Monday, September 11, 2006

The "Problem" of Evil

Here's a quote from a comment on one of my recent posts:

The problem from evil DOES disprove the existence of a loving omnipotent god.

I figure it needs a bit of space to respond to, so I might as well write a bit on it...

The "Problem"

The classic statement of the "problem of evil" goes something like this:

1) If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), he can stop suffering if he wants to
2) If God is loving, he will stop suffering if he can
3) So if God is loving and omnipotent, he will stop suffering
4) Suffering exists
5) Therefore God is not loving and omnipotent

As you can guess, I don't think it works at all.

Problems with the "Problem" - 1. Misdefining "love"

There are a few problems with the so-called "problem of evil". First, statement 2) is flawed. It assumes that "loving" means "wanting others to avoid suffering as much as possible". As far as I can tell, that's a fairly modern cultural assumption, and it's one of those assumptions that stops working if you look at it for long.

For example, a loving parent will often allow their children to play, even if it might mean the children hurting themselves. If they wanted to minimise pain, they'd put the child on a morphine drip and lock them in their room. As the child gets older, a loving parent might well allow the child to cross roads on their own, despite the risk of getting run over. They might allow or even encourage their child to learn to drive, despite the risks of road accidents. The best way of minimising pain is to give someone a massive dose of anasthetic and kill them. And if you let them live, don't let them ever get romantically involved with anyone else. Love does not mean "aiming to minimise pain".

But what if we're talking about serious suffering? What if when we say "suffering", we mean "dying before age 35"? Once again, love doesn't mean "always wanting to preserve life". Steve Irwin died recently in what seems to have been a freak accident with a stingray. Was it loving of his wife and family to let him go? Yes. Given what Steve Irwin's persona seems to have been like, it would have been unloving not to let him go.

In the same way, God lovingly allows us the dignity of the consequences of our actions. If I hit someone, they can feel pain. If I sit alongside someone, they can be comforted. If I drive at 100mph off a cliff, I die. If I bury a landmine, it might explode and hurt or kill someone. Our actions are our fault.

Problems with the "Problem" - 2. Missing the Point

Another problem with the "problem" is that it completely misses the point. Christianity doesn't claim that God makes life pain-free or suffering-free. Actually, it claims it makes life more painful, with more suffering (and more joy and hope) for those who follow it.

What is promised for Christians who are suffering is endurance, hope and joy, not freedom from suffering.

Problems with the "Problem" - 3. REALLY Missing the Point

What is the main thing Christianity says about suffering?

That God himself is not an impassive observer - that he came to share in the world's suffering - that he was rejected, persecuted, beaten, suffered, and that he died, and that somehow through that suffering and death, he accomplished a great good. Jesus showed that suffering and death is not the final word - he showed that he can and does use it for God's glory and for the good of God's people.

Problems with the "Problem" - 4. Forgetting the tenses

The other point worth mentioning, of course, is that God has promised that he will one day deal with suffering totally (for his people, at least). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But that isn't yet - God hasn't yet finished what he is doing and the way he is working in the suffering of this world to accomplish his purposes.

God is omnipotent, he is loving, he shares in our suffering, he suffers for us, he promises that one day there will be an end to suffering. I'm grateful that he's God, and not me, and not anyone else.


Anonymous said...

Okay, so the millions of children under age 5 who die every year, that's all part of God's perfect plan for the world. Even though some Xians would say they go to hell since they have not accepted Christ, nor were they baptised, being largely citizens of 3rd world countries.

Loving does mean wanting to minimize suffering. If you could stop those millions of children from dying needlessly of starvation-related causes, wouldn't you take action? Yet God does nothing according to your beliefs.

I can buy the idea that a loving parent allows some suffering in order to build character. I am a parent and I certainly let my children suffer the consequences of their actions, as well as sometimes punishing them in order to teach them lessons. But I'm not sure exactly what lesson letting my toddler die of starvation would teach him.

Anonymous said...

How about the needless and continual suffering of animals other than people? It's God's creation, and it's dog eat dog down to the very lowest limit. One does not survive without eating other life. the animal kingdom is rife with suffering. The single observation that turned Darwin from a believer into a non-believer in a Christian god was of a certain wasp that laid its eggs on a caterpillar. The eggs hatch and the larvae eat the caterpillar which is kept alive and aware during the entire process.

And much worse goes on. The only real conclusion that can be drawn is that the creator of such misery enjoys it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Custard. New term and all that (and oh isn't it busy!), so missed this post. I would reply myself, but it would in part include some of the points made by Anonymous and Ralph above, so I shan't.


Anonymous said...

I am still waiting for an explanation of an omnipotent loving god who has something to accomplish on earth that can ONLY or BEST be accomplished by allowing millions of children to die every year.

John said...

OK - the question now seems to be about the purpose of death specifically rather than the purpose of suffering.

I've got some thoughts; I'll let them filter and congeal for a few days, then I might try to write a post on them if I've got time.

As a preview, I guess I'm going to focus on the difference between what life would be like if we as a society were pretty much the same, but with everyone living (say) between 70 and 120 years, and the current situation, probably with lots of references to human pride, hubris, etc.

I thought Darwin's rejection of faith was largely because of the way his daughter died young. The wasp may come into it though too.

Personally, I don't see that suffering in nature is directly a problem for belief in God, because I don't see any reason outside Judao-Christian revelation to say that animal suffering is bad.

Of course, I do think that human-induced animal suffering is bad, but only because the Bible tells us to look after animals and not cause them undue suffering.

Out of interest - to the atheists / agnostics here - I take it you think animal suffering and human suffering are bad. Why?