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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Anyway, thanks for the discussion, and sorry if it wasn't especially stimulating for you... (Not trying to be snarky there, incidentally.)

No of course, thanks for the honesty and respect. I'm afraid to go much further, like into what's valid or invalid about the Bible, because there's probably a whole library's worth of pro and con going on there. My main beef is with the fundamentalists, of all kinds.

To characterize the physical phenomena that occurs on Earth as "natural evil" is laughable. There has to be intent for something to be evil. The physicality of Earth has no intentions. It does what it does because of the laws of physics. Humans are as irrelevant as ants. Period. 

The better question is why would a supernatural force be willing to watch the repeated countless deaths of innocents, particularly children, at the hands of Mother Nature if it/he/she had the ability to intercede? 

There was a question earlier by a poster about Neanderthals. Are homo sapiens the only mammal that gains entrance to a Xtian heaven? Is there a liability of damnation suffered by humans in the past/present who never experienced an awareness of supernatural beings?

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” -Epicurus

To characterize the physical phenomena that occurs on Earth as "natural evil" is laughable. 

Sorry for the poor wording. "Natural evil" is a common term in Christian discussions of the problem of evil. It does not mean nature itself is being evil, or anything like that. It basically just refers to natural events that should not occur and are the result of the fall. 

The better question is why would a supernatural force be willing to watch the repeated countless deaths of innocents, particularly children, at the hands of Mother Nature if it/he/she had the ability to intercede? 

My short answer is that interceding could be worse than not interceding. I gave a longer answer earlier in the thread. Could you glance at that for my initial response to your question? 

Could I ask if you believe that we should ban automobiles? Each year, a few thousand children die in automobile accidents. If you do not believe we should ban cars, then it seems like you think some goods are worth the risk of children dying. And you actually believe those children disappear forever, while I believe death is a door rather than a wall. 

Obviously, it is an absolutely heartbreaking and terrible thing when anyone--child or adult--suffers or dies. It feels perverse to even throw around these sort of hypotheticals, because it is impossible to quantify pain and suffering. This is why I believe the ultimate answer to the problem of evil lies in trusting a good God to do what is right. However, since you did raise the question of justifying suffering (and I understand why you do), I feel like I have to address it in those terms. 

Are homo sapiens the only mammal that gains entrance to a Xtian heaven?

As far as we know, humans are the only creatures with a soul, which means the question of continued existence beyond the grave would only apply to us. 

Is there a liability of damnation suffered by humans in the past/present who never experienced an awareness of supernatural beings?

I do not know how humans who never heard the gospel will be judged. Since the Bible is written to those who have the Bible (an obvious point, but one that's important), it tells them how to be saved, which is to follow Jesus ("the way, the truth, and the life"). It does not say much about those who never hear the gospel, but it does say (1) God is just and righteous, and (2) people were saved by faith in Old Testament times even though they never heard the name of Jesus. 

David - "It basically just refers to natural events that should not occur and are the result of the fall."

If I understand you correctly you're suggesting that natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, and all other such events are a result of man's fall from the grace of your Xtian god. I have never heard this proposition before. These events are normal physiological occurrences throughout the 6 (?) billion years of Earth's existence. You really suggest they didn't exist before Adam and Eve screwed up?

Yes. That has actually been a pretty standard position among orthodox Christians throughout church history. 

That certainly seems to an untenable position to take seeing as how the Earth cannot relieve internal pressures without seismic activity (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions).

@ David, I really hope you stick around for a while. I no longer believe what you believe, but I enjoy what and how you write.

Thanks, Belle Rose. I'm enjoying the discussion and appreciate the courtesy y'all have shown while disagreeing with me. 

First, I say welcome David.

I don't know if I get you right, but you are arguing here that an afterlife makes suffering, gratuitous suffering ok? Do you imagine in the afterlife, the people of Cambodia will be smiling with the Khmer Rouge elite that butchered most of them? Everything will be settled. Or how do you envisage the afterlife?

I also notice your chosen theodicy is the freewill defense. Do you think Judas had a choice? Or Pharaoh?

I believe I will not be assuming too much to say you worship a god that is both omnipotent and benevolent. What do you think it does while a small girl is being gang raped? If I can make inference from what you say god is concerned with the freewill of the gang of rapists than of the girl and doesn't want to interfere.

Your claim that we can learn from the suffering of Jesus doesn't advance your case much. Jesus, if and it is a big if, he lived, had been sent to suffer. He was not ignorant of why he suffered. He also knew how soon the suffering would end. No one I know how long they will continue to suffer.

Lastly, I would like you to demonstrate with a few bible passages where it is explicitly said we have freewill.

And a bonus question; Where do you get the idea that the god of the bible is a good god? Is this explicitly stated or is this what you have come to believe?

Imagine.......and Does a Good God exist?

Hi Onyango, and thanks for the welcome and the conversation. 

I don't know if I get you right, but you are arguing here that an afterlife makes suffering, gratuitous suffering ok? Do you imagine in the afterlife, the people of Cambodia will be smiling with the Khmer Rouge elite that butchered most of them? Everything will be settled. Or how do you envisage the afterlife?

Ah, that word "gratuitous" does change things. I'm arguing there is no such thing as gratuitous suffering, because the existence of an afterlife changes the calculus. If I am born with some congenital disease and shortly die a painful death, and that is the entirety of my existence, then that suffering was awful and gratuitous. It would be better if I had never existed. 

On the other hand, if all that happens but there is an afterlife in which I can enjoy ultimate goodness for eternity, then that brief flash of suffering would still be awful (taking suffering seriously is one reason why Christians hate the sin that brought death into the world), but it would not be gratuitous. 

In the afterlife, the Bible says that those who accept God's offer of salvation (including any of your hypothetical Cambodians who did so) will be in glory, while those who reject it (including, presumably, most of those Khmer Rouge elite) will suffer eternal punishment. 

I also notice your chosen theodicy is the freewill defense. Do you think Judas had a choice? Or Pharaoh?

Yes and yes. Exodus says several times that "Pharaoh hardened his heart" (while also saying that God hardened it, which raises some of the same issues of free will and sovereignty which I discussed with Davis here), and in Matthew 27, Judas said, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood," testifying that he made the choice. 

I believe I will not be assuming too much to say you worship a god that is both omnipotent and benevolent. What do you think it does while a small girl is being gang raped? If I can make inference from what you say god is concerned with the freewill of the gang of rapists than of the girl and doesn't want to interfere.

As I said elsewhere in this thread, I am squeamish about using examples like this because it seems to diminish victims' lived experience to use them as hypotheticals in an argument, but I understand why you raise the issue and I'll try to address it while bearing in mind that we aren't just talking about an abstraction. What God was doing before that girl was attacked was dying a torturous death to open up a way of salvation for her and others where none existed before. While she was attacked, he was feeling the anger and grief of which the Psalms often speak, just as he felt grief and anger when he wept at Lazarus' tomb (John 11:32-37). This does raise the obvious question of why he would not stop the attack, and at first glance it suggests he is either not all-powerful or not actually good. 

However, the problem is that ending human sin means ending humans. The world is a play in which people make real choices that really affect other people, and the only way to end the play is to bring down the curtain. You want God to stop people from hurting other people? Have you ever been unkind to someone? Have you ever looked at exploitative pornography? Have you ever [fill in the blank]? Then when God fixes things, you're "fixed" too, and your ability to choose anything--including life--is gone forever. At some point, God will bring down the curtain, and then the play is over. But until that point, I think we wish that God "would stop bad people" because we do not realize how bad we are. Stopping bad people means stopping people, and God is not ready to do that yet. This is the point of the parable of the wheat and tares, incidentally. 

And again, this isn't an academic or abstract question for God. When he decided to allow innocent people to be hurt so that everyone (including themselves) had a chance to be saved, he was one of those innocent people--and he was the only one who did not need that reprieve in order to be saved. 

Lastly, I would like you to demonstrate with a few bible passages where it is explicitly said we have freewill.

I can't. The Bible does not tend to be that explicitly philosophical. However, it assumes free will from cover to cover when it portrays real choices with real consequences and when it calls on people to believe in terms that suggest it's really their choice. 

And a bonus question; Where do you get the idea that the god of the bible is a good god? Is this explicitly stated or is this what you have come to believe?

I could quote a number of spots where the Bible says God is good, but one obvious choice is Matthew 5:48, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." If you prefer showing rather than telling, I would point to the cross. 

 I'm arguing there is no such thing as gratuitous suffering, because the existence of an afterlife changes the calculus.

Wow, only religion can encourage this kind of let-God-sort-it-out fatalism. Let all infidels be damned if they don't believe what we good guys "know" in our hearts is true.

Sorry David, I'm not picking on you in particular, but you must understand how faith can be evil in itself, no?

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