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.

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. . .

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