Atheism and the Problem of Evil
There are few better challenges to the existence of benevolent and powerful gods than the ancient and unanswerable Problem of Evil (also called the Problem of Suffering). Many believers and apologists have tried to answer it but it has always proved impossible for those who posit not merely a God with the power to fix human suffering but a God who possesses omnipotence and not merely a good and beneficent God but one who is omnibenevolent. A God with such characteristics collapses under the observation of agonizing and often very needless suffering of people in our world today.
This does not stop apologists, of course, from proposing excuses that get their God out of his moral obligations to prevent the needless suffering of human beings or even those that cause God to relinquish his all powerful status and be beholden to the supposed Free Will of flawed and sinful human beings. In this hub I want to talk about the Problem of Evil a bit more in-depth and touch upon a fairly new apologetic answer to the Problem of Evil, namely simply restating it as if its a problem for atheists as well.
Get ready guys, this is going to be a long one, a lot of unpacking to do on these ideas...
First thing's first, what is the problem? Well the basic issue is that if we look around at our world we see horrendous things happening all the time. Floods, droughts, earthquakes, bone cancer in children, starvation and the list can go on and on. So if there is some all loving Father figure above it all looking in on we his beloved children why is Earth so neglected and forsaken? If God has the goodness to see evil and stop it but cannot than he is not all powerful. If God has the power to step in and stop suffering and evil but refuses than we cannot call him all loving.
This dilemma dates back thousands of years and though for at least that long religious apologists have proffered excuses on the behalf of various gods none has sufficiently answered this question. Even today apologists write books and give talks about why good things happen to the wicked and suffering befalls the innocent or the upright. And these excuses are not all alike, different excuses satisfy different forms of suffering or excuse God from different forms of responsibility.
Part of the reason there is no reasonable answer is because the dilemma is meant to be unanswerable. It is meant to say that if there is a god or gods that we can rule out the idea of that being or beings possessing both a great deal of supernatural power and a great and deep sense of love and empathy for the human species. It is not an argument for abject atheism because a god, perhaps an incompetent, evil, disinterested or impotent one, could still exist. But given our every day experience any god that exists simply cannot be all loving (in regards to human beings) and omnipotent.
Monotheism of the kind put forth by most denominations of Christianity is a stillborn faith in the face of the suffering we see all around us across the world.
Four Excuses for God
While there are more than four explanations given for needless suffering by the faithful I am going to go over what I feel are the four main often repeated excuses before I go into the fifth excuse which is simply to push the Problem of Evil on atheists.
God Uses Suffering:
This first excuse takes on several different forms but all of those forms boil down to the same basic idea, that God has SOME incomprehensibly wise and utterly reasonable reason for allowing suffering.
Now some folks who use this excuse claim that God uses suffering to punish the wickedness of we fallen human beings. While not common this view holds that things like Hurricanes, disease epidemics and Tsunamis are God's way of scaring human beings back into submission under his ruling thumb. God is, in a sense, warning the world that if they do not change their ways he will send even more disasters and wipe out even more human life. Of course showing such blatant disregard to hundreds of thousands of human beings paints God as even more monstrous than if he merely stood back and let those disasters took place with a dispassionate shrug.
It cannot be overlooked that many of those who die in these disasters are the most innocent among us, the young. But of course if your worldview is that all human beings are corrupt and evil from birth you can even excuse God of directly murdering children with such disasters, especially if you imagine it serves some great Cosmic purpose.
Others will say that God uses individual suffering to bring people closer to him. Is there no other way for God to strengthen the faith of people he loves than to, say, take their child from them at a young age or wipe out half their town with a tornado or have them get into a devastating car wreck and be paralyzed? If this is God's best idea for bringing people back to the fold how can we call God all powerful? After all if he was all powerful it certainly wouldn't take some horrible suffering to get people to commune with him, millions of people pray every single day, all God has to do to endear these people to him is show up in their lives. If the way God decides to show up is by giving your kid Leukemia so that you turn back to him than I'm sorry but God is a total asshole.
And the weakest part of this excuse is when believers just say, 'who are you to question God? How do you know for certain that he does not have a good reason for suffering?'
God Uses Suffering?
Who are we human beings to question God about suffering and evil in the world around us? It's obvious isn't it? We're the ones who suffer. God, an immortal and perfect being, cannot possibly suffer any real loss. The closest God might get is when Jesus suffered on the Cross but of course God knew that on Sunday morning he was going to pop Jesus back to life and bring his son back to Heaven. But for we mortals we don't have such assurances, we can't be sure there is something after death and in fact every shred of credible scientific evidence suggests that death is the end and there is no afterlife or soul.
In the story book of the Bible when God saw Jesus buried he would have had no reason to fret because he was set to bring Jesus back on the third day. But when a human parent buries their child, even if they delude themselves with uncertain and fantastically unrealistic hopes of an afterlife, the emptiness remains, the pain lingers and the grief is real. To tell those people that God is using this suffering, orchestrating it to achieve some petty goal for his own glory, is an absolutely disgusting and immoral thing.
Any good thing an omnipotent God plans to achieve with suffering can be achieved without said suffering, otherwise that God is not all powerful.
The Free Will Excuse
Probably the most common and weakest excuse of the four is the notion that human suffering is the result of human free will and that, starting with Adam and Eve's decision to follow the serpent's advice in Eden, all suffering stems from sinful behavior. The first and most obvious flaw is that unlike the first excuse I talked about this one shirks off God's responsibility for allowing suffering to take place. God is, apparently, no longer the most responsible party in the whole Universe and things like diseases, epidemics and disasters can run amuck without any special permission from God but also with God doing nothing at all to stop these things from killing the human beings he loves.
The idea that God gave rulership of Earth to human beings is a fairly common one but showing that there is a causal link between sin and suffering is another matter entirely. For one thing it does nothing to explain why the righteous suffer except by way of condemning all humanity as being unrighteous and corrupt from birth. But if that is the case what reason does God have to abide our evil and fallen ways? Oh right, because God loves us.
Well this begs the question WHY does God love us? Does he have a choice in the matter? Is God capable of ceasing his love of humanity or is it such a strong part of his nature that he is powerless against it? Because if God is powerless against his omnibenevolence than he is not omnipotent. If human beings are so wicked, so corrupt, so horrible, that our sins are causing typhoons and plagues, why doesn't God do SOMETHING about it?
If one takes the view that human beings are so fundamentally FUBAR that we can cause famines just by having sex with someone God tells us not to or cause Hurricanes with abortions at the very least we'd expect God to do SOMETHING. Which leads to the question of why God doesn't remove the sin nature from his creation. And note that removing the sin nature is not a violation of Free Will, for Adam and Eve had no knowledge of sin and yet certainly Christians believe they had Free Will – And angels have enough Free Will in Heaven to apparently rebel against God yet they are not generally corrupt or sinful.
As I've had to repeat Free Will is also a fundamental imperfection – its a design flaw. Christians often assert that Adam and Eve were perfect beings BUT had Free Will. This simply doesn't make sense. For one thing no Christian in their right mind would argue that Adam and Eve were as perfect as God was, they would never admit to such a thing. So how can there be differing levels of perfection? It seems they mean to suggest that Adam and Eve are merely perfect in the sense that they have not yet been corrupted, which is a meaningless and misleading usage of the word perfect.
If you believe in Free Will than the WHOLE point of it is to allow human beings to make choices independent of God. If Free Will exists disobedience is inevitable so for God to allow such a design flaw to run so rampant that it starts causing things like malaria, the spanish flu or the bubonic plague causes God to fall victim to the Problem of Evil once more. And I won't even go into the fact that the Bible says God cursed his perfect creation thus creating disease and the venom of serpents and the pain of child birth and that responsibility for the fallen nature of creation rests on God's shoulders (and how could it not?).
Free Will Excuse Cont...
The other version of the Free Will excuse doesn't tackle natural disasters or disease as part of Free Will but rather attempts to explain only why God doesn't intervene in the case of things like murder. Obviously God could value human Free Will above that of human pain and suffering. However God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent and, importantly, omnipresent. Which means that wherever a murder or a rape are taking place God is standing there doing nothing and giving preferential treatment to the Free Will of a murderer or rapist rather than to the will of the victim. This to me is at the very least callous and stupid and at the worst a very evil thing.
Imagine if a police officer had foreknowledge of a crime and went to the dark alley where it was going to take place and then just stood there without intervention. When questioned as to why he allowed the crime to take place he simply answers: “I didn't want to violate anyone's Free Will.”
Was it not said that all it takes for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing? What is God but the most benevolent and powerful man conceivable? And worst of all for this excuse most religious texts DO have God intervene on the behalf of the characters in those books.
Would a Biblical apologist truly sit there with a straight face and use the Free Will excuse while believing that Moses' life was directly altered by contact with a burning bush? What can be said about Moses' Free Will? Or that of the Apostle Paul struck blind on the way to Damascus by a vision of Christ – what can be said for the Free Will of those called by God – or those punished by him. So it seems that most of these Gods contravene human free will quite frequently in the founding documents of their corresponding religions and most believers DO believe that God still intervenes.
To quote Bart Ehrman “if God does intervene – WHY DOESN'T HE?”
It Will All Work Out in the End
The third excuse I want to talk about doesn't really give an answer as to why God allows suffering but rather admits ignorance as to the ultimate reason. The excuse instead appeals to the idea that no matter how bad everything looks now it will all, whether in some far flung future or always a day away apocalypse, work out in the end. Often times when I was a Christian I heard this excuse spouted as the Bible verse from Romans 8 “All things work together for good to those who love God...”
But of course one need only look around them to see that, at least in the short-term of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human history, this is simply NOT the case. Imagine yourself back in time during the Inquisitions watching your fellow Christians be persecuted by the Catholic Church for simply believing a different version of Christianity and saying to yourself, “well God will be around any day now to sort all this out.”
It's simply not a satisfying answer. For one thing the day of judgment, the day of justice, never comes, despite thousands of years of doomsday predictions no saviors from the sky have ever descended to set things right. Similar to the excuse that those innocent who suffer needlessly will go to Heaven to be with God this answer shirks God's responsibility in favor of unrealistic and uncertain hope. Eventually it will all make sense. Some day you will be able to ask God in Heaven.
Is God unwilling to offer us an answer now? Why is he abstaining from bringing about justice? And please don't say its to wait for the Gospel to spread, not only has the Gospel message already spread and peaked but it is now in a steady decline as it shatters into ever more denominations while Islam, Agnosticism and Atheism grow in numbers.
Imagine for a moment a member of your family was murdered and the judge came out and said, “I'm going to let the murderer go free but rest assured that some day in the far distant future I will punish him. Don't worry that he's getting away with it now.” Of course this Christian excuse pushes justice not just into the far realm of our own present lifetimes but into an afterlife or Armageddon scenario that it has no evidence for and thus no business promising to us.
Never mind those thousands of children that God could have fed, as he feeds the sparrows of the air, they're in Heaven with God right now. If God truly loved them and had a plan for their lives why was it God's decision to allow them to starve to death? Why not simply have them be still-born and go right to Heaven that way? Why allow them to be born, to learn, to grow, to hope and dream, only to suffer and die when the crops fail and the rains dry up? If God had a plan for their lives that didn't involve their starvation why did he fail in carrying it out? How does an all powerful God fail and then shrug off the failure as someone or something else's fault?
It simply does not, and by the nature of the Problem of Evil, cannot, be excused.
Satan is Lord of Earth
Similar to excuse number 2 this is another one that tries to pretend that God is not ultimately in control of everything that goes on on Earth. No God's not in charge of Earth, of course not stupid, Satan is. God has rented out the Earth to Satan for some inexplicable contrived reason that makes no sense. Of course the idea that God is working with Satan toward some final goal throws God's omnibenevolence out the window. After all teaming up with what is supposedly the most evil being in existence makes little sense for an all loving being to do.
But maybe it's not a team up, they say, but merely God is using Satan's control of Earth to achieve his own goals. This suggests, however, that God isn't able to achieve his goals without the horrible suffering that he's allowing Satan to unleash and if God isn't able to do something than he isn't all powerful anymore. As an omnipotent being God would achieve things in the most perfect and most efficient way possible and only an idiot would say that childhood cancer and F5 tornadoes are the most efficient way for God to show his love or achieve his purposes – unless those purposes are evil.
In the end the most common monotheistic worldview is that God is the creator of and Lord of the entire Universe. So there simply is no intellectually honest way to weasel God out of this responsibility without giving up either his benevolence or some amount of his power.
The Problem of Evil... for ATHEISTS?
Now finally we can deal with the whole reason this hub exists, a new apologetic trend that I've noticed which rather than offer a coherent answer to the problem of evil casts the problem right back at atheists. After all how do atheists account for horrific suffering that we go through? If there is no ultimate purpose or higher power how can we comfort those who suffer or offer them any hope that everything will work out in the end?
Of course this laughably misguided tactic fails to realize that for most atheists there is no reason to think that we are guaranteed that everything will “work out in the end.” In fact human experience universally tells us that things do not always work out, for ourselves, for our families and for people all over the world. And not just people, but animals as well. If you were to go back in time and try to explain to a dinosaur that God was going to work things out to benefit his creation it would make little sense as an asteroid impact wiped out nearly all dinosaur species with the only survivors being the bird-like theropods who evolved into modern day birds. We know that extinctions occur and we know that individual tragedies occur.
Indeed this is exactly the sort of thing we would expect to see if there were no gods and this is where this trick breaks down and becomes laughable. Atheism is the disbelief in gods. So imagine a world where there are no gods, where the only things governing the world are flawed human societies and governments and natural phenomenon. There is no intervention coming from supernatural forces because there are no supernatural forces. There is no miracle or punishment coming from God because there is no God.
Rather suffering is the result of natural processes. Disease is caused by germs or genetic abnormalities. The climate of our planet can be hectic and destructive. The molten nature of the inside of our planet causes the crust to be littered with fault-lines that quake and volcanoes that spew lava and ash. In other words the atheist worldview takes reality as it is and does not sugar coat it with false hopes or false superstitious fears of the workings of some demonic or celestial force behind it all.
So the Problem of Evil for atheists such as myself is not why suffering occurs - we all know why it does and it has nothing to do with magic – but is how can we use our intellect and empathy to prevent what suffering we can and cope with what suffering we can't prevent. We, human beings, are not omnibenevolent or omnipotent, we are obviously limited in what we can do to stop suffering and to prevent the wicked from doing bad things to others.
Atheists skip the nonsense about supernatural intervention and get right to the “how can we mitigate human suffering” step of the puzzle. No Messiah is coming to rescue us and so we must develop new methods and new technologies to help combat disease, predict or prevent natural disasters, feed the hungry and help the impoverished and hunt down and stop criminals, terrorists and other sociopathic or deluded people who would harm us.
And luckily, believers are willing to help make the world a better place. They prove themselves either more powerful or more benevolent than their God and they reach out to their fellow human beings. The difference is that atheists do not offer the false hope of an afterlife in some mythic kingdom in the clouds. What good is a false hope? Why would we cruelly and openly lie to someone who was grieving or suffering about some supernatural promise we have no good reason to believe has even the slightest plausibility?
The solution I, as an atheist offer, is that we should make the world a better place and organize ourselves and our society in such a way that it does work out in the end for as many people as possible. Setting ourselves up for prosperity, for health, for happiness and mitigating human suffering is a noble and laudable goal and although there are no gods willing to step in and suspend reality on our behalf we have the intelligence and empathetic wisdom to move forward on our own. We don't need the false hopes, we don't need the broken excuses, and as nice a fantasy as it would be to believe we don't need your fictitious God.
The Problem of Evil is a problem for all of us, sure enough, but for atheists it is a starting point to work to prevent suffering and make the world a better place – to better control the chaos and pain that comes as a natural result of life on a pale blue insignificant dot in an endless Cosmic ocean. Whereas for believers it is usually taken as an invitation to begin hollow excuse making for a being that refuses to answer for its own in-actions or reveal any evidence of its presence at all.
Thanks for reading!
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