What Do Believers Really Think About God and Evil?

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 9, 2010 in Problem of Evil

Chris Hallquist has written “An Open Letter to Religious Believers on God and Evil.” His purpose is not to call forth all the arguments and counter-arguments that have been constructed by philosophers. Instead, he wants to know: What do believer really think about God and evil? What do they really feel about it?

Hallquist doesn’t say that suffering is a decisive disproof of God. Rather, he just doesn’t get how some people can think the following thought:

An all powerful God who loves us all might well have allowed a five-year-old girl to be raped, beaten, and strangled to death.

Or think of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed and slowly murdered over the course of more than 30 minutes. Her neighbors watched and listened to her screams. None of them intervened, and none of them even called the police until the very end. We do not excuse these bystanders by saying that if they intervened they would have interfered with the attacker’s free will. And yet believers think God acts just as these bystanders did, thousands of times a day all around the world. And yet God is supposed to be the paragon of morality.

Hallquist is not looking for a debate. He just wants to understand. He’s heard the usual responses, but they don’t make any sense to him.

Hallquist wants to know: How could anyone believe that an all-powerful God who loves everyone would allow a five year old girl to be raped, beaten, and strangled to death?

Or, more clearly:

When you ask yourself ‘Would an all-powerful, loving God have prevented the murder of the little girl described in the example above?’ is your first inclination to say ‘yes’? If so, do you think ‘yes’ is ultimately the right answer, or do you change your mind and say ‘no’ on reflection? If the latter, why is it that you change your mind?

Perhaps believers are inclined to think that an all-powerful, perfectly loving God would not allow a little girl to be raped and killed. But then they realize this means an all-powerful, perfectly loving God doesn’t exist. But they have independent reasons to think such a God exists, and so they conclude that their moral judgment of the situation is wrong. It really is good for God to be a bystander to so many horrors, and we just don’t have the perspective to see why it is good for him to do so.

Or perhaps there is some other kind of reasoning.

Well, I’m curious as well. So for the moment let’s put away our Plantingan apologetics and take a look at how believers really think about the problem of God and evil. How does it work for you? How do you approach the issue? What makes sense to you?

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{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes August 9, 2010 at 5:24 am

The link doesn’t work for me. I get the Google Docs login screen.

(I guess it would work if I were logged into a Google account, but I have not tried.)

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 5:42 am

If I were a Christian, I would have to come to a single conclusion;

The assumptions aren’t correct. God isn’t completely powerful, or completely good, and is probably neither.

As a non-Christian, I simply say it doesn’t exist. Not for the typical problem of evil reasons, but for the lack of logical consistency.

The Christian deity is often described as an unfathomable force — like square circle that does 8d magic tricks — but in so doing the Christian offering the description is negating their own ability to say anything conclusively and they rely on assertions. Like others followers from religions alien to them.

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Cafeeine August 9, 2010 at 5:44 am

Here’s the pdf on mediafire:

http://www.mediafire.com/?8cbek7kbt7y15cb

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Cafeeine August 9, 2010 at 5:47 am

What I’ve heard from Xians in these cases is the “it’s a mystery” defense, which is in my view a way to make “I don’t know and I don’t care” seem virtuous.

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Lorkas August 9, 2010 at 5:50 am

Back when my wife and I were Christians, she always preferred to deny that God was omnipotent to get out of this problem.

I leaned that direction as well, but I was always unsatisfied with all the answers I could come up with until I realized that denying the existence of God solves the problem of evil without any theological implications that are too uncomfortable (such as “God is impotent” or “God is morally imperfect” or “God has knowledge of true morality but intentionally gave us faulty moral intuitions”).

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Edson August 9, 2010 at 5:52 am

“So for the moment let’s put away our Plantingan apologetics and take a look at how believers really think about the problem of God and evil.”

Mmh! Problem of God and evil to a very normal, very average God believer (a Christian? Muslim? Hindu? Deist?). Not specific, but presumably, Christian.

According to supremely authoritative Christian literature, not only is a graphically torturous death amounting to a “five year old girl being raped, beaten, and strangled to death” considered evil, but “death” itself – of animal or human, embryonic or old age, normal or graphic – is regarded as ultimate evil and final enemy.

Yet there is evil in the world and people die everyday and, being an average christian that I am, I don’t see God being a bystander to so many horrors, rather I am looking towards the day, as a matter of creed, when:

“The perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”"

They don’t make sense to anyone here, I know, but they make sense, at least they give hope in place of hopelessness, to every one average Christian that this post was about.

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 6:42 am

Cafeeine, exactly!

(Thanks also for the Mediafire link.)

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 6:44 am

Edson, why is there a waiting period?

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 6:56 am

According to a popular reading of The Bible, all evil is equally evil, therefore it would be impossible for a just God to discriminate between evils. Within this schema, and in a world as full of evil as our own, if god eliminated evil, there would be nothing left, so god chooses the lesser of two evils. In this way, it is as if our own evilness prevents the possibility of both the universal expulsion of evil and the here-and-there expulsion of evil. Hmmm… interesting.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 7:06 am

This is fantastic. Luke, I’m not sure how you found out about this, but would you be up for trying to remind yourself to follow up and post a link to whatever document/blog/summary gets made of the results? I would highly enjoy reading the responses and I suspect many others would too.

Or perhaps provide whatever link you think might be a good place to check periodically so that we can do it ourselves?

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 7:22 am

[ Speculation is fine. I'm not saying below that DaVead holds the idea that a Heaven or similar realm exists. ]

DaVead, the thing that comes to mind is the whole concept of Heaven, though. Not to get into counting-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin nonsense, but isn’t Heaven supposed to be an evil-free realm? If this deity can carve out a chunk of reality that is without evil, why not do that everywhere?

Sidebar: If a heaven-like realm exists, it’s not for the dead, though. It would be refreshing to have more theists (not just Christians) acknowledge that there is no life after death, except the theoretical machine consciousness transfer that may someday be made possible.

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Márcio August 9, 2010 at 7:28 am

God is not a bystander at all. We have to remember that God sent His own son Jesus to die in our place. That is the ultimate proof that God loves us all and that He wants everyone to be saved from evil and suffering.

That is how i understand things and i think that the right question is:

“Would God sent His own son Jesus to die to save us humans, if He didn’t love us?”

I don’t thik so.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 7:43 am

@Marcio,

Whether on this blog or elsewhere, I’ve asked something in response to the Jesus-shared-our-suffering argument as a solution to the PoE. Consider the following:


I come home from work to find my wife was running with scissors, has fallen, and impaled herself. She is still alive. I can choose to do one of the following:

1) Call 911 immediately and use my first responder training to compress the wound and make sure the scissors don’t move, or

2) Run and grab a knife, lay down next to my wife and tell her that I’m so sorry for her misery and pain, then slit my wrists, take hold of her hands, and die right next to her.

Which option would you suggest is the moral one?

How does dying with us translate to a display of love such that no action toward the source of death and pain and misery is required any longer?

I suspect that you are hiding in some form of the following:

- Heaven is real and thus everything will be made better for believers even though we presently suffer; it’s all going to be okay

- In the meantime while I live in a world of probabilistic risks of death and intense suffering, I’ll simply believe that god’s inaction is a mystery

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 7:55 am

I wish I had time to go into this question more, but what I have found to be amazing is not that Christians who witness extreme suffering continue to believe in a good God, but that Christians who experience suffering do, often more intensely than before the suffering began. The Dave Eggers co-written autobiography of a Sudanese “Lost Boy” What Is the What comes to mind. There is a real-life Job story, and the way that young man grapples with his Christian faith while witnessing and experiencing the worst horrors imaginable, topped with a ridiculous string of aweful luck after finding refuge in America, is fascinating. The debate on the problem of evil by us privileged few atheists and theists is all well and good, but I’d like to hear the perspectives of the actual victims of evil on their experience of God or the lack thereof before I decide what to think about the topic.

That said, I do have my own half-formed pet theodicy, but I doubt I will find time to put it forward here.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 9, 2010 at 8:11 am

Back when my wife and I were Christians, she always preferred to deny that God was omnipotent to get out of this problem.

That’s an interesting approach, because that seems like quite the compromise. How far did you take it? What sort of things can’t God do to avoid the problem? I always preferred to limit benevolence as that seemed the least troubling sacrifice.

God is not a bystander at all. We have to remember that God sent His own son Jesus to die in our place. That is the ultimate proof that God loves us all and that He wants everyone to be saved from evil and suffering.

I suspect this is the most common answer – don’t worry, everything will work out in the end, it’s all according to God’s plan, you’ll see. The ends will justify the means. It’s a nice answer in that no amount of suffering could possibly refute it; it’s a bad answer in that it doesn’t actually address any particular instance of suffering, i.e. you’re still left wondering why God allows genetic illnesses, natural disasters, childhood starvation, and others things for which the affected persons can hardly be held culpable.

Anyway, good post.

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Márcio August 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

Hendy,

Jesus didn’t die with us, He died for us. God wants the best for all people, but that doesn’t mean happiness in this life.

Eternal separation from God, that is the death that Jesus saved us from.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 8:18 am

@Zeb: “…but that Christians who experience suffering do, often more intensely than before the suffering began…I’d like to hear the perspectives of the actual victims of evil on their experience of God or the lack thereof before I decide what to think about the topic.”

Agreed, though it seems you put forth your hypothesis first (that people who experience suffering draw closer to god) and then your desire to examine the evidence (I would like to know if people draw closer to god as a result of suffering).

I would also be interested in this, though what would it establish? Perhaps those committed to a loving being can’t accept the fact that they might just have been abandoned all along and thus cling harder?

Perhaps a telling study would actually be what people thought right before the died, not what the survivors now think afterward. I was saved from some legal troubles when I was involved with drugs and took that as being god’s mercy. What if I had gone to jail/prison in my younger days? Would I have developed the trusting faith that resulted in my pardoning?

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 8:55 am

Márcio, how does any of that address the letter?

After all, you do realize that most non-theists here know the basic Christian dogma and stories, right? The question is addressing something else in this situation.

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 8:56 am

Hendy:

Agreed, though it seems you put forth your hypothesis first (that people who experience suffering draw closer to god) and then your desire to examine the evidence (I would like to know if people draw closer to god as a result of suffering).

Yeah totally, I know of cases where people cleaved more strongly to God during suffering, but that may be a result of my position in the culture, not the reality of the experience of extreme suffers.

As to what it would establish, well, these discussions to me seem to be more about how incensed we privileged few should be at witnessing suffering, rather than about suffering itself. But suffering is a subjective experience, so I think we should be listening to the subjects rather than treating them as objects, especially considering the power differential between us and them. And I would be very hesitant to rationalize away whatever they say about the relationship between God and their suffering.

But the most interesting study would be what people think right after they died. That would finally clear things up a bit.

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Thomas August 9, 2010 at 8:58 am

At the end of his Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga says that this kind of an approach is probably the best formulation of the problem of evil. It goes something like this: “So what if philosophers haven´t come up with a sound argument against God´s existence from evil? This little girl was murdered. I don´t care if there are powerful theodicys or if Rowe´s or Tooley´s evidential arguments from evil and suffering ultimately fail. This little girl just died. That´s all I need.”

Plantinga´s answer goes something like this (and yes, I really think this is a part of a good answer to the problem): Job was confronted with a truly horrible amount of suffering. Job felt anger, biterness, hatred, ressentment towards God. But Job never thought that this somehow shows that there isn´t any person such as God. So when that little girl dies, her parents are truly within their rights to feel anger and bitterness toward God – but why should it follow from here that there probably even isn´t any such person as God? We may not know God´s reasons for allowing these sufferings (why should we know them?), but it doesn´t follow from there that God hasn´t got a reason.

The lessons we can take from the book of Job in addition to the Skeptical Theist line is one part of my answer to the problem. An other part is this: There are certain consequences in creating a world in which there are free creatures who have the possibility of character building and true responsibility. In that kind of a world some of these free creatures will probably freely choose to misuse their true responsibility; hence, the moral evils in the world. But now, God can only allow this if there is a limit to this suffering. The shortness of human life is the limit. In addition to that, in afterlife God will give the little girl eternal joy and happiness. In other words, the consequences of creating this kind of a world is that horrible sufferings will happen – but under one condition: that there is a limit to the suffering one can bear (the shortness of human life) and there will be eternal happiness after that life. So the question comes to this: Is it better for God not to create the 5-year-old (and hence, not let the horrendous sufferings happen) or to create the little girl? In the former case, the sufferings won´t happen, but at a terrible price: the girl will not exist. In the latter case, the girl will exist, and endure horrible suffering, but after that she will spend eternity with God in happiness and joy. Now which is better? That the girl wouldn´t exist or that the girl would undergo this suffering and then spend eternity in happiness and joy?

So the shortess of human life as a limitation to one´s sufferings and especially afterlife are important points to the problem. The little girl´s life didn´t end there (if for example the God of Christianity exists) – she will spend eternity in happiness.

A third part of my answer is that if Christianity is true, then it follows from its central doctrine that God precisely is not a bystander to our sufferings. God himself shared the human condition and endured horrible suffering in incarnation and atonement.

Finally, I think Zeb already said an important point here: “I have found to be amazing is not that Christians who witness extreme suffering continue to believe in a good God, but that Christians who experience suffering do, often more intensely than before the suffering began.” Indeed, to the most people theism is actually an answer to the problem of suffering. Think of the mother of the little girl who died. She is devastated and doesn´t want to live anymore. The only thing that keeps her living is her belief that there is God, who for some reason allowed this to happen, and with whom her daughter is now enjoying a life full of love, happiness and joy.

This is in a nutshell what I really think about suffering. We may not know God´s reasons, but it may very well be that suffering is a consequence of creating a world like this. But God will give men afterlife with happiness and joy. And in addition to that, God shared our sufferings in this life, also, in incarnation and atonement. The Christian, therefore, has an answer to the problem, which the naturalist doesn´t have. According to Christianity, the little girl will spend eternity in happiness and her mother will see her again. Evil will be answered. But according to naturalism, well…shit happens…

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TH August 9, 2010 at 8:59 am

Edson:

not only is a graphically torturous death amounting to a “five year old girl being raped, beaten, and strangled to death” considered evil, but “death” itself – of animal or human, embryonic or old age, normal or graphic – is regarded as ultimate evil and final enemy.

Oh, so Christianity teaches that it is just as evil, just as wrong for Grandma to die at age 97, as for a 5 year old girl to be raped and murdered? Nice dodge.

I doubt Christians can answer Chris’ question honestly.

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 9:14 am

Thomas, thanks for the detailed response. To me, your summary of Plantinga´s answer is a real wowzer. It pre-supposes a specific deity and that no matter what that deity does is A-OK. I doubt that he would think the same thing about Myan human sacrifices even if the Myans used the exact same rational.

How is that in effect any different from what Christian Presupposationalists say?

(For what it’s worth, I think there is no such thing as an afterlife realm that humans can get to after or at the point that they die. I think that the lack of positive support for existence after death plus what we know about the process of death makes that definitive regardless of theistic or religious beliefs or lack thereof. As such, while death can be horrible and premature, your assessment that the only reason a specific person would want to live is to go to an afterlife is not a universal assessment. A similar person could feel that they were fortunate to have the time they had with the other person, and relish the time they have left themselves.)

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 9:16 am

TH: I doubt Christians can answer Chris’ question honestly.

So far, that seems to be the case.

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 9:27 am

Hermes:

I don’t understand the force of the Heaven objection.

First, Non-Theist raises the Problem of Evil. Then, the Theist gives Free Will defense (it’s not possible to create a world of free creatures in which there is no evil). Non-Theist pulls the Heaven-ad hominem, “God created Heaven in one sectioned-off part of reality, doesn’t that mean it’s possible he could have made all of reality like that?”

Well, no. That’s like saying, if 2 minutes go by without any evil committed, then God could have made a world in which all time consisted of those 2 minutes or something like it. That is clearly wrong.

Now, I don’t understand how it’s a counter to the possible Christian response I postulated, in which the Non-Christian poses the Problem of Evil, and the Christian claims that eliminating all evil is actually a greater evil than allowing some evil (since eliminating all evil would mean eliminating all humans, since we are all evil via ‘Original Sin’ or something).

I can’t see how the Heaven objection factors in, especially if Heaven is simply a place in the actual world where people freely choose to do no evil, whilst evil exists elsewhere.

Honestly though, after surveying vast literature, my consensus is that both the Logical and Evidential arguments from evil fail. I think the existence of evil is an existential problem. Also, I think that if a Christian is completely consistent, the problem of evil isn’t a problem for them. Consider how Christianity defines evil, and consider how much evil allegedly commanded and condoned by god in The Bible. A truly Bible-believing Christian will not take evil, death, or suffering quite seriously enough for it to hinder them in their faith. They see this as a victory over evil through their faith in Christ, perhaps even as a freedom from the cognition of evil, whereas non-believers tend to see them as denying or ignorant of evil’s heinousness and abundance.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 9:36 am

@Marcio: fair enough, though as I already said in my response to you, you’re just hiding in “Heaven is real and thus everything will be made better for believers even though we presently suffer; it’s all going to be okay.”

You have to rely completely in the existence of an unproven eternal paradise to believe that Jesus dying for us did anything.

His death has apparently done absolutely nothing for us in the mean time. I wrote on my BLOG that if Jesus rose it would have been better for him to stay rather than leave as he says in John 16. If he stayed we would have an immortal man-god in our midst to visit, examine, and engage with. He would be 2,000+ years old but not have aged visibly past 33. His heart would be pierced but he would still be alive, finally confirming the existence of a sustaining spirit/soul that operates post-death. He would be able to interpret all scriptural issues for us immediately, unite all Christians under whatever he actually wanted live out, and so on. What did the gift of the Holy Spirit do for us that was better than Jesus just staying with us to the end of the age as he promised in Mt. 28?

That would be a sign of love and a desire for all to know god. Heck, Jesus could have started his own blog to explain the morally sufficient reason for evillto everyone by now!

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

Hmmm…

Here is my solution to the problem of evil: stop spending your time adding to the 2000-year-old philosophistical mumbojumbo, sell your greedily accumulated possessions like the Jesus you don’t believe in told you to do, move overseas to a nation not guzzlingly sucking at the inflating teet of Capitalism, and make the world a better place! Yes, -YOU-, unlike the God you don’t believe in, -CAN- reduce the global total of evil! So next time, skip the two-week Caribbean Cruise, and use your $2000.00 US to buy vaccines for the undeveloped world and save possibly tens of thousands of lives!

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

freedom from the cognition of evil

Restoration of the (probably mythical) primal innocence – very interesting.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 9:49 am

@DaVead:

A truly Bible-believing Christian will not take evil, death, or suffering quite seriously enough for it to hinder them in their faith. They see this as a victory over evil through their faith in Christ, perhaps even as a freedom from the cognition of evil, whereas non-believers tend to see them as denying or ignorant of evil’s heinousness and abundance.

You just said
- A truly Bible-believing Christian will not take evil… quite seriously to hinder them in their faith
- Non-believers tend to see [Christians] as denying or ignorant of evil’s heinousness and abundance

Aren’t you simply confirming that the non-believer’s assessment is correct, namely that the believer does not consider the existence of evil in full force but rather shrugs it off as saying anything about god, simply assuming that there must be a reason it exists without actually delving into what those reasons are?

Also, the heaven objection as I’ve always understood it stems from whether or not we have free will in heaven. The point is that if heaven can exist in which all humans essentially no longer have the ability reject god and sin… why couldn’t we have simply been created there initially rather than going through a life on earth?

It’s emphatically not asking god to extend 2min of non-evil-saturated earth-time, but instead focusing on what heaven is. If heaven is eternal and evil does not exist at all, then why even have an earth?

Also, if heaven is literally infinite, there would seem to be little/no loss by removing the earth for it is but an infinite slice of the time-pie.

Perhaps you are arguing from the “two-worlds” hypothesis in which a maximum set of goods exist but are mutually incompatible and thus two worlds were created to maximize the entire existing goods? In other words the earth holds goods a, b, and c which an only exist in finite/temporal/free-will-dominated world and heaven holds goods x, y, and z which can only exist in a timeless, spaceless, non-free-will-dominated world?

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 10:00 am

@DaVead:

Yes, -YOU-, unlike the God you don’t believe in, -CAN- reduce the global total of evil!

Agreed. But the question we’re discussing is why this evil exists in the first place, not whether it is beneficial to act on it. And it is beneficial to act on it.

I would be interested to know if those who are interested in blogs like this fall into the capitalism-teat-sucking-gas-guzzling-possession-hoarding-Caribbean-cruise-taking hoard you have identified.

You also seem to assume that trying to identify the truth about something equates with not caring about the actual manifestation of the thing being studied in the world.

Wouldn’t this be reminiscent of saying, “Stop trying to understand immunology and just get on sticking people with shots for crying out loud.” Doesn’t the theoretical help serve the practical? If god does not exist, hours could be freed from church time, money could be distributed elsewhere (my tithe still goes to Christian groups at the moment even though I now disbelieve), and more proven methods of self-improvement could be taught in place of prayer. Perhaps Christians fail to act because some of them are content with the moment of silence they offer at the beginning of a meal or prayer group for those suffering from a natural disaster and then get on with their lives?

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Sabio Lantz August 9, 2010 at 10:02 am

The world is a dangerous place, people can be horrible. This is a fact I accept now as an atheist and accepted as a Christian. The free-will loop hole was my way out and on hearing these things, I would just shake my head at the fallenness of human nature.

So humans hurting humans didn’t bother me — PoE was not an issue in my Christian days. But God hurting humans — that was the kicker. God torturing people for eternity because they did not buy into a story no matter how good those people were. That was far worse than the PoE. Hell, my old man was nicer than that.

In my Christian days, my logic was like this:
(1) God gave us free will, meaning he won’t interfere

(2) He interferes only if he hears enough prayer said with lots of true faith. (both always lacking) And if he doesn’t we have to accept that mystery.

(3) All are guilty of sin, and the penalty of sin is death and no matter how horrible, it is still justified. If they were Christian, eternity of bliss will make up for all that suffering and God can use the suffering for his Kingdom in the end.

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 10:04 am

Hendy, that is not the only available conception of heaven. Considering the rebellion of Lucifer story, I would imagine that all the saints in heaven do have free will. Surely it is better for them to be freely choosing perfect communion with God than being stuck with a choice they made in their past.

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 10:07 am

Hendy: Yes, I am confirming that. The PoE is not a serious problem for Bible-committed Christians because they view evil as something radically different from what the non-believe likely views evil as. They likely view evil as the result of non-Christianness, and so to suggest that the existence of evil makes Christianity less probably true would be non-sense. Christianity is seen as the solution to evil.

Also, from what you say, the Heaven objection relies heavily on what that particular Theist/Christian believes about Heaven. I have studied what the Hebrew Bible and New Testament teach about the afterlife and eschatology, and I must say it is very different from what is most commonly believed in modern Evangelistic circles. Yes, if heaven is a separate infinite realm in which free persons can live and inter-mingle without committing evil for eternity, the Theist might be somewhat of a hypocrite employing the Free Will defense. But my personal research has indicated that that is not what The Bible teaches about the afterlife, nor what most philosophically aware Theists believe. Furthermore, I suspect the lay Christian could easily endorse a description of the afterlife that would nullify the objection as well… I just don’t see it as a strong object, the conception of heaven is too vague and ad-hocly-modifiable.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 10:15 am

@Zeb/DaVead:

Interesting. I skimmed the Catechism (I’m coming from a Catholic tradition) and can’t find any reference to what, exactly, the possibilities in heaven are. I will say that I have never once heard any mention of the opportunity to “switch” sides post death. My understanding is that the last judgment makes the call and you’re in one of two baskets

1) Hell
2) Heaven (with the possibility of time in purgatory)

If the heaven-bound or inhabitants of heaven can choose against god, surely the hell-bound can do the opposite?

DaVead: agreed on being modifiable. Perhaps that’s where we have to leave it. Perhaps, then, the objection really asks, “Is heaven better than earth?” If so, why couldn’t there only be heaven? I see any answers to this most likely falling into speculation with some bible verses here and there but I could be wrong.

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 10:20 am

Hendy:

I do not mean to claim that “that trying to identify the truth about something equates with not caring about the actual manifestation of the thing being studied in the world”, but rather that in this particular case (as opposed to, say, medicine) it can and does waste valuable time and resources. In my opinion, our most brilliant minds and people who are passionate about these issues ought to spend most of the time working this out in reality as opposed to on paper. And in my experience, the ones that work it out in reality, tend to be able to work it out better on paper.

And in regards to the question, “Perhaps Christians fail to act because some of them are content with the moment of silence they offer at the beginning of a meal or prayer group for those suffering from a natural disaster and then get on with their lives?” … Yes, I think so.

And on whether or not we fit into the capitalism-teat-sucking-gas-guzzling-possession-hoarding-Caribbean-cruise-taking hoard I identified… I sure do. And it makes me sick. But I’m not rich or brave enough to leave it yet, that being the paradox of my situation that makes it worse. Sigh.

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

Heaven is never explicated anywhere in Biblical canon. The modern ideas of heaven/hell entered the tradition very late. A lot of our modern ideas and imagery derive from Dante. All the way up until Jesus the idea of a beatific afterlife was literally absent if not very controversial. I’ve done a lot of exegesis on the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament for religious studies classes whenever I’ve had independent study assignments, and I really can’t find detailed notions of heaven/hell anywhere. The Christian doctrine of the afterlife, as it is today, developed as an interpretive tradition and is a hot and controversial topic still today. Citing heaven and hell or putting any piece of doctrine regarding it into the mouths of a Christian simply because they claim to be Christian is quite unwise.

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g August 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

Thomas,

It seems that Plantinga’s position is as follows.

1. Skeptics ought not to bother offering actual arguments when they look at evil and conclude that the existence of God is unlikely.

2. Theists ought to respond to this by saying: Bah, you haven’t actually offered any sort of an argument.

Plantinga’s … concern … is noted. :-)

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Matthew D. Johnston August 9, 2010 at 10:37 am

@Thomas – You raise a good test case in the story of Job. You observation is basically that, while Job may feel angry at God, his experiences do not cause him to necessarily question the existence of God itself.

I think there is a subtlety that is missing in this interpretation, however. The PoE is not an argument against some general conception of God (it is utterly impotent against a deistic sort of god, for instance, or even the Greek gods, for that matter). It is an argument against the all-loving, all-powerful concept of God that the vast majority of monotheists has subscribed to since the Middle Ages.

Whether or not Job would be inclined to disbelieve in the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing immaterial person who created the world and everything in it, wouldn’t his experiences (vast, vast suffering and then – the ultimate insult – the charge of impiety for question what it all means) give him sufficient ground to question that this being is all-loving? Alternatively, if the only text of the Bible we had to go on was the Book of Job, would any unbiased person conclude that the God depicted is intended to satisfy these traditional axioms?

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 10:37 am

“Is heaven better than earth?”

According to the beliefs of Jesus, his contemporaries, and the entire Jewish tradition before him: no. Nowadays, it’d mostly be a yes.

“Why couldn’t there only be heaven?”

Let’s speculate some possible answers (assuming they believe in a Heaven that is better than Earth):

(1) Heaven is a reward, giving a reward without work/sacrifice/life on earth/enduring evil is wrong.

(2) Man has a sinful nature and must freely choose to be saved to abandon his sinful nature, thus becoming sinless and able to enter Heaven. If God bypassed the redemptive stage, he’d just be making robots.

(3) God did make only Heaven, a.k.a. The Garden of Eden, possibly even made it twice, the Earth after the Flood. Humans ruined that plan, possibly twice, so God resorted to Plan C. He couldn’t undo and start again, as that would be a greater evil.

I’ll call these answers “Christian” answers as opposed to “Theistic,” since Theism does not entail anything appealed to in these answers.

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Thomas August 9, 2010 at 10:49 am

I don’t understand why everyone seems to think that Hitler was anything other than a wonderful person. He may have killed a few people, but so what? I’m sure he must have had perfectly good reasons for bringing about all that suffering, even if he didn’t tell us what they are – none of us would ever have been able to understand them. No one has ever given any good reason or evidence to think that Hitler was evil or malicious.

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Thomas August 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

@Hermes

To me, your summary of Plantinga´s answer is a real wowzer.

Clarification: The Job – Skeptical Theism -line is (a part of) Plantinga´s answer which I then used in my answer. But my comment as a whole was not “a summary of Plantinga´s answer”. The free will, responsibility and after life -part for example is a part of Swinburne´s theodicy.

It pre-supposes a specific deity and that no matter what that deity does is A-OK

It presupposes a God of classical theism, which is what I take to be the issue here: Is the co-existence of horrendous suffering (S) and the God of classical theism (G) compatible or probable? So the PoE is an intrinsic problem for classical theism. If the theist can show that the co-existence of S and G is possible and not even improbable, then he has a good answer to PoE. I tried to give such an answer (by summarizing very quickly some of Plantinga´s and Swinburne´s views). So it is no answer to this case that “no matter what that deity does is A-OK”. If the atheist´s argument´s main premise is something like “we don´t know any reasons why God would allow suffering”, then the theist is well justified in answering that mere lack of knowledge is not a good argument for the conclusion “therefore, God hasn´t got a reason for allowing suffering”.

For what it’s worth, I think there is no such thing as an afterlife realm that humans can get to after or at the point that they die. I think that the lack of positive support for existence after death plus what we know about the process of death makes that definitive regardless of theistic or religious beliefs or lack thereof.

As I said, PoE is an intrinsic problem for classical theism. But, according to theism, there probably is an afterlife. Therefore, the co-existence of God and evil is not so improbable given that afterlife is included in the existence of God. In other words, God & evil may be improbable, but God & afterlife & evil isn´t so improbable.

The existence of afterlife, then, is a worldview-dependent thing. If theism is true, there probably is an afterlife. If naturalism is true, there probably isn´t. I don´t know what to think when you say that there isn´t positive evidence for afterlife as such. One is reminded of Steve Turne´s Creed where he states (satirically) why modern men do not believe in afterlife:

“We believe that after death comes the Nothing/ because when you ask the dead what happens/ they say nothing.”

(Of course there are some very interesting NDE cases [f.ex. cases where a patient with no brain activity could report accurately what was happening in a place a couple of miles away from the room he was being operated!], but that is debate for another day.)

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 10:52 am

@DaVead:

- If I “put words into the mouths of Christians”, I apologize. I meant only to illustrate what I know of the churches that Christians belong to. Most that I know of (if not all?) don’t claim to be Christian while holding a bunch of unorthodox beliefs at the same time. Most align with a dogma as prescribed by their affiliated church.

- So Paul when claiming that “now we see in a mirror but dimly, but then we will see him face to face” or “to live is Christ and to die is gain… I desire to depart (die) and be with Christ, which is far better” he is claiming that earth is equivalently good to heaven? I would find your defense of that stance intriguing to say the least!

- I suppose what you call a “reward” will heavily affect what you wrote. When I feed my daughter, is that a “reward?” Has she “earned” the food I provide to her? Does she “earn” the right to sleep in a bed because she has lived through the discomforts of sleeping outside on the porch or in a gutter first? Generally, when we bring children into the world, we provide for them regardless of whether or not they’ve “earned it.” Surely you will bring up the ‘ol 18 years old landmark and illustrate that we can toss them out. Sure.

But can we really be much except infants to god? Some never even hear of him and live in complete ignorance with no idea why they lost their legs, were raped and killed, and so on. How can one live for a reward that they don’t know exists?

I didn’t “freely” choose to inherit original sin. Apparently even if I was perfect but not baptized I would still be guilty of Adam, the man-ape’s, sin in the distant past.

God foreknew that humans would “ruin” that plan. That’s like me making a maze which consists of a starting point and two walls forming a straight path to the edge of a table and then starting a mouse on it. When it runs right off the edge of the table because I fully knew that’s exactly how the plan would work… should I punish the mouse for behaving the only way it could given the environment I made and the nature it possessed?

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 10:52 am

DaVead: I can’t see how the Heaven objection factors in, especially if Heaven is simply a place in the actual world where people freely choose to do no evil, whilst evil exists elsewhere.

First off, I agree with you that the arguments from evil are generally useless. They fail as definitive knock-downs against theism in general or even narrowly for Christianity in general. Where they can succeed, though, is in dealing with the presumption that a deity — any deity from a religious group or even one invented or intuited personally outside the bounds of a religion — is an omnimax. If the theist (any type) asserts an omnimax deity exists, they have made a logical error. The only out is what Lorkas mentioned early on in this thread; keep the deity but don’t claim that it is an omnimax.

Now, to the quote above.

I’ve only encountered a few Christians that say that Heaven is an evil-free zone by consensus of the people who are there. It’s a noble goal to attempt here and now in as many places as possible before we as individuals die, of course, yet that’s not what Christians tend to mean by Heaven. They mean after they are dead, and the consensus arguments are usually of the type that ‘in the presence of God/Jesus/… nobody will want to do evil’ just as no sane people decide it’s a not a good thing to pee on a cop in a police station, or run around naked while taking bicycles or skateboards from little kids.

Is that what you mean? If so, I can address that as well as about a half dozen variations on the idea of people freely choosing not to do evil in a Heaven-like realm (part of this reality or some associated bubble separate from where we look now).

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 10:57 am

@Thomas:

Please present links to the NDE (and any like it) you report. I would be interested in reading the 1st hand report on such cases. I can’t find a link right now, but am aware that others are interested in this and have put screens toward the ceilings of emergency rooms to see if anyone reports what the screen showed. I’ve heard all these NDE reports of seeing a car accident 2 blocks away, a shoe or basketball on the roof, etc… but little in the way of a primary source and list of the exact details provided by the NDE-er vs. the details of the actual evidence.

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Thomas August 9, 2010 at 10:59 am

“Thomas” said:

I don’t understand why everyone seems to think that Hitler was anything other than a wonderful person. He may have killed a few people, but so what? I’m sure he must have had perfectly good reasons for bringing about all that suffering, even if he didn’t tell us what they are – none of us would ever have been able to understand them. No one has ever given any good reason or evidence to think that Hitler was evil or malicious.

Funny.

God doesn´t “do” evil things. He allows human beings to do these things because that is a consequence of creating a world with free will and responsibility. In addition, there might be reasons that are just beyond our scope. So your parody-analogy misses the mark

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Matthew D. Johnston August 9, 2010 at 11:07 am

Heaven is a reward, giving a reward without work/sacrifice/life on earth/enduring evil is wrong.

I would actually be okay with this (although I don’t think it corresponds to the actual world for empirical reasons). But, at any rate, this isn’t compatible with standard Protestant theology which repeatedly asserts that there is nothing any human being could do on their own which would be worthy of their redemption (i.e. reward).

Man has a sinful nature and must freely choose to be saved to abandon his sinful nature, thus becoming sinless and able to enter Heaven. If God bypassed the redemptive stage, he’d just be making robots.

So do we become robots after we have freely chosen to abandon our sinful nature (i.e. are we in some manner restricted from freely choosing to go back)?

God did make only Heaven, a.k.a. The Garden of Eden, possibly even made it twice, the Earth after the Flood. Humans ruined that plan, possibly twice, so God resorted to Plan C. He couldn’t undo and start again, as that would be a greater evil.

I take it Plan C is sending Christ to pay the price for our sinful natures so that we could (eventually) enter the Kingdom of God? But what about the nature of this Kingdom (or heaven) makes it lack suffering after we arrive there? If people are still free in this Kingdom, are they not permitted to choose freely to go back to their old ways (as in the Garden of Eden and Noah stories) which is (at least by the free will defense) the cause of suffering in the first place? Has Christ’s redemption somehow made it impossible for freely chosen actions to cause suffering? If that’s the case, I think we can still ask why it would be impossible for God to instantiate such a world in the first place.

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Thomas August 9, 2010 at 11:08 am

g said:

It seems that Plantinga’s position is as follows.
1. Skeptics ought not to bother offering actual arguments when they look at evil and conclude that the existence of God is unlikely.
2. Theists ought to respond to this by saying: Bah, you haven’t actually offered any sort of an argument.

Heh, a good point. The trouble is of course in my comment, not in Plantinga. What Plantinga does is that he defends first 2. when dealing the arguments from evil and having concluded that they all probably fail he then considers that something like 1. may be true.

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 11:35 am

Too busy to keep up. I’m outta here…

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 11:40 am

This is speculation, but I reckon that if the veil were lifted from the human soul, there would be no more partial decisions to accept or reject God. Faced with the fullness of who he is, perhaps one could only choose complete communion with him, or complete separation. It seems to me complete separation would mean annihilation, because it would demand that he withdraw his sustaining power from you, and you would cease to exist (and you would know in making the choice). But if eternity means not ‘infinite time’, but ‘outside of-’ or ‘transcending time’ (as I think it must given of a B theory of time), then I don’t see what sense it makes to say you could change your mind in Heaven. In the full presence of God, you could choose to be a person who rejects God, or one who embraces God.

And Hendy, one thing we do know is that the Catholic conception of Heaven in some way includes Earth – the saints are present with God to Earth, and participate in his activity on Earth. If it is the case that a living person cannot have full communion with God, it is not the case that a dead person who has reached full communion with God will be separated from Earth. So it is not the case that Heaven is better than Earth, but that full communion with God is better than partial communion with God, and the latter may only be available after death. (Earth here meaning the world of man, not the third planet.)

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

Hendy:

Nah I didn’t think you were word-inserting. You’d be surprised how many non-Evangelical church leaders are close to tossing out the traditional doctrines of the afterlife. Even influentials like N.T. Wright, or any Anglican/Episcopalian for that matter, along with people in the United church, universalists, and especially any postmodern or emerging church type. As far as your everyday Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, yes you are right. Often they’re not better-off though, in replacing doctrine with quasi-Christian mysticism.

Hmm… though I agree that after Jesus the pro-Heaven ideas started to grow, I can still show how they were less developed at the time than those cited verses suggest. Actually, your Bible quotes are a little misleading and misquoted. First is 1 Corinthians 13:12, which reads, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (NASB). There is no seeing ‘him’ “face to face,” rather, “face to face” describes the new way we view God and the world through love. This verse is part of Paul’s famous sermon on love, in which he compares entering the loving life as moving from childhood to maturity, or from blindness to sight. He writes in the verse previous, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” Reading into this some notion of a beatific, conscious, bodily afterlife in the presence of Jesus himself is going a little far. Since the verse doesn’t refer to a heaven, he’s not making a comparison between heaven and earth, and so he’s not saying heaven or the afterlife is more desirable. The next verse is from Philippians, where Paul was probably writing from prison. He writes, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” This is one of several verses where Paul refers to departing to be with Christ, and we do get a hint of some notion of heaven. However, in Greek, the word translated here as depart, or “analusai”, does not mean die at all, but rather means to be unloosened or released. Paul’s word choice is an interplay of the ideas of being released from his prison chains and leaving earth to be with Jesus. He is longing to dwell bodily with the physical Christ that he believed ascended to be with God in the flesh. Even though the thought of wanting to be with Jesus seems to require the accompanying idea of a place where Jesus is (i.e. a Heavenly realm in the traditional sense), the latter idea is still not present in this passage. Paul is saying that he wishes he could be with Christ instead of living the life Jesus has called him to on Earth. We mustn’t confuse what Paul the individual wishes or thinks would be a better place (being with Christ) with what early Christianity taught was the better place. Many times Paul writes about desiring things that are contrary to what God wants or what the church taught ought to be desired.

As for the reward defense and the original sin defense, yes I agree with you, I was merely playing devils advocate and anticipating a possible response.

Hermes:
Yes I think that was what I meant, no need to address it though, again, just devil’s advocating. Or, perhaps, Jesus’s advocating.

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DaVead August 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Matthew D. Johnston:

I largely agree with you on the first two points, but I still think the Heaven Objection is very weak if it relies on what you say:

“Has Christ’s redemption somehow made it impossible for freely chosen actions to cause suffering? If that’s the case, I think we can still ask why it would be impossible for God to instantiate such a world in the first place.”

There is next to nothing in The Bible or anywhere else canonized that says being ‘redeemed’ or being in Heaven makes it impossible for your free action to cause suffering. The Christian could easily say that if you are bad in heaven, you are thrown out, but that the only kind of people who would want to be in heaven are the people that wouldn’t do bad, and the rest go to hell. Or… something like that.

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Now that I have thought about it, my own personal answer to this does not even involve theodicy. I trust in God’s power, knowledge and goodness. In my own suffering (slight as it has been relatively speaking) I take refuge in God’s presence and compassion, and in witnessing others’ suffering I trust that God is available to them for the same. And I trust that ultimately I and the whole world will be delivered into wholeness. As to why the world is this way, I don’t know why and don’t expect that I should. That’s what I really think and feel about it.

That said I do think pursuing the arguments as reasons for and against belief is a worthwhile effort. Suffering certainly does raise questions, and it is good to try to figure out what the implications of it are for our knowledge of God (including whether he exists.)

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Wow. There’s quite a lot to soak in. I think, with Hermes, I’m probably opting out. I’ll end with this:

- Anyone pro-god in light of evil should at least put together their responses and send them in to the article. I’m hoping that the resulting summary is enlightening and informative so the larger the sample size and diversity, the better

- Would anyone (Zeb/DaVead) suppose that there is much in the way of support for some of the claims above about heaven, it’s nature, and why it supposes that we should not be surprised by evil here? My read is that most of this sounds like full on speculation of possible worlds and such.

- I find it far more informative to simply do as the article suggests and ask, “Would I expect an all-knowing, all-powerful, fully loving being to stop a rapist from having his way with a five year old?”

- I also find it informative to simply wipe the mind’s slate clean for 2min and ask, “What would I expect the world to look like were an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving being behind the reigns of absolutely everything that occurs? I can imagine all kinds of improvements. Why?

- Lastly, why is the “common sense” attack against god pronounce utterly flawed when the most basic and perhaps strongest arguments put forth for god seem to have to do with “common sense.”
— Where did everything come from? See, you can’t think of anything that doesn’t have a prior cause, therefore god is that first cause!
— Why do you hunger for transcendence?? See, you hunger for the perfection and love and tender care that exists in god!
— Why have all cultures had gods if he doesn’t exist? The animals don’t worship gods! We’re made in his image, can’t you see!
— What would life mean without god? Therefore, god exists and everyone else should logically commit suicide.

I exaggerate, but surely arguments like the above are well known and appeal to common sense. “Doesn’t x seem like it should be the case? Therefore x” or “Doesn’t y seem to be a ridiculous proposition? Therefore not y.”

Given this, why is the use of the same reasoning faculty wrong when it comes to the common sense examination of evil. We literally cannot come up with any analogous situations in human existence to suppose why god would not intervene. This was the point of the article. We would wonder why the bystanders might not have intervened in the stabbing, we would criticize them for not acting! I don’t let me daughter walk out into the street (she’s 2) as not to violate her free will. Instead I instinctually demonstrate that I love her too much to give a shit about her free will! I say hell with her ignorant choice, I want better for her.

What about god? What if I prayed, “God, I don’t care about my free will. I freely choose to be an automaton for you so that I can have heaven. I offer myself fully to you right now and surrender my free will. I cannot be trusted for 70 years (or 80 for those who are strong…) and thus I ask you to make me your non-free-willed servant. I will evangelize and be holy because you made me holy right now. Recognize my child-likeness right now and do what any father would do for a weak and helpless child. Run my life for me in any area where danger and/or sin abounds. Just like a child is free to play and have fun and just “be”, let me be free. But just as no father lets a child do something that would seriously harm them, please physically and spiritually prevent me from choosing anything that would harm me for I cannot even comprehend the magnitude and gravity of the consequences. Amen.”

Would that work? Why not? I can’t freely choose to give up my free will?

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Thomas Lantern August 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Can suffering for any reason be acceptable? If so, then the theist certainly has grounds for making his case.

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm

@Zeb:

I hear you. You should write into the address on the article with that. I find it circular (god exists and is perfect, but evil exists and is not perfect, but god exists, therefore god exists), but think that it is at the heart of what goes through the minds of most believers.

Essentially I think it simply comes down to, “I just know god exists and nothing can convince me otherwise.” I can understand this level of faith to some degree, but also think it should simply be stated as it is.

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Chris Hallquist August 9, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Luke, thanks for posting this, we’re getting some good discussion here, and discussions like this are a big part of what makes your blog awesome.

@Márcio: I’m not sure what your answer is here to my questions in the letter, unless it is that you think Jesus’ is life is proof that there is a God. But, unlike murders, the aspects of the Jesus story you cite (that he died for us) aren’t the sort of thing you can know happened just by having read it in a newspaper, so I’m not sure why you consider it proof of anything.

@Thomas: I think you’ve left out the line in WCB where Plantinga comes closest to my discussion here: “Perhaps he can’t give a demonstration that no perfect person could permit these things; perhaps there isn’t a good probabilistic or evidential atheological argument either: but so what? Isn’t it just apparent, just evident that a being living up to God’s reputation couldn’t permit things like that?” But I’m not sure if Plantinga’s reporting a thought he’s had, or merely something he can see someone else having. The discussion is conducted in terms of some abstract, hypothetical religious believer.

This is an odd feature of Plantinga’s work in general–that one rarely gets a feel for why he believes what he does. Not only is he not inclined to give arguments for his religious beliefs, he isn’t inclined to talk about his reasons in a broader sense. I’ve never heard him say anything like “I believe in God because I’ve experienced God,” or “because I want to go to Heaven,” or “I prefer to believe it because I think it’s a more optimistic view of the world.” His response is much closer to being, “What if I don’t have a reason for my beliefs? You got a problem with that, huh bub?”

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Hendy August 9, 2010 at 1:53 pm

@Chris: where will the summary/discussion appear after you’ve collected all the input? I’d like to see what comes of this. Thanks!

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G'DIsraeli August 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm

“We do not excuse these bystanders by saying that if they intervened they would have interfered with the attacker’s free will.” clearly is a false analogy.
People use there free will to prevent or enable good/evil,
while god enables free will. that is a big difference.
“God would not allow a little girl to be raped and killed.” – to enable free will a religious would answer.
You know this already.

Personally I don’t believe in free will, so you know…
The problem of evil is devastating emotionally, to me at least. But why appeal to emotions?

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Matthew D. Johnston August 9, 2010 at 3:08 pm

There is next to nothing in The Bible or anywhere else canonized that says being ‘redeemed’ or being in Heaven makes it impossible for your free action to cause suffering. The Christian could easily say that if you are bad in heaven, you are thrown out, but that the only kind of people who would want to be in heaven are the people that wouldn’t do bad, and the rest go to hell. Or… something like that.

Fair enough. I’m okay with doing away with the classical notion of heaven. As I read it, you’re suggesting that it is possible (even if just for the sake of argument) that heaven isn’t structurally better than this world (i.e. poor human decisions can still cause suffering in heaven) but better more as a result of the nature of the people who populate it. Is that a fair description?

This lessens the blow of the “What about heaven?” objection, but I don’t think it shoots it right down. The issue of Christ conquering death is central to Christianity; the believer must maintain some conception of an afterlife which is objectively better than this one. It doesn’t have to be perfectly free of suffering. I cannot imagine any believer maintaining the belief, for instance, that there are volcanoes, tsunamis, cancer, dementia, country musicians (okay, I kid), etc., in the coming Kingdom of God. If we are to try to accept the theodicy that this world is the best of all possible worlds, even if we can’t see how, and simultaneously hold that there is a superior world awaiting the faithful after death, we beg the question of why we couldn’t have just started with that world in the first place. This is, I think, pretty independent of what anybody’s specific conception of heaven.

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TDC August 9, 2010 at 3:55 pm

G’DIsraeli,

But if we’re talking about Christianity, then the response that God needs to stay hands off too allow free will seems to contradict their theology.

Many times in the Bible, God intervenes in ways that are vastly more dramatic than simply frying one rapist before he can get to a little child. How does killing the rapist contradict allowing free will?

I don’t think it is merely an emotional problem. It seems like a real logical problem for Christianity.

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Hermes August 9, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Matthew, well done.

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G'DIsraeli August 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm

TDC,

Yes, I point out also it is unbiblical.
But how important is the bible to theology? Most of the time they ignore it.
They always say it’s a (another) metaphor. Some Rabbis even say, the killing of Amalek is.
More look into the bible, ironically many times the worst for modern theism.

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Chris Hallquist August 9, 2010 at 7:59 pm

@Hendy: I’ll probably write an appendix to the letter at some point. Either follow me (UncredibleHallq) on Twitter, or subscribe to my blog on your RSS feed reader.

@G’DIsraeli: If God is our creator, of course he can make decisions we can’t (like whether or not to give us free will). But being omnipotent, he can also do most of the things that we can, including directly intervening to stop a murder (unless you have a different understanding of omnipotence than most people).

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TaiChi August 9, 2010 at 8:38 pm

This is an odd feature of Plantinga’s work in general–that one rarely gets a feel for why he believes what he does. Not only is he not inclined to give arguments for his religious beliefs, he isn’t inclined to talk about his reasons in a broader sense. ” ~ Chris Hallquist

I haven’t read it, but Plantinga’s ‘Spiritual Autobiography‘ might be of interest to you. I think your letter is fantastic, by the way.

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Zeb August 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Hendy,

Essentially I think it simply comes down to, “I just know god exists and nothing can convince me otherwise.”

No, it’s “I have found reasons to believe that God exists and is tri-omni, and I don’t yet know how the suffering we observe squares with that belief.” And I don’t suppose a successful theodicy would even solve that problem; it would at best prove that there is at least one way a tri-omni god and suffering could coexist. In other words I think theodicies are useful for nullifying the challenge of suffering for theism, and maybe understanding the relationships between our concepts of suffering and goodness, but I expect our inevitable position on God’s ways and reasons will be ignorance (save for divine revelation). In that ignorance I trust in the god who I have found to be true and good, but I could still be convinced that he is neither.

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TaiChi August 9, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Zeb,
There are no successful theodicies. There can be none. All theodicies rely on the supposition of a greater good which cannot be secured without the cost of evil – that is, there must be some kind of good which entails evil. But God himself instantiates every good and without thereby instantiating any evil, and since it is possible that God alone should exist (as he does prior to creation), it is possible that every good should exist without any evil existing. Of course, if every good can exist without evil existing, then no good entails an evil, and so there are no candidate goods which would fill the role needed for a theodicy.
I spread the argument over two of my blog posts, but that’s the gist of it. I think your optimism is unwarranted.

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CRL August 9, 2010 at 11:43 pm

If I were to be christian/when I was christian, I would believe/believed that God created the world (in some primitive form i.e. a ball of matter& energy) and left it to develop on it’s own. An unorthodox system, perhaps, but it let God off the hook.

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Ajayraju August 10, 2010 at 1:04 am

In Hinduism there is this concept of KARMA where past life bad deeds translates to u being punished in this life.

So, a hindu can understand this as that girl being raped being a horrible person in the life before who is suffering now. So, a good incentive to be good in this life for people like us so we dont end up being raped in the next life

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G'DIsraeli August 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

“including directly intervening to stop a murder”
He can but the won’t because of free will. SO what if his all loving?

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 9:15 am

I think the “skeptical theist” response provides an excellent intellectual rebuttal to the PoE, except for the following caveats:

1. It’s only intellectually, and not emotionally fulfilling. Try telling it to someone who’s child was just killed.

2. It may render natural theism unfalsifiable and hence destroy the whole idea. This may be too great a price to pay.

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Hendy August 10, 2010 at 10:31 am

@Zeb: I hear you, though I’m not sure what good reasons you suppose for positing a triomni god. It would seem that the correct approach would be to examine the world and then make that call. I have good reasons to object to all three qualities. It seems that the only way to bypass the objections is essentially to insist on those qualities first and then hypothesize why, in fact, they are true.

@G’DIsraeli: I would think that for Christians and Jews, at least, the Bible should present some portrait of what we can expect from god. Intervention seems to be one of them. Whether or not the Bible is used as a theological basis does not affect whether the Bible is/should be the source of theology. How else do Christians and Jews claim to know about god if not from his character as revealed in the Bible?

If god can intervene against Sodom instead of respecting their sexual free-wills, it would seem that stopping a rapist is chump change.

@Martin: Re. #1, I think many would simply say that it doesn’t matter if god’s actions are emotionally satisfying or not. Unquestioning trust is required. In asking a believer about this very question yesterday I asked if one would expect god to intervene in the rape occurrence. The response was, “I don’t know.” I said, “But god is all loving” and the response was, “But it’s god! How am I supposed to know what god would do?” I focused in on the love issue and asked if we should intervene and the response was, “Yes, but we’re not god. You can’t analyze god like this.”

I found that very interesting, for if we can’t use our own definitions of love and various other human terms to say anything about god that actually applies… how can we be sure than any of our terms actually apply? Who in the world are we worshipping, theologizing about, and trying to follow?

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Matthew D. Johnston August 10, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I found that very interesting, for if we can’t use our own definitions of love and various other human terms to say anything about god that actually applies… how can we be sure than any of our terms actually apply? Who in the world are we worshipping, theologizing about, and trying to follow?

That tends to be the crux of the skeptical theism issue for me, too. If we are committed to ascribing the property of benevolence (or moral perfection) to God, but then concede at every turn that he is except from the whatever normal conceptions of love and morality we might have, how are we supposed to make any sense of what it means for God to have these properties in the first place? In another way of speaking, if a world governed by a benevolent God and one governed by an indifferent God are indistinguishable, what meaning does the property have?

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Bill Snedden August 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Matthew: indeed; that is, as I understand, the primary academic objection to skeptical theism: that it pretty much renders meaningless all ordinary moral language. Isn’t the baby worth more than the bathwater?

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Robert Gressis August 10, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I haven’t read the comments, so I apologize if I’ve repeated someone else’s question, but Chris, aren’t you at Notre Dame? And if so, aren’t there lots of grad students and professors you’ve asked this question to? If so, have they responded to you with anything that you can understand? I assume you have asked them, I assume they’ve responded, and I assume you find their responses baffling, in that they’re offered by people you find intelligent, but that they seem dumb. Consequently, I’m guessing that no one here or anywhere else in the world will get you beyond thinking “theists are just completely irrational when it comes to believing in God”. Do you think I’m wrong about that?

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Hendy,

I found that very interesting, for if we can’t use our own definitions of love and various other human terms to say anything about god that actually applies… how can we be sure than any of our terms actually apply?

I think the answer would be that we can use our human idea of love to apply to God. It’s just that you are trying to see the big picture that only God can see.

Your dog would be wrong to conclude that you are evil or indifferent because you occasionally drag him to the scary man in the white coat who stabs him for no reason at all. Of course, you know of viruses and vaccines, even though there is no way to communicate that to your dog.

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lukeprog August 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Robert Gressis,

Interesting question!

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Hendy August 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm

@Martin:

Fair enough — god could have the “big picture” and we’re just ignorant of it.

God could just tell us what these reasons might be. The Holy Spirit is to “teach us all things” and this could be amazingly manifested if he kept the parables coming to enlighten us. As I said above, I think it would have been far better if Jesus just stayed with us, as at least he was [supposedly] a real, live person and the Holy Spirit seems to do incredibly less than a real live person we could interact with!

In any case, no one has yet pronounced what the greater good might even possibly be in the case of a 5 year old being raped and murdered except that it respects our free will. Or ramblings about simply needing to trust what such a good might be. Or recognize that we’re too infantile-brained to speculate.

Perhaps you side with D’Souza in What’s so Great…:

God didn’t kill all those people at Virginia Tech, the shooter did. Why, however, didn’t god intervene and stop it? … Imagine if god had intervened to prevent the homicidal maniac from doing what he did…The shooter would be — by miraculous intrusion — disarmed, the shootings would have been prevented, and life would go on. In short, life would proceed as if God had not intervened in the first place. So God in this view becomes a kind of cosmic errand boy, who is supposed to do our chores and clean up our messes and we then wish him a very good day and return to our everyday lives. But perhaps God’s purpose in the world (I am only thinking aloud here) is to draw his creatures to him. And you have to admit that tragedies like this one at Virginia Tech help to do that! (pg 277-278)

I see. So it was better for everyone to die so that everyone could 1) find god and 2) find comfort in each other during the grieving.

Cosmic-errand boy? How about a parent to children? He’s the father and parents take care of their children whether they want to or not (I am one, trust me). It’s my obligation to take care of and protect my daughter.

Also, those who trust in god are supposed to be taken care of! I guess it’s only in heaven that this comes to fruition because there are precious few signs of any favor to Christians on earth compared to the world population in general (if you life in a 1st world country and are thinking that god provides for you via food, cars, money, etc., please just don’t go there).

Lastly, if the language of “love” doesn’t work (we can’t think of any reasons why love = not acting against the rape/murder of a 5 year old) and the heavy analogies of parent/child/intimate love used in the Bible don’t hold up to our experience… what’s left? I return to supposing that we don’t have much of an idea what we’re really worshiping at all.

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Hendy: [irt. triomni / omnimax] It seems that the only way to bypass the objections is essentially to insist on those qualities first and then hypothesize why, in fact, they are true.

The usual maneuver I see is to redefine one or more of the three legs of the chair in such a way as to make it fit reality. The result — usually gained by gutting omnibenevolence — works, but in the words of another fictional character “…that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Hendy,

God could just tell us what these reasons might be.

Well, as in the dog example, it may not be possible. I would think that our intellect is to a dog as a God is to us, at the very least, if not a lot more.

In any case, no one has yet pronounced what the greater good might even possibly be in the case of a 5 year old being raped and murdered except that it respects our free will.

This is, of course, the job of theodicies. In the case of a child rape, we could be talking about a ripple-effect for centuries before the “greater good” comes about. Think “butterfly effect” here.

I do think free will is a legitimate answer as well. We’ve all seen A Clockwork Orange. As horrible as Alex’s crimes might have been, the greater horror was him becoming an automaton, unable to make free moral decisions.

As I said, unsatisfying emotionally and it would be of no comfort to a parent, but I think it carries at least some intellectual weight.

It’s my obligation to take care of and protect my daughter.

Right, but imagine teaching your child never to steal, and then always watching over them to be sure they don’t. At some point don’t you want them to become a free moral agent, and to freely choose not to steal because it’s the right thing to do rather than out of fear of reprisal?

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Hendy, Matthew, & Bill Re: Hendy’s comment “… how can we be sure than any of our terms actually apply? … ” and the replies that followed. In the famous words of the character Taggart (Slim Pickens) from Blazing Saddles; Ditto!

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Bill Snedden August 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm

@Martin:

Well, as in the dog example, it may not be possible. I would think that our intellect is to a dog as a God is to us, at the very least, if not a lot more.

I’ve never found this particular feint at all compelling. Obviously it’s true that God must possess a superior intellect and superior knowledge, but just as obviously we do have a moral sense that’s perfectly capable of allowing us to know or discern right and wrong insofar as they apply to us. It seems to me that the only way this particular tactic gains force is if God’s allegedly inscrutable ends have nothing whatever to do with us, our needs, emotions, physical well-being, psychic health, or desires. IOW, unless we gut ordinary moral language of its meaning.

I would think it better to simply bite the bullet, as Calvinists do (among others), and argue that the “highest good” is God’s glory and everything He does is to that end. IOW, humans simply don’t matter, except as pawns in the “master plan.”

Can’t you just feel the love? ;)

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Martin: I think the answer would be that we can use our human idea of love to apply to God. It’s just that you are trying to see the big picture that only God can see.

Then it is an alien and seemingly arbitrary application of even more alien words. We are (in that example) ignorant of all important aspects. As such, how do we know — any more than the dog in your example — that anything is in the best interest of good outcomes or bad ones? The words are meaningless to us in the same way that the results are meaningless to the dog. There’s no basis for trust, just blind obedience.

IMNSHO, we *have to* use what we have and judge for ourselves, or otherwise we may be following either phantoms of our own making or demons with their own agenda or who knows how many different variations on either of those and many more possibilities. None of them can be questioned.

Additionally, the deity you describe is not an omnimax/triomni as it could act in both a moral and do so comprehensibly without all this vagueness and use of analogies that require following phantoms, demons, or deities — with our best interests (like children) or not in mind.

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Bill Snedden,

Re: moral sense.

What’s interesting is that if you use our moral sense to criticize God’s actions, you are in a sense affirming the existence of moral objectivity, which is an argument for the existence of an Absolute Good.

Re: Right and wrong applied to us

One could argue that God allows suffering because the end result does apply to us. For instance, let’s say God allows a child to be horribly raped and murdered in order to get the mother to start an anti-abduction organization which leads to the saving of millions of children’s lives that otherwise would have perished at the hands of predators.

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Hendy August 10, 2010 at 3:44 pm

@Martin:

Love it… compare this:

Well, as in the dog example, it may not be possible. I would think that our intellect is to a dog as a God is to us, at the very least, if not a lot more.

with this:

Right, but imagine teaching your child never to steal, and then always watching over them to be sure they don’t.

Either we’re 1) utterly nothing intellectually compared to god (at least less than a dog is to us) or 2) we’re capable of at least remotely understanding god’s reasons and/or instructions well enough to follow them freely.

If we are as dogs (or less) to god, then he absolutely needs to watch over our shoulder all the time. You don’t get a dog to a point where you can leave out your Thanksgiving turkey to cool while you run an errand and expect it to be untouched upon your return!

Some dogs just never learn to stop going on the rug. They tend to get sent away or put down. Do you a slight connection to the Christian message here?

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Hendy August 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm

@Martin:

What’s interesting is that if you use our moral sense to criticize God’s actions, you are in a sense affirming the existence of moral objectivity, which is an argument for the existence of an Absolute Good.

I slightly understand this, but would diverge by saying that I think the force of the argument is subjecting god’s morals to god’s morals. In other words, take what we all think we’re supposed to do as Christians and apply that to the Old Testament. This brings up all kinds of hoop-jumping exercises and “cultural exceptions” for what went on.

I see it more as a hypothesis-testing exercise. Suppose god does exist and perfect morality exists as decreed by him. Then read about his directives. Then realize such a hypothesis is ridiculously overruled by loads of OT evidence. That simple.

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

If we are as dogs (or less) to god, then he absolutely needs to watch over our shoulder all the time.

Perhaps that is in fact exactly what Christianity proposes. That we are like dogs who God wants to be as good as the owner without having to force us, but we fall short of that mark and we eat the turkey and pee on the rug. There’s your problem of evil.

Skip the fundie distortions of Jesus’ message (indeed, skip most religious distortions of it) and he essentially says “Be nice to people for a change.” In other words, the solution to the problem of evil.

Seems a plausible position, were I a theist.

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Then realize such a hypothesis is ridiculously overruled by loads of OT evidence.

Assume for a moment that the philosophical arguments for God are successful. That we all agree there exists an omni-God creator of the universe. Perfectly good and loving, omniscient, omnipotent, etc.

Then it becomes a trivial matter to see the Bible as the ancients’ attempt to understand this being. Through their primitive eyes. Imperfectly. Filtered through their stories of their petty wars over Canaan and such. With God doing a facepalm the entire time.

In other words, if I were a theist I would take a God-down approach instead of a Bible-down approach.

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Martin: Skip the fundie distortions of Jesus’ message (indeed, skip most religious distortions of it) and he essentially says “Be nice to people for a change.” In other words, the solution to the problem of evil.

Actually, it doesn’t. To do that, there needs to be a specific type of deity — a non-omnimax/non-triomni deity.

Additionally — and much more importantly regardless of deities that are said to be involved — there has to be perfection in the relationship between different individuals with differing needs/wants/… when there are logical inconsistencies between what is needed by those different individuals even if only morals are considered. I’ve discussed this elsewhere on this blog with the villagers hiding from a roving mob with a crying baby example, as well as the trolley example. Both are famous moral quandaries, but are only extreme examples of other more mundane moral quandaries that happen on a regular basis. If you require references, I’ll dig them up but these are discussed fairly regularly and should sound somewhat familiar even if they are not well known to you.

There is no such thing as perfection, there is only perfect for. Everything else takes effort and will often have winners and losers.

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

As an example of why perfection is impossible, consider that you and a friend are sitting down to a meal.

The meal has been prepared and made just for the occasion of you two getting together. Everything from the drinks served through to the setting chosen is ideal. It can’t be any more perfect to either of you. You finish your meal, have an excellent conversation, and you both conclude that you have had the best time imaginable.

Yet, every element that went into that gathering had trade offs.

If you had some kind of flesh, the animal(s) it came from did not encounter the perfection your friend and you did. If you did not have flesh, the process of saving or maintaining those vegetables may have lead to the deaths of animals humans call pests. If you and your friend are a vegetarians, though, your lack of interest in animal flesh may have lead to fewer animals being raised (they never existed) or they may live in worse conditions or they may have lived better but the 3rd generation farmer that raised the animal(s) may die earlier or even just live less ideally due to stress or the choice of farming methods or other more core life choices.

That’s just the main course. Importantly, it’s also very individual. It deals with a specific farmer, a specific set of animals raised for slaughter, a specific set of pests, and all of the events and potential better events that did not happen but would have been more perfect but may have denied you and your friend your own slice of perfection on that one day over that one meeting and that one meal.

An argument could be whipped up to deal with the best *general* ideal for all those involved, and that general best may be highly unintuitive, but then your own meal may not be perfect for you and your friend. In each situation, perfection is sacrificed and we haven’t even gotten to the rest of your perfect meal yet.

Yet, we can say that for two people over one meal — or any one event — we can reach perfection for that one instance. For that one event. The other winners and losers must be ignored to claim that perfection.

There is no such thing as perfection. If there were that perfection would include a chain of perfections going out and touching all actual events and all individual creatures and things. This does not happen. That is why I wrote;

There is no such thing as perfection, only only perfect for.

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Hendy August 10, 2010 at 5:29 pm

@Martin:
<blockquoteThat we are like dogs who God wants to be as good as the owner without having to force us, but we fall short of that mark and we eat the turkey and pee on the rug. There’s your problem of evil.

But wouldn’t that be odd? Why treat a dog like it’s capable of being more and then send it to hell when it inevitably fails??

I think if you accept the weight of the argument from differing intelligences/capabilities you need to start thinking of god as dealing with mentally handicapped children (or less). We would be obligated to care for them and not expect them to respond as one with typical interactive/mental/etc. abilities. You wouldn’t beat one for not being more…

Anyway, this is all a digression on whether god could have done any better in explaining what his greater good is. I think the obvious answer is yes. He could at least give us something more than we’ve got. And I think we could handle it mentally, at least in the form of an analogy or parable or even just one specific example. Let god show us the ripple effect of the holocaust via a 50 part movie that takes 5 years to watch. Some would be interested to see it!

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Martin August 10, 2010 at 10:33 pm

But wouldn’t that be odd? Why treat a dog like it’s capable of being more and then send it to hell when it inevitably fails??

This is pure speculation, but perhaps when a sentient lifeform reaches a certain level of development it gains the potentiality of having a soul and entering into a relationship with God. But to do so requires the lifeform to measure up, and of course humans have not. The Fall is not a singular event, but a description of the way things are. We choose to do evil. This separates us from God.

As for hell, just see annihilationism. The idea that unsaved souls are destroyed at death. That the descriptions of fire are not to be taken literally. The unquenchable fire means the fire is always there, ready to destroy souls that are separated from God, not to burn them eternally.

Anyway, this is all a digression on whether god could have done any better in explaining what his greater good is.

This is indeed one of the criticisms of skeptical theism. That although a loving God might have bigger reasons for not ending suffering, as a loving being he should at least notify us of it. But of course, theists could respond that this is where faith comes in. Their faith in God is unwavering, and their loving relationship with him is of such a character that they already have that assurance.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

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Hendy August 11, 2010 at 6:33 am

@Martin:

Good points. It is speculation and thus I have a hard time knowing whether to give it much weight. I’ve heard of annihilationism and “evolved souls” but 1) don’t know many that actually subscribe and 2) have my own issues with them, particularly the fall.

I keep taking a step back from these conversations, looking at the landscape that just got covered in about 90 comments and wondering if this is a little to much of a backbending exercise given that we’re talking about the most perfect being ever, in all of existence, forever and ever.

If we ever stumbled upon something perfect in our world (hypothetically), do you think we’d have to spend so much effort trying to prove that it really was perfect if there was disagreement? Or would we perhaps just accept it was a preferential perfectionism that only a subset found to be true? Or simply realize that something perfect would be universally perfect and that, therefore, this was not perfect after all? Maybe that’s a bad route here, but it feels like we’re slamming into the same wall again and again.

It seems to boil down to: Could god have done anything any better?

You mention that this is where faith perhaps comes in. I see that as an unreasonable clinging to hypothesis x (theism) when hypothesis y (naturalism/atheism) does a far better job with the theist “mysteries” than they themselves do. The primary gripes that fly with the alternative to theism seem to be in only a few categories:
but you can’t explain z
but your source of moral values vanishes
but the consequence is nihilism and life is thusly absurd
but why do we hunger for the “transcendent”?
but why have humans sought god throughout history

I’m fairly comfortable with these limitations, epecially since they reflect a careful progress forward, ever seeking the best means that arise. I’m not comfortable with a dogma that can never change and professes that it already has the answers, yet the answers don’t really work unless you add in a healthy dose of “mystery” and “faith” or “god love != human love.”

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al friedlander August 11, 2010 at 11:37 am

Hendy, I agree with everything you’ve said in this thread. Haha, saved me the trouble

“I would think it better to simply bite the bullet, as Calvinists do (among others), and argue that the “highest good” is God’s glory and everything He does is to that end. IOW, humans simply don’t matter, except as pawns in the “master plan.””

I agree completely. I came to this conclusion on my own years ago; predestination, in my opinion, is the only plausible branch of Christianity. And of course…we know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

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Bill Snedden August 11, 2010 at 11:59 am

@Martin:

What’s interesting is that if you use our moral sense to criticize God’s actions, you are in a sense affirming the existence of moral objectivity, which is an argument for the existence of an Absolute Good.

While moral objectivity certainly may be used as or in an argument for the existence of an Absolute Good (which may or may not be “god”), it is not necessarily the case that it can only support such an argument. There are several non-theistic objective moral systems.

One could argue that God allows suffering because the end result does apply to us. For instance, let’s say God allows a child to be horribly raped and murdered in order to get the mother to start an anti-abduction organization which leads to the saving of millions of children’s lives that otherwise would have perished at the hands of predators.

This analogy fails as that child’s life is explicitly NOT an end in itself, but rather a means to another end. Regardless of whether or not that end is itself good, in this example the child is merely a hapless pawn used by God in his “grand scheme” to obtain some “good” that has no connection to the child’s needs, desires, etc.

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Himangsu Sekhar Pal November 22, 2010 at 2:11 am

Problem of Evil

We know that there is evil. We also know that there will be evil in future, because we know very well that we have not been able to do anything so far that will make this world evil-free in future. All these things are true. But it is also true that we love evil because we love life. That is why we want evil to continue, because we want life on this planet earth to continue. Otherwise we could have destroyed life on earth, because it is now in man’s power to completely destroy the earth. But we do not want to do this, because we love life. And therefore evil will also continue to exist on earth. Thus, for all the future evils on the planet earth we are also responsible. Therefore from now onwards we should think twice before blaming God for all the sufferings, all the miseries, all the evils, in human life.

H. S. Pal

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