Have I ever explained how I use a magic spoon to boil water? I fill a pot with water, set it on the stove, and turn on the burner. Then I use the magic spoon to stir the pot once (no more) and always clockwise. And in a few minutes, the water is boiling! It’s a pretty marvelous sight if you’ve never seen it.
With that example in the backs of our minds, let’s consider another example of magical thinking, “Why would God allow pandemics?” from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Here’s their explanation for why an all-good and omnipotent god could allow the evil from the covid pandemic, which has so far caused five million reported deaths worldwide. Add in the excess deaths that are not on the official tally, and covid has probably killed more than those who died in the Holocaust.
Christian justification for the Problem of Evil
Let me summarize the article. One possibility is that evil is God punishing us, and we find support for this in the Bible, but the Bible also gives examples of adversity not due to God’s punishment, and while the New Testament sees the world as broken, we must find a way to avoid blame for God (since he surely wouldn’t call this a perfect world, and he’s promised a good ending to all this).
Okay, we’ve got the preamble out of the way. Sit up straight, tighten those abs, and let’s move on to the explanation.
One explanation for human suffering is the free-will defense, in which God supposedly cares deeply about free will because that is the foundation for honest love, and a robotic, automatic love won’t do, but free will has the downside of allowing humans to cause harm, but on the other hand, the covid pandemic is (at least largely) a natural evil, which is hard to blame on humans (but don’t blame anything on God), but perhaps fallen angels, who also have free will, are behind covid (but don’t blame God for them, either), and it’s also possible that nature must have good and bad components, but instead of a capricious world in which God sometimes turns bullets into butter before they hit their target and sometimes not, he gave us a reliable world that’s easy to count on but sometimes dangerous, but this requires that God’s miraculous interventions be very rare.
You’re in your happy place. Deep, slow breaths. Ready? On to the second explanation.
Or maybe the reason for God allowing suffering is soul-making, in which the world is full of adversity but this is all for the best, and we become more courageous due to dangers faced or more compassionate due to misfortune—but let’s be clear that this is not guidance from the Bible or God himself but speculation from philosophers and theologians pushed by these dilemmas to come up with something, and that this being the best they’ve got doesn’t mean it’s correct—but this is more a reflection on humans’ inability, since just because we can’t come up with any better explanation doesn’t mean that there isn’t one (but let’s not blame God for our mental limitations or for making his perfect plan unclear), and we can find a parallel in chess in that just because I can’t understand a grandmaster’s move doesn’t mean that it was a bad move.
Let’s not forget the gospel’s punchline, which clears the ledger and makes all this worthwhile, which is God coming to earth in human form, as a person who died having suffered and experienced life’s misery firsthand, and we can see the logic of this with an example: your daughter must have blood drawn and is understandably afraid, but you ask the nurse to do it to you first to show yourself experiencing the pain as well, and while this doesn’t eliminate her pain or explain the necessity of it, it does show your love for her, and we can think of Jesus’s disciples who, after the crucifixion, saw only a bleak and pointless ending to the story but later realized it as God’s greatest redemptive act.
Or, there is no God.
What Would William of Ockham Do?
What’s wrong with my magic-spoon explanation for boiling water? It’s that the magic spoon is unnecessary. It doesn’t add anything to the story. In a similar way, God is unnecessary to explain the bad in our world.
We’ve all heard the slogan, What Would Jesus Do? It’s meant to encourage us to take the moral high road at any fork in the path of life. I applaud the idea of pausing to consider if the more difficult route is the more moral one.
For the Problem of Evil, we need another slogan: What Would Ockham Do?
William of Ockham (d. 1347) was an English friar and theologian. He is best known for Ockham’s Razor, a principle that tells us to cut away unnecessary parts of an explanation and to choose the simpler of two explanations, all else being equal.
What was wrong with the Christian’s long, breathless explanation of the Problem of Evil with maybe this explanation or maybe that one and let’s make sure at every turn that we don’t step on God’s toes? It’s that “there is no God” is far, far simpler, and it explains the facts much better. Sure, there’s bad stuff in the world, but we have naturalistic explanations for most of it. God is an unnecessary addition to the story, a solution looking for a problem. “God” brings in more questions than answers. Like Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French astronomer who famously omitted God from his monumental book on celestial mechanics, we have no need of that hypothesis.
My very abbreviated summary of the apologist’s argument (above) takes 500 words. The original article, 2700 words. And the original argument could’ve been far more involved by considering other metaphors for the calamity in life on earth: it’s a crucible that burns away imperfection, it’s a test, it’s a classroom, and so on.
The explanation that does the better job neatly cuts the Gordian Knot and takes just 4 words: There. Is. No. God.
The ratio of the huge amount that [evolution] explains
(everything about life:
its complexity, diversity and illusion of crafted design)
divided by the little that it needs to postulate
(non-random survival of randomly varying genes
through geological time) is gigantic.
Never in the field of human comprehension
were so many facts explained by assuming so few.
— Richard Dawkins in the Edge