Grotesqueness and Absurdity of Christianity
The Grotesqueness and Absurdity of Christianity
Topic III: The Problem of Evil
Part I: Original Sin
In addition to the moral horrors taught in the Bible, there are countless absurdities in the Christian system, some of which have some pretty severe consequences and so present the Christian with real issues with which he must deal. Some of the religion's doctrines are, in fact, in such contradiction with one another that they reveal Christianity to be so internally inconsistent as to be impossible, despite the sophistry of innumerable apologists to explain these obvious contradictions away.
The single most important of these problems, without mentioning which no criticism of Christianity would be sufficient, is the problem of evil. This is, obviously, only a problem for a tradition that accepts a deity that is, at once, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, but as Christianity does posit such a being, the religion does have some things it needs to explain.
Virtually all Christian apologists attempt to justify the existence of evil by positing a fallen world, a world that has been alienated from God. The reason invariably given for this state of the universe is the disobedience of Adam and Eve. This hoary couple committed the first sin, and responsibility for it has been passed on to all human beings as a result of some peculiar collective guilt (that makes the child responsible for the actions of his parent or ancestor).
Surely, the import of this narrative is based on some primitive sense of retaliatory justice in which whole clans were to be punished for the misdeed of one member. God, it would seem, has never moved past such archaic ideas. He is stuck in the world of blood feuds and tribal genocide. Regrettably, not only is such a perspective morally repugnant, but it is also nonsensical.
After all, this particular understanding of original sin conflates the individual with the class to which he belongs, which is just incoherent. Except for classes with only one member, a class and the members of that class are not coterminous. The term "Frank" does not have the same scope as the term "human being." Though "Frank" is included amongst human beings, the terms cannot be interchanged. A predicate applied specifically to "Frank" will apply only to "Frank," not to the class "human being" or to any other member of that class. Only a predicate applied to the class as a whole will apply to all individuals of that class (whether this predicate is one the presence of which defines the members of a class or one that, by some accident, has come to be applicable to every member of a class). Guilt, or responsibility, being that quality which is nothing more than having performed a particular act, is, necessarily, something that attaches to an individual member of a class rather than to the class itself. It is not, therefore, correct to say that an act for which Frank is responsible is an act for which human beings generally are responsible. A given human being, Frank, for instance, is obviously an individual separate from all others and is responsible only for his own actions, as are all other human beings. If Frank commits murder, neither I nor any other person is responsible for that murder. In Christianity, however, Frank, I, and every other person who has ever lived is responsible for the sin of Adam, even though not one of us committed it. The sin of the individual is the sin of the class. God must indulge in some pretty sloppy thinking. I suppose if he saw one yellow fish he would insist that all fish are yellow or, were he mugged by one black man, that all black men are muggers.
Now, a Christian could point out that there are characteristics that define what a class is, the possession of which make particular entities members of that class. Possession of the quality "being round" makes a thing a circle, for example. For such a Christian, then, "possessing or being guilty of original sin" would be a trait that defines a thing as human (which, incidentally, would make Adam and Eve nonhuman before they committed the sin). In such cases, however, we are creating a category by observing a quality first and then differentiating those possessing it from those not possessing it. Regrettably, no one has observed the quality "being guilty of original sin" and used its observed presence to define those possessing the quality as "human." Though I have seen people commit a variety of wrongs, I've never seen one person commit Adam's original sin. Nor am I aware of any justifiable inference that could establish the existence of the quality "being guilty of original sin." I might be able to infer that some person is responsible for some particular act, that, for instance, my friend ate my sandwich, but I cannot imagine any inference that could establish that one man is responsible for the actions of another who lived thousands of years ago. Doing so would be like inferring that I am responsible for Caesar's conquest of the Gauls. Sadly for the Christian, for a quality to define what a thing is, that quality simply has to be observed or, at the least, inferred. Thus, we can identify a particular entity as a man as a result of our noting that he possesses those qualities that every single man we encounter possesses, namely, those particular qualities that make an entity human. We do not identify an entity as a human by simply saying, but never observing, that this entity has a particular quality which we say is, but never observe to be, present in all human beings. So identifying an entity as a man is no more rational than our identifying him as such as a result of saying (without any justification) that he has invisible antlers, which we say (again without justification) that all other human beings have.
Even when a certain quality is not what defines a given category, but is merely something that is, as a result of some accident, possessed by all members of the category, we still base our judgement that the quality and the quality-possessor are connected on observation. We do not, however, perceive the presence of the quality "being guilty of original sin" in all human beings. We might observe that some different guilt is present in particular human beings, such as in the murderer or the thief, but we do not observe that this particular guilt is present in all. It is, consequently, absurd to say that one man's sin is the sin of all.
In fact, we never perceive that any person possesses that particular quality "being guilty of original sin," because no one has seen any person commit this sin. We might as well claim that a person is guilty of eating gryphon eggs. The assertion has every bit as much basis in observation as does the claim that a person is guilty of original sin. I suppose, for the sake of argument, that we can know by the testimony of the Bible that Adam and Eve were guilty of original sin, but this will not help my opponent since, as I have said, we do not observe others possessing this guilt, and the sin of one person cannot be ascribed to another.
Nor can we infer that people are guilty of original sin from observing how they commit other sins. Being responsible for one action or possessing one quality does not entail being responsible for another action or possessing another quality, unless there is an established causal link between the two. If I see a man kick a dog, I see a man who possesses the quality "being responsible for kicking a dog." I do not witness a man possessing such qualities as "being guilty of original sin," "being guilty of shooting John F. Kennedy," or "being the shape and color of a mango." I could only infer that original sin is the cause of the observed sin if I perceived the observed sin being produced by original sin, but, since I have never perceived original sin, I have never seen it produce anything.
It is possible, however, that the Christian could say that Adam's guilt has, somehow, been transferred to his descendants without their having committed the sin in question, but he must then provide some explanation of how guilt could be transferred. As far as I can see, this transmission could occur by two means. First, it could happen as a result of physical transmission, as a disease is transmitted. However, moral guilt is not something physical and cannot so be transmitted. A Christian might then claim that there are non-physical things that can so be transferred from one person to another and point to ideas. Indeed, ideas are non-physical yet are transmitted by physical means. Specifically, a person with an idea can state it verbally, in writing, or by some other means, which physical act or its results are encountered by another person who processes the information so received and becomes aware of the first individual's idea. I will grant that the idea of moral guilt could so be transferred. I could, for instance, be given the idea that I possess moral guilt, but this is not the same thing as possessing moral guilt. An admission that the transference of ideas occurs does not, after all, establish the reality of the transference of any other non-physical entity. Thus, no matter how much a delusional person believes he is guilty of a crime, his belief does not actually make him guilty of it.
If a Christian wants to show me that a predicate, specifically, guilt itself, rather than the idea of guilt, can be transferred by non-physical means, he will have to provide me with an indisputable instance where such a predicate has so been transferred. He could then perhaps point out that the application of a predicate can be spread, that is to say transmitted, by linguistic usage. He could note that when a new word is coined, all things to which that word applies come to be qualified by that word. Once the word "Westerner" was applied to persons from Europe and their descendants on other continents, every such person came to be qualified by the predicate "being a Westerner." There need not even be transmission of the usage of the word, itself expressing an idea, from one person to another for this application to occur. The application can occur when a single person mentally uses a given word in a particular way. Being unattracted to Eskimos, I could, for example, apply the predicate "being ugly" to all Eskimos. Unfortunately, such a predicate is nothing more than a mental construction and merely expresses the cognitive processes, the perspectives and biases, of a particular person. It does not actually affect the object to which it is applied. My belief that Eskimos are ugly does not somehow apply ugliness to these persons outside of my own mind. There is no external transmission of the predicate and its application is nothing more than an expression of my personal bias. For the record, I have never met an Eskimo and so do not believe that Eskimos are ugly.
There is, however, an easy reply to this argument, specifically, that god imposes guilt upon all of Adam's descendants. This is what St. Augustine claims when he says, "the whole mass of the human race stood condemned, lying ruined and wallowing in evil, being plunged from evil into evil and, having joined causes with the angels who had sinned, it was paying the fully deserved penalty for impious desertion" (Augustine, Enchiridion, Albert C. Outler, trans., VIII, 27). Guilt, then, is not having committed a given act; it is simply an ascription of a characteristic by one person (god) to another by an act of judgment. If this is the case, however, then god is deliberately ascribing guilt to persons who have committed no wrong. He is cruelly punishing the innocent, persons he knows have not committed that sin the guilt of which he lays upon them, and such an act is opposed to his omnibenevolence.
A Christian opponent could, I suppose, still retain the heart of his position by conceding that original sin has not been passed on, that only Adam and Eve possessed it, but then saying that their having committed the sin so corrupted them that it changed their bodies, their souls, or both of these. This changed, corrupted nature was then inherited by their descendants, all human beings. There really is no way to disprove this, any more than there is any way to disprove that there are currently billions of non-material fairies dancing on the tip of my nose or that invisible space monsters from the planet Waggawagga came to Earth, mated with protohuman primates while these slept, and so spawned our species, but there is no way to prove any such assertion, either.
A Christian might reply to this by claiming that we do observe man's sinful nature. He might, for instance, say that, by looking at how children lie, steal, commit acts of violence, and so on, we can infer that such children have an inherently sinful nature. He will then say that these children have such a sinful nature because their nature has been corrupted by original sin.
This argument is, however, flawed. For one thing, even if it did demonstrate that children, and so all human beings, have a sinful nature, the assertion that any given child has such a corrupt nature because he has acquired it from some person, Adam, whose nature was corrupted by his committing the first sin, remains completely undemonstrated.
Moreover, while I will concede that we can see that all people do bad things, this capacity for evil is not necessarily indicative of a corrupt, a sinful nature. The same characteristics that are used to show that human beings are corrupt, "aggression," "duplicity," "jealousy," and what have you, can be explained empirically as a part of our biological nature. We can explain aggressiveness, for example, by noting how aggression aids in survival. We can turn to observation to verify this explanation. There is, consequently, no need to rely on an unverifiable narrative (that of Adam and Eve's disobedience) to explain this trait. It is, of course, always wise to rely upon the argument that requires the fewest unproven assumptions. I would, after all, be wiser to assume that my foot itches because the mosquito I see flying away from me bit it than to assume that it itches because I was abducted by Atlanteans living on the bottom of some ocean who took me back in time to their ancient city, conducted experiments on my foot, returned me to my original time, and erased all my memories of my strange ordeals. The first assumption is supported by empirical evidence; the second is not.
What is more, such a change of Adam's nature did not occur, according to Christian theology, simply as a result of impersonal causal factors, nor could it have since god superintends the universe. St. Augustine is quite clear about this when he claims, "through his sin he [Adam] subjected his descendants to the punishment of sin and damnation, for he had radically corrupted them, in himself, by his sinning. As a consequence of this, all those descended from him and his wife (who had prompted him to sin and who was condemned along with him at the same time)--all those born through carnal lust, on whom the same penalty is visited as for disobedience--all these entered into the inheritance of original sin" (Augustine, Enchiridion, Albert C. Outler, trans., VIII, 26). If, however, Adam's nature was made corrupt as punishment for his transgression, for his original sin, then god's imposition of such a nature upon Adam's descendants, his punishment of these innocents, is just as wrong as is his ascribing guilt to such persons. An omnibenevolent being would surely be compassionate and interested in furthering justice. He would not deliberately hurt others and further injustice.
Although the doctrine of original sin is employed to explain the existence of evil in this world, it is clearly so flawed that it must be false. Original sin, though said to be the cause of man's evil nature, his capacity to do harm to his fellows, cannot be. It is, however, even more useless in explaining why the world itself is filled with violent catastrophes and unavoidable suffering, which often result from events that are not caused by human beings. If, after all, original sin is the reason for these things happening, then it must be because men possess the guilt of original sin rather than simply having a corrupt nature. Since such things as hurricanes, floods, diseases, and deformities, being causally unrelated to human nature, cannot be prompted by our nature, then, if they are caused by original sin, they must be inflicted upon us by god because of our guilt. This, however, cannot be the case, since, for the reasons given above, only Adam and Eve could possess that guilt. Clearly, the doctrine of original sin is not going to help the Christian explain away the existence of evil.
Part II: Free Will
Ignoring the problems discussed above, and granting man's corrupt nature, let us turn to another, related doctrine employed to deal with the problem of evil, namely, free will. Admittedly, not all Christians have accepted that human beings have free will. There have been a significant number of Christians who, emphasizing god's omniscience and omnipotence, have decided that he determines who is to be saved and who is to be damned. There are also, however, a significant number of Christians who posit the existence of free will and who then claim that evil exists because free will has been given to such beings as ourselves.
I will not bother with the god of those who accept predestination. Their deity is so harsh and cruel (after all, he has arbitrarily selected certain persons for heaven and, in his boundless love, decided to let the rest roast in hell) that I do not feel it necessary to go into great details to condemn such a belief. It is obviously opposed to the Christian doctrine that god is omnibenevolent and so exposes the system that includes it to be false.
For those who do not accept predestination, the standard answer to the problem of evil is little better than such a vision. I am, of course, referring to the claim that evil exists because man is corrupt and has free will. This answer is not satisfactory.
First of all, I would ask: Does having free will necessarily entail the capacity to do evil? Free will is not generally accepted as being equivalent to being omnipotent. Though I may desire to fly, for example, though I will myself to do so, I cannot leap from a cliff and sail through the air. Clearly, then, I can still have free will without having the capacity to perform a given act. If this is the case, then I can have free will without having the capacity to sin. Couldn't god have created a world in which one living thing does not have the capacity to kill another? A universe in which such a thing is impossible is not innately more absurd than one in which there is the impossibility of the destruction of matter (as is the case in our own universe). In other words, such a universe is not logically impossible and so is not impossible for an omnipotent being to create. The creation of the world that actually exists by god, and his placement of human beings in it, would then seem to be unnecessarily cruel.
I would further point out that a person's will is affected by his various instincts and drives, which include those that impel him to perform acts that Christianity considers sinful. Surely, if god is all powerful and all good, but considers nearly all sexual acts to be sinful, he could have avoided giving us the strong sexual urges we have. We could have been made like most other animals, with a desire to engage in sexual acts only at certain times (specifically, for us, after we married). We would not then have the drive that prompts us to commit so many sins. This would not, moreover, infringe upon our free will. We don't, after all, have desires to do many things for which many other living things do have desires, desires which impel them to perform actions humans don't perform. We don't, instance, have a desire to self-anoint as hedgehogs do. Does the absence of this drive limit our free will? I do not believe that it does, nor can I imagine any Christian theologian disagreeing with me. It is absurd to claim that not providing us with certain drives, drives that cause us to harm ourselves, would limit our free will. Why, then, couldn't god have made our minds a little bit different from the way they are, without particular destructive impulses? It seems unnecessarily cruel to give a person a strong urge and then to punish him for acting on that urge.
Of course, god does not merely punish the person who commits a sin. Even were I to grant that god has done us a favor by giving us free will along with the capacity to do evil, this does not excuse him for then allowing one person to exercise his free will in a way that is hurtful to another. In such an instance, the evil of a particular act is suffered not by the one wrongly exercising his free will but by another. God's decision to allow such acts does seem to be horribly negligent and deliberately cruel. After all, he could, as has been noted, created us with free will but without the capacity to do harm to others. We would then have the benefits of free will without the agonies we currently suffer when these are cruelly exercised.
What is more, Christian claims about free will create difficulties for their claims about the nature of the universe. To be specific, if free will entails the capacity to do evil (which does seem to be what is claimed in Christian apologetics), then, I wonder: Do persons living in heaven still have free will?
There are several possible answers to the question. A) There is no free will in heaven, meaning that although everyone is good, each and every person is nothing more than an angelic automaton. If this is the case, then, I might add, not having free will is more perfect than is having free will, which would undermine Christian claims that having free will is better than not having it. God would be deliberately harming us, rather than helping us, by giving us free will. B) There is free will in heaven just as there is on earth. If this is the case, then there are two possibilities, depending upon the nature of existence in heaven. 1) Individuals in heaven interact with one another, which itself gives rise to two possibilities. a) An individual's free will, and his capacity to do evil, can repeatedly be exercised, meaning that there are individuals who sin against others in heaven (so even the saints could be assaulted, raped, cheated, or otherwise injured by their fellows, however such things might occur in the celestial empire); heaven might then be better than the earth, whether marginally or substantially, but it would not be perfect. b) An individual, upon choosing to sin against others in heaven, would not be permitted to continue to do so. Maybe, whenever one of the saints succumbs to his free will and does sin, he is promptly either reconditioned by a spell in some ethereal concentration camp or just jettisoned from heaven altogether (I guess that would keep the population there under control, though it would also mean that heaven is not necessarily eternal, especially for anyone daring not to conform to the dictates of the celestial totalitarian). 2) Individuals in heaven do not interact with one another. If this is the case, then the isolated celestial sinner might a) be left to stew in his anger, lust, greed, etc., which, being unfulfilled, would, it seems, transform heaven into hell for him, or b) be reconditioned or cast from heaven, just as could be done with the non-isolated individual (with the same consequences). In all of these cases, in which free will exists in both the mundane and celestial realms, though heaven is impermanent and imperfect, it is still a preferable place to this earth, which means that individuals possess free will in a universe better than is this one. If they do, however, then it would seem that god is being unnecessarily cruel by placing us in this world of pain when he could have given us the benefits of free will without having so placed us. C) It is also possible that while heavenly beings (whether isolated or capable of interacting with others) have free will, this will is different from the earthly free will, that it does not entail the capacity to do or even to will evil. This change could be the result of two things. 1) Some internal change, some change in the nature of the individual, which, though not affecting his free will, causes him to cease to have any desire to do anything that is sinful. If this is the case, however, then it would seem unnecessarily cruel of god not to bring about such a change in earthly beings, as I mentioned above. After all, even we mortals, flawed as we are, try to help a person who has been injured or who does himself harm. Surely an omnibenevolent god would do at least as much as we would. 2) Some external force so beguiles the inhabitants of heaven that they cannot think of doing evil. I suppose that god could so blind the angelic hosts with his intoxicating good looks that no one in heaven would ever think of sinning. Again, however, if this is the case, a person might wonder why god doesn't want to share his beauty with those not in heaven (or employ whatever means it is that distracts the blessed from sinning); if he is omnibenevolent, he should, after all, desire to grace man both with the capacity to have free will and with his own light that would always lead man to use that capacity for good.
Of course, having free will is preferable to not having free will, but even if god has granted us the gift of free will, this does not excuse the negligence he displays in having crafted such flawed creations to receive this gift. After all, he is responsible for the nature of his creations and cannot, being omniscient, have failed to see what the consequences of giving free will to such beings as we are would be. In the same way, a human parent, knowing that his child has free will, has a responsibility to raise this child so that he will most likely (by the parent's best judgment) have a noble character and will not, thanks to this character, be inclined to commit immoral acts. The parent, in other words, has a duty to shape the child's nature, to the best of his abilities, so that the child will exercise his free will in a morally praiseworthy manner. God, unlike a human parent, whose knowledge, goodness, and capacities to shape his child's character are all limited, could, in his boundless wisdom, benevolence, and power, have made our very nature fundamentally different from what it is. Driven by his mercy and kindness, he could have made us morally perfect, so that we would always exercise our free will in a perfect manner, but he has not done so. He has deliberately created a species of predators, of gangsters, rapists, and thieves, and has since condemned us for behaving in accordance with that nature.
My point here should be obvious. The existence of evil and particular Christian dogmas, specifically, the religion's acceptance of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, jointly create issues for which Christianity does not have good answers. When the religion does provide answers, such as explaining evil as being the result of free will, the explanation is not just inadequate; it actually creates more problems and more absurdities than it provides solutions.
Part III: God's Benevolence and the Nature and Purpose of Evil
A great many evils, that is to say, things that cause pain, either result from another person's exercising his free will or do not result from anyone exercising his free will at all, which means that the doctrine is no more useful in explaining why we endure pain than it is in explaining why we create pain. I realize that a Christian could say that we are deservedly tested by earthquakes, birth defects, diseases, famines, and the like because Adam sinned, because he exercised his free will, and that not only am I responsible for Adam's actions, but I also deserve to be punished for his primordial sin in the most severe and macabre ways possible. With such reasoning, the Christian goes on to try to explain how there can be evil, pain, in the world which does not even result from particular sinful actions. For the first man's one great misdeed (which god does seem to have intended him to commit or, at least, tempted him to commit), we do not live in the bliss of paradise; instead, we suffer and die; we have become deserving of boundless pain and inevitable death. Even a person who has not himself committed actual sin is, because his first ancestors chewed on an apple, deserving of the greatest agony. He is incarcerated in a world of aging, natural disasters, sickness, countless gruesome accidents, and unavoidable death. What a forgiving, kind god the Christians adore!
Any deity that would inflict such sufferings (or, by refusing to help, allow them to be inflicted), even to the most evil of persons, must, however, be utterly monstrous and horribly vicious. After all, if there is no original sin, then these evils are visited upon the innocent, and, if there is original sin, their visitation upon the guilty exposes god as being spiteful and cruel rather than forgiving. As petty, vindictive, and generally flawed as ordinary human beings are, many would not, unless overcome by brutal emotions, wish such pains on others. What is more, any person who possesses even a modicum of compassion is sure to be moved to try to alleviate at least a tiny portion of the sufferings of his fellow living beings. This individual, as imperfect as he is, and as limited as his actions can be, might then wonder why an all-good god would not similarly feel compassion for the beings of this world and then, using his boundless powers, put an end to this pain. Surely, god, if omnibenevolent, is less prone to tantrums and meanness than a corrupt human is. In fact, all the sufferings that are inflicted upon human beings seem pointlessly sadistic.
I should add to this that the pains inflicted upon animals, which are just as bad, are explained by Christians in even more unsatisfactory ways. For some Christians, animals are, at best, soulless creatures that, while they suffer, exist without any chance of escape from that pain. For others, animals are viewed as soulless automata that can be used or abused as one desires, since they feel no pain. The former position, unfortunately, exposes the cruelty and heartlessness of the Christian god, since it would make it seem that he is unconcerned about the pains of his creations. The latter position defies empirical evidence (that many non-human animals do endure pain) and provides men with a spurious justification for abusing and doing untold harm to their fellow living beings. Both positions are, frankly, grotesque.
Christians have, of course, attempted to explain away the problem of evil, to provide reasons that justify the existence of pain, that make it into something that is ultimately good, or, at the least, not god's fault, but these attempts are no more than sophistry. Although I do not desire to present an overview of Christian theology here, a couple of these ought to be addressed.
John Hick, drawing upon St. Irenaeus, has argued that pain exists so that human beings can make moral progress. Basically, this amounts to saying that we have been made imperfect so that we can become perfect. That's very odd reasoning. A painter, desiring to create a beautiful painting, does not slash his canvass so that he can come back and fix it. God is not, however, simply a maker of inanimate objects. He is said to be the creator of human beings as well. Saying, then, that he is doing good by having made us flawed only so that he can guide us to righteousness is like saying that a human father does good by abusing and psychologically scarring his children only so that he can later heal them of their injuries. Though it might be said that this father is, ultimately, improving his children, this help would have been unnecessary had he not previously committed crimes against them. The man isn't doing good by following such a course of action; he's behaving in an utterly reprehensible manner. The god who acts similarly is similarly reprehensible.
Nor can it be claimed that since virtues like courage, hope, perseverance, and faith could not be cultivated without the presence of evil, the existence of such evil is justified. Courage requires the existence of danger, but surely a secure existence would be preferable. Hope and perseverance demand that one be threatened with despair or hardships, but surely not being so threatened would be better. Faith is nothing more than believing in something without proof of its existence. Faith, thus, requires the existence of ignorance, but surely knowledge is better than ignorance. It is very odd that anyone could claim that god is doing good by creating a world in which such virtues could be cultivated. No one, after all, applies the same reasoning to human beings. No father is praised for tossing his son into a lion's den so that the boy can cultivate courage, keeping the boy in ignorance so that he will have to rely upon faith rather than knowledge, and making sure the child's life is beset with various troubles and pains so that he can develop hope and perseverance.
My opponent might here stop me, however, and point out that since we do, in fact, observe how sufferings can help a person to grow, his position is justified by observation. He could make note of some instance of a human father helping his child by allowing that child to experience a minor pain, one which could teach the child a valuable lesson. Without a doubt, unpleasant experiences can be instructive, but, surely, any parent would be acting best when, in order to teach his child a lesson, he chose that method least hurtful to his child. He would certainly not be acting appropriately if he allowed his child to suffer serious injury or endure true agony. God, being of far greater wisdom and capacity than is any human father, could, it stands to reason, instruct his children perfectly without causing them any suffering. The infliction of unnecessary pain is what cruelty is, and god, if he teaches us with unnecessary pain, is acting cruelly.
This claim that evil helps us grow is even more useless in explaining why god would allow one of his creations to inflict pain upon another, one who has done nothing wrong. Were a human father to allow one of his children to hurt a second so that the first could learn from the effects of his action, he would be behaving reprehensibly. If god behaves in such a manner, he too is behaving reprehensibly. After all, both the parent and god would, were these to act so, be permitting an injustice to be perpetrated. While, I suppose, I might more highly value my blessings when I see a child horribly burned by napalm, a whole people systematically murdered, a woman brutally raped, or some other such crime committed, the god who would commit such crimes, or even allow them to be committed, in order to teach me must be utterly devoid both of compassion and of any sense of justice.
What is more, I should add, Hick's position entails that an imperfect being who is made perfect enjoys a nature preferable to that of an originally perfect being. In other words, man, who is of the former sort, has a nature preferable to (that is, better than) that of god, who is of the latter sort. After all, if the latter nature were preferable, then god would be acting in a better way by creating us with such a nature. Of course, even if it could be established that we are better beings by our having been made imperfect so that we could make ourselves perfect, this hardly excuses the excesses of pain many if not all people actually endure so that they can make moral progress.
Finally, Hick's claims that natural evils occur because the laws of the universe operate independently of human desires and cannot, consequently, be described as truly being evil, is just as ridiculous as is the rest of his argument. Let us remember that, for Hick, god set up these laws. God designed this universe. He must, therefore, take responsibility for his design. If a man designs and builds a house with razorblades imbedded in its floor, red-hot steel walls, and acid spewing from every spigot, and then forces his children to live in it, he is responsible for any injury caused by the house's features to his children. If god designs a universe that is potentially hurtful to its inhabitants, he is responsible for the injuries those inhabitants suffer. What is more, god superintends this universe. He did not simply create a dangerous prison filled with deadly traps and painful instruments of torture; he watches over this place as an all-seeing jailor. Just as a father who watches his child approach an open fire and, by inaction, allows that child to be burned is responsible for that child's injury, so god, by watching us all, and not helping us is, by his failure to act, responsible for our pain.
The frequent Christian response to such criticisms, that god's plans only seem cruel to us because we are of such inferior intelligence that we cannot understand his grand design, is hardly adequate. While this claim certainly does not raise issues with god's omnipotence or omniscience, it still does contradict his omnibenevolence. After all, if god is omnipotent, then he can bring about a given effect by any means that are logically possible. If this is the case, then, although god is bringing about a particular effect with the universe as it exists, which includes all the sufferings we know, he could just as effectively, and with as little effort, since he is omnipotent, bring about the same effect by means that do not include these sufferings. Since god, if he exists, is bringing about his intended effect with cruel means, he is being unnecessarily vicious, which reveals him not to be omnibenevolent. It does not matter whether we humans, with our limited minds, can or cannot grasp god's plan. The plan remains cruel whether we understand it or not. Similarly, though an animal used in medical experiments is of lesser intelligence than is the man conducting the experiments, and cannot understand either the means or the goal of the experiment, which latter may well be exceptionally noble, should the experimenter, who, unlike god, has limited capacities and limited goodness, inflict unnecessary pain on that animal, he would, nonetheless, be acting cruelly. There is, however, a real difference between these two instances, the human experimenter's work and god's governance of the universe, in that god, not being limited, can achieve his ends without doing any harm to those under his control.
St. Augustine's assertion that evil is not a substance, that it is merely a perversion of the will, an absence of reason, which leads a man to seek after the material rather than the spiritual, is equally ridiculous (Confessions VII, 16), and St. Thomas Aquinas's similar claim that evil results from those actions that are not informed by the existence of reason or virtue in the actor, that it is simply an absence of good and so, being a mere absence, is not created by god, is no better than this (See Summa Theologica I, q. 5, II.1 q. 18). Even if I concede that one or both of these understandings of evil is correct, since god is both responsible for his flawed design (because he created the universe with such absences) and, being omnipotent, able to prevent the harm his universe does to its inhabitants, and yet fails to intervene, he is still answerable for this absence of good that is the existence of evil.
Leaving aside the first of these issues for the moment, and assuming that god is not responsible for the evil of this world, since, being merely an absence of good, he did not create it, Aquinas's position is still hopelessly flawed. To explain this, I would give the following example. I will posit that there is a negligent father who permits his child to burn himself by touching an open flame. It is possible that the father, at some prior time, or even at the time the child's action was occurring, told the child that touching a flame is harmful and that he should not touch it, so providing the child with an injunction. Though supplying this injunction can be characterized as morally good and the child's failure to adhere to it as morally evil, insofar as this failure occurs because of an absence of virtue, reason, or the like, the father is still not relieved of his responsibility when the child fails to follow the injunction. If the child attempts to touch the flame, it is, after all, virtually certain that, because he has an incomplete understanding of the consequences of his action, he thinks that he will benefit from doing so. The father, realizing that the child is deluded, that his understanding is incomplete, has a responsibility to the child and ought to stop him from harming himself. When human beings fail to obey god, they, like the child, must, if Christianity is correct, have an incomplete knowledge of the universe and must be acting as a result of their delusions. God, who knows the consequences of our actions, would surely, if he loves his children, prevent them from harming themselves.
Even if god is a little spiteful, and so willing, out of annoyance, to let his disobedient children injure themselves, surely he would not, however, allow one child to hurt another. Though a human father might say, after his first child burned his second, that he was not responsible for the pain the injured child endured, since he had told the first not to burn the other and that the first child's doing so was merely the result of the child's not following his injunction (which disobedience was prompted by an absence of virtue or the like), I would still hold the man responsible if he could have stopped the one from hurting the other. Not only could the father have prevented his child from suffering, however, but, what is more, the child suffering was not the one who failed to follow the injunction. The child who was harmed was not the one lacking some good. It would, therefore, seem that the painful consequences of an absence of good in one individual have nothing to do with the presence or absence of good in a second individual. The cause of evil is, thus, nothing more than a set of entities which lack goodness as one of their number and which, by exercising particular causal functions, can harm any person irrespective of his own actions. Unfortunately for the Christian, since even a person who is not responsible for a given act of evil can suffer the consequences of that act, it becomes clear that god is not concerned about justice, about performing the simple act of helping the poor creatures he has cast into this world.
It is possible that a Christian, forgetting what has already been said about Hick's claims, could still object that God would be doing more harm than good to his creations by preventing them from making bad, painful choices since, did they not make such choices, they would not be able to learn from these. He, in other words, could assert that the disadvantages of experiencing various pains are outweighed by the advantages of experiencing them. This reasoning does appear, at first glance, to make sense. It certainly cannot be denied, if Christian doctrines are true, that whatever suffering a person endures on the path to salvation, being necessarily limited, will be outweighed by the boundless joys of heaven. Regrettably, as has been noted, this same reasoning also reveals a deliberately hurtful (or, at least, an incompetent) creator, one who needlessly and callously inflicts pain upon his children.
A Christian could yet, I suppose, still object to my criticisms by asserting that god does not interfere with a person when this person commits some crime because he does not want to infringe upon the exercising of an individual's free will. Such a deity would, however, have to be sadly lacking in compassion, and his defender would have to be applying one standard of behavior to his god and another to all other beings. After all, if god acts so, he must be uninterested in the sufferings of his creations. He would be acting in a way contrary to what would be recognized as being noble behavior for a man. To illustrate this, I will point out that were I to see man attempting to rape a woman, I would hold myself partially responsible for her suffering were I simply to do nothing to stop that assault. When a person can prevent a wrong, he, if he is decent, if he has some moral sense, feels that he has some obligation to do so. Surely god, who is more noble, more perfect than is any man, will feel obligated to stop one of his creatures from hurting another. Finally, I might add, preventing a person from committing a crime, while it might infringe upon his acting in accordance with his free will, does not infringe upon his will itself. In the same way that my inability to fly does not infringe upon my free will, so my incapacity to commit some crime would not do so.
As bad as is god's not coming to the aid of his suffering creations, this lack of compassion is nothing compared to the viciousness that he demonstrated by crafting a universe filled with various positive entities that are devoid of good, as a result of which these entities are able to exercise their capacity for evil. I can, after all, no more excuse the carelessness or cruelty displayed by god in his making of this universe than I could excuse the carelessness or cruelty of the bridge maker who, not having secured his structure with nails (that is to say, not having created it with nails), allowed the structure to collapse when people actually set foot upon it, which collapse, undoubtedly, could be detrimental to their well-being. Failure to include what is necessary for a thing to be beneficial, whether to itself or others, is just as wrong as is creating something that is more obviously harmful.
God, apparently, has no interest in making an effort to produce a world that is more complete and, thus, more perfect and less hurtful to its inhabitants than is that in which we live, nor, having created this brutal, imperfect world, does he show any interest in helping those suffering in it. I suppose that a Christian could reply that because of original sin we are all deserving of punishment, but this person must have forgotten what has already been said about original sin.
There have been other attempts to explain how an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god could allow evil to exist, but I see little need to waste much time on these. Leibniz's claim that this is the best of all possible worlds, that it is one in which virtues can be developed thanks to the presence of evils, is little more than a variation of St. Irenaeus's doctrine, and I have dealt with that sufficiently. The related claim that this is the best possible world, since a perfect world would be impossible to create, is not justified. If god is omnipotent, then he can create a perfect world. There is, moreover, nothing logically impossible about the creation of a perfect world in the way that the creation of a square circle would be impossible. The claim that evil is part of god's plan, which is something we limited humans simply can't understand, is beset with several problems. It does not address the basic issue of how an all-seeing, all-powerful, all-good being can allow evil to occur, and it adds to this its assumption that god has a plan for the universe that is implemented in a demonstrably cruel way, that is, in a way that is hurtful to living things. I see little point in going on with this discussion. The various theodicies that have been proposed by Christians over the last two thousand years are usually just variations of one another, and all fall to the same problems.
There is still a way that a Christian could extricate himself from these difficulties. He could say that good is not something that exists apart from god, as something independent. This apologist could claim that an action is good because it conforms with god's will, because, in other words, god has decreed it to be good. When god commanded that the Israelites massacre the Midianites and take the daughters of the vanquished into sexual slavery, the murders and rapes committed by the Israelites, by conforming with this injunction, were good. When god decrees that a child be caught in a fire and so horribly burned (or, at least, chooses to allow such events to occur, like some abusively neglectful parent), he is doing something good, because it is god who decided to take this course of action.
Clearly, the logical problems that arise for a person who believes that certain things are inherently good and others inherently wrong do not arise for someone who accepts such a vision of god. I will admit that his god is logically possible. Such a being could exist. Even if this god does exist, however, I would hardly advocate following his decrees. Though he might inflict pain upon us if we oppose him, as can any worldly dictator, because he is hurtful (that is to say, because he is evil according to any reasonable standard), we would have an obligation to fight against him, just as we have an obligation to fight the human tyrants of this world. Though we could not defeat and overthrow such a being, we could, by refusing to follow his hateful injunctions, create a better world for ourselves. We would, consequently, have an obligation to oppose this celestial madman.
What is more, because this being is clearly malignant, at least from our perspective (in that he commits acts that are injurious to us), because he is not constrained by independent and consistent standards of what is wrong, since, for him, whatever he does is right, we should not forgo present delights in order to enjoy greater promised pleasures in this being's paradise. If good is simply what god does, rather than adherence to some objective standard, to which even god must accord himself, then even breaches of faith on his part are acts of goodness. If this is the case, then we cannot trust god. After all, since whatever such a god does is good, if he promises us that those who obey his injunctions will receive eternal bliss but then nevertheless sends those persons to hell, he is still doing what is good. We would be wiser to make our own good. At least then we might enjoy an agreeable present, one which has a future (in some possible next life) that is no less certain than is that of the worshipper of this god.
Although it would mean that he would have to abandon particular doctrines of his religion, a Christian could also say that his god is not omnipotent, not omniscient, not omnibenevolent, not two of these, or not any of them. Obviously, a god that is not omnipotent cannot fix every wrong, a god that is not omniscient cannot know every wrong, and a god that is not omnibenevolent will not desire to right every wrong. The Christian who does accept one of these possibilities is not going to be faced with the entire host of issues discussed above, but he will be moving far from what Christians have historically believed.
Unfortunately for any Christian who does ascribe to god all three of these qualities (omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence), he is positing an impossible being, given the reality of suffering. Though countless explanations have been provided to try to get past this fact, none of them have succeeded. The reason why is obvious. These three traits can no more coexist in an entity presiding over a world in which pain exists than can being circular and being square exist in a single physical object. The problem of evil, consequently, reveals the falsity of of the religion.
Christianity is objectionable because its ethical codes are cruel and immoral, unbelievable because its teachings are propounded in an unreliable text, and impossible because its doctrines are mutually incompatible. The religion really is sadistic, ridiculous, and grotesque.
By Keith Allen
© 2010 firstname.lastname@example.org Keith Allen. All rights reserved.