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Posts Tagged ‘Garden of Eden’

Reconciling Science and Religion

I think that in this year when Charles Darwin will get a hunk of press for the dual celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the first edition of his book, the question of the conflicts between science and religion will be discussed by a great many thinkers and writers, including me.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explained that while Darwin’s  theory of natural selection was not completely original his approach to the question of the role of science in explaining origins was the beginning of referring to our origins without pulling in the need for a Creator.  He was not original even to that, but he layed out a process that completely explains the diversity of all life with no appeal to the supernatural.

Dennet is correct in stating that there had now been a gauntlet laid at the feet of religion in 1859, which had heretofore rained supreme in explaining the existence of the human race.  The prior assumption, untestable yet undefeatable had been that we were in fact a “special creation.”

lion and lamb

lion and lamb

And here is where the real conflict lies, I think.  In early catechism I had been taught that God the Father had existed in eternity (with or without  Logos, I am still unclear on this,) and created the universe because he was lonely for companionship and need us for our love and worship.  Adam and Eve, having been given free will and a warning, sinned at their first opportunity naively thinking that they could have the same knowledge as God.  In His anger, God declared that they would forever bear the burden of their sin unto all generations.  He also cursed the animals, who had until this time never known death nor suffering.  The lions had been laying peaceably with the lambs, the foxes with the rabbits and the parasites with the hosts.  It was always win-win for the animals, if not for the plants.

Theistic evolution, at least as practiced and preached by Ken Miller, needs to have an interventionist God or else it sinks into the quandary of deism and pantheism.  With deism and pantheism, there is no original sin and then from that there is no need for the grace of Jesus’ salvation.  So, the way Miller understands God is as a tinkerer with evolution, a non-“Designer” who nevertheless placed careful modifications to evolution at the level of quantum mechanics so that evolution would still work and lead to the ascent of Man.  We would, God knew, eventually arise to fill our ecological “niche.”

So this is good for Miller, but where does it leave the possibility for reconciliation between religion and science?  It creates a new level of Creationism, in effect.  While Miller, as a crack biologist would bristle at being lumped with Creationism, it is a shoe that fits even it is not a color of his choosing.

Miller carefully avoids all of the fallacies and faults of Intelligent Design, but at the end his finely-tuned universe and his interventionist evolution both point back to his God, the Inventor.

So, I honestly think that there is a quandary for practicing scientists in evolutionary biology who are also religious (whether Christian or some other religion.)

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection is largely based on Darwin’s reading of Malthus’ discussion of economics and scarcity.  There is only room for so much life.  Those forms of life which successfully proceed to the next generations succeed long enough to face extinction, in the meantime branching out into populations with common ancestors who may or may not survive.

Natural selection depends on extinction, starvation and suffering.  It is an unpleasant fact.  New species can’t move in if the old ones don’t “move out.” And so nature has ways of dealing with overpopulation; hunger, the need to replicate and the need to survive better than your competitors for the limited resources.

All of this was taking place long before man, and long before Man could have committed the First Sin for which we all need redemption.  The 19th-century scientists who realized this argued that the fossils they were finding represented a separate epoch of Creation, and that it wasn’t until 6000 years ago that God embarked on his final creation; the one that included Us.

With the concept of Theistic Evolution, one would need to accept that the tender, minute touches of intervention are placed by the same being who saw the need to create a cruel world.   It is a world of beauty, yes, but perhaps beauty is all the more precious to us because we know that in large part we will all die and so will all of our fellow life.

This solves one of Epicurus’ riddles, doesn’t it?

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There is, for the theistic evolutionist, evil in the world because life demands it. Augustine answered to Epicurus by saying that Epicurus had ignored the benefits of suffering in the world.  Indeed, Augustine’s answer is crucial to Catholic theology; it is the idea that one must die in some symbolic way (perhaps to materialism,) in order to be “reborn in Christ.”  That’s not the precise wording of Augustine, but it was the thrust of several of the youth “Teens Encounter Christ” retreats I joined when I was in my teens.  It’s also illustrative of the myth of Jesus’ death and reincarnation.  He died to give us the chance for new life in him.  Rather than dying cruelly to be reborn, we only need to accept his sacrifice; like the grain of wheat that must “die” and be buried in order to give life to a new wheat stalk. (John 12:24.)

I have been reading a new article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, which is a dual book review.  In the best tradition of literary criticism Coyne does far more than give a thumbs up or thumbs down of the books he has read.  He is also approaching his understanding of the concepts of the books.  In this case he reviews these books (c -and p because I am getting exhausted and don’t want to create footnotes:)

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

Coyne says that both books miss the mark on Science-Religion and  looks to Gould for help, but even the Non-Overlapping Magisteria are not helpful becaue the NOMA only says that each science and religion should ignore each other.

As Alden said in response to Anastasia’s post , “..because, for Theists, there are no purely secular events.”  Perhaps for theists, there can be no secular science.

The observable world makes so much more sense without using God as any explanation.  Coyne relates the story of Napoleon and LaPlace:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

Certain dispensers of modernism would do well to remember that science does not exist to displace the need for an active creator.  It just happens to work out that way.

This is, after all, a finely-tuned universe.

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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.[1]

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.)


[1] 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.

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When it comes to reconciling the existence of suffering with the belief that the world was purposefully created by some sort of intelligent Higher Power, the explanations we hear from theists generally fall into one of the following three categories:

the Divine must not be All-Powerful (and thus might want to prevent suffering, but lacks the clout),

the Divine must not be All-Good (and either doesn’t care about creature suffering, or perhaps inflicts it maliciously),

—and the most prevalent explanation (at least among the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam):

the Divine—specifically, “God”—is indeed All-Powerful and All-Good, and everything really is for the best “in the big picture” (one that humans often fail to grasp).

Given that the last explanation is not only the most popular but also the most puzzling, I researched apologetic literature for the fine details on exactly how theists defend their belief that suffering fits in with “greater” Divine Plan. To date, every answer I’ve come across fits into at least one of the five following sub-categories:

(1) Suffering is punishment for wrong-doing (this encompasses the Western notion of punishment for personal sins and “original sin,” as well as the Eastern notion of karma—that punishment is for sins in this life or past lives)

(2) Suffering is sent for our benefit (even when it’s not punishment for wrong-doing)

(3) Suffering must exist for Greater Good of Free Will (depending on the theist, belief in a rival demonic god can fit into this explanation)

(4) The manner in which “everything is for the best” is simply beyond the comprehension of the finite mind of man

(5) Suffering is just an illusion

In contrast with the multiple explanations I found from theists, non-theists generally have only one answer: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering.

Before I go into my examination of which of these explanations is the most likely to be true (or possible combination of explanations[1]), I first need to explain my use of the word truth. For this task I will borrow the wording from Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, in which Hawking writes that before any theory can be considered “good”—that is, a candidate for “truth”—it must pass two tests:

(1) it must accurately describe a large class of observations, and

(2) it must make predictions that agree with future observations.[2]

This leads to one last need to define my terms: what do I mean by “a large class of observations” as it relates to suffering? My proposal is that a viable explanation for suffering must be able to describe and predict suffering in the following three categories:

Suffering that people bring upon themselves

the spendthrift who ends up bankrupt and homeless

the thief who gets caught and suffers in prison

the drunk driver who kills himself in a car crash

etc.

Suffering that people bring upon innocent people

the kindergarten class mowed down by a gunman

millenniums of slavery

millions of civilians crippled and slaughtered by warfare

etc.

Suffering inherent in nature

the suffering that comes with old age as the body breaks down

nature’s prey/predator setup: that survival requires life to feed upon life

disease: malaria, leprosy, birth defects, etc.

natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.

So my outline for reviewing the eight explanations for suffering will be the following:

I. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS

I. A: In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best because …

A.1 – suffering is punishment for wrong-doing

A.2 – suffering benefits us

A.3 – suffering must exist for the greater good of Free Will

A.4 – it’s beyond our understanding

A.5 – the perceived world is just an illusion, hence suffering, too, is just an illusion

I. B: The Divine is not All-Powerful

I. C: The Divine is not All-Good

II. THE NATURALISTIC EXPLANATION: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering

—and the question I ask is “Which explanation (or combination of explanations) can most accurately describe and predict a wide set of observations?”

. . .

I. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS FOR SUFFERING
I.A. In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best

I.A.1 – SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT FOR WRONG-DOING

The most straightforward interpretation of this explanation is that only the guilty suffer. An example of this type of thought can be found in Leviticus 26:

If you obey all of my commandments, I will give you regular rain, and the land will yield bumper crops, and the trees will be loaded with fruit long after the normal time! … You will chase your enemies; they will die beneath your swords …

But if you will not listen to me or obey me, but reject my laws, this is what I will do to you: I will punish you with sudden terrors and panic, and with tuberculosis and burning fever; and your eyes shall be consumed and your life shall ebb away … Your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its crops, nor your trees their fruit. … you will flee before your attackers; those who hate you will rule you …

Leviticus 26:3–5, 7, 14–16, 20, 17, TLB

One of the weaknesses of this explanation, however, is its failure to make sense out of why so many wrongdoers escape punishment. This point is noted in the bible itself by the character named Job:

Ask anyone who has been around and he can tell you the truth, that the evil man is usually spared in the day of calamity, and allowed to escape.

Job 21:29–30, TLB

Another problem with this “pain is always deserved!” theory is that it requires believers to justify the suffering of animals and of people too young to have committed conscious wrongdoings. Challenges include trying to figure out what guilt of the gazelle could have sentenced it to the terror of being torn apart by a pack of hyenas, and just what crimes have been committed by the over million infants and toddlers every year that bring on their punishment of death-by-diarrhea dehydration.

The fact that the innocent are just as likely to suffer as the guilty is another point made in the Book of Job:

Innocent or evil, it is all the same to [God], for he destroys both kinds. He will laugh when calamity crushes the innocent …

Job 9:22–23, TLB

To address these weakness, Jewish and Christian theologians who embrace the pain-is-punishment theory supplement it by explaining that “original sin”—Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden—brought about God’s wrath not only upon themselves, but corrupted the whole planet, causing us to live in what may be called a “fallen world.”[3] That is, the Garden of Eden had been a paradise: no natural disasters, no disease, no death, and all creatures were vegetarian. But once Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the forbidden tree, well, that’s the root cause of why mosquito saliva carries malaria, and why polar bears devour baby seals, and why the earth’s crust is made up of giant plates that move and sometime collide into one another.

Two questions I leave for theists to debate among themselves:

(1)Does the Bible even say this? Many defenders of this explanation will cite Genesis 3:17 as their source: that God “cursed the ground” in reaction to human’s disobedience. And because the ground is “cursed,” well, that explains natural disasters, disease, and why life’s creatures survive by feeding upon one another. Yet this interpretation is hardly supported by the text, for everything about this “cursed ground” in Genesis 3 is associated only with the difficulties of food gathering:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.

Genesis 3:17–19, NRSV

—or in other words, Genesis 3:17–19 serves the role of an explanatory myth, explaining why humans’ daily task of feeding themselves can be such a daily hardship. To extrapolate the likes of toddlers with tumors from these few words strikes me as a rationalization stretched beyond the breaking point of believability.

Besides, if the biblical answer to questions like “Why does God permit genocide?” and “Why are there earthquakes?” was as simple as “God cursed the ground: we live in a fallen world,” it seems that the character called God would be a bit clearer on this, and that this stance would be stated consistently throughout the Bible (for example, God certainly could have explained this to Job when He spoke from the whirlwind). But as we continue on, we’ll see that the Bible offers a variety of explanations for suffering (from “you deserve it” to “it’s for your own good” to “Don’t ask!”).

(2)For those theists who think Adam and Eve’s first offense against God’s “Don’t touch!” rule can indeed explain everything from tapeworms to tsunamis, this leads to the question of whether this explanation should fit under the category of “In the Big Picture, everything is for the best,” or the “God is not All-Good.”

The idea of the Law of Karma (originating in Hinduism, and incorporated by most of the subsequent Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) offers what I feel is something of an improvement on the pain-is-always-punishment explanation: rather than saying that God’s fury over the theft committed by the naïve newborns Adam and Eve led to a punishment felt by every living creature, even kittens (which seems a tad over-reactive), karma tells us that people are punished only for their own misbehavior—but the catch is that the misdeeds could have happened in this life or a past life.

If [suffering] is insurmountable, then reflect on the fact that this trouble is due to your own actions in this, or a previous, life. Understanding that suffering comes from karma will bring some peace as it reveals that life is not unjust. Otherwise sorrow and pain might seem to be meaningless.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama,

How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (pp. 131–132)

So when it comes to, say, infants born with birth defects so severe that they suffer painful deaths in early childhood (those born with holes in their stomachs or hearts, or with bulging skulls because of too much fluid in the brain, or the horribly deformed “Harlequin babies”), the Law of Karma tells us that these suffering babies are not victims of life’s arbitrary cruelty. Rather, these infants must have been sadistic prison guards or murderers (etc.) in past lives, and their pain-filled reincarnations are simply their deserved karmic punishment.

Now, explanations such as:

“babies get cancer because we live in a fallen world” and

“the so-called victims of Hiroshima and Auschwitz were just getting payback for sins committed in a prior life”

—are difficult to “prove wrong,” as they have the convenient aspect of citing root causes that are unobservable. But the unobservable aspects put these explanations in the same category as explanations like “evil and invisible space aliens are the root of all suffering” and “suffering exists because the Invisible Pink Unicorn wills it so!” We can’t prove that these are wrong either, but that’s hardly a reason to accept these types of zero-evidence-based explanations as correct (or even worth considering as “possibly correct”).

My feeling is that this “pain is punishment” hypothesis—whether explained by the claims of Karma, the story of Adam and Eve, or any other mythological tale of divine retribution—is the least satisfying out of all the religious explanations for suffering: it explains only a limited number of observations for those who bring pain upon themselves, and requires a tortuous stretch of the imagination when attempting to explain every other situation. But it’s only one of the seven supernatural explanations for suffering, so let’s move on.

I.A.2 – SUFFERING BENEFITS US

Certain biblical passages tell us that pain should not be considered punishment, but a gift from God sent to improve our character:

Young man, do not resent it when God chastens and corrects you, for his punishment is proof of his love. Just as a father punishes a son he delights in to make him better, so the Lord corrects you.

Proverbs 3:11–12, TLB

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4, NRSV

In the Book of Job, one of Job’s “friends” (so to speak) also depicts suffering as divinely-prescribed therapy:

By means of … suffering, [God] rescues those who suffer. For he gets their attention through adversity.

Job 36:15, NLT

… it was to prevent you from getting into a life of evil that God sent this suffering.

Job 36:21, NLT

On the one hand, the suffering-benefits-us explanation is arguably better than the pain-is-always-punishment explanation, as it can make sense out of select instances of suffering in all three categories:

Suffering that people bring upon themselves

The alcoholic whose loss of job and family leads to a life turnaround: a sober and healthy lifestyle, and regaining all that had been lost.

Suffering that people bring upon innocent people

Victims who mature as a result of suffering, increasing their courage, compassion, empathy, and patience.

Suffering inherent in nature

Pain is often a beneficial signal of danger: it motivates us to get off that hot stove, and to work hard to satisfy our pangs of hunger and thirst. And suffering today can make us stronger tomorrow: just as our muscles grow stronger when they repair themselves after the strains of a vigorous workout, our characters can grow stronger when tested through vigorous strains of adversity.

—or in other words, there’s some truth behind the cliché “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Yet even that cliché contains the caveat “whatever doesn’t kill you.” What is the benefit, however, when this alleged gift from God does kill you? Or as the Rabbi Kushner put it when trying to figure out why God lets small children fall out of open windows:

It can’t be to teach a child a lesson about exploring new areas. By the time the lesson is over, the child is dead.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People (p. 24)

The suffering-benefits-us explanation is all the more difficult to make sense of when applied to mass tragedies: the hundreds of thousands of innocent Rwandans hacked to death with machetes during their civil war, the millions who perished in Nazi concentration camps, the millions of children who continue to die every year from disease and famine, and so on. When I pursue this point with theists who offer the “suffering benefits us” explanation, I’ve found that most take one of two approaches:

some admit that the “suffering benefits us” explanation can’t be applied across the board—that pain is sometimes best explained by other reasons (we live in a fallen world, it’s a side consequence of Free Will, it’s all beyond our comprehension, etc.);

some will insist that even mass tragedies are hidden blessings from God, as the survivors learn vital lessons. As for the stricken, they’re no doubt enjoying a blissful eternity in heaven. (And although believers tend not to do so, if the wish-filled and evidence-starved premise of “heaven” is truly accepted 100%, one might even celebrate disasters that claim the lives of millions.)

I.A.3 – SUFFERING MUST EXIST FOR THE GREATER GOOD OF FREE WILL

This explanation has it that in order to make ethical behavior meaningful, God had to give man the Free Will to accept Him or reject Him. And allowing people to be free means that in addition to giving humans the capacity for compassion, God also gave us the capacity for destructiveness—toward ourselves and others. Thus this approach encompasses the pain-is-punishment explanation and expands upon it: suffering results not only because we can choose to hurt ourselves, but we can also choose to hurt others.

Defenders of this explanation will often point out that God could have created a world free of suffering by withholding Free Will, but that such a world would have been meaningless: something akin to a world of pre-programmed robots. The only way to obtain the tremendous value of having people who could genuinely love each other and do good deeds was to also permit them to reject that path. (This explanation, at least according to some theists, also explains the existence of Satan: angels too have the choice to love or hate God.)

So if we apply this theory to trying to explain why, for example, God didn’t stop the gunman Thomas Hamilton from firing 109 rounds into a kindergarten classroom and splattering the walls with the blood of its sixteen children (Scotland, March 1996), the “suffering must exist for the Greater Good of Free Will” explanation has it that interference from God would have inhibited Hamilton’s Free Will, the higher priority.[4]

Yet even if one does accept this reason for why God allows humans to behave inhumanly toward one another, the theory doesn’t hold up well when applied to suffering that has nothing to do with human Free Will, such as natural disasters. It would be difficult to make the case that human Free Will played a role, for example, in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck eleven countries, killing over 225,000. Similarly, much of the suffering of animals in the wild—famine, disease, the whole predator versus prey set-up—exists independently of human behavior or misbehavior. It seems unlikely that anyone could make a convincing argument that “human freedom to turn away from God” is the reason that infant sandtiger sharks will devour their siblings while still in utero.

When I pursued this point with those who offer the “Free Will” explanation for suffering, I once again found that theists tended to expand their explanation with supplements: we live in an evil and fallen world, Satan rules the earth for the time being, God’s kingdom will soon return, suffering is sometimes beneficial, that the infinite mind of God cannot be comprehended by the finite mind of man, etc.

I.A.4 – IT’S BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING

According to some interpretations, this is the message of the Book of Job: that we’re just too finite to understand the Infinite Mind of the Divine:

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: … “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. … Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the depths? … Have you ever once commanded the morning to appear, and caused the dawn to rise in the east? … Has the location of the gates of Death been revealed to you? Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!

“Where does the light come from, and how do you get there? Or tell me about the darkness. Where does it come from? Can you find its boundaries, or go to its source?

“Can you hold back the stars? … Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons, or guide the constellation of the Bear with her satellites across the heavens? Do you know the laws of the universe and how the heavens influence the earth?”

Job 38:1, 4, 8, 12, 17–20, 31–33, TLB

One theist I spoke with admitted that although explaining the suffering of the innocent was beyond her, she nonetheless found comfort in the belief that suffering in this life will somehow make sense in the next life—that we are being prepared for a “glory beyond all measure,” as described in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16–18, NRSV

The most convenient aspect of the “we’re too finite to understand” argument is that it doesn’t have to explain anything: theists can admit that they simply don’t understand how suffering could possibly exist if God is All-Good and All-Powerful, yet still accept this explanation. But my feeling is that saying “We can’t understand!” doesn’t quite qualify as an explanation for suffering—it only says “I hope that suffering will make sense in the next life.”

For those who point to God’s whirlwind speech at the end of the Book of Job and claim that God (or at least, the Judeo-Christian version of God) is the one who’s telling us that suffering is beyond human understanding, my reply is that of the following two explanations:

(a) even though an Almighty Being created the whole universe and then wrote us a nearly 2,000-page book to fill us in on some of the details, He omitted a coherent explanation for why suffering was part of His Program because, our intense interest notwithstanding, we just wouldn’t understand;

(b) the human who authored the whirlwind speech couldn’t figure out a coherent explanation for suffering, and concluded that “God says He won’t explain it to us!”

—the latter is more plausible.

I.A.5 – THE PERCEIVED WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION, HENCE SUFFERING, TOO, IS JUST AN ILLUSION

A crudely brief summary of this Eastern perspective is that we are all at One with Divinity—like small drops of water in a mighty ocean—and if we could just free ourselves from our delusion of individual existence (through meditation and prayer and the like), our suffering would cease.

My own delusion of individual existence firmly in place, I suppose I’m a poor candidate to even comment on this belief. Yet I can’t help feeling that this explanation attempts to make sense of human suffering only. Can the “delusion of individual existence” make sense out of the terror and agony that an antelope must feel when being caught and devoured alive by a cheetah? Can this delusion of individuality explain the suffering of an injured cheetah that can no longer catch prey and slowly starves to death?

Or maybe because the entire perceived world is just an illusion anyway, animals in the wild are not actually suffering—our own lack of enlightenment just leads us to think they are.

Or … maybe this explanation is yet another example of human guesswork—one that relies on a theoretical solution that’s impossible to disprove, yet offers no compelling reason to accept.

I. B: The Divine Is Not All-Powerful

To be continued in Part 2.

(“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.)


[1] The first four theistic explanations are not mutually exclusive to one another: theists can argue that God sometimes sends suffering for punishment, but other times for the benefit of character-building, and other times it’s just a Free Will thing, and sometimes we simply don’t know why God sends suffering, but just have to trust that there’s some reason for it. Similarly, the first two explanations could also simultaneously be true: that the gods are neither all-powerful nor all-good.

[2] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 9.

[3] Tales that trace the existence of suffering back to divine retribution and inherited punishment can be found in other religions as well. In endnote 28 of Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer I discuss the “origin of evil” myths of the ancient Greeks (that Zeus punished mankind for accepting Prometheus’s stolen gift of fire by creating Pandora, the woman who unleashed misery upon the world by opening the forbidden box), North America’s Blackfoot Indians (it’s the fault of Feather-woman for not heeding the instructions of the Morning Star god she married), and the Japanese (it’s the Japanese goddess Izanami-no-mikoto’s fault, because when she and her god-husband were first making love and giving birth to existence, she cried out in joy before he did—and it’s not proper for the woman to speak first). All share the common trait of blaming women!

[4] God’s apparent “hands-off” approach to restricting the freedom of violent criminals, of course, will sometimes result in a significant restriction of the Free Will of innocent victims. But once again, as long as the premises of heaven and hell are accepted, one can be comforted that all wrongs will someday be righted.

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