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Theodicy: God is Good

In an article entitled “Good God?“, atheist Peter Singer addresses some usual answers that Christians forward when faced with the question of why evil exists if God is good.  His answers reveal much about the shallow reasoning that atheists display when pondering the tough questions.   I will discuss his answers.

Singer starts by reasoning the following: “If God is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much of it – and he would have done so if he were all good.”  I agree with the first point.  The next two points are asserted without evidence.

Perhaps God could have created a world without as much suffering.  Perhaps not.  But we fail to overlook what the Bible teaches:  God created the through and for Christ–not for us.  Therefore, the amount of human suffering is a completely irrelevant factor in determining the sort of world God would create.  His criteria remain unrevealed to us.

To assert that “if” He was good He “would” have created a world with less suffering is ludicrous. As finite beings, we don’t know and cannot fathom all of the possibilities.  With His criteria for actualizing possible worlds unrevealed, the burden of proof lies squarely on Singer to show why a world with less suffering is better than this one.

The first actual reply that Singer deals with is “. . . God bestowed on us the gift of free will, and hence is not responsible for the evil we do. But this reply fails to deal with the suffering of those who drown in floods, are burned alive in forest fires caused by lightning, or die of hunger or thirst during a drought.”  He continues:

Christians sometimes attempt to explain this suffering by saying that all humans are sinners, and so deserve their fate, even if it is a horrible one. But infants and small children are just as likely to suffer and die in natural disasters as adults, and it seems impossible that they could deserve to suffer and die.

This is argument by outrage.  God, who is all-knowing, knows what the fate of those children will be with or without a natural disaster.  The burden of proof goes to Singer to show that being drown at an early age is a greater evil than whatever would have happened to that child in the future.

Further, the Bible makes no distinction between adults, infants, and children when it says that all have sinned (Rom 3:23).  As humans, our very nature is sinful.  This is important to remember when Singer goes on:

Once again, some Christians say that we have all inherited the original sin committed by Eve, who defied God’s decree against eating from the tree of knowledge. This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies that knowledge is bad, disobeying God’s will is the greatest sin of all, and children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may justly be punished for them.

Even if were to accept all this, the problem remains unresolved. For animals also suffer from floods, fires, and droughts, and, since they are not descended from Adam and Eve, they cannot have inherited original sin.

First of all, it was Adam who sinned, not Eve.  Second, it was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Knowing that once man knows of evil he will choose evil, God decreed that it was a sin to eat of that tree.  It is not knowledge itself that is evil.  All sin, at its root, is disobedience to God, so Singer is right in a sense to conclude that the greatest sin of all is disobedience.  Finally, Romans 5 makes it clear that we do, indeed, inherit the sin of our father, Adam: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19, emphasis added).

Assuming that Singer accepts all of that, he still doesn’t see a solution to the problem because animals suffer too.  He is still wrong–all creation is now under the curse of sin, animals included (Rom 8:20-23).

Singer, apparently unaware of that, philosophizes on animals for a couple of paragraphs.  I’ll skip to the next section, where he says ” I debated the existence of God with the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. In recent months, D’Souza has made a point of debating prominent atheists, but he, too, struggled to find a convincing answer to the problem I outlined above.”  He then continues:

He first said that, because humans can live forever in heaven, the suffering of this world is less important than it would be if our life in this world were the only life we had. That still fails to explain why an all-powerful and all-good god would permit it.  Relatively insignificant as this suffering may be from the perspective of eternity, the world would be better without it, or at least without most of it. (Some say that we need to have some suffering to appreciate what it is like to be happy. Maybe, but we surely don’t need as much as we have.)

Again, I point out that this is mere assertion with no evidence.  It is Singer’s responsibility to show, from all of the possible worlds God could have created, that another world would have been better because it contained less suffering and still met God’s criteria for His plan.  Since the criteria is unrevealed in Scripture, I wish Singer the best of luck in proving just that point.

Next, D’Souza argued that since God gave us life, we are not in a position to complain if our life is not perfect. He used the example of a child born with one limb missing. If life itself is a gift, he said, we are not wronged by being given less than we might want. In response I pointed out that we condemn mothers who cause harm to their babies by using alcohol or cocaine when pregnant. Yet since they have given life to their children, it seems that, on D’Souza’s view, there is nothing wrong with what they have done.

The hole in Singer’s reasoning, of course, is that a mother doesn’t give life to her children in the same way as God gives life to a person.  The Bible teaches that everything was created by Him and for Him, and in Him all things consist (Col 1:16-17).  After birth, the child doesn’t absolutely require his mother, but all of creation requires God to hold together.  It is a different situation all together.

Singer says, “Finally, D’Souza fell back, as many Christians do when pressed, on the claim that we should not expect to understand God’s reasons for creating the world as it is. . . .  But once we abdicate our powers of reason in this way, we may as well believe anything at all.”  Neither D’Souza nor I, nor any Christian, nor God Himself, would ever ask a person to abdicate his power of reason.  D’Souza is actually incorrect in his statement.  God chooses not to reveal His reasons.  Perhaps we wouldn’t understand them, perhaps we would.  But this isn’t a request to abdicate all reason, this is an appeal to have faith in Him.  That He, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, knows better than we do.

Singer concludes “The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world was not created by any god at all. If, however, we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the God who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler.”  This conclusion presupposes that the evolutionary view of the evidence is correct and that how things are now are how they always were.  Neither of these presuppositions are correct in a Biblical worldview.

Paul asserted that the evidence for divine creation is so plain that men are “without excuse” (Rom 1:20) for knowing that God exists.  Why do atheists look at things differently?  Because they have no foundation in Genesis–most believe that book is a piece of bad fiction.  However, that book is the foundation of all Christian doctrine and must be literal history.  If it isn’t, all of the Bible is a lie.

When God created the world, everything is not as it is now.  It was all “very good,” as God states when he finishes with creation.  The creation that we observe now is the creation that is under a curse, nothing in the world now is “very good.”  As Paul stated, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22, emphasis added).  That is the result of the curse.

In all, Singer’s arguments show the usual bankruptcy that atheistic arguments usually show.  These are easily answered by considering all of Scripture, especially the foundations in Genesis.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on May 18, 2008, in Apologetics, Bible Thoughts, Sin, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    Thanks again for demonstrating the point: Christians can offer no good explanation for suffering. Your response boils down to this: “There could be valid reasons for suffering, but we don’t know them.” If that’s the Christian position, then why do anything about suffering at all? Perhaps Christians are working against the will of God and His Plan when they assist others who suffer. You’ve eliminated any basis for the Christian to be outraged at suffering, as well as the impetus to do anything about it.

    By the way, there are plenty of religious denominations, Christian included, who accept evolution.

  2. I actually have offered a better answer for the problem of pain here. I encourage you to check it out. I also encourage you to check out an excellent post from Ligonier Ministries here. An excerpt:

    It is also true that God uses suffering to wean His children away from the plausible sources of false happiness. The Christian may grow drowsy in the sun but will not fall asleep in the fire or the flood. Each of us must recognize how easy it is to think little of God when all is well on the outside. But what a change occurs when, for example, the biopsy comes back positive. A sharp blast of anxiety comes to shatter any illusions of self-sufficiency. How kind of God to rouse us and to bring us to the place of dependence.

  3. Hi Cory, I read your post. Its problem is that it deals only with a very small set of the pain humans experience. I agree that some suffering is caused by us, but a lot of it isn’t. And even that pain which is caused by us, those who suffer from it are often innocent. Example: a child who is brutally raped and murdered.

    The explanation from Ligonier Ministries fails on the same objection.

    Another problem is that such explanations undercut the traditional explanation for suffering: original sin. You’ve essentially argued that pain and suffering are utilitarian. If so, why the pretense of blaming it on humanity (i.e., Adam and Eve)?

  4. Hi Cory, I read your post. Its problem is that it deals only with a very small set of the pain humans experience. I agree that some suffering is caused by us, but a lot of it isn’t. And even that pain which is caused by us, those who suffer from it are often innocent. Example: a child who is brutally raped and murdered.

    The Bible excludes no one when it says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now, as for the child, you are not omniscient, and therefore do not know all possibilities. Nor do you consider the people left after that child’s unfortunate death. You can’t say with certainty that (1) that is the least merciful fate for the child in question nor (2) that nothing good came of it in the lives of surviving relatives and friends. Many good things have come out of seemingly senseless tragedies.

    Another problem is that such explanations undercut the traditional explanation for suffering: original sin. You’ve essentially argued that pain and suffering are utilitarian. If so, why the pretense of blaming it on humanity (i.e., Adam and Eve)?

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Sorry.

  5. Cory,

    Sorry for the delayed response. You quote the Bible with the statement, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Does this “all” include newborns?

    The sad–at least in my opinion–thing about your reasoning is that it completely removes any basis for human grief and justice. If your position is that the tragic death of a child could have in fact been merciful, or that, it could result in a net positive benefit, then why mourn over it at all? Why prosecute the perpetrator? I’d like to believe that, if the child in question was yours, you would not be so coldly calculating, but I cannot say for sure.

    I apologize for not making myself more clear. Your argument, as far as I can tell, is that God uses suffering to effect some kind of positive outcome, i.e., suffering is utilitarian. But the traditional Christian view is that suffering is a bad thing for which “we” are to blame. If God intended suffering as a tool or byproduct of his will all along, then why blame “us” for bringing it about? Why not just own up to it and say, “I am the source of your suffering, the reasons for which will only become clear in the afterlife.”

  6. Allow me to step outside the Bible for just a moment and quote the Westminster Confession of Faith:

    God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF, 3.1)

    God is not the author of sin (see Jms 1:13, 17; and 1 Jn 1:5). This means that, though God has freely ordained all that comes to pass, the free will of His creatures isn’t taken away, but established (see Acts 2:23, Mt 17:12, Acts 4:27-28, Jn 19:11, Prv 16:33).

    The old mystery of God’s sovereignty vs. man’s free will. For me, it’s enough to know that God is in control no matter what happens, but I don’t blame Him when evil comes my way, for I know that I live in a fallen world, and that this isn’t the way God created it nor ever intended it to be. I don’t fully understand how God can still be completely sovereign yet still have creatures like us with libertarian free will, but that is what the Bible teaches is happening.

    I see no inherent contradictions between God decreeing what happens and man being responsible for his actions. Read up on Molinisim to see why.

  7. Cory,

    I think the question I posed previously is very important and germane to the discussion: have newborns sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?

    You wish to claim that God has foreordained everything that comes to pass, but still hold to the notion that we possess free will. The two seem contradictory to me. If God really granted us free will, then there would be a possibility that whatever His plans are, would not come to pass. Obviously, it wouldn’t be much of a plan if there was a possibility that we could derail it.

    You admit you can’t resolve this conundrum. But the ironic thing is that you called atheistic arguments “bankrupt”.

  8. I think the question I posed previously is very important and germane to the discussion: have newborns sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?

    On one hand, the Bible says that ALL have sinned. On the other hand, the Bible also says that God will judge us by what we do (Ecc 3:17, 12:13-14; Job 34:21-22). Newborns would have no deeds by which God could judge them.

    It would seem to me that “all” doesn’t include newborns.

    God is perfect (Prv 30:5). It would therefore follow that His judgments are perfect. I don’t know what happens to newborns if they die; I leave that to the Lord to decide their fate. His judgment, whatever it may be, will be perfect and just.

    Again, I do not see a contradiction between God having complete sovereignty and man having libertarian free will. I believe that not all of His intentions come out according to His perfect plan, and that owed to us having free will. Think of it like a target–the bull’s eye is God’s perfect intention, and each concentric circle represents varying degrees of success. The white area outside the target represents something contrary to His plan. Our actions move the arrow to a circle outside the bull’s eye. Our decisions, however, are absolutely incapable of moving the arrow into the white area. Assuming that our decisions can make something happen contrary to God’s will is hubris on your part.

  9. Thank you for the clarification. It would seem that you now agree with me that the innocent suffer. What remains unexplained is why an omnibenevolent, omnipotent god would allow such a thing.

    I suppose I’m confused by your discussion of God’s intentions vs. His plan. How could the two ever be at variance for a being alleged to be timeless? He would already know where his intentions would not come out. Such variances would thus be intentional!

  10. Thank you for the clarification. It would seem that you now agree with me that the innocent suffer. What remains unexplained is why an omnibenevolent, omnipotent god would allow such a thing.

    St. Augustine said “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” He also said “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” So we’re back to square one: God brings good from the evil in this world.

    I suppose I’m confused by your discussion of God’s intentions vs. His plan. How could the two ever be at variance for a being alleged to be timeless? He would already know where his intentions would not come out. Such variances would thus be intentional!

    An interesting point. Whatever happens, therefore, is God’s will. In other words, we really control only our reactions to what happens; human free will decisions mean nothing in the long run.

  11. Hi Cory,

    I’m enjoying reading your blog. I just listened to a debate on the problem of evil the other day, and just finished blogging about it. You may find it interesting reading. http://seeingfaith.blogspot.com/2008/07/theodicy.html

    BTW, I think Augustine best explains his views (which I also think are accurate) in Enchiridion §100 (this is from Outler’s translation):

    These are “the great works of the Lord, well-considered in all his acts of will”—and so wisely well-considered that when his angelic and human creation sinned (that is, did not do what he willed, but what it willed) he could still accomplish what he himself had willed and this through the same creaturely will by which the first act contrary to the Creator’s will had been done. As the Supreme Good, he made good use of evil deeds, for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had mercifully predestined to grace.

    For, as far as they were concerned, they did what God did not will that they do, but as far as God’s omnipotence is concerned, they were quite unable to achieve their purpose. In their very act of going against his will, his will was thereby accomplished. This is the meaning of the statement, “The works of the Lord are great, well-considered in all his acts of will”—that in a strange and ineffable fashion even that which is done against his will is not done without his will. For it would not be done without his allowing it—and surely his permission is not unwilling but willing—nor would he who is good allow the evil to be done, unless in his omnipotence he could bring good even out of evil.

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