Do intellectual arguments really do enough to explain away real and actual experiences of immense pain and suffering in light of OmniGod?

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The problem of evil is the biggest thorn in the side of theism and religious belief, being an often emotive argument as to why there is so much suffering in the world if God was all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. With those OmniGod characteristics, God would know enough to know what to do about suffering, powerful enough to do, and caring enough to want to do it.

So why all the suffering?

Either God does not exist, or God does not have those omni-characteristics.

Defenses or explanations of why God might allow (or even design the world so that there is so much) suffering are called theodicies. Here are a few examples of some more famous theodicies:

  • Free will means that humans have the freedom to choose to do both good and bad things. Free will is super important, making it worth all the suffering that comes from (human-caused) freely chosen murder, rape, and genocide that comes from having free will. Bad choices and moral mayhem are the collateral of free will.
  • The Original Sin situation—we are all being punished for the sins of Adam and Eve (notwithstanding the copious problems with this claim). This means that we are still suffering as a result of The Fall, and Adam and Eve’s decision.
  • The soul-making theodicy posits that we are unfinished creations. We are on a journey of building up our souls, and suffering in the world enables us to become better people. Or souls. Or something.
  • You can’t have warm without cold, or good without evil. So suffering has to exist in order for moral goodness to exist.
  • The perfect world theodicy means that what we experience and have in the world is somehow the optimal or perfect amount of pain and suffering.

There are others, but you get the point. It is usually that God can’t be held responsible for the suffering in the world that he has designed and created and knew about in advance, and could easily have not created, so apologists and theologians contrive ways of blaming humans and not God. Or, suffering exists to help humans in some manner.

The problem is that these are deeply intellectual arguments and do little to assuage the actual experiences of suffering humans. The despair, the pain, the torment.

Does “God is love” predict Ebola, malaria, tsunamis, rape, genocide, dementia, cancer, carnivorousness, and all the other countless methods of suffering and death?

Philosopher of religion Yujin Nagasawa has written a lot about the problem of evil, particularly as it pertains to the divine hiddenness argument. Where was God when so many of his most fervent followers were being persecuted and tortured over history?

These are arguments I deal with in my most recent book 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Divine Design and I will expand upon these ideas to pull a few holes in presenting theodicies to answer the problem of evil.

Nagasawa, in the book Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief, has his own chapter on divine hiddenness. He describes how secret Christians in 17th-century Japan were persecuted, illustrating a painful absence of God. They apparently received no assistance in their painful journey into martyrdom. There was no divine interference in the world at those moments in the way that God supposedly interfered for the merest of reasons in the Hebrew Bible.

For the skeptic, this is obvious. God doesn’t exist and the Hebrew Bible is largely mythological, being a legendary embellishment of a couple of historical kernels (or often outright fabrication) in order to provide a handbook of national identity whilst those who came to be known as the Jewish people were in exile in Babylonia. But if you believe it to be literally true, then you have to explain God’s interference in one geographical and historical context and its abject absence in every other.

Nagasawa rightly sees this as a particularly acute problem:

I believe that the problem of divine absence constitutes one of the greatest challenges for theists because it involves (i) horrendous evil as opposed to ordinary evil; (ii) divine hiddenness from devout believers as opposed to divine hiddenness from ordinary believers or nonbelievers; and (iii) the simultaneous, intertwined occurrence of horrendous evil and divine hiddenness from devout believers.

From Nagasawa’s chapter “Silence, evil, and Shusaku Endo” in Green & Stump (2015), Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 249.

The secret Christian persecution that Nagasawa references (in the work of author Shusaku Endo) details events such as a particularly devout one-eyed man who refused to renounce God and was willing to die for God. And yet, God remained obstinately hidden, causing one to question whether, really, God existed or still exists, or is omnibenevolent.

For Nagasawa, the problem is that highfalutin conceptual ideas about why God might be refusing to act to save people or alleviate their pain does nothing to assuage the sufferers’ experiences. It is an intellectual solution to an experiential problem, and doesn’t do justice to the actual suffering. As Nagasawa continues:

I maintain, however, that theodicies do not eliminate the problem of divine absence altogether because they fail to answer the experiential problem, which concerns the pain and suffering of real people. We are mistaken if we think that theodicies can eliminate the experiential problem; that would perhaps be as absurd as thinking that we could eliminate a toothache with an intellectual argument.

Ibid, p. 254.

Furthermore, it is not so much about God having a supposed answer or reason or greater good for any suffering, but why God might remain silent about it. It is one thing to say that God didn’t stop the 2004 tsunami because of some reason X, but that God is not forthcoming about (a) there being a reason at all, and (b) what, exactly, that reason might be (in this case, X). Instead, humans have to pick up the pieces and (a) suppose there is a reason at all, and (b) work out exactly what that reason might be given that God has decided to remain utterly silent on the matter.

It is an intellectual solution to an experiential problem, and doesn’t do justice to the actual suffering.

That humans have to guess on behalf of God is part of the problem.

“God moves in mysterious ways,” I guess.

But this is not good enough when millions of people have died in a pandemic. This is not good enough when family members are suffering horribly and then dying in front of your very face. Remember, even Abraham had God pretty much appearing and explaining itself to him in light of that terrible moral test when his loved one was in the firing line.

Read: Only a God that doesn’t work works in mysterious ways

The problem with such an experiential argument—for Christians—is that the only way to fully solve the problem is for God to break his silence, and this is something that he routinely and continuously fails to do.

In the same way that intellectual arguments don’t eliminate toothaches, theodicies do not eliminate the experiential problem of suffering. And while the explanation of the evolutionary benefit of pain (in order that we might understand danger batter, and survive) is still true even if it, too, does not eliminate the pain of a toothache, theodicies are different. If you predicted what the world would look like if you knew not of its existence, and you understood God to be love—God is love, infinite love—then would this be the sort of world you would predict? Does “God is love” predict Ebola, malaria, tsunamis, rape, genocide, dementia, cancer, carnivorousness, and all the other countless methods of suffering and death? Are these examples of God’s cup overflowing with love?

Or do these data points better suggest a naturalistic world without the existence of an all-loving God?

I would say, in all probability, the latter.

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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,...