We’ve been responding to a Christian argument, but now it’s our turn. Let’s look at the Problem of Evil in five new ways that Christians rarely touch. (The first article in this series is here.)
1. Must all worldviews answer the Problem of Evil?
The basic idea behind the Problem of Evil (PoE) is, Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? It’s a contradiction: an all-good and all-powerful God apparently coexists with loads of bad in society. It doesn’t make sense.
Some apologists play games with the Problem of Evil, trying to redefine it, but this only admits the problem is unsolvable on its face. The atheist has no PoE to deal with—eliminate the god, and the problem vanishes.
And here’s the irony: not only is the atheist free of the PoE, but you needn’t even leave Christianity to avoid it! Marcionism and Gnosticism—flavors of early Christianity that have since died out—say that the god in charge on earth is a different guy than the one who sent us Jesus. In other words, complain all you want about the idiot in charge of the world. Jesus and his (unnamed) father wouldn’t mind because they’re not in charge. They throw the demiurge (the Gnostic name for the god in charge) under the bus, and responsibility for every imperfection in the world goes along with him.
But because early Christianity saw itself as a flavor of Judaism, it’s stuck with the Old Testament, in which the Jewish god claims credit for creating the world and the problems in it. Oops.
2. We are this way because of God
The buck stops at God’s desk. If God wants us to have a courageous and compassionate character, he could have made us that way. God could put into us any lessons we learn from adversity—he is omnipotent, remember.
We can work free will into that. You’re free to hit your hand with a hammer, but no one does that. We could’ve been created with a similar aversion to sinning. That is, we could sin, but the idea would be as attractive as hitting yourself with a hammer.
And consider that God already curtails my freedom. I don’t have the free will to use my laser eyes. He also prevents me from using my telekinetic killing power. If he has no problem eliminating these capabilities, why not prevent me from using a knife to kill someone?
You might say that handling knives is part of reality and telekinesis isn’t. And that’s true—after God created us with one ability and not the other. It’s arbitrary (as an aside, this is exactly what the hand of evolution looks like).
Imagine God at his drafting board designing us. Is there is a simple algorithm that separates abilities that we should get from those we shouldn’t? If so, explain that algorithm. If not, out of an enormous set of abilities, God chose the ones to prohibit, and stabbing someone could’ve been one of them.
3. Christians admit they don’t know
Christian apologists have a poor argument when they argue against the PoE, and they often admit as much. They might even play the “I guess I’ll have to ask God when I get to heaven” card.
Let’s be clear on what they claim about God: they’re not saying that it’s possible he had a good reason for every evil from a murder to leukemia to the Holocaust. They’re saying he did have a good reason.
Okay, then what was the reason? For example, what good came from the Holocaust to outweigh the bad? What did we learn from the 200,000 people killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to make it morally worthwhile?
The Christian will plead ignorance, of course. And that’s fine—I won’t insist on the explanation. What I insist on is an explanation. Give me plausible explanations where the net good outweighs the bad for cases like these that are especially troubling. Without this, your defense of God against the PoE becomes just a retreat.
I have four demands of apologists who make the “God could have reasons to allow evil that we can’t even imagine” argument. First, admit how bad the PoE makes God look. Regardless of whether God is justified, admit that he looks to us like a Bronze Age barbarian when he allows evil that he could effortlessly prevent—evil that we would prevent if we could.
Second is the point discussed above: if you say that God could have his reasons, you must give some. That is, move from vague, ungrounded, “Oh, you’ll gimme that one, right?” handwaving to specific, plausible reasons for actual evil events in the world. They don’t have to be God’s actual reasons, but they do have to be convincing enough to show us that God could’ve had reasons.
Third, does “God” even exist? We can worry about God’s reasons for evil after we have solid grounding that he exists.
Fourth, why would God allow suffering when any goal he can achieve through human suffering, he can achieve without it?
4. Christians, do you understand God or not?
Christians boldly step forward to explain the puzzles to which they feel they have a solid answer but dial back the confidence when they aren’t so sure. God is understandable here but inscrutable there, and for some reason this confusion is fine with God.
This is part of the larger problem of the Bible’s “difficult verses” and the popular principle to interpret difficult Bible verses through the lens of easy verses. The problem rarely is that the difficult verse really is hard to understand. More likely, it’s unpleasant or causes a contradiction. The “difficult” label is a euphemism, and there are thick books of “Bible difficulties” that try to paper over the awkward passages.
Here’s an example. God said “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), but he also killed everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24–5). Is the latter passage difficult to understand? Not at all. It may be unpleasant to see God so destructive, but the meaning is clear. Or take the passages where God drowned everyone in the Flood or God approved of slavery or God demanded human sacrifice. It may be painful to imagine the anguish God’s policies caused, but they’re not hard to understand. Drop the insistence that God must come out looking good, and it’s easy to take these at face value.
Here’s a problem God’s defenders don’t embrace. The more effective they are in backing away from those verses they don’t want to understand, the less trustworthy they will be when they actually do claim to reliably understand other parts of the Bible such as the inherent wrongness of same-sex marriage, euthanasia, birth control, or abortion. They make God into a conservative radio pundit, warning about the erosion of family values and threats to gun rights.
But given the doubt they admit to, how can we trust any of their moral claims come from God?
5. Are we being gaslighted about our moral intuitions?
Suppose you see someone being assaulted. Before you jump in to help the victim, ask yourself if this is part of God’s plan. You can’t see the big picture, but God can, and perhaps this assault is part of his plan. Perhaps it will create a net positive.
Perhaps, but who acts that way? No one stops to wonder if they’re in Alice’s Wonderland and that what seems to be the obvious best moral action is not. If I stepped in and violated the free will of the attacker, I assume I’m the good guy in the story.
Or consider a parent grieving the loss of a child. What parent would be satisfied with, “Well, it’s all for the best”?
But if God has a plan, doesn’t that erode your confidence that you know the right moral path? Shouldn’t it?
On one hand, we’re told that Man was made in God’s image, so we should share a moral sense. Both Abraham and Moses debated morality with God and talked him down from a more violent position. But then the Problem of Evil forces God’s defenders to ignore that shared morality, telling us that God’s ways are not our ways and undercutting our confidence in our moral sense.
When God demanded Abraham sacrifice his son, this was a moral test, and the correct answer was No! But apparently that’s wrong, because this was actually an obedience test, and a sick one at that.
We’re being gaslighted! Christians’ moral reality is being challenged, and when they are no longer sure which way is up, they can be used by the religious Right.
One’s mind can play tricks, they’ll say. Suppose the thought crept in that same-sex marriage is good for some people, and really, what’s the harm? Or the thought that the abortion focus would be more effective if it moved upstream, reducing unwanted pregnancies rather than making abortion illegal. Or that no, America really isn’t a Christian nation.
Luckily we have our local pastor to correct those moral failings and how to vote.
When we don’t understand God
When skeptics see God in the Bible acting like a petulant Iron Age king, the Christian response is that we don’t understand God. God’s ways are not our ways. But if his actions make no sense, what’s he good for? Why introduce him in the first place? Imagining God explains nothing. It just gives those Christians an angle to attack our understanding of moral reality.
John Allen Paulos in Irreligion said about God, “Is there such a shortage of things we don’t understand that we need to manufacture another?”
You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children
or you have a god who simply watches and says:
“When you’re done I’m going to punish you.”
If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would.
That’s the difference between me and your god.
— Tracie Harris, The Atheist Experience