The Christian God and the Problem of Evil

Both Mung and KeithS have asked me to weigh in on the question of whether the existence of evil counts as a good argument against Christianity, as KeithS has maintained in a recent post, so I shall oblige.

It is important to understand that the problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of God or gods, but against what KeithS calls the Christian God (actually, the God of classical theism), Who is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. KeithS succinctly formulates the problem as follows:

Let’s say I claim that an omniGod named Frank exists — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Suppose I also claim that Frank regards seahorses as the absolute height of evil. The world contains a lot of seahorses, and Frank, being omnipotent, has the power to wipe them off the face of the earth. Why doesn’t he? Why does he countenance a world full of seahorses?

KeithS emphasizes that it is not enough for the Christian to show that God is on balance benevolent. Rather, the Christian needs to defend the claim that God is omnibenevolent:

The Christian claim is that God is omnibenevolent — as benevolent as it is logically possible to be. Finding that the items on the “good” side of the ledger outweigh those on the “bad” side — if that were the case — would not establish God’s omnibenevolence at all.

Finally, KeithS provides his own take on the problem of evil:

The problem of evil remains as much of a problem as ever for Christians. Yet there are obvious solutions to the problem that fit the evidence and are perfectly reasonable: a) accept that God doesn’t exist, or b) accept that God isn’t omnipotent, or c) accept that God isn’t perfectly benevolent. Despite the availability of these obvious solutions, most Christians will choose to cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.

He even suggests how he would resolve the problem if he were a theist (emphasis mine – VJT):

Suppose God hates evil and suffering but is too weak to defeat them, at least at the moment. Then any such instances can be explained by God’s weakness.

It addresses the problem of evil without sacrificing theism. I’m amazed that more theists don’t seize on this sort of resolution. They’re too greedy in their theology, too reluctant to give up the omnis.

I think KeithS is onto something here. In fact, I’d like to ditch the conventional Christian views of God’s omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. It’s time for an overhaul.

Why a God Who constantly watches His creatures cannot be omniscient

First, the conventional notion of God’s omniscience needs to be jettisoned. As I argued in an earlier post on the problem of evil, the problem of evil depends on the assumption that God’s knowledge of our choices (and of Adam and Eve’s choices) is logically prior to those choices. In that post, I upheld the contrary view (defended in our own time by C.S. Lewis), that God is like a watcher on a high hill: He timelessly knows everything that we choose to do, but His knowledge is logically subsequent to the choices we make, which means that He doesn’t know what we will do “before” He decides to make us. I have to acknowledge, however, that this is very much a minority view among the Christian Fathers and/or Doctors of the Church, and I can only think of two who argued for this view: namely, the somewhat heterodox theologian Origen (185-254 A.D.) and possibly, the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480- c. 524 A.D. – although his own personal views on the subject remain in dispute, as he elsewhere seems to reject the “watcher on the hill” analogy which he develops in Book V, Prose 6 of his Consolation of Philosophy, in which he declares that God “sees all things in an eternal present just as humans see things in a non-eternal present.”) Whether they be predestinationists or Molinists, the vast majority of Christian theologians who are orthodox – and I’m not counting “open theists” here – maintain that God’s knowledge of our choices is logically prior to those choices. I haven’t taken a straw poll of lay Christian believers, but judging from Christians I’m acquainted with, the “watcher on the hill” view of God remains a popular way of reconciling His foreknowledge with human free will, to this day. I believe the common folk are wiser than the theologians here.

Why are theologians so reluctant to accept the Boethian solution? In a nutshell, because they see it as detracting from God’s sovereignty, as it makes Him dependent on His creatures for information about what is going on in the world. God has to (timelessly) observe us in order to know what we are getting up to. I have to say I don’t see the problem here, provided that God freely and timelessly chooses to rely on His creatures for His knowledge of what they do. If He wants to impose that limitation on Himself, who are we to stop Him?

But if God’s knowledge of our choices is (timelessly) obtained from observing those choices, then we can no longer say that God knows exactly what I would do in every possible situation. On the Boethian account, God does not possess counterfactual knowledge: He knows everything I do, but not everything I would do, in all possible situations. Why not? For one thing, in many situations, there simply is no fact of the matter as to what I would do. What would I do if I won $10,000,000? I don’t know, and neither does God. Nor is this a bad thing: after all, if God knows exactly what I would do in every possible situation, then it makes no sense to say that in a given situation, I could have acted otherwise. (That, by the way, is why I find Molinism utterly nonsensical.)

And what about mathematics? Does God know the answer to every possible mathematical problem? I would argue that He doesn’t, as there are many branches of mathematics where the “rules of the game” are determined by the mathematicians theorizing in that area. In a different world, we would have had different mathematicians, and different branches of mathematics, with different rules. I see no reason to suppose that God knows all possible choices that could be made by all possible (as well as actual) persons.

The upshot of all this is that while God knows everything there is to know about His creatures, He is not omniscient. There are many counterfactuals that He doesn’t know, and there are many possibilities that He never contemplates, either. All we can say is that God knows everything about what we do (past, present and future), and that we can keep no secrets from Him.

Why God is a lot less powerful than many Christians think

Second, the traditional notion of God’s omnipotence needs to be discarded. On the classical view defended by St. Thomas Aquinas, God can do anything which it is logically possible for Him to do, as God. In recent years, however, the classical view has come under fire, from the Reformed theologian Alvin Plantinga, who refuted it using the humorous counter-example of a being whose nature allows him to do nothing but scratch his ear (which he does, making him omnipotent) in his book, God and other minds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), and also from the Catholic philosopher Peter Geach, who sharply criticized the traditional view in an influential article titled “Omnipotence” (Philosophy 48 (1973): 7-20 – see here for a discussion). In his article, Geach argued that God is not omnipotent but almighty: since He maintains the world in existence, He has power over all things, but He does not have the power to do all things.

What relevance does this have to the problem of evil? On the traditional view of God’s omnipotence, God could have preserved each of us from sin throughout our earthly lives, without violating our free will, as he did with Jesus and (according to Catholics and Orthodox) the Virgin Mary: we would still have possessed full libertarian freedom when choosing between alternative goods, but not when choosing between good and evil. And there are many Protestants who believe that individuals who are “born again” are infallibly elected by God, so that even if they sin, their final salvation is Divinely guaranteed. Why, one might ask, didn’t God make us all like that? The Catechism of the Catholic Church attempts to resolve the problem by appealing to the “greater good” of the Incarnation and Redemption – a response which I find unsatisfactory, since (as Blessed John Duns Scotus argued) there was nothing to stop God from becoming incarnate even if Adam had never sinned.

For normal human beings, their personal identity is determined by their parentage, and by the gametes from which their bodies were created. (I would not be “me” if I had had a different mother or father, or if I had been conceived from a different sperm or egg.) But what if God’s act of specially electing a saint to glory also determines that individual’s personal identity? In that case, there is no way that God could have refrained from electing that saint without making him or her a different person. And if I am not elected in this fashion, but possess the power to choose between being saved and being damned, then I cannot coherently wish to have been predestined for eternal life without wishing myself to be a different person. It follows from this that while God could have made a world of human beings who were all preserved from sin, or who were all infallibly elected, not even God could make a world in which each of us is preserved from sin or infallibly elected. In that case, God is significantly less powerful than Christian theologians like to imagine.

In recent years, New Atheists have argued that the designs we find in living things are inept, and that if a Creator existed, He could have done a much better job of making these creatures. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates reply that living things are subject to numerous design constraints, and that just because we can imagine a more elegant design does not mean that it is possible to create such a design. Picturability does not imply possibility. Recent scientific discoveries regarding the vertebrate eye (see here and here) have done much to vindicate this line of argument. (The same goes for the laryngeal nerve in the neck of the giraffe.) We are a long way here from the traditional view that God can make anything, as long as no logical contradiction is involved. Physical and nomological constraints (relating to the structure of matter, and the laws of Nature which obtain in our cosmos) also need to be taken into account.

An additional reason for rejecting the traditional notion of omnipotence is that it commits one to maintaining that God can bring about states of affairs which are not properly described. When someone claims, for instance, that God could make a horse capable of flying, like the mythical Pegasus, what, exactly, are we supposed to conceive of God doing here? And how would Pegasus fly, anyway? Are we supposed to imagine God working a miracle, by raising a horse in the air? But in that case, shouldn’t we really say that the horse is not flying (by its own natural power), but rather that God is holding it up? Or are we meant to imagine an alternative world, where the laws of Nature are changed so as to allow horses to fly – in which case, should we call the creature in this alternate world a horse, or should we rather call it a shmorse? Or are we to suppose that God could come up with a physical design for a horse that would enable it to fly, even with the laws of Nature that hold in this world? But in that case, how do we know that such a design exists? There is not the slightest evidence for such a design, and aerodynamic considerations suggest that the enterprise of attaching natural wings that would allow an animal with the dimensions of a horse to fly, would be altogether unworkable.

Goodbye to omnibenevolence

Finally, the concept of God’s omnibenevolence needs to be tossed out, lock, stock and barrel. Theologians have always maintained, of course, that God could have made a world that was better than the one He did, simply by adding a few extra bells and whistles. There is no “best possible world,” as the philosopher Leibniz falsely imagined. But that does not prevent God from making a world which is free from all natural and moral evil – which raises the obvious question of why an omnibenevolent Deity would create such a world as ours. One traditional answer, given by St. Augustine in his Enchiridion, Chapter III, is that God allows evil for the sake of a “greater good”: “For the Omnipotent God, whom even the heathen acknowledge as the Supreme Power over all, would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil.” I think its time to candidly acknowledge, as Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has already done, that this kind of talk simply won’t wash:

Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent – though immeasurably more vile – is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature…

I do not believe we Christians are obliged – or even allowed – to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery.

But as KeithS has pointed out, there are problems with Hart’s own resolution of the problem of evil:

So in Hart’s bizarre world, we have a God who supposedly hates evil and suffering, yet chooses to permit them — and somehow this is all okay because it’s only temporary. Good will triumph in the end.

KeithS suggested that the problem of evil would be soluble if Christians simply acknowledged that God isn’t omnipotent or perfectly benevolent, but noted that Christians continue to “cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.”

So I’d like to make a proposal of my own. In the first place, I’d like to propose that God is benevolent only in relation to the persons whom He decides to create. “Prior to” His act of creation, God is not benevolent at all. Thus when deciding what kind of world to create, God makes no attempt to choose the best one, or even a perfect one (i.e. one free from evil). Only after having chosen a particular world (for reasons best known to Himself) can we speak of God as being benevolent to His creatures.

In the second place, I’d like to propose that God’s benevolence to His sentient and sapient creatures is not unrestricted. After all, He allows His own creatures to be tortured to death, on occasion. Nevertheless, God is perfectly capable of setting limits to the amount of pain we have to put up with (thankfully, none of us has to suffer one million years of torture), of healing whatever wounds (physical and psychic) His tortured creatures have endured, and of bestowing the gift of immortality upon His sentient and sapient creatures (provided that they do not spurn it). Thus according to the picture I am sketching, God is ultimately benevolent, but not omnibenevolent. On this side of eternity, God’s benevolence is quite modest – but we can at least console ourselves with the thought that life could be much, much more painful than it is.

Finally, I’d like to point out that Christians have never referred to God in their prayers as omnibenevolent, but rather as all-loving. God loves each and every one of us with a steadfast, unshakable love which is greater than any of us can possibly imagine. The only kind of love we can compare to God’s love, in its steadfastness, is parental love. And most importantly, what God loves is we ourselves, and not our feelings. Thus God has no interest in maximizing the level of euphoria in the world – whether it be the aggregate level or the average level – because God’s parental commitment is to us, and not our states of mind. Being a loving Father, God naturally wants what is ultimately best for us, but He does not necessarily want us to enjoy a pain-free journey to our ultimate destination.

These proposals of mine have significant implications for the problem of evil. On the Judeo-Christian view, each and every human person is a being of infinite and irreplaceable value, loved by God. Two infinities cannot be meaningfully added to yield a greater infinity; hence a world with more people would not be a “better” world. What’s more, even wicked people are beings of infinite and irreplaceable value; hence a world with kinder people would not be a “better” world, but merely a world where people existed in a better state. Thus I would suggest that one reason why God tolerates evil acts (such as acts of rape or murder) is that there are some individuals in our world who would never have come into existence, were it not for these evil acts having been performed. The same logic can be applied to natural disasters: think of a man and a woman, living in neighboring towns, who both lose their families in a terrible earthquake, but are brought together in the aftermath of the quake, and who decide to get married, settle down and raise a family of their own. Such occurrences are by no means uncommon. Since the creation of any human being is good in an unqualified sense, God may decide to tolerate natural or moral evils, if doing so enables individuals to come into existence who would not have done so otherwise. Please note that I’m not saying He must, but merely that He may.

Fair enough; nevertheless, the skeptic might urge, the world is still a pretty awful place, and arguably much worse than it needs to be. Most natural and moral evils don’t result in the creation of new sentient or sapient beings, after all. There seems to be a lot of gratuitous evil in the world. Why is this so?

The Fall – and why it is needed to explain the mess we’re in

Traditionally, Christians have appealed to the doctrine of the Fall of our first parents at the dawn of human history, in order to explain why God allows these senseless evils to continue. John Henry Newman eloquently argued for this doctrine in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (Longmans, Green & Co., London, revised edition, 1865, chapter 5, pp. 242-243):

I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;— if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

In their recent book, Adam and the Genome, geneticist Dennis Venema and New Testament scholar Scott McKnight have marshaled an impressive array of converging scientific evidence, indicating that the human population has probably never fallen below 10,000 individuals. That certain puts paid to literalistic interpretations of the Fall, but as Denis Alexander has described in his book, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, one can still defend some notion of a Fall at the dawn of human history. Here’s how he outlines one possible approach to the Fall (although it’s not his favorite):

In the first type of approach (which has many variants), some people in Africa, following the emergence of anatomically modern humanity, became aware of God’s existence, power and calling upon their lives and responded to their new-found knowledge of him in love and obedience, in authentic relationship with God. However, they subsequently turned their back on the light that they had received and went their own way, leading to human autonomy and a broken relationship with God (“sin”). The emphasis in this type of speculation is on historical process – relationships built and broken over many generations.

My own belief is that God bestowed upon our first parents the responsibility for deciding the scope of Divine providence in ordinary human affairs. In their pride, our first parents chose personal autonomy, knowing that it would entail death and suffering for the entire human race: basically, they told God to butt out of everyday human affairs, leaving Him free to intervene only for very special reasons. To skeptics who would object that God should never have given such enormous responsibilities to our first parents in the first place, I would suggest that it is simply impossible for God to make intelligent beings without offering them an allotted sphere or domain in which they can legitimately exercise their freedom: that is what makes them who they are. As the first parents of the human race, our first parents had to have the responsibility for deciding whether they wanted the human race to be protected by God’s Providence or whether to reject God and go it alone.

As a Christian, I believe that God is just and merciful. I do not believe that it was unjust of God to test the human race at the beginning of human history; but I will acknowledge that in order to make sense of the terrible consequences of that fateful test, we need to maintain a view of history which sounds very strange to modern ears – instead of a gradual ascent to human self-awareness, as we might suppose, there was a First Contact between human creatures and their Creator. We need to envisage this as a cosmic, Miltonian drama, with our first parents as larger-than-life characters who enjoyed an intimacy and familiarity with God which we can only dream of, and who were given the enormous responsibility of custodianship over the lives of their future descendants. It may seem incomprehensible to us that they would give up their relationship with a God Who could satisfy all their needs, in favor of a death-and-violence ridden world like ours, but what they gained (in their own eyes) was the freedom to live as they chose. This, then, is why we’re in the mess we’re in. How long it will continue, I have no idea.

For those readers who would like a theological explanation of animal suffering, I would recommend Jon Garvey’s excellent online book, God’s Good Earth.

The problem of evil: A summary

We have seen that in order to make sense of the evil in the world, we need to abandon the notion of an omniscient God Who knows all counterfactuals and all possibilities, and Who knows what we do without needing to be informed by us. Rather, we should simply say that God (timelessly) knows everything we do, by constantly watching us. We also need to abandon the notion of an omnipotent God Who can do anything that’s logically possible. It turns out that there are a number of constraints which God is subject to, which prevent Him from creating any old world that we can imagine, and that prevent Him from having created us in a perfect world where no-one ever sinned. Furthermore, we need to abandon the notion that God is omnibenevolent. Christians have never worshiped an omnibenevolent Deity. Rather, the God they worship is a Parent Who loves us personally, and Who will never stop loving us. Such a God may however be willing to allow His creatures to be subjected to a great degree of suffering in the short term. He can only be called “benevolent” from a long-term perspective, insofar as He has prepared us for eternity with Him.

Finally, the sheer pervasiveness of the suffering in this world points to what Newman referred to as “some terrible aboriginal calamity” at the dawn of humanity, in which the entire human race paid the price for the proud decision made by our first parents to isolate themselves from God’s benevolent protection, for the sake of pursuing what they perceived as independence and freedom. God did not know that they would make that choice, but He gave them the power to decide the fate of the human race, and to “turn off the lights” in our world until God started turning them back on again, culminating in His Revelation of Himself to us 2,000 years ago in a manger in Bethlehem.

To sum up: the Christian view of history is capable of being cogently defended, provided Christians are willing to remove the theological barnacles that have attached themselves to its system of belief, and abandon the “three omnis,” in favor of a more intimate but less extravagant notion of God.

1,030 thoughts on “The Christian God and the Problem of Evil

  1. keiths: I repeat:

    What evidence do you have to offer in favor of the Christian omniGod that outweighs the enormous negative evidence highlighted by the problem of evil?

    I repeat. What evidence for the existence of God did your inductive/probabilistic argument take into account? If the answer is none just say so and admit that you were wrong.

  2. keiths: This question seems to have spooked you, Mung:

    What evidence do you have to offer in favor of the Christian omniGod that outweighs the enormous negative evidence highlighted by the problem of evil?

    I might feel motivated to respond if you could say what evidence for the existence of God your inductive/probabilistic argument took into account. If your answer is none just say so and admit that you were wrong.

    You’re a rational person, aren’t you?

  3. keiths: But if you truly believe that, you’re welcome to get off your ass and actually supply some positive evidence, so that we can see how it stacks up against the overwhelming negative evidence highlighted by the problem of evil.

    You mean the evidential argument from evil doesn’t already take that into account?

    Because it would really suck for you if your argument depended only on the overwhelming negative evidence highlighted by the problem of evil. Because you denied that was the case.

  4. keiths: I think you are very confused, and that there’s little hope that you can understand the evidential problem of evil well enough to contribute to the discussion.

    Oh good. So we are talking about the evidential argument!

  5. keiths: Has it occurred to you to ask why the evidential problem of evil is called “the evidential problem of evil”?

    Do you think it might have something to do with evidence?

    Do you think that evidence is something that should be taken into account, or should we just ignore it, especially when it leads to conclusions that we don’t like?

    Now that’s funny, I don’t care who you are.

    What about evidence for the existence of God? Doesn’t the argument take that into account? If it does, show us how.

  6. Mung,

    You lost this debate a long time ago. If you had a compelling defense of Christianity, we would have heard it by now. You’re empty-handed, and at this point you’re just crapping all over Vincent’s thread.

    Go play with Frankie while the grown-ups talk.

  7. keiths: The Free Will Defense is targeted at the logical problem of evil, not the evidential problem of evil. The latter is the one you need to solve, and no theist has solved it.

    I suppose that might be relevant if keiths were making the evidential argument.

  8. keiths: You lost this debate a long time ago.

    Your failure to engage doesn’t count as evidence that I “lost” the debate. You need to answer my arguments.

  9. keiths, have you ever actually stated that your argument employs “the evidential argument from evil” and that does not employ “the logical argument from evil”?

    Because all I can find are posts by you giving some indication that your argument is perhaps not the logical argument, and making reference to the evidential argument, without ever actually explaining which of these your argument is.

    Are we dealing with any of the well-known arguments or are we dealing with “the keiths argument from evil,” whatever that is?

  10. keiths: A rational person will consider all of the available evidence when evaluating an evidential question.

    So you took into account all the evidence for the existence of God?

    I’ve spotted the keiths shell game. It’s typical.

  11. The lesson here is that keiths postures as if his argument is “the evidential argument from evil,” but it’s utterly impossible to tell, because only keiths knows what exactly his argument consists of. Does it have premises? What are they? Does it arrive at a conclusion by means of induction? Who knows. What are the probabilities and how are they arrived at? Your guess is as good as mine. May as well flip a coin.

    Heads means God exists. Heads it is! God exists. (Yes, I actually tossed a coin and it came up heads.)

  12. newton: Bad example, the God of Job consorts with evil.

    A Hold My Beer story.

    It says something about the original writers and audience of Job that the “restoration” of Job’s fortune does not include restoring the heedlessly killed people to life. They are just bugs.

  13. Not bugs, exactly. More like livestock. They have value, but not as individuals. They’re interchangeable.

  14. Vincent,

    Giving up the “omnis” is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t generally enough to solve the problem of evil. It reduces the pressure, but there can still be a clash between what is being claimed for God and what the evidence shows.

    In your case, while you don’t claim omnibenevolence for God, you still describe him thus:

    God loves each and every one of us with a steadfast, unshakable love which is greater than any of us can possibly imagine.

    Let’s return to the example of the uncle who watches passively as the dog eats his baby niece’s head. Who on earth would describe that uncle as loving his niece with “a steadfast, unshakable love which is greater than any of us can possibly imagine”? The very thought is ludicrous. Yet when God does the very same thing — standing idly by as the baby dies a painful death — you’re willing to praise him extravagantly as a fountain of love, a veritable gusher. Why?

    The reason you gave earlier is that God is just keeping a promise he made:

    I think the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle is that God bound Himself by a promise during the Fall of our first parents, and that He promised not to intervene in Nature in a manner which they objected to. God cannot break a promise, and my guess is that our first parents found the idea of a Cosmic Nanny suffocating, so they asked God to stop intervening supernaturally to protect them and their descendants from ordinary natural hazards, such as earthquakes, lightning, volcanoes and so on. They also asked God not to protect them from each other’s acts. Hence God is unable to stop acts of rape and fires that burn children to death.

    That’s a rather unsatisfying solution to the problem and it raises a number of uncomfortable questions:

    1) Why would a wise God agree to such a stupid promise?

    2) Why would humans make such a stupid request of God?

    3) Why should present-day humans suffer because their ancestors and God screwed up and struck an idiotic deal with each other?

    4) Why wouldn’t a loving God allow the descendants to negotiate their own deal with him, having seen what a mess the earlier deal turned out to be?

    5) What kind of legalistic ass would stand by as a dog ate a baby’s head, saying to himself “I mustn’t intervene. After all, I promised not to”? If you were in that situation, wouldn’t you go ahead and break the damn promise? Why wouldn’t God?

    You’ve given up the other omnis. Why insist that your God be an omnilegalistic nitpicker determined to uphold every dumb promise, consequences be damned?

  15. Good points, giving up any of the omnis don’t make much sense either. Suppose God isn’t omnipotent, he can’t effect any and all logically possible change. He’s limited in some way. How limited would God have to be, to be prevented from stopping a dog eating a baby? Well, having an adult human being present would probably have sufficed, so God would have to be less able than an adult human being.

    But even if God is not omnipotent, is God really less able than an adult human being? God has supposedly completely physically resurrected the dead body of Jesus Christ, made him able to walk on water (meaning God can physically make material objects defy physical laws and forces, such as preventing a human body from sinking through liquid water), made a single piece of bread feed thousands (meaning God is apparently able to physically create new matter) turned water into wine (meaning God is apparently able to rearrange the nucleonsums and constitutents of already existing atoms), cured blindness and other illnesses, not to mention created the entire universe and all life on Earth. In that context, stipulating that God was simply not able to prevent a dog from eating a baby is ridiculous. If God can hold a man physically into the air so he doesn’t sink, God can hold a dog away from a baby.

  16. Reminds me of the Cathars, a faith which, though based on Christianity, was declared heresy [by the Roman Catholic Church*] and was eliminated by the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars held that this World was too evil to have ben created by a good god and must have been created by an evil one. The next World, to which one gained entry by dying, is the perfect one. Their eagerness for martyrdom was their downfall. At the end of the crusade, there was a final siege at Montségur where the last surviving Cathars were given the choice of recanting or being burnt alive on a ready-prepared bonfire. Around 200 kept to their faith and leapt voluntarily into the flames and gaining Paradise.

    Who’s to say that wasn’t a good choice?

    *ETA

  17. petrushka: A Hold My Beer story.

    It says something about the original writers and audience of Job that the “restoration” of Job’s fortune does not include restoring the heedlessly killed people to life. They are just bugs.

    Like the guys in red shirts on Star Trek, a plot device

  18. Mung:
    P2: The evidence undercuts that claim.

    Here, on the other hand, I do challenge the claim. I ask what evidence. The response is the evidence from evil. My response is, what about all the other evidence for the existence of God, how does that factor into your inductive/probabilistic reasoning?

    That’s a red herring. The argument is simple:

    Did your god know about the dog eating the baby’s head? If not, it’s not omniscient.

    Was your god unable to prevent the dog from eating the baby’s head? If so, it’s not omnipotent.

    Did your god choose not to prevent the dog from eating the baby’s head? If so, it’s not omnibenevolent.

    This event demonstrates that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god is not compatible with our observations. If Christianity depends on such a god, it is false.

    Note that this argument is not affected by other supposed “evidence” for your god. The core of the argument is the omni attributes Christians claim for their god. To expand on keiths’ example, an uncle that prevents the dog from eating the baby’s head during the week but allows it on Saturday is not a good uncle. A god that allows the same, at any time, is not omnibenevolent.

    That’s the argument you need to address directly.

  19. Mung: Oh good. So we are talking about the evidential argument!

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. Instead of trying to pigeon hole what keiths is saying into some category that you can then feel justified in dismissing, why don’t you just directly address what he is actually writing?

    It would reduce the number of back-and-forth comments considerably and, if his argument is mirroring one you already know, you can just reply with what you think is the known refutation.

  20. Patrick: Did your god choose not to prevent the dog from eating the baby’s head? If so, it’s not omnibenevolent.

    That doesn’t follow. You do realize that God is not beholden to our definitions and understanding, right?

  21. Frankie: You do realize that God is not beholden to our definitions and understanding, right?

    Well, in one way, that’s true. God’s powers are whatever we believe them to be so long as they are untestable, unentailed.

  22. Patrick, to Mung:

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. Instead of trying to pigeon hole what keiths is saying into some category that you can then feel justified in dismissing, why don’t you just directly address what he is actually writing?

    I think we all know the answer to that question.

  23. Alan Fox: Well, in one way, that’s true. God’s powers are whatever we believe them to be so long as they are untestable, unentailed.

    Totally clueless. It means that keiths’ argument is total BS, Alan.

  24. Patrick: This is exactly what I’m talking about. Instead of trying to pigeon hole what keiths is saying into some category that you can then feel justified in dismissing, why don’t you just directly address what he is actually writing?

    It has been addressed since at least the second century AD

  25. Frankie: Totally clueless. It means that keiths’ argument is total BS, Alan.

    It’s true I’m not persuaded by it, but then I don’t need an argument to persuade me about the existence of gods. But playing Devil’s advocate, it would seem, if the claim that Heaven is where the good folks go for eternity, then a bit of temporary suffering followed by death is a small price to pay for the priviledge.

  26. Rumraket,

    Right. Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard place . They need to give up the “omnis” (and then some) in order to have a concept of God that doesn’t clash with the evidence. But if they give up too much, they’re left with something that either isn’t particularly Godlike or else isn’t very nice.

    Deists have it much easier.

  27. Alan:

    But playing Devil’s advocate, it would seem, if the claim that Heaven is where the good folks go for eternity, then a bit of temporary suffering followed by death is a small price to pay for the priviledge.

    Your reasoning leaves something to be desired. Any finite amount of suffering is vanishingly small against the backdrop of eternity, but that doesn’t make it morally insignificant.

    Suppose God tells you that for the next 100 billion years he will subject you to a continuous agony that’s far worse than being burned alive. Then you’ll enter heaven and enjoy an eternity of bliss. Will your response be, “Sounds great! Let’s do it!”? Will you feel overwhelmed by the love that this great being is showering upon you?

  28. Hi keiths,

    In response to my suggestion that God is bound by a promise He made to our first parents not to intervene in human affairs in ways that they objected to, you ask:

    That’s a rather unsatisfying solution to the problem and it raises a number of uncomfortable questions:

    1) Why would a wise God agree to such a stupid promise?

    2) Why would humans make such a stupid request of God?

    3) Why should present-day humans suffer because their ancestors and God screwed up and struck an idiotic deal with each other?

    4) Why wouldn’t a loving God allow the descendants to negotiate their own deal with him, having seen what a mess the earlier deal turned out to be?

    5) What kind of legalistic ass would stand by as a dog ate a baby’s head, saying to himself “I mustn’t intervene. After all, I promised not to”? If you were in that situation, wouldn’t you go ahead and break the damn promise? Why wouldn’t God?

    You’ve given up the other omnis. Why insist that your God be an omnilegalistic nitpicker determined to uphold every dumb promise, consequences be damned?

    I think the problem here is that you’re envisaging your relationship with God as if it were just a two-way connection, between you and God. What Christianity teaches is that that’s not so: our whole relationship with God is entangled with Adam’s relationship with God, which means that his choices necessarily affect our destiny. (I’m using “Adam” here as a convenient shorthand for our first parents, who probably numbered in the thousands.) If it were just a two-way street, then God’s refusing to come to my aid because of some silly choice of Adam’s would indeed be unjust, and any promise not to intervene would be a non-binding one. What’s more, God would be utterly foolish to make such a promise.

    But we are not Lockean individuals. Not only is our personal identity dependent on that of our ancestors (and ultimately, our first parents), but our earthly destiny as well. Earlier, I suggested that it is simply not possible for God to make a race of intelligent beings without giving their first parents the power to determine the destiny of their descendants, by the choices they make. Our first parents, as founders of humanity, held certain privileges that automatically go with their position.

    For me, this makes sense. You could hardly have a God Who agreed not to intervene in human affairs for Adam, but suddenly reversed His decision for Seth. Come on. At some point, a final decision is needed: the human race has to jump one way or the other. (At the dawn of history, there may have indeed been individuals who were miraculously protected by God because they and all their ancestors were pure of heart and in communion with God; but fairly early on, sin spread to the entire human race. From that point, there was no going back.) Nor can I see how someone who sins is entitled to expect God to suddenly “reach down from the sky,” every time there is an approaching disaster. That strikes me as absurdly presumptuous. You make your bed, you lie in it. If you want to sin, fine, but don’t expect to keep a hotline to God – either for you or your children. I’m not preaching at you; I’m a sinner too. To sin is to forego the right to a Divine hotline.

    So the idea that the Fall of our first parents might prevent God from providing His “full-strength” protection for the human race strikes me as at least plausible. It’s a simple consequence of sin. If I had to rate its anterior probability, I’d say it’s about 0.2, at least. That being the case, it’s not going to count as an insuperable obstacle to the Christian faith. All I’m looking for is evidence for Christianity such that the posterior probability of its being true, after taking into account all the evidence, is at least 0.5. If there is very good evidence for Christian miracles (as I’ve argued for the case of St. Joseph of Cupertino) and good evidence for the Resurrection, then that might be enough to swing the balance for me, and make it rational to believe.

    Now I can understand that things stand very differently for you. The notion of Adam as paterfamilias deciding the fate of humanity may strike you as morally repellent, and the idea that my fate is mystically entangled with Adam’s may appear laughably absurd. The multiple testimonials in favor of miracles occurring in the past (400 years ago, 2,000 years ago) may seem too distant, at this point of time, for us to assess their credibility. In that case, the notion of a personal Creator who loves us with a steadfast and unshakable love may appear to fly in the face of all the evidence.

    Well, if that’s how things really look to you, then belief in a personal God is no longer an intellectual option for you, and you may have to content yourself with Spinoza’s God instead. But before you get too comfortable in your unbelief, I’d just like to ask you one question: are you quite, quite sure that if there were a personal Creator, He wouldn’t have done things that way? What makes you so certain?

    And let’s not forget, no matter how bad the sufferings of this world are, they are temporary. They last a few miserable years, or decades at most. But I can see that the problem of suffering causes you a great deal of anguish, so I’ll leave you with a quote from Huckleberry Finn:

    Well, before long here comes the wreck, dim and dusky, sliding along down! A kind of cold shiver went through me, and then I struck out for her. She was very deep, and I see in a minute there warn’t much chance for anybody being alive in her. I pulled all around her and hollered a little, but there wasn’t any answer; all dead still. I felt a little bit heavy-hearted about the gang, but not much, for I reckoned if they could stand it I could.

  29. vjtorley: But before you get too comfortable in your unbelief, I’d just like to ask you one question: are you quite, quite sure that if there were a personal Creator, He wouldn’t have done things that way? What makes you so certain?

    Why would anyone even ask if a personal Creator would do it that way? What data would provoke such a question?
    Glen Davidson

  30. Patrick: Note that this argument is not affected by other supposed “evidence” for your god.

    I know it isn’t, Patrick. On this we manage to agree. It has been this exact point that is in dispute between myself and keiths. He says otherwise. And I have posted a number of comments by him that indicate he holds a view opposite to yours.

    I agree with you. I think you are right. I think I am right. I think keiths is wrong. But he won’t admit it. He thinks everyone else is wrong.

  31. Seeing that the discussion about the (non)existence of God has been going on for thousands of years without a consensus result, it seems reasonable to assume that there is in fact neither logic nor evidence that will settle the matter to everybody’s satisfaction.

    But perhaps this was not always the case? If we believe the Bible, there was a time when God walked the earth and made it abundantly clear to his circle of friends and acquaintances that he was, indeed, God. A miracle here and there, some wise words, and he convinced many of them.

    At that time, then, there was very solid evidence to settle the question, at least at a local level, and God was happy for this to happen. For some reason he has changed his mind about this. Why did Jesus go to heaven, instead of staying around to continue his ministry? I imagine that a 2000 year old guy going round the world doing miracles like raising the dead would convince a fair few people that there is some merit in the idea of God.

    Instead of all these endless discussions leaving many people unsatisfied and unbelieving, there would have been clear evidence and loads of converts (although some skeptics might still resist, coming up with other explanations – Jesus the alien, perhaps?). Would that not be a good thing from God’s point of view?

    So why this change?

  32. keiths: That’s a rather unsatisfying solution to the problem and it raises a number of uncomfortable questions:

    What we have here is a list of questions that cannot be answered to your satisfaction. And where have we seen THAT before?

  33. keiths:
    Alan:

    Your reasoning leaves something to be desired.

    Well, I was (none-too-seriously) playing Devil’s advocate for a position that I find personally incomprehensible.

    Any finite amount of suffering is vanishingly small against the backdrop of eternity, but that doesn’t make it morally insignificant.

    What’s the word “morally” doing in this sentence?

    Suppose God tells you that for the next 100 billion years he will subject you to a continuous agony that’s far worse than being burned alive.Then you’ll enter heaven and enjoy an eternity of bliss.Will your response be, “Sounds great! Let’s do it!”?Will you feel overwhelmed by the love that this great being is showering upon you?

    Has this anything to do with any religious belief on offer? Anyway, bearing in mind I think thought experiments are pretty pointless, I guess if I thought God was telling me stuff… do you know, I just can’t conceive of a conversation taking place between me and some deity. I appear to lack the imagination.

  34. faded_Glory: Seeing that the discussion about the (non)existence of God has been going on for thousands of years without a consensus result, it seems reasonable to assume that there is in fact neither logic nor evidence that will settle the matter to everybody’s satisfaction.

    Absolutely!

  35. vjtorley: All I’m looking for is evidence for Christianity such that the posterior probability of its being true, after taking into account all the evidence, is at least 0.5. If there is very good evidence for Christian miracles (as I’ve argued for the case of St. Joseph of Cupertino) and good evidence for the Resurrection, then that might be enough to swing the balance for me, and make it rational to believe.

    So now who is going to step up and tell Vincent that he doesn’t understand the argument? Will it be Patrick, who says that other evidence for the existence of God is irrelevant?

    Patrick: Note that this argument is not affected by other supposed “evidence” for your god.

    Or will it be keiths, who still seems to be confused about whether such evidence ought to be allowed and still hasn’t explained why, if other evidence is to be allowed, his argument doesn’t take that other evidence into account.

    I’ve been saying all along that the argument doesn’t consider any evidence other than evidence for evil and keiths has been claiming that it does. Who is correct?

  36. faded_Glory: Why did Jesus go to heaven, instead of staying around to continue his ministry?

    According to Christian belief, because if he did not leave the Holy Spirit could not be given or made available for everyone. Of course this does not explain why he had to go in order for the Holy Spirit to be poured out “on all flesh.” I could speculate, but it might not convince anyone.

    This is where I think Christians have failed. Christians should be bringing heaven to earth rather than looking to leave earth and go to heaven. We’re supposed to be changing this world, not leaving if for another.

  37. Mung: According to Christian belief, because if he did not leave the Holy Spirit could not be given or made available for everyone. Of course this does not explain why he had to go in order for the Holy Spirit to be poured out “on all flesh.” I could speculate, but it might not convince anyone.

    Christianity sounds a bit like evolution – it can explain everything 😉

    This is where I think Christians have failed. Christians should be bringing heaven to earth rather than looking to leave earth and go to heaven. We’re supposed to be changing this world, not leaving if for another.

    No argument there.

  38. Mung:
    I’ve been saying all along that the argument doesn’t consider any evidence other than evidence for evil

    And as I pointed out, that’s a red herring. Unless you want to give up the characterization of your god as omnibenevolent.

  39. The notion that at some point in the future God is going to come along and defeat evil once and for all nudges Christianity from the absurd into the obscene.

    If the end result is not in any doubt then the preceding aeons of death, disease and suffering have been utterly pointless.

    Christianity really is the WWE of worldviews but with more blood and less spandex.

  40. Woodbine: The notion that at some point in the future God is going to come along and defeat evil once and for all nudges Christianity from the absurd into the obscene.

    That is not an argument.

  41. Patrick: And as I pointed out, that’s a red herring.Unless you want to give up the characterization of your god as omnibenevolent.

    Perhaps it’s your misunderstanding of the word that is the problem.

    “Oh noes it can’t be me cuz I know exactly what the plan is and the rules are.”

  42. Woodbine: The notion that at some point in the future God is going to come along and defeat evil once and for all nudges Christianity from the absurd into the obscene.

    The Christian view is that evil has already been defeated.

  43. Patrick: And as I pointed out, that’s a red herring. Unless you want to give up the characterization of your god as omnibenevolent.

    And as I pointed out keiths is running a shell game where what he’s talking about changes when it needs to change.

    And until he admits he was wrong you and he are not talking about the same argument.

  44. keiths:

    Any finite amount of suffering is vanishingly small against the backdrop of eternity, but that doesn’t make it morally insignificant.

    Alan:

    What’s the word “morally” doing in this sentence?

    You think the problem of evil is unrelated to morality?

    keiths:

    Suppose God tells you that for the next 100 billion years he will subject you to a continuous agony that’s far worse than being burned alive. Then you’ll enter heaven and enjoy an eternity of bliss.Will your response be, “Sounds great! Let’s do it!”? Will you feel overwhelmed by the love that this great being is showering upon you?

    Alan:

    Has this anything to do with any religious belief on offer?

    Yes, of course: the belief that an eternal reward can get God off the hook for his creatures’ finite suffering.

    You put it this way:

    But playing Devil’s advocate, it would seem, if the claim that Heaven is where the good folks go for eternity, then a bit of temporary suffering followed by death is a small price to pay for the priviledge.

    And Vincent expressed it thus:

    And let’s not forget, no matter how bad the sufferings of this world are, they are temporary. They last a few miserable years, or decades at most.

    Alan:

    Anyway, bearing in mind I think thought experiments are pretty pointless, I guess if I thought God was telling me stuff… do you know, I just can’t conceive of a conversation taking place between me and some deity. I appear to lack the imagination.

    Besides lacking the imagination, you also seem to lack the cognitive skills required to understand the point of the thought experiment.

  45. keiths: Besides lacking the imagination

    You, who can’t imagine that an Omni God could allow evil to exist, questions someone’s imagination? Really?

    Too freakin’ funny

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.