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Can we be good without God? This is the question that I previously covered in my blog post of the same name. That post covered how God is the source of absolute morality. This is a continuation of that thought.

If God is good, then what about evil? Why is there suffering?

When it comes to atheist arguments against God, this might be the strongest one that they have. In fact, according to Bart Ehrman, it is the reason that he stopped believing. To sum up the problem:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but unable to do so, he is not all powerful.
If God is able to prevent evil but unwilling to do so, he doesn’t want to stop evil.
If God is neither willing or able, then why call him God?

The first thing to point out to this is that this argument doesn’t actually call into question God’s existence; it only questions his character and power. But why do we see things as evil? If there is no objective moral value, then who is to say something is evil? Richard Dawkins says:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

One the one hand, it seems that Dawkins does believe this, but on the other, he calls religion evil, so he does believe that some things are evil. Responding to this, David Belinski, who is himself an unbeliever, as he says in the opening of his book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, says this:

Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good when unpoliced by police? If Dawkins believes that they do, he must explain the existence of the criminal law, if he believes that they do not, then he must explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends.

To say that there is evil is to say that there is a standard of good to compare evil to. As the saying goes, if there is no God, then all things are permissible. And the 20th century was an example of that philosophy. David Berlinski really puts this in context.

The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot will never be counted among the religious leaders of mankind.

Mao alone killed 40 million people, Stalin 20 million, Hitler 12 million, and these numbers are without considering those that died in their wars. David further writes:

Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justification for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?

If memory serves, it was not the Vatican.

So much for religion being evil. Or is it? It’s a common claim that “religion is the cause of war and violence.” But when you look at the facts, this claim fails. Studying the cause of every war in recorded history, religion is the cause of about 7% of those wars, with Islam being half of that.

A few pages later, David Berlinski writes:

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

On this topic, Andy Bannister writes this:

The atheist philosopher, Arthur Leff, admitted this [evil] is a real problem for atheism – for if there is no God, moral claims cannot rise above personal preferences and thus to any claim that you shouldn’t do something, somebody can always respond: “Yeah, sez who?”…

In other words, in the very act of calling something “evil” we are crying out that the world ought not to be that way, that there ought to be justice, there ought to be fairness, there ought to be goodness.

Dr. William Lane Craig, in his book On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, says this:

Consider, in particular, the moral argument. Much of the suffering in the world consists of evil acts that people perpetrate upon one another. But then we may argue as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore, objective moral values exist (some things are evil!).
  4. Therefore, God exists.

So evil actually proves the existence of God.

But what about suffering?

Much of the suffering that goes on in the world is because God has given us free will. This includes the freedom to make poor choices. J. Warner Wallace, in his book God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines The Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, says this:

Ideas and actions have consequences, and there are times when we suffer as the result of poor decisions and improper actions.

Consider Proverbs 19:3 (NLT)

People ruin their lives by their own foolishness
and then are angry at the Lord.

In the footnotes of God’s Crime Scene, J. Warner Wallace says this:

Atheist philosopher Stephen Law described the theistic position related to free agency: “God created us as free agents with the ability to choose how to act. Suffering results from our choosing to do things that are wrong. However, free will also allows for certain important goods, such as the ability to do good of our own volition. Puppet creatures that always did as God commands would not do evil. But such puppet beings lack moral responsibility, and so are unable to act in a genuinely virtuous manner. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some evil (such as that done by Hitler). But the good free will allowed more than outweighs those evils.” (Humanism: A Very Short Introduction).

Elsewhere in the same book, Jim writes:

A world without freedom makes love logically impossible.

If the Creator of the universe considers love the highest moral virtue, the only option available is to create a universe in which humans and animals have the freedom to choose love.

Free agency is more important than most people might initially believe. Without the freedom to do bad things, none of us could do good things.

And:
Even those who deny the existence of a Divine Creator must first have the personal freedom to do so. Freedom is a high value for all of us, because without it, we would be enslaved robots unable to love, hate, reason, or rebel…Freedom, in all its beauty, does not come without associated dangers.
So love, free will, and the consequences of our poor choices can explain some of the suffering that goes on in the world. Dr. William Lane Craig, in his book On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, says this:
It actually turns out the problem of suffering is easier to deal with given the Christian God rather than some bare-boned concept of God. For Christianity entails certain doctrines that increase the probability of God.
He lists 4 doctrines that increase the probability of God and suffering:
  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God
  1. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose.
  1. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life.
  1. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
Let’s focus on the 1st doctrine. Frank Turek, in his book Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, asks if “we really think that the God of the universe is morally obligated to make us happy here all the time?”  He then says:

God is not obligated to make us happy and comfortable for eighty years down here. We are not “God’s pets,” as William Lane Craig has put it. In fact, keeping us comfortable all the time would actually frustrate His purpose for us on earth.

How so? Because according to Christianity, the purpose of life is to know God and to make Him known.

And,

We call people who get everything they want “spoiled” because their character is spoiled. Pain, suffering, and difficulty is the antidote to that. It tends to prevent spoilage. God doesn’t want to spoil us; He wants to grow us. That’s why God is a father, not a grandfather. As the Scripture says, “Endure hardships as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” [Heb 12:7]

C. S. Lewis identified the God many of us want: “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day, ‘a good time was had by all.'” No wonder many people are disappointed with God. They believe in a God who cares only about comfort but not character.

And this:
As the Scriptures teach, and experience proves, it’s difficult to develop courage without danger, perseverance without obstacles, patience without tribulation, compassion without suffering, character without adversity, and faith (trust) without need. Soul-making is indeed painful. 
My cousin’s nephew, Kevin Olson, was paralyzed from the neck down during a swimming accident. He spent years seeking prayer for healing, and then counsel, as he wrote in his book Learning to Live With It, which is about the spiritual lessons he’s learned through the course of his ordeal. And he writes:
Satisfaction does not come from getting what we want physically; it comes from getting what we need spiritually.

God is more concerned about us knowing him. He is more concerned about our character. J. Warner Wallace, from God’s Crime Scene again, says:

Loving parents are usually more concerned with their children’s character than their comfort, and character is developed more through adversity than advantage. Hard times can bring out the best in all of us, providing us with opportunities to help those in need, rise to the occasion, and come to the rescue. Valor is seldom displayed in times of fortune, good health, or success. Some forms of perceived evil may simply be an effort on the part of a Divine Creator to develop the character of His children with eternity in mind.

 And there’s a certain point that we might not be able to explain or understand why God allows some suffering. We can come up with many intellectual reasons why but the truth is that we’re simply not in a position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks a good reason. No single explanation will account for every act of evil. Later in his same book, J. Warner Wallace says:
If there is a vastly superior Divine Creator, we shouldn’t expect to understand every motive, every thought, or every set of concerns in the Creator’s mind.
And:

As mere humans, we lack sufficient data about the causes we might attribute to free agency or the causal connection between reasonable explanations for evil. It’s also impossible for us to know with certainty what future good might result from a present evil or to know the motives a Divine Being might have in bringing about a particular action.

If a Divine Creator of this magnitude exists, we should expect some evils to be inexplicable and mysterious, given our limited ability to bridge the gap of understanding.

William Lane Craig, in On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, puts it this way:

Given the dizzying complexity of life, we are simply in no position at all to judge that God has no good reason for permitting some instance of suffering to afflict our lives.

Isaiah wrote:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
Is 55:8 NKJV

The NLT translation says this:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.

Dr. Craig concludes with:

If God does not exist, then we are locked without hope in a world filled with pointless and unredeemed suffering.

I can understand the emotional issue of suffering. I’ve been through some suffering of my own, which I’ve written on this blog before (1, 2, 3). An alcoholic father who would put beer in my bottle when I was a baby, deaf for 2 years, taking drinks of dad’s scotch at 4, sexually abused (not by my father) and then suicidal at the age of 5, being consumed by fear, drug abuse, etc. For the longest time, I considered the first 25 years of my life as darkness. I felt ashamed and had a hard time talking about it. But I’ve come to realize that telling the story has become quite a confession of the grace of God. As weird as it sounds, I’m no longer ashamed of my past, it is what it is. Some of the things that happened to me were because of the consequences of the choices of others, some of it was because of the consequences of my own choices. But in the end, it brought me to know Him more, and the telling of my story glorifies Him.
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