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The Problem of Evil is a well-trodden battlefield. How can there be so much (or any) suffering in light of an OmniGod who cares enough, knows enough and is powerful enough to do something about it.

The answers are generally along the lines of:

  1. No suffering is gratuitous – there could be/is/must be a reason for all units of suffering.
  2. God moves in mysterious ways (skeptical theism) – we don’t or even can’t know why God allows suffering, but there is a reason (see 1.)

What this means is that every single unit of pain is explicable in terms of reasoning. There has to be a reason why God allowed (or even designed a world in which this would happen) 230,000 people to die in the 2004 tsunami.

It is actually far more wide-reaching than these rather grand and terrible instances.

I stubbed my toe yesterday. That unit of pain, let’s call it nearly the smallest unit of suffering, cannot be gratuitous under an OmniGod. No unit of suffering or pain, from toe stubbingly small to genocidally and pandemically big, can be gratuitous.

But it gets more contrived still.

Not only must there be a reason for this suffering, but the suffering must be necessary for that suffering to come about. This suffering must be the minimum amount of suffering that can be incurred for it to have the desired effect that it must have.

This causes all sorts of issues. Let us look at two separate events.

Let’s consider the 2004 tsunami resulting from tectonic plates existing. and the (let’s say) 227,898 people who died. This has to be the minimum amount of suffering to exist for whatever reason God had to justify those deaths. I’m not interested in whatever that particular theodicy actually was, whether it be some necessary design feature or soul-building scenario. Whatever the reason there was for that suffering to happen, that exact amount of suffering must have been the minimum required for God still to be called all-loving. God could not have allowed 227,897 people to have died. Not only were all of those 227, 897 people necessary for whatever reason God had in mind, but that extra person pushing it up to 227,898 was also necessary. There can be no single unit of suffering that is gratuitous.

And, of course, it wasn’t just human death, but animal death, too (and plant death leading to further animal suffering). And it wasn’t just death, but injury and emotional pain. There was not one broken arm too much, not one psychological breakdown too much.

This is the scale of the problem for the (classical) theist. They have to justify everything. Every unit of pain involved there, every piece of emotional and physical suffering. There was not one unit too much.

The scale, of course, goes down to stubbing my toe. That gave me 6 units of pain. I could have stubbed my toe and it be slightly less painful – 5 units. But 6 was the optimal and necessary amount for whatever reason God had in mind. Not one unit too much.

Think of every single bit of pain and suffering that happens every single minute of every single day to every single animal in one way or another. Every single unit of pain and suffering is optimally necessary for something. It’s just that no one is really sure what that something is, and so all of that pain is kind of pointless.

If we can’t learn from it, or learn the wrong thing, then the lesson is bad or fails in its objective. That’s basic teaching.

But it gets worse.

Are you seriously telling me that every unit of that was necessary?

Here’s the rub: the Christian has to say “yes” whilst also accepting that we aren’t quite certain what the theodicy or reason for that suffering was. All the Christian can do with any certainty is resort to “God moves in mysterious ways”.

But, given that this appears to be the answer for humans, then why can not one less broken arm, one less death still satisfy the reasoning of “God moves in mysterious ways”? Are you telling me that 227,898 deaths and untold animal deaths and untold amounts of injury, pain and psychological suffering was all necessary for us to think “God moves in mysterious ways”?

However, the theist sometimes retorts that there must be a stopping point somewhere, because otherwise there is a regression down to zero. You can keep arguing that one less death is better and so we get down to zero. Sure, but that works both ways. And you still have to accept that, somehow, 227,898 and X extra suffering was the optimal point, that the message could not be communicated just as effectively with one less death or broken arm or tear. And that’s given that the message is not clear at any rate! Otherwise, the number looks arbitrary. It still must be the result of some calculation of God or he is metaphorically swinging his finger around in a circle and stabbing at “227,898”.

And so, finally, the problem seems to go back to the source. Not only does the (classical) theist have to accept that God knew this (227,898 + X, for example) in advance and designed and created the world where this happened anyway (such that this must be the optimal blueprint in terms of his omni-characteristics), but they must accept that humans are not even sure of why this suffering is actually happening: they can give a host of reasons, but generally disagree, deferring to inference, and ending up at skeptical theism’s “God moves in mysterious ways” anyway.

Thus, the reasoning cannot really be to teach us humans something, since we all disagree on what that reason is (unless that disagreement and necessity for blind faith, like with Abraham and Isaac, are the general point in and of themselves). The reasoning must be internal to God.

This is just bizarre and means that deaths, pain and suffering happen on Earth so that God can reconcile some design and creation deficit with himself.

God creates the world W1 in such a way that, for him, he needs Y amount of suffering in a given scenario in W1, or Z suffering in W1 overall, or some such scenario, so that the suffering isn’t about teaching the sentient beings there anything (notwithstanding the pain and suffering to non-sentient beings) since they don’t or can’t understand the reasons for it, but it is about some internal reconciliation that results form his own design and creation criteria (none of which we have access to).

And that, there, is why I can’t be a theist.

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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,...