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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...(word games aside)...

Ha! What bunch of jumbo mumbo!

I agree with you regarding the jumbo jet, because a jumbo jet is the sort of thing which is evident to the senses. On the other hand, if I suggest that the Invisible Man is in the room and you say he is not because you cannot see him, that is not a compelling proof, especially if you can see moving footprints in the carpet. 

We can see evidence of God's existence in his effects on the world around us, sort of like we detect gravity through its effect on objects with mass or how we could detect the Invisible Man if we saw his footprints. That is why I brought up the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, all of which suggest the existence of a supernatural creator. 

We can see evidence of God's existence in his effects on the world around us

No "we" can't. I've seen NONE. Word games such as first cause, intelligent design, etc. are untestable and are acceptable as evidence of God only to some theists  - an exemption accorded to no other pursuit. 

Only someone with diminished cognitive powers would see moving footprints and conclude "invisible man" instead of looking for evidence of how the illusion was done. Even if I was unable to uncloak the moving footprints illusion, I would not be tempted to accept the "invisible man" cause without a LOT of extraordinary evidence - ACTUAL testable evidence - not word games

Again, the only position I can respect is that which says, "I have FAITH in the Lord, despite the absence of evidence, because believing in Him makes me and other believers feel good". 

 Either Christian doctrine is contradictory on this point or it is not--that's the question posed by the problem of evil

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.

In terms of evil, humans evolved to be social animals. Evil could simply be defined as "fragrantly anti-social" - however fuzzy that may be. God and the scriptures play an ever-decreasing part in that equation.

Start supplying this evidence rather than merely claiming it exists.

I'd be glad to do so on another thread at some point, but could we stick to threshing out the problem of evil question here, as long as anyone is interested in talking about it? 

Two quotes from above:

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

and

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.

I'm all for recognizing what behavior humans are ultimately responsible for, but free will doesn't explain how God allows disease, mudslides, asteroids, earthquakes, or [name natural disaster here].

I'm all for recognizing what behavior humans are ultimately responsible for, but free will doesn't explain how God allows disease, mudslides, asteroids, earthquakes, or [name natural disaster here].

A line of questioning appologists habitually avoid. This is a great question but I also think you've let David get away with some clever phrasing.

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

It would be better put as: Couldn't God stop inflicting so much suffering? How many Christians attribute the good to God and the bad to "bad luck" or "the Devil" or "mysterious ways" or any other form of padding that reduces God as the responsible agent? God inflicts suffering. Throwing free will into the mix doesn't explain it all away.

Free will is hard for the naturalist to explain either.

The difference is David, that many philosophers have given a tentative explanation of how free will may be possible and very few have outright claimed free will exists...some have done the opposite showing doubt...and a few dogmatic materialists claim with near certainty that it doesn't exist. Theists on the other hand (when dealing with the question of evil) usually claim outright that there is free will (as though it's obvious)...without explaining how free will is possible per the ultimate-everything-god and the seeming mechanical nature of the macro world. We (atheists) don't have to prove that free will exists because few of us make such an absolute claim and many reject the claim. It is the theist who has to at least define what free will is and show us some evidence...as it is the theist who claims free will exists.

@Pope Beanie

Well, a Christian would say that free will explains disease, mudslides, etc., though indirectly. Those are still consequences of the fall (i.e. human free will). However, I get your point that these things are under God's control. Honestly, the Bible doesn't really explain how natural evil is related to the fall or why God permits it, so I can only speculate. Because I don't have a full answer, this would be an area calling for faith, i.e. trust based on a person's proven trustworthiness. Since I have reason to trust God overall (I know that's a premise I haven't proven here, but I'm talking about my own reasoning), I also trust him to be righteous in this area, just like trusting my wife in general means I trust her not to cheat on me when I'm not at home. 

But even though ultimately I'm not sure on the answer to this one, I don't mind offering a guess. You have to start with the premise that sin means death; not just death in body, but the ultimate death of separation from God. In other words, sin means the absolute worst thing possible. Therefore, anything that brought our attention to the seriousness of sin would be justified, provided it was the least pain necessary for the job. (Sort of like we appreciate the pain of a wound because it alerts us to the structural damage.) I suspect that natural evil is permitted as a sign that something is wrong with the world. I imagine that seems monstrous to you, because you don't think something is seriously, absolutely wrong with the world. (Or perhaps you do, but you don't know what to do about it.) At any rate, a Christian believes (1) there is something terribly wrong with the world and (2) there is a solution, a Savior. Therefore--I speculate--God uses natural evil to draw our attention first to (1) and then to (2). There would be much less interest in religion in a perfectly safe and comfortable world, which I assume you would take as evidence that religion is a self-comforting delusion, but which does also fit with my hypothesis. 

@Davis Goodman,

I think my response addresses your first point as well?

Regarding free will, I assume you are asking me to defend how it could exist within a Christian worldview, not to defend its existence in general? It seems that most here would agree with me that it exists? As for how it fits within a Christian universe, I would reject the premise that divine omnipotence is contradictory with human free will. Omnipotence is so beyond our own comprehension that we don't know enough to posit qualities which would create a contradiction with human free will. I know that seems like a cop-out, but I think it kind of necessarily follows from taking the idea of omnipotence seriously. 

Also, all this does go back to the authority of the Bible. Since the same source which tells me about God's omnipotence also tells me I have free will, I am inclined to assume they can coexist. (I know you wouldn't accept the authority of the Bible as a premise, but limitations of time prevent me from trying to write a Summa Theologica all at once here, so I'm trying to stick to the particular topic of the problem of evil while also noting external assumptions I'm making for possible future discussion.)

I know you wouldn't accept the authority of the Bible as a premise

I can accept any premise if you can give, at least, a definition of the term used and tentative evidence/proof. You don't have to write a watery fluffy book like Aquinas did in order to do so. 

But you are right...just about no one here will take any sentence seriously if they contain the words "bible" and "authority" in any positive sense.

It seems that most here would agree with me that it exists?

Noooooo no no nope :) If you look through the history of discussions here you'll find many threads on free will and recently there is an equally balanced yes vs. no (or perhaps more on the no side). I lean towards yes but I wouldn't say yes. The definition of free will with tentative evidence/proof given (Hoffstadter, Dennett, Blaguer) hardly is enough to give a resounding yes. On the other hand...many users lean towards no...and a couple have given an absolute no (under the argument that it simply isn't possible). I lean towards yes and I think a confident "yes" or "no" are not defendable positions.

I know that seems like a cop-out, but I think it kind of necessarily follows from taking the idea of omnipotence seriously. 

It does seem like a cop-out. I'm not sure why taking omnipotence seriously necesitates allowing free will and super-totally-everything-God. I also have never been given a convincing reason to accept a premise by default because it is all but understandable by our puny minds.

I can accept any premise if you can give, at least, a definition of the term used and tentative evidence/proof. You don't have to write a watery fluffy book like Aquinas did in order to do so. 

But you are right...just about no one here will take any sentence seriously if they contain the words "bible" and "authority" in any positive sense.

It does kind of all come back to whether the Bible is trustworthy or not, doesn't it? I'm tempted to start a discussion on that topic, but (a) I'm leery of committing the time and (b) I doubt the discussion would break fresh ground for either side. I'm don't know, though. It's refreshing talking about these questions with thoughtful folks who are 180 degrees on the other side, so I may start something later. I think I'll table that topic for now, anyway, recognizing that I haven't given you any reason to share my position at this point. 

I'm not sure why taking omnipotence seriously necesitates allowing free will and super-totally-everything-God. 

Sorry for the lack of clarity. What I meant was not that omnipotence entailed free will, but that that taking omnipotence seriously means we just don't know enough about it to predicate much of anything of it, beyond what is true by definition, i.e. omnipotence is absolute power, and I have no idea what it would be like to wield it or how it would interplay with the free will of other beings. Since I can't see a necessary contradiction between the concepts of divine sovereignty and free will, I see no reason not to trust the Bible's take on the matter (which brings us back to the authority question noted above, of course). 

Have we maybe gone as far as we can unless/until I have time to discuss the validity of the Bible? If so, thanks for the cordial and challenging discussion. 

Oh yes indeed David that's about as far as we can go without getting into bible and into authority. I am extreemely very extra interested in your rational approach in connecting the bible with authority. :)

Though yes...time is a limit. I have been rather impressed with how you've responded to just about everyone's questions in a calm and reasonable way. Keep it up!

Not much new here (for me), so imo we're down to a couple of points I believe are most essential but that neither you nor I can soon prove, one way or the other.

Without knowing why God allows suffering (e.g. by natural disasters), all we can do is accept life as given to us, and/or work to overcome the natural disasters, mostly with science, medicine, engineering, and so on. The question between us becomes more important over time with respect to what each of us thinks about what God wants (if anything), e.g. in the case of abortion, or adding tubes and devices to keep a life going that God would otherwise allow to die.

The free will question is a lot more about defining what it is. I've never seen a definition with certainty, except for the religious claim that soul can exist beyond body death, meaning that one's soul also exists and may be in control of every brain activity we could ever want. I can't abide by that idea, so I'm content with just feeling I have free will, feeling responsible for my own actions as much as possible, and not worrying about end of life or end of me/soul until I see when that day is imminent. I think I'll have enough integrity to not ask for God's favorable treatment at that time, and just hope I've lived life as well as I could and should.

Without knowing why God allows suffering (e.g. by natural disasters), all we can do is accept life as given to us, and/or work to overcome the natural disasters, mostly with science, medicine, engineering, and so on. The question between us becomes more important over time with respect to what each of us thinks about what God wants (if anything), e.g. in the case of abortion, or adding tubes and devices to keep a life going that God would otherwise allow to die.

Yep. 

Regarding free will, it feels like a concept we can't really get outside of enough to give a good objective definition. We know what it feels like from the inside, but not what it looks like from the outside. I do think the religious concept of a soul helps to explain how free will and consciousness could exist in what is otherwise just physical "stuff," but I respect your more pragmatic approach. 

Not much new here (for me)

Yeah, me neither. Probably the most interesting thing to me about this discussion is how much it went according to a script most of us could have written ahead of time. I've read stuff from atheist authors on the problem of evil but I was curious how an impromptu discussion would go, but I guess the most compelling arguments on both sides are pretty well known to all concerned. It makes me wish there was a fresh way to approach it from either side, but I guess the ground has just been covered too many times. 

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

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