Overview:

God moves in mysterious ways, apparently. There are reasons for so much suffering! But God never explains himself or asks us permission

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No, I will be not talking about the dubious circumstances involving Mary’s pregnancy while Joseph was out carpenting, though I could. Instead, let’s talk about skeptical theism as a mechanism for excusing all of the suffering in the world.

Skeptical theism is the “God moves in mysterious ways” gambit that believers provide in the absence of any decent and coherent account for why the all-loving, -powerful, and -knowing God would permit (and even design in) such pervasive earthly pain and suffering.

There conceptually could be a reason, so there probably is a reason, so there is a reason.

It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from ebola to “God is love.”

The problem is that this approach appears to see God using people instrumentally. That is, people become instruments for obtaining a greater good. Doris got cancer because it will build up the soul and character of her family. The Holocaust happened because we can’t constrain Hitler’s free will. 230,000 people and countless animals died in the 2004 tsunami because…well, I’m not quite sure, but because something good.

This kind of utilitarianism—moral consequentialism—is a big no-no in Christian theology because such a moral value system has no need for God. Only, the entire Bible and construction of Christian theology appear to have God acting as a moral consequentialist. Oops.

The Pauline Principle

Paul was against moral consequentialism, as we can see in Romans 3:8, which sets out what is now known as the Pauline Principle:

And why not say (just as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let’s do evil that good may come of it”? Their condemnation is deserved.

When you are doing things in a utilitarian fashion, however, it is often the done thing to ask people for informed consent. This is something philosopher James Sterba talks about in his book Is a Good God Logically Possible?

On the Pauline Principle, however, Sterba observes that humans can have exceptions to the rule that don’t apply to God:

They allow us to do evil that good may come of it only when the evil is trivial, easily reparable, or the only way to prevent a far greater harm to innocents. So it is difficult to see how God’s widespread permission of the harmful consequences of significantly evil actions could be a justified exception to the Pauline Principle.

In addition, the standard exceptions that are allowed only seem to be allowed because the agents involved lack the power to accomplish the good or avoid the evil in any other way. Lack of power is crucially important to the justification of these exceptions. Yet clearly God is not subject to any such limitation of power. Thus, God can negotiate crowded subways without harming anyone in the slightest. God can also prevent a temporarily depressed person from committing suicide without lying to them, and God can save all twenty civilian hostages without having to execute any one of them. Consequently, none of these exceptions to the Pauline Principle that are permitted to agents, like ourselves, because of our limited power, would hold for God.

James P. Sterba, Is a Good God Logically Possible?, p. 50.

Informed consent

The idea under scrutiny is that (and we often see this with medical procedures) it is good and right to inform someone of the risks and harm, or potential harm, to them before carrying out an action that involved them or someone in their legal care (like a child). So if a doctor is going to give you an injection or perform surgery on you, they will talk about the pain and side effects of the procedure to weigh up against the benefits. Armed with that information, the patient often gives consent and subjects themselves to the procedure for the greater good it will hopefully bring about.

God, not so much.

When little Leyla, a 6-month-old baby, is given cancer by God, no one is asking her parents whether the death of their baby is going to be okay, whether the death is worth it for their own souls being “built” up to some new level of understanding of suffering and strength. No one asked those 230,000 tsunami victims, or all of their relatives, whether it was okay to use their lives to bring about some other greater good. A greater good, mind, that no one has yet worked out.

As Sterba says, “[I]f God’s permission of the infliction of such evil consequences is to be justified then at some point these victims of wrongdoing need to be able to give their informed consent to what was done to them.” (p.74)

Some theists might maintain that we simply wouldn’t or couldn’t understand God’s motivations. We are barely given good evidence that there even is a reason let alone a substantive explanation of what that reason is. And I just don’t buy that this reason would be beyond our ken.

As Sterba continues:

Morality, as we noted earlier, only justifies impositions that are reasonably acceptable to
all those affected. So moral reasons could only justify permitting such consequences if those permissions could be further shown, at some point, to be reasonably acceptable to all those affected. Only then could God’s permission of significant and especially horrendous evil consequences of immoral actions be considered to be morally justified.

James P. Sterba, Is a Good God Logically Possible?, p. 74-75.

Where Jesus accepted the unfair suffering and death imposed upon him, he did so with knowledge and a willing acceptance. But this simply isn’t afforded anyone else found in far worse predicaments than Jesus was.

Although skeptical theism is one of the most ubiquitous methods for excusing God’s pathological callousness, there is a good argument to say that it is itself intrinsically morally bad.

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,...