How much evil could God allow for a greater good?

Posted on 04/29/11 39 Comments

In ”Does God ever visit Ronald McDonald House?” I asked a question that crushes me. But as a Christian theist how can I not ask it? A few responses from the skeptics in our midst were, as I expected, incredulous. For example, Ray replied with the following:

“The good of consolation is only a runner-up prize to the good of not needing consolation. Would you give your child cancer so that you could experience such a heartwarming moment?”

No I wouldn’t. But Ray’s comment set my trivializing detectors off just the same. We’re not talking about a Hallmark moment here. We’re talking about the possibility of a morally sufficient reason for extreme suffering. Is that at least possible? Let’s consider an illustration which might place the question before us into a context.

Imagine that you’re walking across the street. Suddenly you hit the curb and bloody your knee. It happened so fast you don’t know what happened to you. Blood on your favorite blue jeans. Why, oh why?

From that point we consider two different scenarios.

Scenario A: You fell because you were pushed by somebody else, but it was for a good reason.

Scenario B: You tripped.

Now which would you prefer to be the case? That is, would you prefer that you were pushed and your knee was bloodied due to the morally sufficient intention of a third party, or would you prefer that your knee was bloodied for no reason at all?

For me it is a no brainer. I’d prefer there was some reason behind it. I opt for Scenario A. So then I ask: “What reason was there?”

And then the response comes: “A car was about to hit you.”

But what if that doesn’t make any sense to me because the only cars I’ve ever seen are made of foam and travel at 5 mph? I may be puzzled, thinking I’d much rather be bumped by a foam car than get a bloody knee. Indeed, I may be tempted to reject the greater goods defense altogether.

And all the while I’d never suspect that in fact had that stranger not acted I would have been turned into pavement pizza by an aging two ton Cadillac.

Isn’t it possible that bloody knees are allowed for an even greater good that we can’t conceive due to our limited horizons of experience? Of course it is possible.

Now another question: if we allow bloody knees then what about other cases of suffering? Is there a threshold of suffering at which our moral intuition revolts and says “No, I’d rather have Scenario B in this case. It is worse to have a reason for that suffering than none at all”? Why would anybody say such a thing if Scenario A remained open? Wouldn’t you always prefer a reason (in terms of a greater good) why you suffered rather than no reason at all?

Let’s say that somebody says NO! I’D RATHER HAVE NO REASON IN SOME CASES!

Okay, if you did choose Scenario B in some cases, what was the level of suffering that would be sufficiently egregious to trigger it? One hour of a child with cancer? One day? One week? One year? And why that degree of suffering rather than another?

Let me sum this up. Atheists talk with great confidence and moral indignation about what God could not possibly allow for a greater good. But when push comes to shove I find such objections high on emotional appeal and low on careful reasoned reflection.

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  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Randal wrote: We’re talking about the possibility of a morally sufficient reason for extreme suffering. Is that at least possible?

    Of course it’s possible. But I lead my life based on probabilities, not possibilities.

    Luther Perkins died on my birthday. Is it possible that I am the reincarnation of Luther Perkins? Sure it is. But does anyone really care?

    • randal

      TAM,

      David’s right. You may have conceded the logical problem of evil to the theists but other atheists still haven’t.

      Anyways you’re not off the hook yet. You claim that children suffering for some greater good is improbable. The main argument of the post is to show that you have an evidential burden here. Why do you think there couldn’t be a greater good for that kind of suffering? Personal incredulity? That’s a pretty weak and subjective ground, dontcha think?

      • beetle

        RD > The main argument of the post is to show that you have an evidential burden here.

        It seems to me that all too often you want to place the evidential burden on the person making the more reasonable claim.

        Where is YOUR (non biblical) evidence that GOD has EVER used children suffering (or similar evil) for some greater good?

        • randal

          How does one decide what “the more reasonable claim” is? Is it the one consistent with what you happen to accept at the moment?

          I’m aiming to defeat a defeater to the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent agent.

          • Beetle

            > I’m aiming to defeat a defeater to the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent agent.

            Understood, but the defeater is the problem of evil. By your own admission, this defeater is huge, and you have admitted that it is the philosophical consideration that comes closest to giving you pause.

            To defeat this very real defeater you offer only a banal assertion: It can’t be proven that is possible that Yahweh has incomprehensible but perfectly good reasons for the suffering of innocents.

            > How does one decide what “the more reasonable claim” is?

            In this case, it is not a tough call.

  • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

    ATM, many atheists have “cared” to point out that God cannot possibly have a good reason for allowing certain kinds of suffering.

    • randal

      David, An “ATM” gives you money. A “TAM” gives you bad arguments. There’s a difference!

  • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David

    As a second thought experiment, consider Randal’s point in a probabilistic mindset. The number of events that happen in the world in one year. The relations that hold between them (“if Julie hadn’t gone to the grocery store at 12:01, she would not have married Fred later that year, and their daughter Jane wouldn’t have tripped on a curb, and made some bystander feel guilty for laughing, etc.)

    Is it probable that we should be able to apprehend all of God’s reasons for allowing certain things? How could we say there are probably no good reasons there, unless we already think we would probably see good reasons if they were there. I think this is Randal’s point. I could be wrong.

  • http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/maitzen.html Steve Maitzen

    Randal,

    Suppose we atheists take your point. Indeed, not only could a perfect God have morally sufficient reasons for allowing innocents to suffer; a perfect God must have such reasons, and reasons of the victim-centered kind you describe: the suffering is necessary for (or the best way of securing, or an unavoidable consequence of securing) the victim’s overall well-being. But in that case what moral obligation do we ever have to prevent the suffering of innocents? And even if we sometimes have that obligation, we should engage in bizarre “reverse triage”: the worse a child’s suffering, the greater must be the benefit it’s securing for him/her, and so we should relieve mild suffering before (if ever) relieving intense suffering. There goes morality. I argue for these claims here and here.

    • randal

      Hi Steve. You ask “what moral obligation do we ever have to prevent the suffering of innocents?” If God’s commands are the source of moral obligation and God has commanded that we seek to eliminate suffering of innocents insofar as we are able, isn’t that enough?

  • beetle

    Randal asks:
    > Wouldn’t you always prefer a reason why you suffered rather than no reason at all?

    Yes, but that is not itself justification for pretending an inscrutable reason against all evidence to to the contrary.

    As a general rule, which do you think is better (given the difficult choice): false hope or harsh truth?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Isn’t it possible that bloody knees are allowed for an even greater good that we can’t conceive due to our limited horizons of experience? Of course it is possible.

    Lots of things are possible. Even things people have long thought impossible have turned out to be possible.

    But we have to work with what’s probable based on what we know.

    Let’s say you shove someone out of the way of a car, and it turns out they’re from a place with no automobiles. It might be annoying that they weren’t properly grateful, but could you blame them for ingratitude?

    Second thought experiment. You get shoved out of the way of a car, and get a bloody knee. It turns out the shover was Superman, who could have picked you up and flown you out of the way with no injury. Should your gratitude be tempered in any way?

    • randal

      “It might be annoying that they weren’t properly grateful, but could you blame them for ingratitude?”

      I never claimed that people in the midst of suffering should be grateful that they’re suffering!

      “It turns out the shover was Superman, who could have picked you up and flown you out of the way with no injury. Should your gratitude be tempered in any way?”

      Sure it would be tempered. But this comeback of yours is little more than a rejection of the claim that every piece of suffering has a greater good. So I come back to the central point at issue: what is your evidence that makes it unprobable that every bit of suffering has a greater good? Are we really left with mere personal incredulity?

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Sure it would be tempered. But this comeback of yours is little more than a rejection of the claim that every piece of suffering has a greater good.

        It’s actually a case against it, if you examine it carefully. Inflicting suffering can indeed be justified in order to bring about a greater good… but only if it can’t be avoided.

        Surgeons used to amputate limbs after battles because they had no way to keep them from getting gangrene. Worse, they had no anesthesia beyond liquor. (So they had to do them fast. Allegedly, the fastest-ever leg amputation took three fingers off the assistant, too.)

        Then they developed ether and other anesthesia, and very few people insisted that people undergo surgery without anesthesia to help build character. (Though there was a movement to prevent anesthesia in childbirth, since women were supposed to hurt due to “Eve’s curse” and all that.)

        Then they came up with antibiotics, and frequently we don’t even need to amputate limbs anymore. Heck, by now we can reattach many things that get severer or blown off. We don’t leave them off for the salutary moral effects, though.

        We allow – even ask – people to inflict suffering like surgery or chemotherapy when there’s no good alternative. An omnipotent being, however – by definition – has an unlimited number of alternatives…

  • http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/maitzen.html Steve Maitzen

    Randal wrote: You ask “what moral obligation do we ever have to prevent the suffering of innocents?” If God’s commands are the source of moral obligation and God has commanded that we seek to eliminate suffering of innocents insofar as we are able, isn’t that enough?

    Three replies:

    1. Do you really want to hang your hat on a divine-command theory of moral obligation? That’s wrong (as many theologians have recognized) in too many ways to catalogue here.

    2. Even if it’s correct, a divine-command theory of moral obligation commits theists to “believing that God has commanded them to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering…even though such suffering always ultimately benefits the sufferer” (p. 114 of my second linked article). Moral obligation becomes bizarre, arbitrary, frivolous.

    3. Least importantly, where has God commanded what you say he has commanded (and not effectively rescinded the command by elsewhere commanding the slaughter of innocents)?

    • randal

      That’s it! Now the gloves are off Steve! I am moving our exchange from the cramped space of this thread to a spacious post of its own. I’ll be moving boxes all day but we should be settled by this evening at which point I’ll continue the debate in our luxurious new digs.

      • http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/maitzen.html Steve Maitzen

        Thanks, Randal. But may I ask you to read my two linked articles before you paint and furnish the new digs? (I’d rather not have to repeat what I’ve said already.)

        • randal

          You’re saying you don’t want half-baked retorts? Fine, but be warned that might delay the process by a day or two.

          I’m also glad you also still use the word “digs”. Am I safe to assume that you too unwind at the end of the day by listening to KC and the Sunshine band?

          Hey, and while I’m formulating a response to your arguments, could you respond directly to mine? I assume you have no problem believing that some evils are allowed for greater goods. Is there a point at which you believe this is no longer plausible and if so where is that point and how do you determine it?

          • http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/maitzen.html Steve Maitzen

            I assume you have no problem believing that some evils are allowed for greater goods. Is there a point at which you believe this is no longer plausible and if so where is that point and how do you determine it?

            I assume you have no problem believing that bald men exist. Is there an exact point in the course of gradual hair-loss at which a non-bald man becomes bald? If so, where is that point and how do you determine it?

            I think this line of inquiry is unproductive. It’s more productive to ask what would follow for ordinary morality if a perfect God did exist. Trouble, that’s what.

            • randal

              The concept of baldness is inherently vague. What exactly is inherently vague in the present case?

              Imagine a world in which kids only stub their toes. Consistent with God’s existence? I think so and I think most people would agree. What about kids occasionally getting a bad cold? Or breaking their legs while playing on the jungle bars? I’m not asking for the absurd precision of “less than 10,000 hairs is bald” but rather a ball park. If God’s existence is consistent with toe stubbing but clearly not with breaking legs on the jungle bars then why not the latter? That seems a fair question to me. And I find it very productive for advancing my case, even if you don’t find it productive for advancing yours.

        • David Parker

          I will give a Dan Snyderesque response later, Steve.

          • randal

            Do you mean a Dan Howard-Snyderesque response? He doesn’t like people leaving out part of his last name.

            (Neither do I by the way. I hate it when people refer to “Randal useresque idiocy”.)

            • David P

              I blame my iPhone. Sorry! Did you mean to say theodicy, or really idiocy? :-)

              • randal

                Alas, it wasn’t a typo. I’m a flawed man.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Randal wrote: Imagine a world in which kids only stub their toes.

    Let’s continue:

    Imagine a world in which, for some unknown reason, kids were never raped.

    Imagine a world in which, for some unknown reason, tsunamis never snatched pregnant women.

    Imagine a world (heck, imagine a single say) where traffic accidents didn’t kill anyone.

    These are worlds where we might have reason to believe in a deity which intervenes for good. The problem with our world is that it is entirely consistent with a world with no deity and, if there is a deity intervening, he/she/it appears malevolent.

    Looking forward to the next post on this topic.

    • randal

      “The problem with our world is that it is entirely consistent with a world with no deity and, if there is a deity intervening, he/she/it appears malevolent.”

      And any scientist knows that the natural world is compatible with an infinite number of theories other than the one they’re proposing. And yet, science mysterious progresses…

      • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

        Randal wrote: And any scientist knows that the natural world is compatible with an infinite number of theories other than the one they’re proposing.

        Sure, a scientific theory (even the theory of gravity) represents a hypothesis supported by the best evidence available and is always open to being disproven/defeated. What’s the defeater for your God hypothesis? That would make a great post topic.

        P.S. Beautiful Saturday morning here on Georgian Bay. Just getting ready to power wash the deck.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Erratum: “say” should have been “day”.

  • Stoo

    It’s possible that suffering serves some higher purpose in the plans of a good god.

    Then again if this is a greater good we can’t conceive, why not…explain to us? Why make us incapable of conceiving it? God comes across as alien and unfathomable. If we had a better idea what was going on, we might be more accepting.

    I’d hope at least that should such a god exist, he’d realise that people will give up in dismay, and not punish them for it.

  • Patrick

    As for Steve Maitzen’s objection that belief in a perfect God undermines ordinary morality, I presented some counterarguments in the following link:

    http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/morality-test-for-god.html

    • randal

      Thanks. I’ll take a look at this. I’m going to respond to Steve’s argument on the weekend after I’ve finished teaching my course and my brain returns from being mush to a more solid state (i.e. pasty grey matter).

      • Ed Babinski

        Hi Randall, You seem to be having more discussions with atheists than fundamentalists these days. (I’m agnostic.)

        The “greater good” defense of suffering never made much sense to me. And you seem to be chiding atheists for not allowing that it makes perfect sense to you.

        But the “greater good” defense seems more like a rationalization to me, to try and avoid opening yourself up to the most obvious and painful questions. For instance, it’s used when soldiers go off to war to fight for a “greater good.” The trouble is there’s usually soldiers on both sides thinking they are both fighting for a “greater good.” Because in this crazy mixed up world even “goods” can be at war with one another. (Take the abortion debate: A woman’s right to her own body and what goes on inside it, or a zygote’s right to develop into a blastula, fetus, baby? Two goods in conflict.)

        Is there a single definition of what the “greater good” entails for everyone at all times, and IN ALL RELIGIONS?

        Just in the Bible the “greater good” could be killing people for God in the O.T. but “loving one’s enemies” in the N.T.

        What about pain? Is there evidence we experience pain for some “greater good?” What “greater good” is acheived by early childhood pain, illness and death? It certainly doesn’t teach the children much, if anything, and all it teaches their parents is how to mourn. (Two hundred years ago, prior to the age of antibiotics and vaccines, half of all children born never reached the age of seven per Buffon’s measurements, due to childhood illnesses and infections.) Today the death of a child also can lead to strained relationships between married couples, even divorce.

        Also, the pain of experiencing physical and/or emotional trauma (especially while young) can cripple or destroy a person’s psyche, NOT leading to a “greater good”–as in cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

        It was also no use throughout all the ages of different evolving upright hominids and human species, feeling the pain of an inflamed appendix, or infected swelling abdominal hernia, until modern surgical techniques were invented.

        And often the “warnings” appear ill-adjusted to the seriousness of the disease. Toothache kills few people, while some forms of cancer give little pain in the early stages.

        Lastly, You even seem to be lacking the kind of humility that I once observed in a book review by a young-earth creationist, Stanely Rice, who was reviewing Created from Animals by James Rachels. Rice admitted in his review, “”Rachels presents brief and powerful arguments against natural theodicy [`natural theodicy' being the attempt to justify the ways of a good creator God in a world containing naturally painful and hideous aspects], rather discomfiting to those of us who have published articles on this subject…It was the amount, rather than the fact, of evil in the world that made Darwin reject God: `There seems to me too much misery in the world…’ both human and nonhuman…(to what purpose all this suffering?)… Rachels has done the best job I have seen of drawing Darwinian evolutionary principles to their ultimate moral conclusions. The results are objectionable to the Christian, but not as horrible as we might have feared. It does not lead, as some preachers warn, to totalitarianism and a complete devaluing of human life. Rachels’ excellent book gives intelligent readers a chance to sharpen their minds and examine their beliefs.”

  • Ed Babinski

    Hi Randall, You seem to be having more discussions with atheists than fundamentalists these days. (I’m agnostic.)

    The “greater good” defense of suffering never made much sense to me. And you seem to be chiding atheists for not allowing that it makes perfect sense to you.

    But the “greater good” defense seems more like a rationalization to me, to try and avoid opening yourself up to the most obvious and painful questions. For instance, it’s used when soldiers go off to war to fight for a “greater good.” The trouble is there’s usually soldiers on both sides thinking they are both fighting for a “greater good.” Because in this crazy mixed up world even “goods” can be at war with one another. (Take the abortion debate: A woman’s right to her own body and what goes on inside it, or a zygote’s right to develop into a blastula, fetus, baby? Two goods in conflict.)

    Is there a single definition of what the “greater good” entails for everyone at all times, and IN ALL RELIGIONS?

    Just in the Bible the “greater good” could be killing people for God in the O.T. but “loving one’s enemies” in the N.T.

    What about pain? Is there evidence we experience pain for some “greater good?” What “greater good” is acheived by early childhood pain, illness and death? It certainly doesn’t teach the children much, if anything, and all it teaches their parents is how to mourn. (Two hundred years ago, prior to the age of antibiotics and vaccines, half of all children born never reached the age of seven per Buffon’s measurements, due to childhood illnesses and infections.) Today the death of a child also can lead to strained relationships between married couples, even divorce.

    Also, the pain of experiencing physical and/or emotional trauma (especially while young) can cripple or destroy a person’s psyche, NOT leading to a “greater good”–as in cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

    It was also no use throughout all the ages of different evolving upright hominids and human species, feeling the pain of an inflamed appendix, or infected swelling abdominal hernia, until modern surgical techniques were invented.

    And often the “warnings” appear ill-adjusted to the seriousness of the disease. Toothache kills few people, while some forms of cancer give little pain in the early stages.

    Lastly, You even seem to be lacking the kind of humility that I once observed in a book review by a young-earth creationist, Stanely Rice, who was reviewing Created from Animals by James Rachels. Rice admitted in his review, “”Rachels presents brief and powerful arguments against natural theodicy [`natural theodicy' being the attempt to justify the ways of a good creator God in a world containing naturally painful and hideous aspects], rather discomfiting to those of us who have published articles on this subject…It was the amount, rather than the fact, of evil in the world that made Darwin reject God: `There seems to me too much misery in the world…’ both human and nonhuman…(to what purpose all this suffering?)… Rachels has done the best job I have seen of drawing Darwinian evolutionary principles to their ultimate moral conclusions. The results are objectionable to the Christian, but not as horrible as we might have feared. It does not lead, as some preachers warn, to totalitarianism and a complete devaluing of human life. Rachels’ excellent book gives intelligent readers a chance to sharpen their minds and examine their beliefs.”

    • randal

      Hi Ed. Good to hear from you again.

      Let me begin with these two statements: “you seem to be chiding atheists for not allowing that it makes perfect sense to you.” “You even seem to be lacking … humility…”

      Why does the argument lack in humility? Because I didn’t roll over and cry uncle? I was simply hitting the ball back to the atheist / skeptic’s side of the court by asking him/her to explain what the threshold is at which suffering seems to be amenable to no possible good. What’s wrong with asking that? As for this all making “perfect sense”, there is (as you know) a huge chasm between making perfect sense for a philosopher of religion and making perfect sense for a husband, father, son, friend, and lowly member of the human race. Just read C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed back to back and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing makes “perfect sense” for hurting human beings.

      Next, you write: “Is there a single definition of what the “greater good” entails for everyone at all times, and IN ALL RELIGIONS?”

      I’d say across religions the greater good is ultimately achieving harmony or shalom with the Unconditionally Real.

      “What “greater good” is acheived by early childhood pain, illness and death?”

      I don’t know.

      Say Ed, in light of all you said, why are you an agnostic rather than an atheist? You seem to favor atheism rather heavily based on this comment.

      • Ed Babinski

        Hi Randall, I specifically said that you “seem to be lacking the kind of humility that I once observed in a book review by young-earth creationist, Stanly Rice,” who admitted his “discomfort” over Rachel’s illustrations and discussion of suffering, especially in light of evolution being true. Neither did you address any of the very real instances I provided of suffering that seems to have no teleological reason to it. And let me add the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering, their own young being eaten in large numbers by viruses and bacteria long before humans ever arrived on the scene. Not to mention the seven or so mass extinction events in the past, which is what, the Designer shaking his etch-t-sketch? At least the Flood story in the Bible had a purpose according to its author, because humans were evil God sent a flood, which killed all breathing things, except for those in the ark. But the mass extinction events we know from the fossil record were long before humans ever sinned. To what purpose so much suffering? Not just mass extinctions but billions of creatures suffering viruses and bacteria on a regular basis over billions of years, seeing their young perish from such diseases long before any human arose and “sinned?”

        But what do such questions mean to a Christian and their hope of eternal life? Nothing apparently. Speaking of suffering, Christians can even convince themselves of the reality of eternal suffering. So to Christians the problem is not pain, the problem is why more people don’t believe with them in ETERNAL PAIN.

        As for C. S. Lewis, he defended hell in the Problem of Pain, even going so far as to quip that maybe God could combine an eternal heaven for mosquitoes with an eternal hell for human beings. But why did he stop there? Why not an eternal heaven for hungry man-eating sharks, the AIDS virus, and every other parasite or predator, combined with a hell for human beings? Maybe C. S. Lewis should have been writing for H. P. Lovecraft? (Lewis did lighten up a bit later, never rejecting hell, but at least adding a Universalist to his novel The Great Divorce, and adding some mysterious passages about how “St. Paul spoke as if all would be saved,” and even quoting a line from Julian of Norwich, a Medievalist who believed there is a hell but it would be emptied by God’s love eventually, the line being “All will be well, all manner of thing will be well.” Still, Lewis never gave up on hell, since as he said in later life, it was a doctrine taught of Jesus in the Gospels. But then, Lewis didn’t take that further and admit that Jesus’ view was that of a typical first century apocalyptist when it came to his talk about eternal punishment. So Jesus was merely speaking in the apocalyptic language of his day and age, and hell took off big time during the intertestamental era prior to Jesus’ day. So there is nothing unusual or even necessarily inspired in anything he had to say. It was typical talk about “eternal punishment.” So who knows what the TRUE truth is about the afterlife? Lewis should have known that and considered it more. The Jesuit author of Salvation and Damnation, Dalton (Clergy Book Company) put things straighter than Lewis ever did. Good little book by Dalton.

        Your answer as to what the “Greater Good” is, merely answers with something equally as vague, “harmony . . . with the Unconditionally Real.” So I’ll ask my question again, DO ALL RELIGIONS agree on HOW to obtain “harmony with the unconditionally real?”

        I admire your admission, “I don’t know.” Neither do I. And yes I am agnostic. I have hopes. But I don’t know how to prove them to myself, let alone others. My questions seem pretty real and obvious to formulate. And I would rather look at the questions without flinching and strive to ask the most difficult ones than promote answers that I honestly admit I don’t know even exist.

        I also have a very long friendship with someone of the mystical persuasion who claims to have more answers than I do, including some amazing experiences. I remain open to listening to people’s stories. But that also leads to more questions since even stories of miracles are quite varied from person to person, religion to religion, denomination to denomination, mystic to mystic, including stories of totally non-religious spontaneous remissions, and amazing coincidences over nothing (points atheists raise concerning the plethora of events that can potentially intersect and how we only tend to notice when things do intersect or go right, not wrong). In fact I was going to create a blog, Miracles of All Religions in order to demonstrate my own agnostic point of view concerning such matters and confound people of all religions, or none.

        Have you thought, Randal, that simply the deficiency of a single vitamin or mineral in your youth could have changed your life completely? And there are indeed places on earth where such deficiencies occur. If Jesus loves the little children then the suffering wrought by everything from genetic defects, to mineral and vitamin deficiencies, to the plethora of childhood diseases that kill the young of both animals and humans in massive numbers, then it doesn’t appear even God wants to give us all a whole and healthy start. Never did, not for animals, not for humans. How exactly do you reconcile such knowledge with “Biblical religion?” I’ve seen attempts. I don’t see any of them being very convincing.

  • Ed Babinski

    Hi Randall, I specifically said that you “seem to be lacking the kind of humility that I once observed in a book review by young-earth creationist, Stanly Rice,” who admitted his “discomfort” over Rachel’s illustrations and discussion of suffering, especially in light of evolution being true. Neither did you address any of the very real instances I provided of suffering that seems to have no teleological reason to it. And let me add the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering, their own young being eaten in large numbers by viruses and bacteria long before humans ever arrived on the scene. Not to mention the seven or so mass extinction events in the past, which is what, the Designer shaking his etch-t-sketch? At least the Flood story in the Bible had a purpose according to its author, because humans were evil God sent a flood, which killed all breathing things, except for those in the ark. But the mass extinction events we know from the fossil record were long before humans ever sinned. To what purpose so much suffering? Not just mass extinctions but billions of creatures suffering viruses and bacteria on a regular basis over billions of years, seeing their young perish from such diseases long before any human arose and “sinned?”

    But what do such questions mean to a Christian and their hope of eternal life? Nothing apparently. Speaking of suffering, Christians can even convince themselves of the reality of eternal suffering. So to Christians the problem is not pain, the problem is why more people don’t believe with them in ETERNAL PAIN.

    As for C. S. Lewis, he defended hell in the Problem of Pain, even going so far as to quip that maybe God could combine an eternal heaven for mosquitoes with an eternal hell for human beings. But why did he stop there? Why not an eternal heaven for hungry man-eating sharks, the AIDS virus, and every other parasite or predator, combined with a hell for human beings? Maybe C. S. Lewis should have been writing for H. P. Lovecraft? (Lewis did lighten up a bit later, never rejecting hell, but at least adding a Universalist to his novel The Great Divorce, and adding some mysterious passages about how “St. Paul spoke as if all would be saved,” and even quoting a line from Julian of Norwich, a Medievalist who believed there is a hell but it would be emptied by God’s love eventually, the line being “All will be well, all manner of thing will be well.” Still, Lewis never gave up on hell, since as he said in later life, it was a doctrine taught of Jesus in the Gospels. But then, Lewis didn’t take that further and admit that Jesus’ view was that of a typical first century apocalyptist when it came to his talk about eternal punishment. So Jesus was merely speaking in the apocalyptic language of his day and age, and hell took off big time during the intertestamental era prior to Jesus’ day. So there is nothing unusual or even necessarily inspired in anything he had to say. It was typical talk about “eternal punishment.” So who knows what the TRUE truth is about the afterlife? Lewis should have known that and considered it more. The Jesuit author of Salvation and Damnation, Dalton (Clergy Book Company) put things straighter than Lewis ever did. Good little book by Dalton.

    Your answer as to what the “Greater Good” is, merely answers with something equally as vague, “harmony . . . with the Unconditionally Real.” So I’ll ask my question again, DO ALL RELIGIONS agree on HOW to obtain “harmony with the unconditionally real?”

    I admire your admission, “I don’t know.” Neither do I. And yes I am agnostic. I have hopes. But I don’t know how to prove them to myself, let alone others. My questions seem pretty real and obvious to formulate. And I would rather look at the questions without flinching and strive to ask the most difficult ones than promote answers that I honestly admit I don’t know even exist.

    I also have a very long friendship with someone of the mystical persuasion who claims to have more answers than I do, including some amazing experiences. I remain open to listening to people’s stories. But that also leads to more questions since even stories of miracles are quite varied from person to person, religion to religion, denomination to denomination, mystic to mystic, including stories of totally non-religious spontaneous remissions, and amazing coincidences over nothing (points atheists raise concerning the plethora of events that can potentially intersect and how we only tend to notice when things do intersect or go right, not wrong). In fact I was going to create a blog, Miracles of All Religions in order to demonstrate my own agnostic point of view concerning such matters and confound people of all religions, or none.

    Have you thought, Randal, that simply the deficiency of a single vitamin or mineral in your youth could have changed your life completely? And there are indeed places on earth where such deficiencies occur. If Jesus loves the little children then the suffering wrought by everything from genetic defects, to mineral and vitamin deficiencies, to the plethora of childhood diseases that kill the young of both animals and humans in massive numbers, then it doesn’t appear even God wants to give us all a whole and healthy start. Never did, not for animals, not for humans. How exactly do you reconcile such knowledge with “Biblical religion?” I’ve seen attempts. I don’t see any of them being very convincing.

    • randal

      “let me add the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering, their own young being eaten in large numbers by viruses and bacteria long before humans ever arrived on the scene.”

      Yes, I agree that animal sentience is a neglected part of the problem of evil. (Kudos to John W. Loftus for his essay on the topic.) Of course some Christians have dealt with the topic in recent years (Christopher Southgate, Michael Murray, and that trail blazer C.S. Lewis) and I’ve written an as yet unpublished chapter on the topic.

      “Christians can even convince themselves of the reality of eternal suffering. So to Christians the problem is not pain, the problem is why more people don’t believe with them in ETERNAL PAIN.”

      I don’t accept the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.

      “at least adding a Universalist to his novel The Great Divorce….”

      He may have added a universalist, but George MacDonald doesn’t exactly ‘come out of the closet’ in the book.

      “Your answer as to what the “Greater Good” is, merely answers with something equally as vague, “harmony . . . with the Unconditionally Real.” So I’ll ask my question again, DO ALL RELIGIONS agree on HOW to obtain “harmony with the unconditionally real?””

      It is a bit unfair to complain that the description is vague. Of course it will be vague at the level of religious commonality. And you will also come up with something vague if you attempt to define what all political parties share in common. To answer your new question, no, they don’t agree. For instance, Christians and naturalists are at loggerheads on this issue. Mormons and humanists don’t agree at all. Muslims and atheists are diametrically opposed.

      “In fact I was going to create a blog, Miracles of All Religions in order to demonstrate my own agnostic point of view concerning such matters and confound people of all religions, or none.”

      That’d be interesting. I’ve long been fascinated by supernaturalist phenomena in other religions, such as the evidence for reincarnation. Christians shouldn’t ignore that data.

      • Ed Babinski

        Hi again Randal,

        On animal pain you wrote, “It’s been dealt with.” Well, the proposals of C. S. Lewis and others have also “been dealt with, and what remains are questions.

        On eternal conscious torment you wrote, “I don’t believe in it.” Such a belief will no doubt lead to plenty of debates with fellow Christians over the fate of the “unsaved” [sic], including debates over conscious eternal damnation, metaphorical eternal damnation, annihilationism, inclusivism, to the widest inclusivism, universalism. Evangelicals still can’t agree, not through prayer, nor proof-texting.

        At least historical biblical scholars can agree that “eternal conscious torment” was part of the “apocalyptic” view that was prominent prior to and after Jesus’ day.

        So what do you beleive Randal, and how can you be so sure about any such question concerning the afterlife? Perhaps you cling to Christianity because you really don’t want to study how Hebrew beliefs about the afterlife changed during the intertestamental period and how Jesus merely took up the apocalyptic view that arose before his day? The Hebrew Bible only mentions “Satan” in Job and a minor prophetic book. And even then he isn’t the ruler of this world, nor even the prince of the power of the air. He can’t even hurt Job without without first going to heaven to ask permission of Yahweh and place a bet with Him. But the intertestamental period both Satan and Beelzebub and demons rise to power and receive names, and exorcism becomes a profession. Even the angels start getting named and growing more prominent as individuals. And hell as eternal conscious punishment “prepared for the devil and his angels” gets described. (Daniel is intertestamental.) All before Jesus was born. So both Jesus and Christianity arose out of that intertestamental apocalpytic mindset. There are books that explain how and why apocalyptic arose. Mostly having to do with Jewish hopes of ruling their own nation being dashed and Jews appearing to die for no good reason.

        You wrote, “George MacDonald doesn’t exactly come out of the closet in the book [The Great Divorce].” I honestly am not certain what you’re attempting to communicate with the phrase “come out of the closet,” unless you mean Lewis didn’t play up MacDonald’s universalism. Actually MacDonald’s universalism is in many ways more intense than Lewis’ pale Great Divorce scenario. Lewis made MacDonald appear less heroic and caring than the real MacDonald the universalist who believed that both the Christian and/or Christ “must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and the darkness and the fire, traveling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother.” That’s a hearty universalism. Or when the real MacDonald wrote, “Such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren, rush inside the center of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn.”

        But returning to the George MacDonald in The Great Divorce, you can’t have failed to notice the passages I mentioned about “St. Paul spoke as if all would be saved,” and the quotation from the universalistic medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, “All would be well.” Lewis also has a character add, “such a mystery [universal redemption] is not for us to ask about” (I’m paraphrasing from memory). It’s not for us to question, but Lewis introduces that question none the less in his book.

        My point being that in The Problem of Pain Lewis wrote that eternal damnation had “the full support of Scripture.” But a few years later when writing The Great Divorce Lewis had a character say, “St. Paul spoke as if all would be saved,” and also quoted Julian of Norwich, and added that such questions remained a mystery, but Lewis dared to at least introduce such questions himself.

        Maybe Lewis didn’t go as far as Rob Bell recently has, or even as far as Karl Barth who had to deny he was a univeralist, though he would also quote to such people 1 John 2:2, which states, “Christ died for our sins . . . and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” and then tell them, “If you are worried about universalism, you had better begin worrying about the Bible.”

        On “the greater good,” you defined it as “harmony with the Unconditionally Real” [your caps]. But such a definition hardly defines the contours of “the greater good” with any less vagueness. It’s like you’re repeating yourself by substituting what’s “real” for what’s “good” as if that explains matters. And substituting “unconditionally” and “in harmony with” for “greater.” So you didn’t add much to your definition of “the greater good,” except perhaps by capitalizing the “Unconditionally Real.” I asked you to be more specific, since you were the one who claimed that “across religions the greater good is ultimately achieving harmony or shalom with the unconditionally real.” And now you tell me it’s not really possible to explain what you meant by speaking of “the greater good across all religions,” because “they don’t agree” on what the “greater good” is. Whatever. Like I said, more questions than answers.

        On miracles, yes, there are weird tales from all over. And today there’s quite a few “Ghost Hunter” TV shows. The difference is that there’s also shows that attempt scientific analysis of various claims, including shows like Miracle Detectives, Miracle Hunters, Pen and Teller’s Bullshit. Even if some of the claims are true, it appears that convincing miracles are extremely few and far between. Even the Vatican has only admitted a very limited number of “miracles” have ever taken place at the “holy” site in Lourdes that countless millions have visited, and continue to visit, hoping to be cured.

        The Protestant John Calvin himself debunked Catholic relics, including the shroud of Turin, the allegedly burial cloth of Christ: http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/01/shroud-of-turin-john-calvin-versus.html

        And there’s Derren Brown who trained an ordinary person in the art and practices employed by Christian faith healers and proved how easy it is to convince people they had been healed. Quite a program: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYjgeayfYPI&feature=player_embedded

        Lastly:

        The Body Can Beat Terminal Cancer — Sometimes. They should be dead. But a tiny number of people conquer lethal diseases. by Jeanne Lenzer

        http://discovermagazine.com/2007/sep/the-body-can-stave-off-terminal-cancer-sometimes/article_view?b_start:int=1&-C=

        Have you read books by Norman Cousins? He survived three fatal illnesses in his life, seemingly miraculously. He wrote about them in his books. But religion was not involved.

        Have you heard of Sir Jason Winters? (Not the comedian Jonathan Winters) Sir Jason believed a “tea” cured his inoperable fatal throat tumor (he was given three months to live). He shows his x-rays and doctor’s reports. But no one knows for sure how the herbal tea works, though his website continues to receive testimonies of miraculous healing from other users of his tea:

        http://www.sirjasonwinters.com/testimonials.htm

        What I am saying is that the history of health cures, placebo research, stress reduction and visualization, includes tales of miraculous healings.

        The founder of Chiropractic adjusted a custodian who was deaf, and suddenly the man could hear, or so the story goes.

        Even the Scientology website contains stories of miraculous changes, freedom from addictions, healings. Before that the Church of Jesus Christ Scientist was claiming health and healings.

        Perhaps there is some connection between mental states, including religious mental states among others, and miraculous cures?

        ON THE DEBUNKING OF MIRACLES

        Protestants have spent a fair share of time and effort debunking centuries of Catholic miracle stories, including tales related to healing relics, visions, etc. So Protestants were debunking Catholic miracle stories even before deism and later atheism arose.

        On the miracles reported to have taken place in the early [Catholic] church Rev. Dr. Conyers Middleton (18th century British Anglican clergyman, Cambridge graduate and author) says, regarding the early church fathers who reported them:

        “I have shown by many indisputable facts, that the ancient fathers, by whose authority that delusion was originally imposed (that miracles existed in the early church), and has ever since been supported, were extremely credulous and superstitious; possessed with strong prejudices and enthusiastic zeal, in favour, not only of Christianity in general, but of every particular doctrine, which a wild imagination could ingraft upon it; and scrupling no art or means, by which they might propagate the same principles. In short; they they were of a character, from which nothing could be expected, that was candid and impartial; nothing but what a weak or crafty understanding could supply, towards confirming those prejudices, with which they happened to be possessed; especially where religion was the subject, which above all other motives, strengthens every bias, and inflames every passion of the human mind.” [Conyers Middleton (1749), A FREE INQUIRY INTO THE MIRACULOUS POWERS WHICH ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE SUBSISTED IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH FROM THE EARLIEST AGES THROUGH SEVERAL SUCCESSIVE CENTURIES. Reprinted (1967). New York: Garland Publishing. Preface, pp. 21-22.]

        Then in the 19th century one can read the Protestant theologian (and father of modern inerrancy), B. B. Warfield, to see how he debunked Catholic miracles and resurrection stories in his famous work, COUNTERFEIT MIRACLES. Which just goes to show, as Dr. Robert M. Price (an ex-fundamentalist Protestant), wrote, “The zeal and ingenuity of conservative evangelical scholars in dismantling the miracles of rival Christian groups (and exploding rival interpretations of Scripture used to support such miracles), is worthy of the most skeptical gospel critic.”

        • randal

          On animal pain you reply: “what remains are questions.” Yes. And I believe that Christians, individually and corporately, have an obligation to respond to this prima facie defeater of Christian belief by formulating adequate responses. As I said, it is a problem I’ve written on and continue to reflect on. But every worldview has remaining questions.
          “So what do you beleive Randal, and how can you be so sure about any such question concerning the afterlife?”
          I’ve blogged and published on the doctrine of hell. I’m an annihilationist / hopeful universalist.
          “I honestly am not certain what you’re attempting to communicate with the phrase “come out of the closet,” unless you mean Lewis didn’t play up MacDonald’s universalism.”
          I mean that George MacDonald the nineteenth century novelist was a vocal and articulate universalist. He even talked about the salvation of his horse. But MacDonald the character in Lewis’s novella was not. In The Great Divorce people can choose to remain perpetually in the rainy city. Contrast that with the picture MacDonald paints in Lilith in which God overpowers the recalcitrant human will to draw all to himself. Lewis wasn’t willing to go that far in print.
          I am heartened if Lewis, like me, held the reasonable hope that all may be redeemed, even if (like me) it was not a conviction.
          Yes Christians have disagreed about the quality of miracle reports. But those disputes are complex, tied as they are into disputes over cessationsim/non-cessationism, indulgences and penance, et cetera.