We often live in the abstract when discussing suffering and God's existence. But examples of actual suffering provide insight to the debate.

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The problem of evil is the thorniest of challenges for the theist: It is the issue of why suffering or evil exists in the world of OmniGod, where God is supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. God knows what to do about this suffering, is powerful enough to do it, and loving enough to care to do it. So why does the suffering still exist?

What is skeptical theism?

Skeptical theism answers this by claiming that God moves in mysterious ways. We do not or cannot know the mind of God. And, besides, there could be a reason. There could be a reason for cancer, for 230,000 people dying in the 2004 tsunami, for the Holocaust and all genocides, for ebola. And, there could be a reason for me stubbing my toe. From the smallest unit of pain to the largest, none of it can be unnecessary—gratuitous. God might have a reason: It is not logically impossible. These reasons are usually interpreted as “greater goods” that come about as a result of the suffering.

There has to be a reason.

Of course, we can always expect the Bible to come up with problematic quotes to render and theology a Gordian Knot to undo (my emphasis):

The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds firm to his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.

The Bible aside, skeptics reply that, okay, suffering and OmniGod are not logically incompatible (the logical problem of evil), but are cancer and tsunamis, rape and ebola what we would expect? This is the territory of the evidential problem of evil. Which of the competing hypotheses is most probably true given the volume of suffering, theism or atheism? What would we predict or expect given a reality without God existing and a reality with God existing?

Part of the issue for skeptics, and why such an approach seems so very unpersuasive, is that the skeptical theist (ST) generally doesn’t give a particular answer to the problem but appeals to “an answer” as a nebulous possibility.

The excellent Emerson Green (whom I have interviewed twice) gives some concrete examples that present some problems for the skeptical theist (ST) who asks, “How do you know there isn’t a higher moral purpose to children with cancer? Or the holocaust? Or to innocents who become terribly maimed in accidents? Or to the millions of years of animal suffering? Or to children trapped under rubble alone after an earthquake? How do you know?”

Concrete examples of suffering

Luckily for the skeptic (and unluckily for humanity in general), there are ample terrible concrete examples of horrendous suffering. Green states, discussing a concrete example of suffering under concrete:

I took this example from real events that occurred somewhat recently, but it could describe any number of people over the millennia. An earthquake — natural evil — topples buildings and traps people under the rubble. They don’t die right away, but of dehydration. So there have been children who died, alone, trapped under rubble for days before dying of dehydration. If they had to die, why not die instantly, rather than slowly and agonizingly in isolation before finally dying? What was the point of that?

Keep in mind, we’re not just talking about the suffering of adult humans. We’re talking about the gratuitous suffering of moral agents and of non-moral agents as well, where there seems to be very little chance of growth and greater goods. A moral agent is a person who has the ability to discern right from wrong, to act according to moral considerations, and to be held accountable for their actions. When a lion kills, we don’t say it’s guilty of murder. So young children and non-human animals are non-moral agents, since they can’t engage in moral reasoning. Their gratuitous suffering is especially hard to explain. It’s one thing for an adult human to suffer. It’s quite another for a non-moral agent to suffer, which again, seems harder to explain due to the diminished probability of soul-building.

These are some really powerful paragraphs for a number of reasons. First, as illustrated, children are not seen as moral agents in the way adults are. This is why we don’t put children in prison, generally. It is hard to advocate that an otherwise perfectly normal child dying under rubble deserved death as some kind of retribution, especially given the lack of moral agency.

Remember that the child’s death cannot be gratuitous but must necessarily bring about a greater good.

This then presents the problem that the child is being used instrumentally to bring about a greater good for a world absent that child. The greater good cannot and will not include that child because that child is now dead. This isn’t about free will (earthquakes are natural evil) or soul-building (the child is dead).

And before we get the usual skeptical rebuttal, please remember that heaven is only compensation and not a moral justification. This is to say that if I were to punch you, the reader, full in your face and beak your jaw, but then paid you $5000 as compensation, that money would not suddenly make me breaking your jaw a morally good action. The compensation is a way of saying sorry and remunerating you for the pain and moral ill. The only way that this would actually make the punch a moral good is if we were to use a form of utilitarianism or consequentialism (there are many forms). But theists see such secular moral theories as “terrible ethics.”

This leaves the uncomfortable situation that the death of a child over a number of days is for the benefit of other people, and not for the benefit of the child. But, to use a child instrumentally is to use the child in a consequentialist or utilitarian ethic. Which is a “terrible ethic” for theists, right?

Emerson Green goes on to give other concrete examples of turtles pushed onto their backs and eaten alive by packs of dogs, themselves then eaten by larger predators (this feeds into my argument against God from carnivorousness and the simple question as to why all animals cannot photosynthesize?). These arguments about natural evil are much harder for theists to defend. Green also mentions that very famous picture of a starving African child crouched on the ground with a vulture sitting behind him, looking on opportunistically.

Sadly, that image and many other terrible things that the photographer caught and witnessed haunted him and led to him taking his own life.

It just doesn’t make much sense

This moral intelligibility of the world is a real problem. Where the natural laws of the world are intelligible and coherent (despite us still getting to grip switch quantum) and this intelligibility somehow being an argument for the existence of God, the moral world is not intelligible to the point that theists throw up their hands and say, “We don’t know what the reason is because we can’t understand the mind of God, but there must be a reason!”

Heads I win, tails you lose, skeptic.

As Green says, this is a “blank check” for theists to excuse anything in human conception.

Green also discusses this lack of moral intelligibility:

Let’s take a step back. God has made the natural world coherent to us. The laws of nature are discoverable and intelligible. He made things this way. So why has he made the world morally unintelligible? When the ST says, “There could be unknown morally sufficient reasons,” they’re admitting that the world seems morally unintelligible, first of all. They wouldn’t have brought up ST otherwise. But they’re implying, absurdly, that God has decided to make the world morally unintelligible to us. Why on earth would he intentionally cause us to hallucinate a problem, especially one that would lead human beings away from a relationship with him? Doesn’t he want a relationship with us…? God chose to make the world morally unintelligible to us. He didn’t have to do this. If the world really is morally intelligible in reality, that means God is the author of confusion here. Why not make it so we can just tell that it’s morally intelligible? We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Atheists would lose one of their better arguments. Many of us wouldn’t have lost our faith if the world were morally coherent. So, people are being sent to hell for an eternity because God decided to create the illusion that the world was morally incoherent.

Not only is the moral world unintelligible to us, but God remains silent about it, as a form of the divine hiddenness argument (this and many of the points in this piece I discuss in my new book 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”).

It’s just not good enough

To return to these concrete examples, it just a beggar’s belief that this all-loving God would make a child suffer for days before finally killing them (since God foreknowingly designed and created all the variables that caused the child’s earthquake death). What purpose could this possibly serve? Just think about it. Really empathize if you can what that rubble-covered child must endure before death and ask yourself, if you are a theist, whether that was worth it. Whatever “it” may be. And if that was your child?

For me, this is enough to invalidate God’s existence. What a tragedy!

Of course, under theism, there is no such thing as a tragedy. Nothing is a shame, a piece of suffering that is without reason or cause, supposedly.

To finish, let me bring into play phenomenal conservatism, which is a position that formalizes the maxim “If it walks like a suffering duck and quacks like a suffering duck, then it probably is a suffering duck.” As Martin Smith says:

[I]f it seems to one that P is true then, in the absence of defeaters, one has justification for believing that P is true.

Smith, M. (2014). The epistemology of religion. Analysis, 74(1), p. 141.

Absent of a good reason to think otherwise, then the fact that we seem to see and experience horrendous gratuitous suffering all about us is good reason to think that gratuitous suffering exists. Which is a good reason to think that God does not exist.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...