, it wouldn’t be fair for an infant to have a heart defect because her distant ancestor got in the cookie jar.

The world makes sense on naturalism. To say God set up this world, this way, we have to say Bad is Good. And we can’t follow God without signing on to a regime under which billions suffer needlessly.

>Would you settle for anything other than a complete absence of evil and suffering?

Christian theology says God promises this in heaven. If that’s true, what is he waiting for? If he could take his followers to heaven a second sooner, he is not as loving as he could be.

I’m breaking a key rule of authoritarian regimes: I’m second-guessing the Dear Leader. But we have to evaluate God if we are to be moral ourselves. If we hold God to no standard, then it means nothing to say he is Good.

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Mike Johnson

I’ve agreed that pain probably existed before the Fall. It was “greatly multiplied” or “increased” as a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16). There is no record in Genesis of animal suffering before the Fall, but if it occurred it was probably the same type of pain Adam and Eve would have experienced before it was increased because of sin.

“The world makes sense on naturalism.”

A defense of naturalism with naturalism is hopelessly circular, much like a defense of reason by reason, or any other approach that seeks to limit explanations to humanity or nature, particularly when these things obviously appeal—as morality does—to something outside their spheres.

“what is he waiting for?”

To ask why God delays heaven is the same as a child asking why his parents delay whatever the child thinks he is immediately entitled to. Children think this unfair and may even doubt the reality of what was promised. Parents have good reasons and a good plan.

“we have to evaluate God if we are to be moral ourselves”.

But you can’t morally evaluate anything unless you are a moral being to begin with. And it certainly doesn’t make sense to morally evaluate God if moral law didn’t come from Him. How can the evaluation have any meaning or relevance? I’ve yet to see a coherent answer to this question on atheism.

“we’ve covered this ground”

You’re right, we are repeating arguments, and I think that may signal an impasse. Thank you again for the discussion. I’ve learned a lot from it and I wish you the best. 🙂

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There were no more comments from Don.
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