The persistent problem of pain
Have you ever wondered if God is an egomaniac? When you hear or read a passage in the Bible about God doing things for his glory and praise, do you think, Really? Is he that starving for adoration and attention? What’s that all about anyway?
And worse, what if his apparently self-aggrandizing efforts require sacrifice and suffering on the part of those whom he has created? Could he possibly be not much more than a cruel, pompous, self-serving tyrant?
I’m afraid that’s exactly what some folks think of him, or more likely, think that such a depiction negates any positive descriptions of God, resulting in a net of zero. He doesn’t exist.
The ninth chapter of the Gospel of John records Jesus coming upon a man blind from birth, and when his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered that it was neither, but “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, so that God might miraculously give him his sight and bring glory and praise to his name. Wow. Way to step on others on your way to the top.
If these two verses were all you read, self-aggrandizement might be a reasonable conclusion. But even a superficial familiarity with the Gospels is sufficient to dispel that notion. Jesus, as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), is always doing for others…healing, teaching, showing compassion, bringing the dead back to life. And, of course, he went so far as to suffer and die so that all of them, and us, “should not perish” (John 3:16). The Bible, from beginning to end, is the record of God’s plan to reconcile men to himself…for our good, our salvation.
God doesn’t need anything. He wouldn’t be God if he did. He is perfect and complete in all that he is. So when he orchestrates or calls attention to things for the sake of his glory, it’s not because he’s vain or needs his ego stroked. It’s for our sake, so that we will better know how great he is, and in that, better able to trust in and depend on him.
But certainly he can do that without having to subject anyone to trials and suffering, no? He’s God the Almighty, after all. The crux of the objection regarding this passage is the seeming cruelty of inflicting an innocent child in the womb with an infirmity, no matter the reason. And innocent children are born deformed or disadvantaged every day. Many come into the world just clinging to life, and others lose their grip while yet in the womb. Why? They can’t deserve it.
No, they don’t. But bad things happen to all of us that we don’t deserve. Why does God allow any of it? And here we are again at the biggest stumbling block to faith…the problem of pain. I’ve written of this before here, and I wish I could say that I have new insight that will solve the problem once and for all. But I don’t think any of us finite humans can reconcile God’s goodness and the reality of suffering to everyone’s satisfaction. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So says the eternal, omnipotent, transcendent, completely “other” God in Isaiah 55:9. We should not expect, in fact it is presumption to expect, that we would ever be able to fully comprehend his ways. Any of us who complain about his actions should expect this instead: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” 1 This is the gist of the answer God gave Job when Job questioned him. In other words, I am so beyond you in power and everything else, Job my son, whom I boasted to Satan about, that you are not nor ever will be in a position to question me about what I do. So, suck it up.
No…that last part’s not in there. God loves Job, and us. That’s clear from multiple passages in his Word, like Psalm 103 where his love is described with the same analogy he used for the magnitude of difference between his ways and ours, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.” His great love covers the expanse between his great supremacy and our great inferiority.
Though it may be presumptuous to expect God to explain his actions, yet I believe it’s totally acceptable to seek understanding. That’s what I, and some of my atheist friends, are doing. But ultimately we must all heed the warnings in Job not to call the Almighty God to account. Lest we also hear, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” 2
1 Job 38:2-4
2 Job 40:8
In all cases of evaluating a person we normally consider their actual actions to be greater evidence than their words. The words “I love you” don’t justify causing torment all the time.
I suppose I should first clarify why the problem of pain leads one to doubt; God is defined as perfectly moral and so stories (and a reality) where God allows unfathomable pain really casts a doubt on God. When people tie the “Perfectly Moral” bit of the definition up in defining God, so that it cannot be removed and still leave a God concept behind, then we have to throw out the whole thing.
To say that again; it is rarely atheists that claim that God is perfectly moral OR doesn’t exist. That is a dichotomy other people offer.
To the rest of the post, if God doesn’t need anything then why is He jealous? (Exodus 20:5) If God didn’t need to prove Job’s faith to the Devil, then why did He test Job so? And why that badly? Was He really doing it as a demonstration to the Devil, to prove that Job loved Him? I think I’ve made the analogy to you before, of starving my children and breaking all of their toys and letting paedophiles get to them just to prove to my neighbour that my children love me unconditionally.
We don’t deserve the deepest suffering in the valleys of our wellbeing, but God allows them… so remind me how you define morality.
I forget who it is, but I think it is Peter who asks God to heal him of an ailment and God refuses. He refuses so that his faith would be stronger. How is that not self-aggrandising? Can you convince yourself that a man who already had faith is going to benefit from slightly stronger faith? Or was that simply so that God could be loved more?
Allallt, a “perfectly moral” God is not inconsistent with a creation featuring “unfathomable pain.”
I take “perfectly moral” as meaning one who IS the standard of objective morality, which is the values and duties that exist independently of mind. If objective morality does not exist, we’re merely trading opinions, ultimately based on feeling. Objective morality exists on moral platonism or on theism. The latter is much more plausible.
You’ve said “We don’t deserve the deepest suffering in the valleys of our wellbeing.” But a landscape of well-being is subjective and not a measure for morality. One person prefers to pursue longevity, another euthanasia. Without God, there is no ought, only personal preference.
You’ve mentioned the great degree of pain that exists, but a better question is, why any pain at all? Or evil? Consider successive possible worlds where pain and evil are gradually diminished. As pain and evil approach zero, they, along with free will, become insignificant. With zero evil, creation becomes morally indistinct from God, and pantheism may well attain. But most people, when pressed, affirm the existence of objective morality.
Job’s temporal suffering is justified since God will judge all in eternity. As he persists in eternity, his temporal suffering is ever more a distant memory.
For a characterization of a “jealous” God to be taken seriously, such a reading of the Bible will need to fare well against literary, divinity, and translation scholarship, take into account the contemporary cultural context, and plausibly construct God’s motive as a character in the text.
To call the first cause “self-aggrandizing” on atheism, pantheism, or theism is absurd. Each worldview will handle the claim differently. But on the reality of pain and evil, Christian theism makes the most sense of human experience.
What you say makes sense if I accept your definition of “perfectly moral”, which I don’t. God is a Being of vengeance, jealousy and narcissism. His genocide and infanticide is all moral, because what He does is the standard of morality. (Yet, interestingly, I can’t act in accordance with God’s actions, else I am called a moral monster; I draw your attention, again, to the difference between what He says and what He does.)
Wellbeing is measurable. You might not accept the leap from “changes in wellbeing” to morality, but wellbeing is still measurable. I find it interesting that you could accept a moral framework that is independent of wellbeing, but that’s not the issue here. And neither is longevity vs euthanasia (although there are times where longevity does nothing but prolong suffering, and times when euthanasia is not distinct from murder).
I make this argument frequently: assume we can conceptually separate human-caused suffering from natural suffering. Human caused evil would be necessary for freewill (I accept that). Cancer? God’s plan needs cancer? What about parasites that burrow into the eyes of children? What about famine? These are not the consequences or the causes of freewill, so what do you assume their purpose is?
As for God being jealous “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me”. He demands our attention and that our attention not be distracted by other things. If a boyfriend behaved like that it would count as abuse. God does it and we’re supposed to conclude that it’s love?
Imagine you lost someone very young and very close to you in the 2004 South East Asian tsunami. In your worldview you didn’t jst lose them to a freak accident, you lost them to God; God intentionally drowned this person, and quarter of a million others, in fear and pain (drowning is meant to be one of the worst ways to go). Now tell me that suffering and that loss is okay because the perpetrator is going to pay you off. This is me is analogous to the story of Job.
But the tsunami case study goes further. Quarter of a million people, in South East Asia… according to your worldview most of them are going to Hell (as non-Christians). Having a system where only people that believe a particular thing go to Heaven is narcissism and jealousy.
Patheism, where the creation is indistinct from a perfectly moral creator, is the moral choice. The simple fact that you cannot describe the world as perfectly moral (or even mostly moral) means we are not being watched by an unlimited moral Being. (Euthyphro dilemma still holds)
You can take a less-than-perfect God and build your world view on that and suddenly the problem of evil dissolves away.
Sorry I wrote so much. We should go more piecemeal from here.
You prefer to build a worldview on a “less-than-perfect God.” This implies there is some standard more perfectly good than that god. If that standard lacks agency to enforce itself, it is irrelevent to moral agents. A person may choose to disregard that standard of good without fear of ultimate justice.
If that perfect good has the ability to enforce itself, it may as well be God. Alternately, we can still try pantheism. But that entails monism. Ultimately, no more than one mind can exist. Free will, justice, and morality are meaningless on that view. A person may again choose to disregard standards of good, knowing that ultimately, all will be one.
Neither pantheism nor a less-than-perfect God dissolve the human problem of evil. In fact, the reality of human evil, which necessitates justice, requires an infinitely good God. You’ve mentioned cancer and eyeball maggots as natural evil. Logically, God is simply not obligated to spare us from them. God would not create a world devoid of free agents, yet populated by creatures with a lower order of consciousness who experience more pain than pleasure. That is one example of how God’s own goodness constrains his actions.
The Euthyphro dilemma does not apply to a God whose nature is good. God’s actions differ from his commands in the same way that parents’ actions differ from commands issued to children. Parents can drive a car, have sex, or use credit cards. They command their underage children, with good reason, to abstain from those things. Sin is not inherent to the act itself, but the circumstances surrounding it.
On the tsunami tragedy, you insist, “now tell me that pain and that suffering is okay because the perpetrator will pay you off.” I refuse that challenge. On theism, “that pain and that suffering” are NOT okay. God wants us to experience express grief, anger, and all other emotions in an appropriate way. That’s what the Psalms are filled with.
After the tsunami, the righteous have hope of Heaven on theism. On pantheism, atheism, or a less-than-perfect God, there is no redemption. God is not a perpetrator, but he was put on trial and paid a price for us that he didn’t have to.
Jealousy, vengeance, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and abuse are anthropomorphic terms you’re applying to God without support. As I mentioned earlier, a credible reading of the Biblical God requires knowledge of cultural context, sound interpretation, and situation with respect to good scholarship. Short of that, an attempt to divine God’s motives is only an opinion.
Skeptics get caught up in “text anxiety” as to the content of belief required to attain Heaven. What actually matters is the state of a person’s heart. Only God knows a person’s heart.
Do you have a succinct definition of morality and evil?
“You prefer to build a worldview on a “less-than-perfect God.””
Not quite. I am saying that a less-than-perfect God gets around the problem of pain because it makes God either unable or unwilling to prevent the pain. I don’t believe in any God. At the very least, nature should be pain-free if we have a perfect God. I accept the freewill argument for human-caused suffering (that’s not entirely true, I don’t believe in freewill and even if I did, I would rather not have freewill but know everyone was happy than have freewill and have most of the conscious beings on this planet living the very threshold of survival).
“This implies there is some standard more perfectly good than that god.”
This also isn’t true. There doesn’t have to be perfection anywhere. There doesn’t have to be a standard. I think you are alluding to the Ontological Argument, but I won’t rebut it until I understand why you think there must be a perfectly good being.
“Free will, justice, and morality are meaningless on that [pantheism] view”
That doesn’t relate to the truth of the issue. I think it’s wrong because we can chose to ignore God’s morality as much as we can chose to ignore human morality, so the ability to ignore it doesn’t negate it’s truth.
“Neither pantheism nor a less-than-perfect God dissolve the human problem of evil.”
I thought I’d been quite good here at saying “pain” or “suffering”, and not evil. I’ve done that because people always claim that “evil” depends on some standard independent of humans to be meaningful. I disagree, but I try to avoid the argument by using “pain” and “suffering”; it doesn’t change the argument, but it cuts that rebuttal out.
“In fact, the reality of human evil, which necessitates justice, requires an infinitely good God.”
No. Pain is bad, comfort is good. The maximal suffering for all conscious creatures is a state worth ignoring. In fact, avoiding the maximal suffering for all conscious creatures is the most important imperative there is. If you think something else is more important, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. What could, possibly, be more important than experience? No one needs to call on a God to agree with that statement.
“You’ve mentioned cancer and eyeball maggots as natural evil. Logically, God is simply not obligated to spare us from them.”
It is not logical, for a moment, to say a Being that doesn’t stop Naegleria fowleri (the brain-eating amoeba) is moral. It causes fits and pain and death, and that’s moral? Single-celled organisms have freewill? (They have no brain.)
“The Euthyphro dilemma does not apply to a God whose nature is good.”
The problem is, I predict, your definition of moral. I assume, on your logic, God could do quite literally anything and still be moral because He is, by definition, good. That’s nonsense. He drowned everyone in Genesis. He burned Sodom to the ground. He killed the first-born sons of Egypt (not the people guilty of the actual crimes), he sends people to Hell for the horrible sin of not giving Him the worship He demands. None of this is moral. Understandable (perhaps) in the same way that we would kill an ant that bites us, but not moral.
“On the tsunami tragedy, you insist, “now tell me that pain and that suffering is okay because the perpetrator will pay you off.” I refuse that challenge. On theism, “that pain and that suffering” are NOT okay. God wants us to experience express grief, anger, and all other emotions in an appropriate way. That’s what the Psalms are filled with.”
Some of them, young children, just died. It doesn’t matter if that’s what the Psalms say if the Psalms are describing immoral things. You seem to be very uncritical in the way you read the Bible. God is good. God kills people. Therefore it is good when God kills people. What if those two premises don’t lead to a conclusion, but instead are in conflict. See, in the Bible we have two lists of things that are relevant: we have words like “God is love” and “God is good”, then we have actions like plague and pestilence and death and fire and brimstone. And that’s before we analyse the world outside the Bible. I’ve made this comparison before, but I’m not sure if it was to you, but if you have a boyfriend that says “I love you” with one hand and breaks the girl’s nose with the other we don’t conclude that breaking the girl’s nose is loving. We conclude that the boyfriend is an abuse liar.
“he was put on trial and paid a price for us that he (sic: we?) didn’t have to.”
This is another debate for another time. But the fact that faith has become the standard for redemption points to a jealous and narcissistic God, not a loving one. He didn’t make the moral mark more attainable (like being mostly good instead of perfectly good); He made a non-moral (and self-obsessed) consideration the condition for redemption.
“Jealousy, vengeance, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and abuse are anthropomorphic terms you’re applying to God without support. As I mentioned earlier, a credible reading of the Biblical God requires knowledge of cultural context, sound interpretation, and situation with respect to good scholarship. Short of that, an attempt to divine God’s motives is only an opinion.”
So it’s not objective? What’s culture got to do with it? Does God not transcend culture? And how is “moral” not an anthropomorphic term, but “abusive” is? I feel more like a tactic to ignore the question.
“Skeptics get caught up in “text anxiety” as to the content of belief required to attain Heaven. What actually matters is the state of a person’s heart. Only God knows a person’s heart.”
But that heart has to be one that has accepted Jesus into it, not one that has lived a moral life (to extend the metaphor).
“Do you have a succinct definition of morality and evil?”
I define morality in a way that is dependent on wellbeing. If the action of a conscious agent lowers the net wellbeing of the conscious creatures involved then it is a step towards the maximal suffering for all conscious creatures and therefore a step in the wrong direction. The inverse is also true: If the action of a conscious agent heightens the net wellbeing of the conscious creatures involved then it is a step towards the maximal bliss for all conscious creatures and therefore a step in the right direction.
Notice, please, my use of the word “net”. There is no space for hedonism here, we can’t only look after our own wellbeing if others are also effected.
You’ve stated “avoiding the maximal suffering for all conscious creatures is the most important imperative there is.” I wholeheartedly agree with your subjective prescription if suffering and bliss are opposites on a single linear spectrum. But suppose you intend suffering and bliss to each have their own spectrum. Then, on being granted omnipotence, you prefer to create a world where conscious beings experience 100% bliss, 0% suffering, and lack free will. “Imperative” becomes meaningless. So for your statement to remain coherent, suffering and bliss must exist on a single spectrum, and avoiding maximal suffering must be equivalent to pursuing maximal bliss.
On this, the only plausible interpretation of your statement, God’s temporal creation of conscious beings that suffer naturally-caused pain can be easily offset by planning a positive balance of bliss in eternity. But that’s a superfluous exercise, because God, who on Christian theism offers sufficient grace to all morally accountable agents, has no duty to conform to subjective prescriptions for well-being.
Let’s take the same statement on atheism now. One who obeys the imperative is obligated to kill as quickly and humanely as possible any conscious being anticipated to be a net drag on well-being for the remainder of his or her life. Think Soylent Green. If one’s personal calculus of well-being is especially sensitive to suffering, he or she will be in the awkward position of being obligated to kill people others don’t want to kill. But since I’m guessing you’re not personally interested in killing anyone at all, I’d encourage you to adopt an imperative of maximizing bliss rather than minimizing suffering. It will help you be logically consistent.
You asserted that “pain is bad, comfort is good.” But avoiding the pain of physical exercise leads to obesity. So does pursuing the comfort of Big Gulps and reality television marathons. This absolutist distinction is not helpful. Pain and comfort impact well-being on a qualified, circumstantial basis.
You mentioned that well-being can be measured. Because of the finite amount of time and knowledge human beings have, quantitative measurements of well-being must be subjected to limited qualitative analysis to be useful. This means prioritizing possible actions, also known as making value judgments. God made man in his image. Heeding the values grounded in God on Christian theism, such as the goodness of interpersonal relationship, the goodness of making logical distinctions, and the badness of unjustified killing, improves humanity’s well-being. As you noted, an atheist is free to selectively adopt theistic values in building their own preferred, subjective prescriptions for well-being.
Rebutting my claim that free will, justice, and morality are meaningless on pantheism, you wrote, “I think it’s wrong because we can chose to ignore God’s morality as much as we can chose to ignore human morality, so the ability to ignore it doesn’t negate it’s truth.” Here you claim I’m wrong but then agree with my conclusion that an agent can ignore all “morality” (duties or imperatives) on pantheism. Your statement after the comma seems to justify subjective truth and moral relativism, but I don’t think this is what you intended.
Note that my definition of morality as the objective set of values and duties is consistent with an imperative to maximize well-being. There is no necessary relationship between duty and pain. The problem of pain is not a logical problem for the theist, but an experiential, emotional problem for all humanity. Duty, obligation, and justice are illusory on atheism and pantheism. When at the foot of the bed of a dying child, all an atheist can honestly say is “Tough luck, kid. It will all be over soon.” That is the real problem of pain.
If you are living a life in constant pain, but you don’t want to die, and your family doesn’t want you to die, and all of society doesn’t want one person to be given the authority to decide who lives and who died, from where have you drawn the conclusion that someone should take it one themselves to kill them?
The family’s wellbeing goes down (because they mourn). The individual’s that make up the society have their wellbeing go down (because they live in fear that one person has taken it up on themselves to decide who lives and dies). Sorry, but your depiction of a wellbeing-based morality on the issue of euthanasia is wrong. I also didn’t write anything defending moral relativism. You can chose to ignore morality, but your choices would be immoral (not “moral according to your own standard”, because that’s like trying to do maths to your own standard; you’re right or wrong). Perhaps my writing style doesn’t suit you well, but I’m not sure how the sentence “so the ability to ignore it doesn’t negate it’s truth” could be used as a defence of any subjective idea; “doesn’t negate it’s truth”; “truth”.
Not that it matters, we’re discussing if pain is problematic to the definition of a loving, omnipotent and moral God. And the answer remains yes.
I want to start with something that, hopefully, we can agree to. A loving, moral, omnipotent God, with all other things being equal, would make efforts to keep us happy and to protect us from harm. I think we can agree that far. I think it’s issues like “the Fall” and original sin that add some nuance to your side of the argument (along with freewill, but I didn’t see how 100% bliss and 0% pain meant no freewill*… and if it does, along with there being no sin, what does that mean for Heaven? That there will be some suffering, or that there won’t be any freewill?)
*if you mean that if 100% bliss were some how guaranteed at all times that I could then not choose to punch someone in the face, then we’ve been over that; that doesn’t account for tsunamis or other non-conscious causes of pain. Non-conscious causes of pain include all single-celled organisms (because a single-cell cannot have a will because it cannot have a nervous system because a nervous system is made up of nerve cells). It also includes cancer.
Part of the problem is that we disagree about the truth of the following statement: after our material lives, if we have sufficient faith, we will receive infinite bliss for all of time; this makes the suffering in the material world okay.
You seem to agree with that statement. I disagree. I do not think that Heaven makes brain cancer or leukaemia in children okay. I don’t think Heaven makes the dying child you finished your comment with okay. More importantly, a loving God would choose for there to not be these things in the world if He loved us. And our psychology would not be tuned to have such a fear of death.
This brings us onto another point of disagreement: I don’t think “The Fall”, which is a crime someone else committed, is justification for punishing me (and everyone else). You seem to think this makes perfect sense.
God could chose to remove the “Fallen” state from reality, and have us start with a clean slate and strike us down individually for our transgressions, and that would be justice of a sort, assuming the strikes were proportional (although, interestingly, this is not mercy). Therefore, I assume you agree that the “Fallen” state of reality is something that God has chosen to leave as truth… because of something Adam and Eve did. That’s not moral. We are born sick and commanded to be well (to quote Hitchens). We are assumed guilty until we prove our innocence (which is the opposite of the justice system).
(In the same way that it’s not moral for us to be punished for Adam and Eve’s actions, it’s not okay for us to be forgiven because of the murder, by torture, of an innocent man.)
In summary, if all other things were equal, a loving, moral, omnipotent God would create a moral world and protect us from suffering. This, evidentially, is not the world we live in. You claim this is because of “the Fall” and the vicarious redemption through Jesus (and safeguarding freewill, but I’m really not following how happiness infringes on our freewill). But that doesn’t justify choosing to punish us for someone else’ crime, or saving us for the non-moral consideration of faith.
These are such weighty and difficult matters; I am glad we are wrestling with them and hope we can keep at it in a congenial way.
I would like to go back and address your first comments, Allallt. You stated, “it is rarely atheists that claim that God is perfectly moral OR doesn’t exist.” Are you saying that you would be willing to accept that a God does exist but that he is not perfectly moral?
And, “if God doesn’t need anything then why is He jealous?” I understand “jealous” here as defined by Merriam-Webster: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness. God doesn’t “need” his people to be faithful to him, but he requires it because it naturally and necessarily follows from who he is – our creator and sovereign ruler.
About Job…why did God test him so? Since I already addressed that in my two-part post last year I won’t reiterate any of that here. But I do want to address your analogy of “starving my children and breaking all of their toys and letting paedophiles get to them just to prove to my neighbour that my children love me unconditionally.” First of all, I think we need to make a clear distinction between the swift deaths God permitted Satan to carry out on Job’s children, servants, and animals, and starving children and allowing them to be raped. I don’t deny that there would have been some pain and fear, but it would have been over quickly. I believe this is a very important truth to keep in mind – God never commanded torture, which is what starvation and rape are.
Of course, using your analogy, it is still inconceivable that any human parent who genuinely loved their children, would try to prove their love by causing them intense suffering and loss. But though God calls us his children, the analogy to human relationships fails at multiple points because God is so much more in relation to us than a father. He is our creator and master; he has the right to do with us as he wills. We are on the same level as our children on the scale of “being,” but God is immeasurably greater.
And God’s proving of Job’s faith had a much greater scope than any test we might require of our children. It was certainly meant for our instruction as much as anything else, and has universal and eternal significance. The story may seem to present God as intentionally using Job for his own selfish purposes, but in light of the whole book and the whole Bible I think it’s clear that God was using Satan to establish some important truths about who God is and what our relationship with him should be.
In response to your request, I define morality simply as the objective standard for right and wrong. In applying that to God’s actions that cause or allow suffering, we must allow for the fact that we are incapable of seeing and knowing all that he sees and knows. And that since from our own experience we acknowledge some suffering leads to good, it is conceivable that seemingly gratuitous suffering has a good goal that is beyond our knowledge or understanding.
And it was Paul who had a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12). Paul says that it was given him to guard him against pride or conceit, which is a very good reason. Pride is a huge barrier to an intimate relationship with God. And God’s denial of his request to remove it and response to him that “my power is made perfect in weakness” seems to me was for the purpose of training Paul to rely on God’s power and not his own.
Allallt, I continue to reply because the conversation seems worth having. The nature of the Fall and the practicality of your well-being model are tempting topics, but I want to challenge you with the following truth: no ontology supports your argument that pain objectively undermines God’s goodness.
You don’t think free will or God exist. This matches ontological naturalism. On this view, the only necessary truth is that a probability function worked on the quantum vacuum billions of years ago to produce the material universe. This ontology allows precisely one truth about God, minds, free will, knowledge, goodness, love, well-being, imperatives, purpose, and all other immaterial things: they don’t objectively exist. Affirming such a worldview is intellectual suicide. But even if we overlooked the absurdity, any statements about God’s goodness with respect to pain would be subjective truths on ontological naturalism.
The ontology of pantheism is an inversion of naturalism. The material is illusory, and the only reality is a single immaterial mind. But since no individual human is that mind, human knowledge is illusory as well. This is just as absurd as ontological naturalism. Likewise, pantheism only furnishes subjective truths about God’s goodness with respect to pain.
Adopting moral platonism (where “moral” means an objective definition of The Good that is not God) is the only way to logically conclude that pain is necessarily incompatible with God’s goodness. But the objectivity of the claim is not demonstrable; it’s truth is not logically commendable to others. It’s mysticism, and of all ontologies, has the least explanatory power.
Theistic ontology is the only one that accounts for the objective reality of the material universe, as naturalism does, and the objective reality of mind, as pantheism does. It is more commendable than moral platonism, because a necessarily existing mind with agency to bring forth creation is a greater possible being than a causally effete abstract object existing as The Good. On theism, if God has even one logically possible reason for allowing pain, then it is not incompatible with his perfect goodness.
To recap, no ontology can prove that pain is incompatible with God’s perfect love and goodness. What is your ontology? Why is your claim anything more than subjective?
There’s a comment in here for both Caroline and Cogitating Duck. But I think you’ll both like both comments.
To Caroline: I am not saying that I would accept a God that was less-then-perfect just because someone has the audacity to claim one exists; people do. I would still want evidence in favour of the God, and the evidence of the God depends entirely on the claimant’s definition of a God. But at least a less-than-perfect God doesn’t fly in the face of human psychology (lust, but sex is a sin; ease to hate, but hatred is to commit murder in your heart; difficulty in trust and love) and the natural world (non-sentient, lethal parasites; earthquakes; drought; poverty; starvation).
In your paragraph about God’s jealousy you talk about God not needing our faith, but it is still necessary. I’m going to leave it to your readers to critique that (exact wording is above).
I should clarify my analogy: I am God, the neighbour is the devil, the children are Job. Broken toys are the loss of family, rape is the terrible illness beset on Job. Why is God (a father) making Job (his child) suffer, just to prove a point to the devil (neighbour) okay? If God does love Job, then God’s love does not exceed his pride (I’ll come back to this when I talk about Paul).
You can say God has the right to do to us as He wills if you wish. But expressing that right, and breaching basic morality, makes Him a dictatorial tyrant and not a moral Being. And your explanation of how God is so much more than us sounds like you’re trying to say that we are below His moral consideration; we are ants to him. This is not love, either.
As for the greater context and significance of the story of Job, I’m going to need some examples. Because, sometimes, when something looks like torture and contempt it is.
I’m not sure your definition of morality is precise enough for me to meaningfully pin-down where I might disagree. But I will say this: imagine I am a parent with magical abilities, and I have two choices about how I can teach my child the stove can be hot: I can let them touch the stove, but there hand, possibly scare and certainly be in pain for a few days; or I can instil upon them an awareness of stoves and heat and pain. If the latter is available to me, then the former is immoral; on both options the child is still free to touch a stove later, if they choose. Are you telling me that God doesn’t have these other options? Pain-free ways?
As for Paul, it was Stephen Fry on an Intelligence Squared Debate (available on Youtube) that said that the poor and the ignorant and the week are prayed on by the church. It would appear that 2 Corinthians has the same message: God is more powerful if you are weak (I might even go so far as to say malleable. But that would be condescending and call into question one’s freewill). God is very prideful (as I argued earlier) but does not want us to be proud. Why not?
To Cogitating Duck: I want to argue about your ontology from only the perspective of your ontology. You think certain things are a sin (i.e. very immoral). Murder is one of these, as is pride and hatred and all sorts of other things. You also believe that morality is absolute and objective. Therefore if it is immoral once, it is immoral. And yet God murders people with natural disasters, of which some are torturous. And yet God is jealous (by His own admission) and prideful (as I argued to Caroline, above). And yet God commands wars. From your camp God is a tyrant and a hypocrite and in violation of His own absolute morality. He is immoral.
Now, if you want to leave the objective and absolute morality of ‘God’s Nature’ and the Bible and join my camp for a morality that is objective, but dependent on wellbeing, then I invite you over. I’ll even but the kettle on. Tea or coffee? How do you take it? No, of course, I have plenty of hot chocolate. Biscuit?
And from my camp, we can try to decide if God’s actions are likely to have heightened or lowered overall wellbeing. We could even see if we could devise a greater plan. Take, for example, the slaughter of the Canaan. Could the Canaanite people not simply have become infertile and died off that way? Should God really be setting the precedent of righteous war? Did the children really need to died? In Numbers 31, did all the girls” who have no known a man by laying with him” really have to be taken “for yourselves”? Was a Global Flood really better than having gratuitous sin effect infertility?
You can, of course, guess that God would have protected His victims from the suffering we would assume. But that is merely a guess. That guess does not matter from your ontology though, because the wellbeing is not the issue on your ontology. The murder (and the slavery and the implied rape and the torture) are the issue. And no amount of “divine protection from suffering” helps you on your ontology because, suffering or not, murder is murder; rape is rape.
Allallt, I’ll give you the last word. First, I’ll refute your latest attempts to prove the logical inconsistency of God’s perfect goodness. Then I’ll improve on your well-being model.
on theistic ontology. You characterized theistic morality as “absolute,” but this is not necessarily true. The known set of theistic duties are objective and situational. Besides the covenant with Israel and the fulfillment of Christian eschatology, God has no other known commitments toward humans. You and I lack the omniscience to know all possible compelling reasons for Gods’ permitting of pain and evil. This is the current consensus of the philosophic community, which has abandoned the logical problem of evil subsequent to Plantinga’s free will defense.
God is not a murderer on theism. If all killings were murder, there would be no justified homicides. Many honorable military veterans, police and law enforcement officers would be murders. That’s absurd.
Your implication that ancient slavery facilitated rape arises from ignoring the vast difference in norms between ancient and modern slavery. Cultural context matters. On theism, any human who freely chooses to rape is responsible for that crime.
God’s “jealousy” of idols is good since they turn humans away from the ultimate source of goodness (read: well-being) and lead to death. No thing is an absolute idol; like duties, the label applies on a situational basis. A thing is an idol if it causes a human’s will to be turned from goodness (well-being) and toward needless suffering and death. “Pride” is not inherently bad, but on theism, a human so proud as to believe he is worthy of worship, instead of God, is deep in the throes of self-deceit. Again, a situational basis.
Theism remains coherent, consistent and informs the ontology that best corresponds to reality. Equipped with theistic ontology, I’ll improve upon the epistemology of well-being you’ve proposed.
As I understand it, your well-being model is a one-dimensional axis where suffering lowers and bliss raises the value. But an accurate and practical well-being model will be multivariate and rely on both qualitative and quantitative analysis. After all, humans are not casually effete, abstract objects like numbers. They exhibit complex psychologies subject to variables such as cultural norms, temperament, personality, physiology, and historical events. These inputs aren’t quantitatively commensurable to each other; they are qualities that must be subjectively interpreted.
It’s true that national happiness surveys sum up self-reported data of individuals, but an aggregate picture of correlation does not prove causation. Moral agents can only increase well-being through qualitative analysis. Once again, situational circumstances trump mathematical absolutes. The theistic premise of free will allows epistemology to be a coherent project, and provides a qualitative explanation of cognitive behavior, which is an indispensable determinant of well-being. Christian doctrine supplies other qualitative observations like the wickedness of virtually all humans. These two qualitative variables are falsifiable and can be used to prescribe a model of maximizing well-being.
Your model of “measuring” well-being is objective only as long as it remains a simple textbook aphorism, like affirming “2+2=4.” Putting it into practice makes it subjective. Take your example of a mourning family having their well-being go down. What instrument gathers this measurable data? Is the data qualitative or quantitative? How do you interpret the data, and does it fare against alternate interpretations?
Psychologists and religious traditions prescribe mindfulness to decrease suffering. Outcomes of these acts of will are qualitatively, not quantitatively measured. To model acts of will as a deterministic, quantitative function is an insane task. It entails describing the most complex function of all: chance.
Your prescription of making a wicked nation infertile can’t be known to be objectively better than any other action. It would result in a population that, with no children to care for them, would be subject to loneliness, depression, and the predations of their neighbors and the natural world. In the meantime, they’d also be free to continue their wicked acts, including child sacrifice. It’s not at all clear that your alternative is objectively better than wholesale slaughter, especially on theism. This is no justification for humans to wantonly slaughter; recall that situation determines duty.
To recap, theistic ontology is logically consistent, and furnishes free will to allow knowledge. Qualitative analysis improves the epistemology of well-being. The task remains for your o lay out your own ontology or metaphysics. It’s better to be consistent than to rely on leaps. “Ethics of the gaps” is a disastrous idea.
You have talked a lot about freewill, but that doesn’t account for natural disasters (which, if God exists, He is responsible for). You seem to think owning another human being, and having children born into slavery isn’t inherently bad. You seem to think a command that says “don’t beat slaves to death” is exactly strict enough.
You pointed out problems with implicating wellbeing-based morality (i.e. a problem in practice), but you haven’t pointed out any problems with the principle (i.e. that wellbeing manifests in a way that is quantifiable). Wellbeing is not multivariate. Qualitative data is only useful because it is easier to collect than quantitative data, not because it says more.
God gets away with whatever He wants because you are willing to assume it is good and claim that you don’t understand how. I have a deeply religious friend, and I am glad she has the fortitude to admit that she just outright struggles with those passages in the Bible.
You don’t actually explain why God would COMMAND that the warriors keep every virgin girl for themselves. And you seem to think that morality is relative to culture and practiced norms. Well, one of us gets to speak out again child genital mutilation and the other has to accept it as a cultural norm. One of us is talking about objective morality, and the other isn’t.
I don’t know how killing off an entire city with war, by the sword (an in the case of against the Midianites, in two separate attacks) is less harmful than letting the population dwindle. You seem to think that the Canaanites can sacrifice more children from their population than entirely makes up their population (else the net wellbeing can’t be lower; better to sacrifice a fraction of a population than all of it).
God’s jealousy doesn’t achieve what you think it does. God’s command might, but the jealousy is completely superfluous to it. “Worship me, not because I am jealous but because it is the moral thing to do” (there is also a question of why faith would be moral, but for another time).
Theism is not consistent with the evidence. Non-freewill-derived suffering is still unaccounted for. What theism is, is flexible. You could observe any level of suffering in any number of people and your presupposition would make you think that the suffering had a reason. You reject, outright, that suffering could be pointless. I reject that an omnipotent being could NOT find a route with less suffering to achieve the same goal. My objection is definitional, yours in preference.
Hey, friends…just wanted to let you know I’m leaving this particular discussion. The two of you can continue, if you’d like. Allalt…I’m sure we’ll meet again, but in the meantime I want you to know that I’m praying for you. If you selected to receive an email when someone comments, you may know that I responded the other day, but then deleted it. I was trying to insert a screenshot I took of my prayer calendar to show you that you’re on it, but it wasn’t working.
I’ll continue reading your posts, and the Duck’s :-). It makes for good cogitating!