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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MikeLong asked, 

Question: What made you post a question about Christian theology on an atheist forum? (This is not to imply that you are not welcome to post.) You must have known that the basic premises behind the question would not be accepted. Are you personally concerned about these inconsistencies? Or did you hope to convince critics that there are no inconsistencies? For my part the scriptures, consistent or otherwise, are irrelevant aside from their historical impact on cultures.

My answer to this ties in with my response to Gallup last night. I posted this topic here because I frequently hear atheists dismiss the existence of God on the basis of the reality of evil in the world. I think it happened two or three times just in the morality thread I referenced in my first post. 

The only way that objection makes sense is if it highlights contradictions in Christian belief. Several of you made some variation of the argument that God cannot be simultaneously omnipotent and omnibenevolent. In other words, the Christian conception of God is incoherent. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the only reason to bring it up, right? 

That is why I have tried to argue in this thread that Christianity doctrine can include the existence of real and even terrible evil without having to give up God's goodness or power. Trust me, I realize that proving Christian doctrine is not incoherent on one point is not the same as proving it is true, but if the existence of evil doesn't contradict any other Christian doctrines, then mentioning it as an argument against Christian belief is a non sequitur, like saying the Bible is false because the sky is blue. 

Tell me if I'm being unreasonable, but it seems like atheists have two options if they are going to be intellectually honest: 

1. Demonstrate that Christian doctrine regarding God's nature is inconsistent with the actual existence of evil. 

2. Give up the argument that evil's existence rebuts Christian belief. 

That's why I think this discussion matters, both to Christians and to atheists. 

As above David, we do not believe in the existence of your god. I have no idea what you mean by “God”. The Bible is the claim for Him, not the evidence for Him. “Real evil” may exist. Christian theology and doctrine may appear to address the POE within that framework. But for us Atheists this is meaningless because it is not in and of itself based on anything real because the god you believe in does not exist as far as we can tell. We do not see the Bible as the literal word of your God for the same reasons. You first need to establish why we should believe He exists so we can understand the authority you are giving Him and do so without saying “because the Bible says so”.

I could claim to live by the code of Harry Potter because it will save me from dragon fire. I could say this is true because it says so in this particular book.

That may sound like a silly statement to make but that is how your claims about the Bible sounds to me because it stands on no authority that I can discern. If you cannot explain that authority then arguing that what flows from it is not meaningful.

2. Give up the argument that evil's existence rebuts Christian belief.

I am not arguing the POE rebuts Christian belief. I am arguing that Christian belief does not explain it satisfactorily.

I am not arguing the POE rebuts Christian belief. I am arguing that Christian belief does not explain it satisfactorily.

I guess I'm taking your claim more seriously than even you are. If Christian belief cannot explain the existence of real evil in the world satisfactorily, then I would consider it rebutted. But if your only argument is the one below, I cannot see how it is not a non sequitur. 

Christian theology and doctrine may appear to address the POE within that framework. But for us Atheists this is meaningless because it is not in and of itself based on anything real because the god you believe in does not exist as far as we can tell.

If I've actually convinced you that Christian theology and doctrine appear to address the POE (putting aside the question of whether they are actually true, for the moment), then I do not see how you can point to the existence of evil as an argument against Christianity. 

I feel like we are talking at cross-purposes, so I'm going to break up my argument in the post above into a couple questions, with what I imagine your answers would be in italics. Could you tell me if I'm misrepresenting anything along the way, and if not, why you don't accept my conclusion? 

1. When someone says they are a Christian, why do you mention the existence of evil? You could, instead, comment on the fact that the sky is blue or that fried eggs are tasty, so why mention evil?

Because the existence of evil implies that your God does not exist. 

2. Why? 

Because your idea of God is an idea of a being which is perfectly good and all-powerful, but a perfectly good and all-powerful God would not allow evil. Since the picture of your alleged God is contradictory with the existence of the evil we see around us, they cannot both be true. Since evil is obviously real, your God must not be. 

That's pretty much what you're arguing, right? 
That's why you bring up the existence of evil? 

So if I have demonstrated that "Christian theology and doctrine appear to address the POE," doesn't that mean that the Christian picture of God is not incompatible with the existence of evil in the world? (I know I removed the "may" out of your quote. I don't imagine I've convinced you on this point---but if I did?) 

I absolutely realize that removing the problem of evil as an objection to Christian belief does not offer the tiniest bit of positive evidence for Christian belief. That is not what I am trying to do here. I am just trying to argue that the Christian picture of God is not incompatible with evil, and therefore bringing up the POE as a defeater for Christianity is a non sequitur. 

If you'll agree to that, I'm quite willing to agree that none of this gives a shred of positive evidence for God's existence. If you don't agree to that, could you help me understand why? 

Hi Gallup. Maybe I should have posted my reply here. I didn't see that this one was a recap of your earlier comments which I just responded to here. Would welcome further discussion at your convenience. 

Hi David,

I'm not entirely sure if this has been mentioned before (admittedly I only scanned through the discussion), but can you explain to me how free will works in heaven? Because given your explanation on free will above it doesn't seem compatible with 'no suffering'.

And if you do have a good explanation of how that would work, then please explain to me why God hasn't taken that route already.

@Freek,

That is an excellent question. It's the obvious objection to this theodicy, and I can't give a complete answer. I do think a few points are helpful, though: 

1. The Bible tells us very few specifics about Heaven, so it's hard to know what it would be like. 

2. It is possible that the process of living in the world and facing moral choices somehow prepares us for a Heaven in which free will can exist without sin and suffering. Speculation on my part, I recognize. 

3. Developing the point above, Thomas Aquinas speculated that actually being in the presence of God might be so overwhelmingly appealing that we could not do anything but choose him. Therefore, life on earth is breathing space, as it were, in which we can make a real choice to love him in a way that would be impossible in Heaven. 

4. I know I said "speculate" a lot in the points above. While I like the free will theodicy and think it's pretty persuasive, I think the ultimate theodicy is Jesus' death on the cross. If that really happened, then God told us--showed us--that whatever good awaits us could not be gotten without suffering, and was worth it. I prefer to start with the free will theodicy because I think it's compelling and at least shows one plausible reason why God would allow evil in the world, but I recognize it isn't a perfect argument, and I think your objection is the biggest question mark. However, because of the theodicy of the cross, the question your objection raises for me is a question about the validity of the free will theodicy, not about the goodness of God. 

Hi David,

Thank you for your clarification. However, each point brings up several new questions:
1) Agreed. however, it is indicated that there will be no suffering in heaven
2) That would mean that the Fall to sin was actually part of God's design. Which I don't think many Christians would agree with.
3) Adam and Eve were in the presence of God, and they still fell to sin. Additionally, it would still undermine free will.
4) That means that Paradise wasn't immune to the fall to sin, and Jesus' death was in essence 'a bugfix' (as we engineers would say). However, that also means that either God is not all good, as he would otherwise have applied Heaven already, or Heaven is just as vulnerable to sin as Paradise, and we'd end up in an endless cycle of sin and sacrifice.

Point 4 also raises another interesting question; in what way can the suffering of someone else lead to our restoration? Unless it is payment, but I can't imagine a good god who requires payment in blood and suffering of an innocent. And if the payment is to someone else, that brings into question God's (all)might.

*Sorry, posted the first one in the wrong place.*

@Freek,

1) Agreed. however, it is indicated that there will be no suffering in heaven

Yes. We're in agreement on that point. 

2) That would mean that the Fall to sin was actually part of God's design. Which I don't think many Christians would agree with.

I can't speak for all Christians, but I do actually believe that God ordained the Fall. This does not mean Adam and Eve did not have a real choice, but it was nonetheless ordained. (I've discussed the relationship between divine sovereignty and human free will elsewhere in this thread.) Of course, along with the Fall, God also ordained the covenant of grace and atonement through Christ's sacrifice. Taken as a whole package, Fall + Grace + Atonement is far better than human nonexistence, which is the alternative if I'm correct that free will necessarily entails the possibility of sin. 

3) Adam and Eve were in the presence of God, and they still fell to sin. Additionally, it would still undermine free will.

They were in the presence of God, sort of. The Genesis account does not sound like the full glory of God was revealed in the Garden. Anyway, I'm not going to find too hard to defend something that's more of a speculation than a confident answer. 

4) That means that Paradise wasn't immune to the fall to sin, and Jesus' death was in essence 'a bugfix' (as we engineers would say). However, that also means that either God is not all good, as he would otherwise have applied Heaven already, or Heaven is just as vulnerable to sin as Paradise, and we'd end up in an endless cycle of sin and sacrifice.

Huh. Interesting dilemma. Starting with the second option, Jesus said that Heaven is a place of perfection, and because I have reason to believe the gospel account is substantially true (I know I haven't demonstrated that here), I trust that God knows what Heaven is like and Jesus' statement is true. That's my firmest premise here.

That brings me to the second horn of your dilemma, which is that God ought to have "applied" Heaven already. I think you're viewing Heaven as too much of an abstraction. At this point, "applying" Heaven would mean destroying mankind, because sin cannot exist in Heaven and humans are polluted with sin. If we roll back in time to the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the picture, why didn't God "apply" Heaven then? The Bible does not say, but I would guess that life on earth is a preparation for what we will enjoy in Heaven. 

Point 4 also raises another interesting question; in what way can the suffering of someone else lead to our restoration? Unless it is payment, but I can't imagine a good god who requires payment in blood and suffering of an innocent. And if the payment is to someone else, that brings into question God's (all)might.
We are not told how, precisely, the atonement works. It makes intuitive moral sense that someone who does something bad should pay the consequences, and the Bible says that God himself dying as an innocent is able to pay that full debt for those who accept it. Since God is the one who demands the punishment (perfect justice) while simultaneously stepping in to take it himself (perfect love), it's not like he is asking someone else to put their skin in the game in the name of divine justice they do not fully understand. 

Hi David.

Excellent point on earth (including paradise) being ordained as a preparation for heaven. However, you then have to agree that this undermines God's all-power, as he is faced with a refining process from the moment of creation.

Regarding the 'perfect justice', I don't understand; how can you call a justice perfect when it demands a useless sacrifice that is not even related to the sin? By useless I mean that it doesn't serve a purpose with regards to payment/restoration, as suffering doesn't build anything. And it doesn't serve a purpose for atonement, as the whole goal of atonement is punishment for the sinner, or the sinner realizing what they did.

For instance, if a thief steals something from my house, it doesn't help anyone if a random person offers to go to jail for that; I didn't get my dtuff back, and the thief is still at loose.

Hi Freek,

Excellent point on earth (including paradise) being ordained as a preparation for heaven. However, you then have to agree that this undermines God's all-power, as he is faced with a refining process from the moment of creation.

I disagree. Could God create a red flower without creating a red flower? Similarly, if God knew that creatures who had chosen to love him on the basis of faith while on earth would be happiest in eternity, would there be any way for him to create creatures who had to choose to love him on the basis of faith while on earth without creating creatures who had to choose to love him on the basis of faith while on earth? 

In other words, if God created the refinding process because he (in his omniscience and omnibenevolence) wanted refined people, how does that diminish his power? 

Regarding the 'perfect justice', I don't understand; how can you call a justice perfect when it demands a useless sacrifice that is not even related to the sin? By useless I mean that it doesn't serve a purpose with regards to payment/restoration, as suffering doesn't build anything. And it doesn't serve a purpose for atonement, as the whole goal of atonement is punishment for the sinner, or the sinner realizing what they did.

The part that is most intuitively just is to say that doing wrong requires punishment of the wrongdoer, which is the Bible's starting point. Going beyond that, the Bible does not explain precisely how/why the sacrifice of Jesus "worked" as propitiation, but it suggests that as our "kin" (also human) he could step in to take the punishment in our place. I think this also intuitively fits our understanding of justice, at least approximately. If my child steals something, wouldn't it be just if I paid it back? Similarly, Jesus, as a human, paid the price of sin for all humans. 

Most importantly, if anyone understands justice, it would be God (if he exists). And it's not like he said "Justice demands that you give me lots of stuff." Saying, "Justice demands that I get killed for you," feels like it adds a certain credibility to the claim. 

@Gallup,

It is not logically inconsistent to say that A + B necessarily entail X, but that A + B + C do not. 

If I am underwater, naked, for 10 minutes, that means I will die. If I am underwater with an oxygen tank, I am fine. Adding another variable changes things quite radically. 

Similarly, human beings who have free will on earth (what I was talking about in the quotes above) would necessarily be able to sin, which leads to suffering. However, heaven would be such a different environment that the equation might be different. It seems reasonable to think that free will + the fullness of the presence of God might lead to a different outcome than free will by itself. As for why God might have chosen to create us with free will but without the fullness of his presence, I've been talking about that with Freek above. 

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