I'm new here, but I'm going to take the plunge and start a discussion. In the I'm confused about morality thread, a few commenters raised the problem of evil, i.e. why is there evil in a world created (according to the Bible) by a good God? I think that is one of the toughest questions for theism, and it's the primary objection I hear when I talk with atheists, so I would like to hash it out with any of you who are interested in responding. I'll start by quoting an exchange with Gallup's Mirror from the other thread. In response to his initial objection, I wrote a very brief and inadequate summary of how evil fits into Christian theology: 

1. The concept of an afterlife makes a big difference when it comes to suffering. Just like a painful operation may be justified by the health it brings, the prospect of eternal life in heaven changes the calculus when it comes to suffering in this life.

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering. Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will. In a nutshell, Christian theology would say human free will = sin = suffering. (This does not mean that particular people suffer as a direct effect of their particular sins, but that a world full of sinful people will necessarily include suffering.)

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

Gallup responded (my replies in green text below his/her comments): 

David Vogel: Is there any conceivable situation in which a good parent would allow his child to suffer?

Gallup: Today in Africa 5,500 children under age 5 willdie of starvation. This is a slow, miserable death. Indevoutly religious Africa, be assured that the parents of these dying children cry out to God to save them. The children die anyway. That's over 2 million children every year.

David: I agree that the problem of evil is probably the toughest challenge to Christian faith.

Whoa, there. Back up.

You asked if there is any conceivable situation in which a good parent [Yahweh] would allow his child to suffer.

The answer to your question is yes. According to your theology, Yahweh is making millions of innocents suffer. Even if Yahweh gives them magical lollipops in some unproven afterlife, the answer is still yes.

Yes, I do agree that Yahweh is allowing (not making--key distinction) millions of innocents to suffer. My point is that allowing someone else to suffer is not necessarily evil. For example, a parent may allow a painful operation for her child because it is in his best interest. And again, part of Christian theology is the claim that Jesus himself suffered and died so that "death is swallowed up in victory," though that victory is not yet fully displayed. 

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering.

That is one of the most vile dogmas in Christianity. Either the toddlers who die by the millions brought it on themselves, or they are suffering because an ancestor disobeyed Yahweh. In this they have no say.

Why is it vile to say that someone suffers because of a decision someone else made? If that is actually what is happening, isn't it best to recognize it? Would it be vile if I said that the baby of a drug addict is suffering because of decisions her mother made? If that is true, it seems like saying so would be a first step toward helping that child and others in her condition. 

Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will.

If your Yahweh creates each person and every quality that person has, knowing in advance everything that person will do, how is that free will?

Yahweh makes puppets and writes the script they must follow, including the evil they do and the suffering they endure. In this, the puppets have no say.   

Well, I could turn this around and ask how one can have free will if the world is nothing but material cause and effect. Free will is hard for the naturalist to explain either. (Or maybe you don't believe in free will? I don't want to assume.) But, anyway, the same Bible which says God/Yahweh exists also says people have free will, so if you have reason to believe the first then the second comes along as a package deal. I know you don't believe the first, but if you did I imagine you'd find free will fairly easy to believe in too, especially since it corresponds to our own lived experience.  

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

If Yahweh is observing the suffering of millions and doing nothing to stop it, he's a bystander. But that's not the case. He created the suffering and allows it to continue unabated.

It doesn't seem fair to argue that Christian beliefs can't explain the problem of evil and then ignore what Christians actually believe. We do not hold that God allows evil to "continue unabated." He came and suffered and died and rose again to bring an ultimate end to evil. The question of whether Jesus actually, historically came as a sacrifice for sin is a separate debate, but the problem of evil accuses Christian beliefs of having an internal contradiction and asks whether we have a good answer for why God would allow evil in the world. From the perspective of Christianity's coherence and ability to address the problem of evil, wouldn't it make a difference if, theoretically, "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life"? I'm not asking you to believe it; just to consider if that element of Christian belief is relevant to how we explain the present reality of suffering. 

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Interesting. Of course if I believed the bible and the stories therein, naturally I'd have no problem believing in free will, or indeed leprechauns for that matter. No evidence required, means I can pretty much believe in anything you come up with.

If Jesus existed, and was put to death for disturbing the peace, his death was caused by humans. Wandering around 2,000+ years later, with a little gold torture device (crucifix) hanging round your neck celebrating it would be completely insane if you didn't cling to the dogma that your god planned it that way.

I can't even understand what your god actually is, even generally, let alone wrap my head around the things you all seem to credit this god with.

Now you try. Imagine there's no heaven (it's easy if you try). No afterlife at all. Would you still be an advocate for religion? Would you follow the teachings of Christianity if there was no reward system after you die?

Please list the top three reasons you think your faith is the correct one, without relying on the script created by your faith (bible). Obviously the bible says your faith is correct in the same way the Koran or the Gitva say Islam and Hinduism are respectively correct.

You see, evil and good are totally acceptable concepts to an atheist. There is no difficulty in attempting to justify their existences any more than there is difficulty in accepting our own existences as random evolutionary mammals.

Imagine there's no heaven (it's easy if you try). No afterlife at all. Would you still be an advocate for religion? Would you follow the teachings of Christianity if there was no reward system after you die?

No, certainly not. I wouldn't say a "reward system" was my main motivation for following the teachings of Christianity, but if there is no afterlife then it would be nuts to be a Christian. 

Please list the top three reasons you think your faith is the correct one, without relying on the script created by your faith (bible).

That's kind of like asking someone to explain why they like their significant other in three reasons. A lot will get lost in the cracks. But here's a quick summary: 

Reasons for theism: Cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments (none of which give 100% certainty, but which together establish a very, very strong probability there is some sort of God, I think.) 

Reasons for Christian belief, loosely organized from objective to subjective: Historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Christ, other historical support for the Bible, Old Testament prophecy fulfilled in the New, evidence of the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in those I know, impact of Christianity on cultures which have held it, Christianity's lasting balance on difficult pairs of doctrines like grace vs. works, the coherence of Scripture written centuries apart, the beauty of Scripture, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. 

Alright, let's look at the afterlife you believe in. If it's the prime reason you espouse Christianity then it's a pretty core matter.

Is it a place where we all retain our individuality? Will I be able to meet Albert Einstein? Or do we all kind of merge together like a universal consciousness?

Tell me what you can of it, seriously, and I will try to understand its appeal.

Hi Strega,

Yes, the Bible says we will retain individuality in heaven. No universal consciousness. That's assumed pretty much through the whole Bible, but I could give a couple specific verses if you want. I'm thinking you already knew I would answer that and have a follow-up in mind, so I'm not going to bother supporting it unless you ask. 

We would be able to see Albert Einstein, yes. Perhaps we'll even be able to fully understand what he was talking about. :-) 

My personal favorite description of heaven is Revelation 21:3-4, "And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." 

The Bible doesn't go into much detail about the particulars of heaven, and much of the language we do have is probably/maybe metaphorical. The points that are emphasized are that we will be in the presence of the Triune God and of all Christians who have lived. 

Forever? For all eternity? No escape, no end, just continuous benign niceness and peace and joy and love and flowers and happiness .... on and on and on and on, forever?

Ha! And harps and dancing on fluffy clouds too, plus rivers of chocolate. :-) 

The design of the Garden of Eden had people living together and working in the world, so I imagine heaven will be similar. Haven't you ever been with someone or done something and thought, "I wish this could go on forever?" We're too old and tired and bad to really appreciate good things in this life, and sin is always getting in the way, but in heaven we'll have the energy of youth which can still enjoy the hundredth push on the swing. 

I also suspect that thinking of eternity in chronological terms (endless succession of moments) really misses the essence of it. God's existence is outside of time, so heaven and hell may well be too. I have no idea how that would affect things, since I can't imagine being outside time, but it does make me quite sure that "A nice afternoon, but forever" isn't at all the right way to think of it. 

Ultimately, like most of the areas we've discussed, this comes down to faith. Not the blind sort, but trust in a trustworthy person. Since I believe God has spent the years since the fall working out a restoration of what was lost, and let himself be killed to make it possible, it's hard to believe he'd flub it at the end by turning heaven into something out of a bad commercial for a vacation getaway. 

David,

Do Neanderthals get to go to heaven?

@_Robert_

I don't know. If they are people (which I think is much more likely), then yes; if they are animals, no, as far as we know. The Bible draws a sharper distinction between people and not-people than evolutionary biology does, so sorting should not be a problem. Anyway, that would be God's problem, not mine. 

That was a real issue for me when I was a still a Catholic. I looked at the evidence for evolution and concluded we are just animals who happen to be self-aware. The soul can't be a product of evolution. And of course us being social animals with language skills, its very easy to see why and how we began talking to  imaginary benefactors, so many questions !!! Religion is a very natural response.

Arguing about free will and evil (etc.) requires that you first define the terms.

The processes involved in making a simple, binary choice (assuming there is such a thing) are FAR too complex to be analyzed by the technologies and methods of today. "Free will" cannot be defined precisely, but this is no reason to say choice falls into the realm of woo. Mental processes are fuzzy - ALL of them.

Evil is fuzzy. Is a tsunami that kills half a million people evil? It sure is to the families involved. It even looks pretty evil to compassionate TV on-lookers. But doesn't evil require a conscious agent? Or, perhaps we should simply blame gravity acting upon a semi-cooled ball of molten rock.

Theists love to bog down these questions in philosophy or other word games. That's the only platform available to them (outside of ancient, vague, contradictory pronouncements passed down from semi-literate bronze-age sand people.

The real question is, "how COULD otherwise intelligent people believe in the reality of an omnipotent, invisible entity in the face of a world of science refuting it".

Reasons for theism: Cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments (none of which give 100% certainty, but which together establish a very, very strong probability there is some sort of God, I think.)

Do you REALLY want to talk "probability"? I have more respect for a position which says, "I believe in God, despite the lack of any evidence in support of it".

Historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Christ,

None. Even the resurrection - the pinnacle of the faith - was supposedly "witnessed" by hundreds of people NONE of whom bothered to write or say a WORD about this miracle until 30 years later.

other historical support for the Bible,Old Testament prophecy fulfilled in the New, evidence of the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in those I know, impact of Christianity on cultures which have held it, Christianity's lasting balance on difficult pairs of doctrines like grace vs. works, the coherence of Scripture written centuries apart, the beauty of Scripture, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

I'm sure all those things make you FEEL good. How about something scientifically demonstrable.

The real question is, "how COULD otherwise intelligent people believe in the reality of an omnipotent, invisible entity in the face of a world of science refuting it".

Has science refuted the idea of God? I know lack of refutation is very far from proof (science has not refuted the idea of leprechauns either), but this does seem like quite a strong claim. 

Do you REALLY want to talk "probability"?

I do. If Christian belief is implausible then we should all drop it and go be Pastafarians or whatever. 

None. Even the resurrection - the pinnacle of the faith - was supposedly "witnessed" by hundreds of people NONE of whom bothered to write or say a WORD about this miracle until 30 years later.

The church started out small and localized, existed in an oral culture with a tradition of passing religious traditions in spoken teachings and creeds, and probably expected the return of Christ in a fairly short timeframe. Why would they write stuff down right away? Instead, the traditions and teachings were preserved through community oral tradition over several decades until they began to be written down as the church grew across the Mediterranean, with much of the initial NT material written no later than ~30 years after the events happened. Lots of anthropology studies confirm that it takes at least a few generations for mythology to get mistaken for history in that sort of a context. 30 years just isn't that long. For comparison's sake, go back approximately 30 years and you hit the period when Reagan's administration was in trouble for the Iran-Contra affair, with Gary North facing congressional hearings for selling arms to Saddam Hussein, etc. It's just too soon for major errors to get introduced into society's collective memory. 

I'm sure all those things make you FEEL good. How about something scientifically demonstrable.

If you can demonstrate scientifically that only scientific evidence is valid, then I will restrict myself to that sort of evidence. 

If Christian belief is implausible then we should all drop it and go be Pastafarians ...

A reasonable choice. There is hard evidence (or maybe al dente) that pasta does, in fact, exist. 

this does seem like quite a strong claim. 

Not at all (word games aside). How about if I assert that there is no jumbo jet parked in my office. Would you concede that to be a rational assertion? A logician might argue that I can't prove such an assertion, but that does not make it any less rational (on balance of observation and evidence).

"This jumbo jet may exist", you might retort. "What if this jumbo jet is in a different realm or dimension?" Or to borrow from a recent thread, "What if it is an 'external reality'?" Sorry. Bullshit! YOU are making an extraordinary claim.Not just that there might be a jumbo jet in my office, but that there is a "very, very, strong probability" that there exists a conscious being that created and continues to manipulate the entire universe.. YOU need to substantiate your claim. The word "substantiate" comes from "substance" - not hallucinations and the other neural processes you listed. "the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work"? Really?

I would actually be more inclined to accept this jumbo jet (I have hard evidence that jumbo jets exist and there IS a tiny oil stain on my office carpet which could only have come from a jumbo jet) than this magic invisible daddy in the sky for which I have seen NO evidence at all.

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