Why the problem of evil is much worse than theists tend to think

I recently went through a period of suffering and as it has eased I have undertaken a reexamination of the problem of evil. The problem of evil states an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good deity cannot coexist with evil. The preferred version of this is the evidential problem of evil which seeks to demonstrate specific evils which are so excessive that a tri-omni deity would not permit them. These are called gratuitous evils. Theists typically respond by trying to justify the tri-omni deity for permitting such evil which is called theodicy.

Many non-theists think that a prime example of gratuitous evil is animal suffering. Not every theist is convinced that it is actually a problem. I disagree and find this to be a serious problem for the theist. As for those who are doubtful of animal suffering, I think there is a strong moral objection to this view. Even if we did not have strong evidence for animal capacity to suffer, we should err on assuming they can because the moral stakes are so high. Indeed, our societies have criminalized animal cruelty and regulate food industry practices, and this in consistent with the assumption that animals can suffer.

The problem of animal suffering is magnified by biological evolution which, through predation and the starvation and death of unfit organisms, has produced an enormous amount of animal suffering. The sheer volume is only the start. Biological evolution is a process that produced our beautiful and complex biosphere in addition to billions of years of animal suffering – it is both good and evil. This presents a new challenge to the theist that may not be obvious at first glance. Let me elaborate. Biological evolution is a purely natural process (in theory), therefore it is governed by the natural laws that have operated since the beginning. Biological evolution is also morally good and evil, so how could it have been created by a tri-omni deity? At this point the theist could posit moral dualism by saying that the universe was created by both good and evil forces, but this goes against Christian theology. In Christian theology God created all of existence which had to include the natural laws, but the natural laws encode a vast amount of animal suffering.

The only theist I could find that has grappled with this particular aspect of the Darwinian problem of evil was stumped. So was I when I came across it while thinking one day. It was one of those problems that replayed over and over again in frustration because I could not even make up a single potential solution without either rewriting Christian theology or entirely reframing the problem of evil.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go somewhere I didn’t think I would. I’m going to agree with a major part of the analysis. Yes, God did create everything in existence including biological evolution and animal suffering. Even more horror awaits. Science indicates that all life on earth will be extinct in the future. Within 500 million years, if we don’t destroy the planet with climate change or war, the sun will expand into a red giant which will boil off the oceans and kill all remaining life. If we manage to escape this fate by going interstellar, dark energy will dilute all of matter and energy to nothing in an event called the Big Freeze. The universe has already sealed our fate. Even transhumans cannot escape death. What am I getting at? Both suffering and death were built into this universe intentionally by God.

Should that be a surprise though? Paul said, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. . .” (Romans 8:20-22). Paul is referring to God cursing the creation at the beginning which was an essential idea in the Hebrew creation myth. The important question is whether or not a curse of this sort fits with a tri-omni deity. A tri-omni deity is perfectly just, so the curse could be an execution of justice. But, who committed the crime? Out of the options, the one that makes the most sense to me is that the whole of humanity is responsible. Not just a snapshot of humanity, certainly not Adam and Eve. From the time Homo sapiens was endowed with intelligence and moral agency until our final demise, we are the ones who justify a universal curse, we are all Adam and Eve. This idea is called the “retroactive fall of man” theodicy.

Remember the title of this post though. Of course for me to adopt this theodicy is in some sense an intellectualization. So now I am going to freely unleash criticism on it. It seems grossly unfair. The collective sin of one species justifies a universal curse? Why do all the species have to suffer? Why do our children have to suffer? We are still left with unfair suffering, but this is not a new problem. Scripture talks about this in the book of Job. Job was righteous yet God allowed him to lose everything and suffer greatly. At the end of the story God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, and amazingly no theodicy is offered. In fact, it seems to be the opposite, an anti-theodicy: to say that we cannot understand all of God’s reasons. So, while the fall of man provides a degree of satisfaction, we are faced with an anti-theodicy to balance our egos.

The worst part of the problem of evil is that it is an inquiry into the unknown, an abstract undertaking. We are down here living in the world facing suffering that is concrete. In my time of suffering, I protested life and my life itself became a protest. Intellectualization lost its power because suffering is actually suffering, and I almost lost everything. Some of us will be dragged through the darkness and may not make it. And, this is a monumental concern and to be lamented. Returning to the intellectual aspect, the problem of evil seems to be a stalemate precisely because our resources are limited in analyzing God’s moral character. I’m talking about both the resources of evidence and thought. We are in a position, just as Abraham was, to either trust in God’s moral character or not. But, we are advantaged because the love of God has been revealed to us in Jesus who himself would freely take on unfair suffering and death to save us. Though we are advantaged, we are still in the position of having to decide whether we should trust in God’s moral character.

As for the animals, I see no reason why their lives will not be redeemed. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox. . .” (Isaiah 65). But, future justice, even though promised to be perfect, may fail to provide satisfaction in the present. That is why it’s my prayer that we face our struggles and demons with hope, and for Christians this ultimately means hope and faith in the Creator.


Presuppositional Apologetics: Science, Theology, and Exegesis

I recently watched a debate between a presuppositional apologist and an atheist and decided to make a blog post about this discussion, but I am presupposing that the reader is already familiar with the discussion to some extent. If you are atheist, you might be tempted to forgo reading this blog post, but I hope you will stick around and wrestle with its content especially what is at the end.

What I want to do is analyze the presuppositional position from three perspectives: exegetical, theological, and scientific. Let’s start by analyzing the central claim of presuppositional apologetics that scripture states all people know that God exists. Here is the commonly cited passage for review:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. . .” (Romans 1:18-20a, NRSV)

Is Paul really saying that someone born into an atheist culture (perhaps a post-Christian European country) would start with innate knowledge of God and then need to suppress this to as a rite of passage into their atheist culture? Before jumping to this conclusion we should read the passage in more context. It becomes obvious that Paul is talking about people who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (verse 23). In other words, Paul is talking about the pagans. Paul is explaining to his readers why the pagan religions exist and their origins from the beginning of civilization. And, Paul is not even addressing individuals but rather the entire culture.

Further, do we find Paul adopting a particular apologetic approach like evidentialism or presuppositionalism? We can look at how Paul approached the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens. Did Paul say, “You already know that God exists and you must be suppressing this knowledge”? NO! Paul says that God is the creator of all things and “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, NRSV). Is Paul presenting an argument in such a way that it only appeals to evidence? Or, is Paul telling them that they already know God exists? No and no. Paul was neither an evidentialist nor a presuppositionalist.

So, going back to Romans 1, why would someone extrapolate from pagans to modern cultures and from culture to individual? I have an idea. Here is a telling quote from a well-known presuppositional apologist:

“Would it not follow logically if the person did not know that God exists, had no concept of God, and stood before him and God says, ‘I am going to send you to hell for not believing in me.’ . . . that would not make sense.”

-Sye Ten Bruggencate on Dogma Debate radio show

It is clear from this quote that a major reason for adopting presuppositionalism is because it makes God fair. In this scheme everyone is equal because we start out with innate knowledge of God. It’s as if there is a theological problem of God’s fairness and presuppositionalism is the solution.

From my perspective the reason that God’s judgment is perfectly fair is NOT because we all start off with innate knowledge of God, rather it’s because God is omniscient and knows what to expect of each one of us no matter what our circumstances are on earth. Indeed, our circumstances are radically different from person to person and culture to culture, and this is no accident. Then, how will the atheist be judged? By their actions and their conscience (i.e., see Romans 2:6-16). If God calls an atheist to convert, then specifically rejecting this call is grounds for condemnation. But, it will not be arbitrary. The point here is that we don’t need innate knowledge of God for God to be fair.

Alright, you have waited patiently with bated breath for the scientific analysis. The answer is quite simple. We do not naturally believe in specific gods. We do have a propensity to believe in god(s), but these must be refined by culture. Here is a video which explains this and takes it a little further:

I think the apostle Paul would be agreeable to this. The human brain has the capacity and propensity to believe in gods, but this is refined through outside information, namely revelation, which leads to Christian theism, the belief in the one true God who created all things and will make them new.

How I became an Atheist – part 2

At the end of part 1 things weren’t too bad. I was probably around 17 years old and was mostly just becoming angry at church feeling like it was anti-intellectual regarding Deep Time and evolution. But, something inside me also wanted me to show them. I thought if only I could show them (i.e., as Bill Nye did in a debate this year), then they would understand.

The remainder of my high school days I went from church to church. But, the religion thing had little to do with it. The main reason me and my best friend would go was for sociality and meeting girls. Of course taking communion made me feel absolved, but I think I barely listened to a single word blasting out of the pulpit. My thinking was if these teachers can’t get something as simple as Big Time, how can they possibly provide an adequate interpretation of a 2000 year old text that was not written to modern people?

Then, came university. I approached church the exact same way. I was just there to say “Sup, yall” and meet hot chicks and take communion to make myself right with God. It’s the developing skeptic’s triad of church activities.

Then, I met my future wife. She had an eyebrow ring, tattoos on her feet, and was into traveling. I had long dirty hair, looked like a grunge rock star, and had a mysterious personality. Match made in heaven, I know. But, remember in my triad, one of the factors that kept me going to church was to meet girls. Once we got married after university, I lost a major reason to go to church.

After university my first job was in basic science, specifically the study of protein structure-function relationship. As I got more and more into the scientific literature I actually became addicted to science. I would work so many hours making hypotheses, performing experiments, and read every article I could find relevant to my field. This is when I really developed an appreciation for scientific method and skepticism. One of my first projects was to verify work from a Japanese group of scientists. It’s nothing against their credibility, rather this is how science works. If you publish something, be prepared to have it scrutinized and possibly even retested if it’s important enough to another research group.

This is when skipping church actually became just not going at all. Sundays were for sleeping in.

Fast forward about one year. I was skating by the beach with an atheist friend when he asked me a question that hit like a baseball bat to the head, “How can God send people to hell for an infinite period of time for committing finite crimes?” It didn’t matter that I could argue against this notion of hell, what this question did was send me on a journey to figure if this whole religion had any truth whatsoever.

I dove into the debate headfirst and made a commitment to seek out anything, I would not hide my eyes from anything anyone was saying about God and religion. This is exactly what I did! I really liked Hitchens and Harris, they were particularly eloquent, even able to criticize atheism which to me gave them credibility. These are some of the things that I concluded:

(1) Every single argument for God’s existence can be refuted.
(2) The whole Christian narrative of God saving the world 250,000 years after humans evolved is absurd.
(3) The idea of Jesus absorbing God’s wrath is absurd.
(4) The Mosaic Law and the Canaanite genocide are immoral.
(5) The bible is misogynistic through and through.
(6) There is no evidence for a worldwide flood.
(7) Organized religion is tyrannical and people that fall into it simply have not studied science and reason or have not taken it seriously enough.
(8) I see no evidence for an all-good God in a world plagued with pain and suffering, particularly the innocents, the infants and children.

Needless to say, I quickly graduated to agnosticism.

I need to admit something. I never “came out” as an agnostic or atheist to my family or even my wife. I feared the consequence, but I have a feeling they suspected it after all the heated discussions. I recently asked my wife what she thought all those years and she said she basically knew it the whole time. She’s smart. 🙂

How I became an Atheist

Although I have been doing philosophical blogging as of late, I thought I would interject a personal story. Sometimes, perhaps often, a person is easier to appreciate than an idea.

This is part 1.

My journey to atheism began as a child. I grew up in the northern Texas which is renowned for its religiosity. We had a church on every street corner and every denomination (or non-denomination) from A to Z was listed in the phone book.

My family for at least two generations had been committed Christians. My grandfather was a benevolence minister; he literally had a job finding poor families and taking them groceries and supplies. I love and miss him dearly. My parents were fundamentalist Christians. They belonged to a denomination that believed they were right, so naturally everyone else was wrong. In addition to black and white thinking and their sense of doctrinal superiority, they held to a strict literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis.

This is where it all began. As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. (Velociraptor was my favorite. The dinosaur skeleton shown above is a Velociraptor 😀 ). But I wondered, why are dinosaurs not in the bible? After all, the bible was supposed to contain all of world history since the creation. It vexed my poor little brain. Somehow I learned that dinosaurs might have been mentioned in the book of Job chapter 41 as the Leviathan. This was wonderful news to my ears, I had my answer: dinosaurs were in the bible! They must have gone extinct within biblical times.

Fast forward about five or so years to a thing called Youth Group, a sort of mini-church meeting for teenagers. There we were taught that evolution was evil and completely false. Also, I remember at a large church service (>1000 people) the preacher argued that evolution was statistically as impossible as a monkey randomly typing a Shakespeare sonnet. They successfully convinced me that evolution was untenable and that the bible was right all along.

As I was developing my beliefs at this particular church, the overall experience was fraught with negativity. There was excessive petty infighting and a good dose of hypocrisy that even a kid could see. [Insert examples here]. I thought maybe this is not God’s fault, but this reasoning did not make it easier to continue going to church.

Even though I was a Christian one of my best friends in high school was an atheist. We would play chess, video games, debate, play guitar, and create untold mischief. What was interesting is that we had such different beliefs and different consciences, yet we had a strong friendship. I actually had trouble making Christian friends. Most of my real friends seemed religiously ambivalent. I find it a great irony that God would make me such a conscientious Christian teenager yet only fit in with the ambivalent and the atheist. It didn’t seem ironical at the time, it was frustrating to feel like an outsider. Was this teen angst or did it source from a deeper religious frustration? Maybe a little of both.

One day I bought a book about science and religion, my first real exposure to the subject. I had to read it slowly because it was so dense, but I devoured that book like a Velociraptor (had to get that one in). The book was sympathetic to evolution. When I could see the evidence for evolution clearly laid out before me and how the creation story does not have to be read with literal days in mind, my world was suddenly turned upside down. Cognitive dissonance, a very uncomfortable state, ensued. When the calamity began to settle, I decided I could no longer reject evolution. I did not know what to do with religion anymore. . . I would have to try to make evolution and religion work together. . .

. . .
. . .
Do you have a similar experience? Do you know someone with a similar experience? Feel free to comment or question about anything.

The Hiddenness of Freedom

Suppose that you parachute from an airplane into a vast unoccupied desert. The lifeless sand is a warning. You have enough supplies in your pack to last a week. You look across the east horizon for any sign of hope. To your surprise there is something off in the distance, a vague object. To the north there is nothing as far as the eye can see. To the west there is, to your surprise, another vague object. To the south – nothing. Which object do you seek out, the east or west? The objects are as vague as to be indistinguishable. It seems that choosing one or the other is a matter of pure randomness, so without any more consideration you start heading east. After several days of trekking, the eastern object is beginning to take form. Finally, it appears to be a rock formation with some skeletons, an ominous sign! What do you do? You decide to retrace your journey and make for the other vague object. Several days later. . . it feels as if death is encroaching as your supplies dwindle. You are parched; the sun threatens to burn the flesh right off your bones. Thankfully, the other object begins to take form. It is just another rock formation, but is that some green? At closer inspection there is a small green plant. You climb the rocks and look upon the other side. . . Is this a mirage? A hallucination induced by dehydration? An oasis appears before you complete with water and palm trees!

Where is our freedom?

Some say there is no freedom. Human actions are entirely determined by circumstances and the brain, an immensely complex computer. As you traverse reality, you are not “deciding” anything at all; in fact, the brain already had an answer before the question was asked. The brain already had the output before the input was received because with any given input there was only one possible output. And, any feeling of freedom is simply an illusion. But, has science ruled out the possibility of freewill? Is science even capable of detecting systems with freedom? A system with freedom may be unpredictable enough as to be hidden from science.

My thinking is that, yes, a form of freewill does exist amidst the deterministic components of the brain. The freedom is found in the ability to seek, to inquire, and to ask. One might argue that these tendencies are innate, that we don’t actually have a choice to seek. This may be true in many or most instances, but it may be that there are instances in which a true expression of freedom, a decision to seek truth and morality, is undertaken. We don’t have to know when we express freedom to be expressing freedom. Indeed, an expression of freedom may be hidden from our own knowledge.

As we are surrounded by vague objects in the distant horizon, we have the ability to seek their true form, hoping to uncover just a tiny bit of the mystery we find ourselves surrounded by. Hopefully we can find an oasis.

Letter to atheists

This is my first post, and it’s really long! It’s written as a letter to the atheist community and tries to maintain a conversational style and hopefully make interesting and engaging points. Enjoy!

Dear atheists,

To all that love and hate me, who do and do not know me, who approach life with care and concern, to the arrogant and humble, to friends and foes. Thanks for being interested in my letter. As I am a theist, let us discuss the source of our contention. No proofs will be offered. Instead, let us ask, which belief about God is most rational? The three major options are atheism, agnosticism, and theism.

To begin, a few words are in order regarding belief. How should we define rational belief? Hopefully you will agree with this definition: a belief is rational when it is supported by sufficient evidence. For example, having never visited the ocean, believing in its existence is rational because of abundant documentation and testimony supporting its existence. Consider the case when sufficient evidence is lacking, yet a belief is held. This is often called “faith” by certain groups, both theist and atheist, and is irrational by our definition. Another group of theists insist that their faith is rational as defended by arguments. No shortage of detractors have challenged these arguments. The result is arguments and rebuttals that seem to carry on endlessly. When the final word is dealt who has assented to rational superiority?

In my pursuit of truth, a journey in which we share, I was disgruntled with religion for numerous reasons to the point of becoming an atheist for several years. Still, Christianity had remained an intellectual curiosity and often a source of frustration for me. In keeping with this curiosity one night I was listening to a debate about the resurrection of Jesus and was somehow convinced Jesus really did rise from the dead and this event led to the rise of Christianity. Given the degree of skepticism that I had developed, a deep questioning of everything, I was greatly surprised by being convinced! This new belief in Jesus created a spirituality in me. On top of this, to make sense out of Jesus I believed in God. I partook in this spirituality unencumbered for some time. During this time, however, my mind had not turned off. With constant reexamination it began finding flaws in the argument that convinced me. Things began to fade.

Maybe I should have expected something like this would happen. Ever since understanding the importance of seeking out the very best objections, all arguments have been susceptible to being judged flawed. One day I was revisiting the arguments for the existence of God. I had heard of this idea that one does not need an argument to believe. I thought to myself, then why do I need something more than an argument, a flawless argument? Why do I even need an argument at all? Why not simply believe in God? And at that very moment, something occurred within me. I believed in God. . .

Returning to the question we set out to answer, let us frame the question around my belief in God. How rational is my belief in God? Honestly, this question has become absurd. It is neither rational nor irrational; it cannot be categorized as such. It was not reached by the persuasiveness of arguments or force of algorithms. Consequently, I can never claim rational superiority over you whether you are an atheist, agnostic, or theist. And, this is not for lack of want. My ego relishes in an outward show of rationality and intellect, it is one of my deep struggles. But now my belief in God does not rely on a construction of rationality, and this is humbling. The taste of humility is freedom. It is freedom from the slavery of the ego and freedom from feelings of inadequacy when a proof is not kept in the back pocket.

Now, should our conversation about God discontinue? By all means, no! There must be some sense of rationality involved in my belief in God, despite not finding its base in what we typically call argumentation or evidence. In what sense though? There are two answers I would like to submit. First, consider how I came to believe in God. In other words, consider the preceding events which seem to be necessary conditions. I found myself compelled by the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. There is something within me, that when I had seriously considered Jesus and the very beginning of Christianity, testified to the truth of the resurrection. What is within me? It’s not just an emotion, although it may involve emotion. It’s not a sense like sight or hearing, although it may seem analogous to such perception. It’s not a Eureka moment or an intuition, although these phenomena bear semblance. Indeed, this inner testimony is not something that I can grasp onto for analysis beyond what I have said. This is a unique phenomenon and seems to be ongoing, I will call it the spirituality of Jesus. If this spirituality died within me, I would have to wonder what had happened and this would certainly not preclude questioning the existence of God. In this way my belief in God is linked to a sort of internal rationality, but not based upon arguments or evidence that I can directly present to you. Secondly, it is not as if my belief in God is totally protected from external rational objections. If these objections would compel me, then I would disbelieve. I seek out the very best objections I can find, not only because of my interest in truth, but because these objections are put forth by sincere people and I have respect for their concern and criticism. I was with them, and I am with them. Indeed, I love them. So, let our conversation about God continue.

You might already be considering the objection that internal rationality is a flawed method for determining truth. Do not these internal methods, however they work, produce a variety of contradictory religious beliefs? Can a method that produces contradictory beliefs be considered reliable in any way? I take this concern seriously. For me, I came to understand whatever had happened to me cannot be categorized as a method. A method is something employed to reach a certain objective. Its employment is volitional. For example, one may use scientific method for discovering the workings of nature. One may use historical method to build a rational construction of history. But, whatever happened to me was not the result of employing a method. It simply happened, I did not “choose” it in any ordinary sense of choice as in the fact that I am choosing to write this sentence. Of course, there was some volitional behavior along the way. I was actively seeking God trying to see if God exists and for me that meant mounting a serious effort to study the world including advancements in science and religion, always digging as deeply to find the best possible arguments and counterarguments, never being satisfied but not giving up hope of the possibility of God.

Also, consider the difficulties early Christianity had to face. If Christian belief contradicts modern atheism and modern religions, then how much more did it contradict the range of philosophy and religious belief in the ancient world? When the apostle Paul traveled to Athens, he was deeply distressed by the idols. Despite what probably felt overwhelming, Paul debated with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and spoke to the polytheists. Considerate of the diversity of ideas and religious belief, Paul crafted an argument that the Athenian “unknown” deity was actually the Creator of the universe even quoting Athenian poetry. Paul’s approach stands against intellectual arrogance and triumphalism. And, the Athenian response was within the range we would expect: some scoffed, some were interested to hear more, and some believed. So, what can I say about these things? How can I make theological sense of the diversity of religious beliefs and routes to adopting them? The complexity here may well be beyond sufficient analysis. When all the discourse is boiled down, and this is not to diminish the importance of sincere and engaging discourse, the good news of Jesus does not come with “plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [one’s] faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (verse) Here, a spirit is not necessarily something supernatural; the supernatural did not exist as a category in the ancient world when scripture was penned. A spirit is something within the mind. Though it is unseen it is a compelling force like the wind. The Spirit of God is just that and a gift out of the rich generosity of God. Still we can ask, why does the non-Christian monotheist not convert? Are they not seeking God? What about the atheist who wants to believe but must refrain due to intellectual honesty? I do not know. I do not know their desire and their heart. I do not know their pain and their struggle. I do not know their pleasure and their joy. As it stands, I am not in position to judge you as to whether or not you are seeking God, whether or not you have lost all hope in the possibility of God. If anyone can fairly judge your heart, it is God and not a human.

Finally, what about natural explanations for belief in God such as evolutionary psychology? The capacity to believe in God seems to be hardwired but as a “glitch” of evolution, or belief in God may ultimately be an adaptive trait that was selected for during biological and/or social evolution. I do not, prima facie, reject any such natural explanation. God could have designed this capacity to believe through evolution by setting the initial conditions of the universe which would eventually provide the environment for hominids to evolve the capacity to believe in God. Evolutionary psychology does, however, pose ontological threat for lesser beings than a Creator such as angels and demons. I do not pretend to offer a comprehensive analysis, especially not in so few sentences, but it’s worth commenting that natural explanations for belief in God do not make God’s existence any more or less likely.

More could be said, however I will leave it at this for now. My hope is that I can help inspire in you what you have inspired in me: a renewed interest in the journey for truth and especially to consider and reconsider the possibility of God.