Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Problem of Suffering

Today we're going to look at an issue that effects Christianity and all Monotheistic faiths, suffering.

In ancient times it was extraordinarily common for mortals to blame disaster, tragedy and catastrophe on the supernatural. Human beings have always struggled with the idea that disaster might be random or without cause. Our own ability to feel guilt leads us to believe that we deserved disaster. This type of thinking can still be seen today. If things are going well in our lives, for instance, someone might say "Someone up there must really like me". And when bad things happen we might say something like "someone up there must have it out for me". Even in modern day fundamentalism there are those that blame storms on homosexuality or abortion, or any other aspect of society they dislike, as the cause of God's wrath.

The problem is that for most Monotheists the God dishing out a heaping helping of wrath is meant to be a loving and merciful God. Polytheism, the belief in more than one god, has it much easier than Monotheism in this regard. Most polytheistic faiths cast their gods as being much more human like and often limited in power or scope. Zeus, for instance, is the god of lightning and his son Apollo is the god of the sun while his other son Hephaestus knows his way around a volcano. So they are limited in their scope and therefore each individually hold the blame for anything that might happen. Zeus get's a free pass if Hephaestus starts a volcanic eruption to punish the sinful mortals. Most gods in polytheism also have character flaws that are much more pronounced. They were not all characterized as loving and merciful beings.

The issue of suffering comes into sharp focus when the idea of childhood disease is mentioned. Few things are more heartbreaking and unfair than to see a child stricken with some incurable illness from which they will not recover. Monotheism has failed to explain why this happens. After all a small child has no sins and therefore the illness can hardly be seen as a punishment for some wrongdoing. So why exactly is an All Powerful All Loving allowing ten year olds to get cancer and die? This is another place where polytheism has the answer because their gods have limited power... A Monotheistic All Powerful God doesn't have such limits to hide behind. This brings me to one of the most famous atheistic arguments against God ever put forward and it comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus some three hundred years before Christ is said to have lived:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Epicurus states the problem perfectly. If God is truly good why isn't he intervening to prevent evil when that evil befalls good people. Most Monotheists get around this with the claim that we are ALL sinners but surely this cannot apply to a child. And what of a fetus infected with AIDS nearly from the moment of conception doomed to a horrible existence... surely it hasn't had a chance to sin before its life has even begun. The absurdity of Original Sin is apparent and while some may accept a very early age of accountability for sin I doubt any parent wants to accept the idea that their baby is born a sinner destined for hellfire. If that were the case children who died before being able to accept Christ would end up in Hell and although Yahweh might be cruel enough to do something like that in the Old Testament I admit that such would be low for the New Testament version of God.

Sins of the Father:

So where is this God? Why is it not preventing the needless deaths of starving children and children who get terminal illnesses? Surely they don't deserve this? From here we get the unpleasant idea that the sins of the parents have passed on to the children. The basis for this is none other than the Old Testament itself. Within Exodus 20 in the verses that collectively make up the Ten Commandments God promises to visit the sins of the Fathers onto the sons. To suggest to a couple upon the sudden illness of their child that some sin of theirs brought this upon their baby is disgustingly low. To create guilt where sadness already exists is absurd and to paint God as so petty as to take his vengeance out upon the most innocent ones among us is revolting. In visiting the inequity of the Fathers on the sons God would be violating the second line of Epicurus attack on theism. Not only is God, in this case, not willing to prevent evil but he is willing to directly commit an evil act against an innocent merely for the sake of revenge. Punishing the child for the sins of the Father is very similar to something a character tried in a super-hero movie that came out a few years ago...

In the Dark Knight Harvey Dent (aka Two Face, pictured above) decides that Commissioner Gordon has failed to save his beloved Rachel. This failure is a horrible sin and Two Face wants to punish Gordon but rather than kill Gordon he wants to take from Gordon the thing that Gordon loves the most. Sounding like Yahweh yet? Two Face decides to shoot Gordon's son. So Gordon's son will be punished for the sins of the Father. This sounds almost exactly like the first born of Egypt doesn't it? God's attempt at Collateral Damage against the Egyptians for slaughtering Hebrew babies. Maybe someone should explain to Yahweh that violence begets more violence.

All Powerful Will:

This brings me to another major point. The idea that God is All Powerful means something, it means that God is responsible for everything that goes on. I believe I've touched upon this briefly before. All Power = All Responsibility. Even if God manages to shirk responsibility onto other beings by offering them enough power to have free will if he still remains All Powerful than he still retains All Responsibility. It is just like Epicurus says, if he is not willing than he is malevolent plain and simple. If God is willing than everything would be fine since NOTHING could stand in the way of the Will of an All-Powerful being unless he wanted it to. In other words it is impossible for human beings to sin, or make any decision, without it being God's express will that we do so. If it was his Will that we be able to make our own choices and if he has the power to stop us from sinning at any moment by any means than how exactly is it our fault that we're sinners? Once again polytheism could weasel out of this problem but Monotheism cannot escape so easily.

Another thing many Monotheists will claim is that when God allows a child to die that God merely wanted that child up in Heaven. This is an absurd idea. If God truly wanted that child up in Heaven why would God allow that child to be sent to Earth only to suffer in a die in a horrifically painful way? And why, if God truly just wants the kid in Heaven, would he put his/her parents through the Hell of watching their young child be lowered into the ground?


Of course Monotheists will attempt to squirm their way around the problem of suffering because to do otherwise would be to admit their God is either impotent or malevolent. However I think I have demonstrated that if they were being intellectually honest they would admit just that. It is clear that God is either Malevolent, Impotent or merely imaginary (although we could just say he exists but is extraordinarily incompetent and therefore doesn't know how to use his power to stop suffering). In fact Epicurus put the nail in this coffin some three centuries before Christ was nailed to the cross.


  1. Probably your most powerful article yet. This is one area where I believe theists have no defense.. an loving and powerful god would not let such atrocities happen to innocent children not yet capable of sin.

  2. Thanks. Theists have a lot of trouble weaseling their way out of this one, though they still try their best. Monotheism has this problem while polytheists can get out of it. For Buddhists its even easier since Buddha actually said Life is Suffering.