I. B: The Divine Is Not All-Powerful
This is an idea that we find in polytheistic religions, and hear from certain New Agers and certain Deists. It’s rare to find Jews or Christians or Muslims defending this theory, so I was a bit surprised when I discovered that this idea is the basis for Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
On the one hand, Kushner sounds like a true skeptic when he writes that although the idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good has long been Western religion’s stance, it just doesn’t fit the facts-we know too much about the world today to believe that God always protects the innocent. Kushner writes that no one, for example, can still believe that earthquakes and tsunamis are guided by a “conscience” that tells them which neighborhoods to destroy and which to spare, or believe that only the wicked went into the ovens of Auschwitz (except, I would add, possibly those who believe that such victims were being punished for really bad karma).
But on the other hand, Kushner still believes in a God that’s the Creator of the Universe-so to reconcile God with meaningless suffering, Kushner lays out his argument for why God must not be All-Mighty. Kushner in fact uses God’s whirlwind speech (of all sections!) to make his case that running the universe is such a difficult job, even God doesn’t have complete control:
… God answers Job out of the whirlwind … [but God] doesn’t talk about Job’s case at all, neither to detail Job’s sins nor to explain his suffering. Instead, He says to Job, in effect, “What do you know about how to run a world?” … I take [God’s] lines to mean “if you think that it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it.”
Let me suggest that the author of the Book of Job takes the position which neither Job nor his friends take. He believes in God’s goodness and in Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief in … [the] proposition that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness.
Kushner uses God’s speech in Job 41 about His battle with the sea serpent Leviathan as evidence of the difficulty that God has in controlling evil. Kushner writes:
With great effort, God is able to catch [the serpent] in a net and pin him with fishhooks, but it is not easy. If the sea serpent is a symbol of chaos and evil, of all the uncontrollable things in the world (as it traditionally is in ancient mythology), the author may be saying there too that even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do.
Kushner’s hypothesis is that perhaps God didn’t quite finish at closing time on the figurative sixth day of creation: that the process of replacing chaos with order is not yet fully complete. So rather than believe in an Omnipotent God who sends diseases and withholds miraculous cures, Kushner believes in a God whose powers are limited but whose love and concern is boundless-a God who is our source for strength and courage in the face of suffering:
… if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible. … If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. … Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. Our question will not be Job’s question “God, why are You doing this to me?” but rather “God, see what is happening to me. Can You help me?” We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.
I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but … I cannot believe that God “sends” illness to a specific person for a specific reason. I don’t believe in a God who has a weekly quota of malignant tumors to distribute, and consults His computer to find out who deserves one most or who could handle it best. … I don’t believe that God causes mental retardation in children, or chooses who should suffer from muscular dystrophy. The God I believe in does not send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.
Now, I can understand why Kushner’s approach has a certain appeal to it, as it places God firmly on the side of the “good”: concerned, comforting, and loving. For the following three reasons, however, I find that his philosophy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny:
(1) Kushner’s interpretation of a “struggling God” is nowhere in the text. I’m baffled by his interpretation that God is saying the Leviathan is difficult for Him to control-in Job 41:5 God even specifies that compared to His Own Terrifying Almightiness, the fearsome sea serpent is nothing more than a pet bird that one gives little girls to play with.
(2) Kushner paints an incoherent portrait of our said-Creator’s powers: mighty enough to control the orbit of the forty-million-degree stars that He molded with His own Hands, yet too weak to prevent tragedies that stem from the likes of preschoolers playing with matches.
(3) Suffering is not just something that occurs occasionally (as with earthquakes and birth defects): it’s a built-in part of nature. Predators’ very survival depends on the violent process of catching and devouring their prey alive-and failure to catch prey means the predators themselves suffer an agonizing death by starvation. It doesn’t seem coherent to say that “Divinity would like this stopped but can’t manage it” when suffering is an integral part of the natural world’s design.
I. C: The Divine Is Not All-Good
Believers in dualistic and polytheistic religions have an easier time reconciling their supernatural beliefs with the reality of suffering than do their monotheistic counterparts. The dualistic Zoroastrianism, for example, tells us that the “good God” (Ormazd) would stop evil if He only could:
The Zoroastrians do not have the theological problem of evil in the world which most monotheistic religions have to struggle with, namely, why does God allow suffering. The Zoroastrian answer is, he does not. All that is horrible in man and the world, both physical and moral evil, is the work of [the evil god] Ahriman. Evil is a fact which God [that is, the good god Ormazd cannot at present control, but one day he will be victorious. History is the scene of the battle between the two forces.
John Hinnells, Persian Mythology (p. 56)
Followers of polytheistic religions-the Aztecs, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, etc.-likewise had no problem explaining the existence of suffering. For not only were their gods and goddesses alleged to have limited powers, these celestial beings were also believed to have limited degrees of goodness-some of the crueler ones even went out of their way to hurt us on purpose.
But although dualistic and polytheistic religions don’t share the same philosophical difficulties with the problem of suffering as do monotheistic religions, the overall general weakness they do share is that they offer no credible reasons to believe that their tales stem from anywhere other than the fertile human imagination.
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II. THE NATURALISTIC EXPLANATION FOR SUFFERING: THAT THE NATURAL WORLD IS INDIFFERENT
That the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering is the only explanation, I propose, that can coherently explain a wide set of observations.
Suffering that people bring upon themselves
– this needs no presence of an active and punitive Creator to explain things: the reckless spender causes his own bankruptcy; the thief is punished by the community he has offended; and so on.
Suffering that people bring upon innocent people
– this is easily explained in an indifferent universe. Cooperation and compassion have their place in the struggle for survival and reproductive success (as discussed in my January 20 post on “The Pre-Religion, and Pre-Human, Roots of Morality,”), but so does aggression and even cruelty. A community’s self-interest will result in laws designed to minimize community-destroying tendencies-creating rewards for good behavior, and punishments for bad-but these measures are unlikely to be able to eliminate destructive tendencies altogether. (And any government strong enough to completely stop people from hurting one another would probably have to squash all freedom, and thus end up substituting abuse from individual citizens for abuse from an all-controlling government: a cure worse than the disease.)
Suffering inherent in nature
– this too involves no complex rationalizations. Evolution’s driving force of favoring whatever best survives and reproduces can explain a wide range of creature suffering, from viruses to the lion’s fangs to the Ichneumonidae wasp’s macabre mothering (the wasp lays her egg inside a caterpillar so that her larva can slowly eat the caterpillar alive).
Natural disasters, too, cause no mysteries. When it comes to earthquakes, for example, there’s no struggle with wondering what a quake-ravished village did to so anger the unfathomable gods: everything is comprehensible from the premise that earthquakes are an inevitable aspect of living on a planet with a core hot enough to keep its crust of giant plates slowly shifting.
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The advantage of supernatural-free examinations of the “whys” of suffering–looking at nature-based suffering from the viewpoint of natural science, and human-caused suffering from the viewpoint of the social sciences (sociology and psychology and the like)–is that the sciences not only stand a better chance of coherently explaining disasters and other causes of human misery, they can also better help minimize future occurrences.
(“The Problem of Suffering: the Seven Supernatural Answers vs. the One Naturalistic” is an adaptation of endnote #32 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 238-246.)
 Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In order of appearance, quotes from pp. 36, 43, 42-43, 45, 44, 60, and 127.