Chapter Seven

The Problem of Suffering: Why theism’s biggest headache can’t be cured.

Skydivephil

 

My first appearance on Unbelievable? was to discuss the issue of animal suffering. Myself and two fellow students from my astronomy course at UCL had recently attended a debate between William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist, and humanist Stephen Law. Both of my fellow students are very smart people, one an atheist and one a Christian. I was happy that the Christian was not impressed by Craig’s arguments.

During the debate, Law argued it would be silly to believe in an all-powerful evil God as there are too many good things in the world. Similarly, one should not believe in an all-powerful good God as there are too many bad things in the world e.g. the suffering of animals. Craig argued that animals are not aware of their suffering as they don’t have a prefrontal cortex, which he claimed is needed for self-awareness.

Discussing Animal Suffering on Unbelievable?

 

My YouTube video took Craig to task, arguing that many animals do have a prefrontal cortex and, there’s no convincing reason to think you even need one for self-awareness or pain perception. It was this video that brought me onto the Unbelievable? show. I debated Michael Murray, who was a source of Craig’s ideas about animal suffering. He is also the director of programming for the Templeton Foundation which spends millions of dollars allegedly promoting the idea that religion and science are in harmony.

A theist, like Justin, who accepts the findings of modern science with respect to an old Earth age, may find they boost their credibility but it comes at a cost. They are now faced with a serious problem that Murray tried to face: Why did God allow hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering before humans ever existed? I think I easily addressed Murray’s counter arguments on the show, but you should judge for yourself. When I spoke to Justin afterwards, I felt he didn’t have much to say. But perhaps he was just playing the gracious host and Justin certainly is that. With the release of Justin’s book, I looked forward to hearing his real thoughts on the matter.

The problem of animal suffering before the fall is impervious to the many theist defenses against the problem of suffering. So I was intrigued to see how Justin confronted the issue in his book. But he simply ignored it, as if the show we recorded never happened. The theme of Justin’s book is “ why he is still a theist after ten years of hearing atheist arguments ”. Yet how Justin deals with this issue is still a mystery to me after reading his book. I don’t believe it shows that Justin listened to the argument and found it wanting. Rather he listened to the argument and wrote as if it never existed.

So in responding to the argument from suffering, Justin takes the easy path, but even here his response is inadequate. Before we see why, let’s recap the problem. God is supposed to be all powerful, all loving and perfectly good. Yet we see a huge amount of suffering in the world. As Epicurus asked:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Justin’s first point is the theist has many arguments, the cosmological, the fine tuning, the moral etc. and he suggests the atheist has just this one argument (i.e. the problem of suffering) on their side. So weighing the two sides, the theist comes out on top. Of course this is only true if the theists’ arguments are valid. If they are not, then this is irrelevant. You can have as many bad arguments as you like, they don’t add up to one good argument.

Justin is also wrong to imply that skeptics of Christianity possess only this argument. Having hosted the show for so many years, he is surely aware of the argument from the hiddenness of God, the argument from the character of God, contradictions in the bible, the failure of prayer, the divisions between believers and so on, all of which pose a genuine challenge to theism.

Is Morality Objective?

 

Justin’s main defence is to come at the problem from a different angle and ask, how can atheists even pose the problem of suffering? Without the objective morality that God provides, the atheist has no measure by which to evaluate that suffering is wrong.

Suppose that morality is subjective and not objective. That would still not stop someone from making statements about moral right or wrong. We can still say a painting is beautiful, even if beauty is subjective. We don’t need objectivity to make reasonable statements, especially if people share our aesthetic instincts. Similarly if people share the same moral instincts (and they do), we can find common ground. Justin writes in very black and white terms as if moral questions are binary, either purely subjective and anything goes, or purely objective. “Anything less than an objective standard makes our moral beliefs a matter of opinion and feelings”. But why should we think this?

One thing I found very powerful as a teenager, was reading philosopher Robert Nozick’s defense of vegetarianism. He tackled each argument for justifying the eating of meat and showed how it was inconsistent with our normal notions of morality. For example, one might argue it’s OK to eat meat as the animals wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the meat industry. Nozick replies: in which case it should be OK to breed human children and eat them for meat. After all they wouldn’t have existed otherwise. This may not be an objective proof that eating meat is wrong, but clearly it’s not just personal preference either. Nozick uses our ability to reason to conclude that some moral statements are inconsistent. As long as we share the moral instinct that murder is wrong, we can use reasons to agree that eating meat is also wrong. The point is, Justin’s attempt to draw a sharp line between subjective and objective, may be a mirage.

Consider aesthetics, one might have a personal preference for a certain work of art, but does that mean the art critic has nothing to add? That they are talking gibberish? As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us with regard to beauty: “Perhaps the most familiar basic issue in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective—located ‘in the eye of the beholder’—or whether it is an objective feature of beautiful things. A pure version of either of these positions seems implausible”. The same may be true for morality.

There is a spectrum between things that are  subjective and those that are objective, and morality lies somewhere on that spectrum. It’s ironic in a way because theists often accuse atheists of scientism, the view that the only truth is scientific truth.

Literature can also have truthful statements, so the claim that science is the only way to truth is false. ‘The Emperor is the villain in Star Wars’ is a true statement, but not in the same way as ‘The Earth is smaller than the Sun’. However when it comes to morality, it seems the theist takes the opposite position: unless it’s fully objective, it has no meaning.

Even if Justin is right that morality is objective, there are many naturalistic theories of objective morality. Justin may not have time to debunk each one. But he should address why such theories are impossible, and this, he does not do . He also doesn’t justify why God is an objective reason to give us morality. Justin defines objective morality as something we just know must be true. We might also call this our moral instincts. But this is a poor definition of objectivity. Being objective usually refers to depending on something outside of mind, and since God has a mind, it just pushes the problem out further: if morality comes from God, then it is not necessarily objective. To counter this, theists claim that God simply is good. But this is pure assertion.

When I think of something that is purely objective, I think of something a machine could measure. The original Star Wars movie is 2 hours and 5 minutes long. That’s something a machine could measure; it is objective. Is it the best Star Wars movie? A machine can’t give us an easy answer. Moral questions can’t easily be decided by having a machine make a measurement. We have to think about moral dilemmas and that’s no bad thing. Should we do experiments on animals that may lead to their suffering and death, yet might lead to new life saving medicines? Even if we agree animal experimentation is all right, is it OK for any experiment to be carried out, or just ones that result in life saving medicines?

These are difficult moral questions; the idea that we can just measure the answer seems somehow wrong. Morality just isn’t like that. It might seem that way for easy moral questions such as, is murder wrong? But not all moral questions are so simple. It’s easy to make something look objective when you give extreme cases. If I show you an image of a rainbow and of a rotting corpse and ask you to choose the more beautiful image, the answer will be obvious. It might even seem then that beauty is objective. But, if I show an image of the northern lights and ask you to pick between that and a rainbow, you might have a harder time picking between them, and so a conclusion of objectivity for beauty is less persuasive.  

I was brought up Jewish, and each year we celebrated the Exodus from Egypt in the Passover ceremony. I sang a Hebrew song called the Manish Tanah which asks the family to explain the story to me. But as I grew older, I realised the Exodus is the act of a brutal being. God‘s last plague is to kill all first-born Egyptians, and not just the humans, but animals too. What did they do wrong? The other nine plagues were no picnics either. The first turns the rivers to blood and all the fish die. Why didn’t God just smite the Pharaoh, or perhaps soften rather than harden his heart? My moral instincts told me this was wrong. And here comes the problem for Justin’s argument: If my moral instincts come from God, why do they tell me God is immoral? Justin claims we know objectively that rape is wrong. OK, so why shouldn’t we also say objectively that killing every first-born Egyptian is also wrong?

I won’t digress further into the moral argument here as that is a separate chapter. However, an important point to note is that whether you are a moral subjectivist, objectivist or somewhere in between, moral statements can still be made. And God’s actions (or inactions in many cases) regarding suffering can still be considered moral or immoral. After all, it’s the theist who claims God is perfectly moral. Why should we not look at God’s  behavior and try to judge if this statement is true or false? How else are we to establish validity of the theist claim? Even if we accept morality comes from a God, it doesn’t follow that it’s from the Christian God. So the moral argument can still be an argument against Christianity. If the actions of the Christian God are inconsistent with what we think are moral facts, then Christianity is inconsistent and can be dismissed.

Have you noticed that when theists try to convince us of the existence of moral facts, they always use cases such as torture or rape, but never genocide? Surely if there is such a thing as moral facts, genocide is chief among them. And this leads to a contradiction: God commands genocide in the bible, so he must not be the source of our morality. When God asks Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice, is this not torture? Ask how you might view a person who forced someone to go through a mock execution of their own child (keep in mind they don’t know it’s not going to happen). Would they be guilty of psychological torture? I certainly think so and the International Red Cross rule #90, forbidding torture and degrading treatment, seems to agree.

Cutting Both Ways

 

Justin goes on to argue that Christianity offers hope of one day understanding the suffering that exists in the world stating “within Christian belief, suffering is at least a mystery we can hope to make sense of. In atheism, it is simply meaningless. So the problem of evil and suffering cuts both ways.”

However, under atheism, there is no prediction of an all powerful good force, so there is no mystery for the suffering in the world. Under theism, such a being exists and so suffering is a problem (in the sense of an intellectual problem to explain why it happens). It does not cut both ways. Justin’s statement is really just wishful thinking. Let’s play this game with a different belief system. If magic is true, at least we have the hope of flying on a broomstick and shape shifting into a cat. If naturalism is true, there is no such possibility. Does this give any reason at all to believe in magic?

Free Will

 

Free will is Justin’s next port of call when it comes to marking off traditional theodicies. “Where does most of the evil in the world come from ? Much of it is a direct consequence of our wrong choices as human beings.”

I agree with Justin that it’s the most commonly used defense, but it is not a good one. Let us come back to the animal suffering that existed for millions of years before humans existed. How can that be down to human free will? Consider the great extinctions wiping out much of life on Earth and this happening again and again. In light of this, is it really correct to say most of the evil in the world is down to human free will?

A further problem is the existence of free will itself. There is no agreement amongst philosophers that free will (or at least libertarian free will) actually exists. You may be thinking of materialists saying we are just matter in motion. But one doesn’t have to be materialist to reject free will. Many theists believe free will is incompatible with God's ability to perfectly see the future. Often theists retort that God can predict your actions but you are still free to choose, in the same way that I can predict my wife will choose chocolate cake over sponge cake. I can predict this quite confidently but not with 100% certainty if she really has freedom to choose. But God is supposed to be able to predict the future with 100% certainty, so it’s hard to see how free will is consistent with God’s foreknowledge. Many naturalists believe that physics is fundamentally not deterministic and so allows for the possibility of free will. So free will isn’t even a theist vs. atheist game. It may boil down to a question of whether determinism is true. Recall that Justin’s use of the Kalam argument assumes everything that begins to exist has a cause. Well my choices surely began to exist so they must have a cause and if they do, then how do I have free will? It seems there is a conflict between these two defenses of God’s existence.

My own opinion on free will is that it’s extremely difficult to define what it even means. Let us assume your genes determine your behavior. You might say then you didn’t freely choose your genes and so free will is an illusion. Firstly one should be careful with the word illusion. It doesn’t necessarily mean “non existence’ but rather misperception. Justin often says morality is an illusion under atheism, but again this does not mean “non existence”. Free will may exist but it might be different to how it appears.

Let’s go back to our genetic example. You don’t choose your genes but your genes are part of you, they are not separate from you. And this gets us into the extremely complicated question of what is “you”? If we exclude genetic factors from what counts as “you” making a free choice, what do we include? Can we include environmental factors? But you didn’t choose who brought you up or where you were brought up. So what counts as a free choice? Is it one that is devoid of all external influences? How could we ever confirm such a thing is real? We are never going to meet a person who has not been influenced by some environment or someone who has no genes. Ask yourself why do some people become psychopaths? How can anyone be so awful that they kill people for pleasure? There is now mounting evidence that there are strong genetic factors associated with psychopathy. When these genes are mixed with certain environmental triggers they are likely to turn someone into a psychopath. The psychopath does not choose their genes or their environment. This makes the problem of suffering far more complicated than the simplistic notion of bad choices Justin provides.

I do not claim, as some do, that free will does not exist, but it is a very difficult concept to even define. For brevity’s sake, I won’t go into all the complexities of this issue in more detail here, the important point to note is that when mounting a defense one should use concepts that are not problematic in themselves. Imagine you are on trial and your defense wants to use DNA evidence. You shouldn’t object to this if you are innocent. DNA evidence is generally considered reliable. What about lie detectors? These are not considered reliable and so if you are going to use those as your primary defense, you are in trouble. The same goes for free will. It’s an extremely difficult and complicated concept with currently no consensus surrounding it and hence not exactly the best method of providing a robust defense.

But more importantly, it’s not difficult to imagine God alleviating suffering without interfering with free will. One of my favorite TV shows growing up was the sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. In one episode, one of the characters is held in a futuristic prison which enables one’s negative actions to be turned onto the perpetrator. The annoying hologram Rimmer tells his long suffering roommate Lister, to burn his bed sheet. Lister complies only to find it’s his own jacket that is now on fire. Lister’s bad actions have been turned against him. What if something like this really existed (surely this is no problem for an omnipotent God)? When you tried to rob someone, he could make it so it was your money that disappeared, when you tried to murder someone- you ended up dying. This would not interfere with your free will, you could still make bad choices, but other people don’t suffer from them.

One could imagine a simpler sci-fi scenario. Perhaps people could be equipped with a force field that prevents unwanted access to their body. Again this wouldn’t interfere with free choice. Let’s make things even simpler. What if human beings had a gene that meant they could not eat animal material? This again would not interfere with free choice any more than our inability to eat nylon interferes with our free choice. Yet it might save billions of animals from the suffering they endure at our hands today. Or simpler still, what if predators had inbuilt anesthetics in their saliva? Couldn’t this alleviate an enormous amount of suffering without interfering with free will? These scenarios may sound fantastical but if there is an omnipotent God then they aren’t really going to be very difficult to achieve. So why don’t we see them? Free will offers no explanation. The simplest explanation is there is no such being.

Does God Even Like Free Will?

 

The God of the bible has punishments for those who don’t believe in him. He kills those that disobey him. Consider Lot's wife, turned into a pillar of salt because she chose to look back at the destruction of her home. If God is so passionate about free will, why do we find the following commandments from God in Leviticus 20?

1 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

9 For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.

15 And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. (What did the beast do wrong?)

27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

Consider Deuteronomy:

6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

In other words if your own family converts to another religion and asks you to join, you should kill them. And it’s not just the Old Testament that seems to have no love of free will. In the New Testament we learn that all sins are forgivable except one:

Matthew 3 28 Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: 29 But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: 30 Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.

So we have a God that can forgive murder, torture, rape or even genocide but not blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Does this really look like a God that favors free will so much that he reluctantly accepts terrible human and animal suffering? I think it’s clear this argument is extremely implausible.

One also has to distinguish between free will and free action. We accept that people are entitled to have whatever thoughts they want, but they are not entitled to act how they want. What Christian has ever said we shouldn’t have stopped the Rwandan genocide or the Nazi holocaust because it would have interfered with free will? And if we should intervene, surely God should. The very nature of policing to prevent harm assumes that, when a certain amount of harm is inflicted, the free will of the perpetrator is not a good reason for inaction. In fact the free will of the victim is considered paramount and so we feel obliged to interfere if we are able to. And God is surely able to.

Last month I was in Auschwitz; I visited the gas chambers and saw the scratches on the walls, made by people trying to escape a suffocating death. My great grandparents may have died in such a gas chamber had they not emigrated from Poland to England at the end of the 19th century. These were God’s chosen people and he abandoned them. It’s no use saying God doesn’t interfere with free will, what of the free will of the victims? They weren’t there by choice; they had guns to their heads. And why did God act during the Exodus when the Jewish people were not being exterminated? Why an intervention in ancient times when the cameras weren’t rolling yet nothing when a miraculous rescue from a far greater threat could have been done? I think the answer is obvious; there is no perfectly good and all powerful God interested in human affairs.

As we have seen, free will can’t explain the animal suffering before the fall or natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Here Justin has an interesting response, comparing the recent earthquakes in Los Angeles and those in Haiti. The latter resulted in large loss of life, but not the former. Why? Justin explains this is human free will at work, “the difference is compared to Haiti, the USA is a rich prosperous country with the necessary resources for earthquake-proofed buildings, emergency services and infrastructure. The fact is that collective human choices have resulted in a world of haves and have nots”. But did the people of Haiti choose to be poor? Consider the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 which killed tens of thousands of people. Is Justin going to blame that on their free decision not to live in the future when better building technology would have been available?

Spiritual Warfare

 

Another defense that Justin considers is spiritual warfare whereby rebellion against God splits the world into good and evil leaving it “out of kilter”. But why would God create a world so fragile? Michael Murray made this point during our radio show. So Justin not only sidestepped my arguments but also those of his fellow Christian.

This seems like an incompetent designer who designs a world so vulnerable to the rebellion of one or a few individuals. Furthermore, a war between an omnipotent being and another being who isn’t, should also be over pretty quickly.

So why is it still going on? Justin quotes Revelation 21.4 describing a time in the future where God will “ wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death ”. It’s been 2,000 years (and many tens of thousands more for modern humans !!) and we are still waiting for this happy outcome. Why doesn’t God get on with it? If death and suffering are inevitable, then how is this dream-like future even possible? If they are not inevitable, then why do we still have them?

Getting Closer to God

 

Suffering, according to Justin, may also be justified because it brings people closer to God. He writes, “ The reality is that comfort tends to make us forget about God. It’s evidenced by a prosperous Western world where belief in God is increasingly absent. ”.

What are we to make of this defense? It might be true; maybe Justin has a good point. The more comfortable people are, the less likely they are to need God or a relationship with him. But if you take this seriously, then logically you shouldn’t alleviate people’s suffering, as you might be moving them away from God.

Imagine a poor country that is highly religious; you have a plan to make that country wealthy. They will see their life expectancy rise, their infant mortality go down, their education levels will rocket, there will be freedom and democracy and no more hunger, the people will have time to pursue the leisure activities of their dreams. But in doing so they become less religious, what should you do? Enact the plan or leave things as they are? The implications of Justin’s argument are it might be better to do nothing. But that conflicts with another point Justin makes. He says suffering makes us change the world. “ Wherever you find the worst deprivation, poverty and sadness, you will consistently find Christians building hospitals, offering food programmes ...

One can’t deny that Christians do a lot of great charitable acts and we should applaud them every time they do so. But do they need Christianity for this? I suspect that empathetic people will do acts of charity whatever their religion. If not, why is the most charitable country in the world according to a recent survey (predominantly Buddhist) Myanmar? It has topped the tables three years in a row. And according to Justin’s recent show on Buddhism, this is a religion that is agnostic over the existence of God. The recent ethnic cleansing against Muslims there, may be an indication of how easily empathy can be switched off when religion comes into play.

A bigger problem for Justin is consistency. If suffering leads us to God, why are Christians alleviating it? Aren’t they driving people away from God? Does Justin think the point of our existence is to have comfort and happiness here on Earth or be closer to God in the afterlife? If the latter, why does Justin applaud efforts to alleviate suffering? He can’t have it both ways.

Learning from Pain?

 

Another point Justin makes is how we grow from painful situations: “ we can think of a painful situation we’ve gone through and even though we wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, looking back we can see that we become a better, more truly human person because of it.

This may be true in some cases, but clearly there are cases that do not lead to human growth. For example, the countless cases of overwhelming suffering that lead to suicide. Or think of the holocaust: did the suffering of the Jews make them better humans? Maybe some, but most ended up in a gas chamber. Not exactly a learning experience. God is often painted as a father figure allowing his children to have a few cuts and bruises so they can learn. As Justin says “ I believe that God is masterful enough to be able to weave many of the experiences and tribulations of our lives into a tapestry that is ultimately beautiful to behold. ”. But if you die from your suffering you don’t learn from it. Parents might allow a small amount of suffering for their children so it leads to their development, but they know when a line has been crossed. Loving parents are acutely aware of this line and if things get too bad for their child, they intervene.

When I was a child I decided to see what car exhaust fumes taste like. My mother quickly stopped me, because she loved me and knew this was a lesson I might die from. But she didn’t stop me playing football or break dancing even though these had clear risks of injury. God appears to have no line, there is no amount of suffering in the world that seems to guarantee his intervention. This would have no consequences for the existence of a deist God who by definition doesn’t interfere in the world. But theism is not that. For the theist, God does intervene in the world. But the fact he does nothing when the need seems greatest, seems to show that if he is a parent, he is negligent one.

Not Just a Negligent Parent

 

Negligence is just the beginning of the problem regarding God’s attitude to suffering. God doesn’t just refuse to alleviate suffering, he seems to command it. Consider the great flood that wiped out almost all life on Earth. Even if you believe wiping out all humans is a good idea because they were sinful, why did the animals have to die as well? It took forty days and nights for this to occur. The flood would have been a slow horrid death, the weak would have died first, and parents seeing their children die before their eyes. If we executed criminals in such a prolonged way today, we would agree this was cruel, why not say the same with God?

God also commands genocide against the Canaanites. And not just the Canaanite people but their animals also. 1 Samuel 15:3:

3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Again this would not have been a quick painless death. And consider the many mothers who saw their children die. Again, why did the animals have to suffer?

These are God's commandments. This looks like a God who is indifferent to the suffering of innocents. We could go on for a long time with many more examples, but let's consider one more: What God commands Joshua do to his enemies:

Joshua 11:6 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Be not afraid because of them: for tomorrow about this time will I deliver them up all slain before Israel: thou shalt hough their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.

I had to look up what “hough a horse” meant when I first read this. To my horror it means to sever the Achilles tendons of a horse, a horrendous torture for the animal. It was done so that horses could not be used in battle. But if God is all powerful he could have just immobilized the chariots without harming the horses or he could have had the horses run away. That’s not what he chose to do; he chose to command awful suffering.

One might argue these stories are just legends and never actually happened. But why should it matter if the stories are true? One doesn’t have to think the Empire really blew up a planet in Star Wars to say that was wrong. One doesn’t have to think Voldemort is real to say he was wrong to kill Harry Potter’s parents. Of course, as a non believer, I think that God is fictional and it is likely that some of these stories did not happen. But that doesn’t stop us from assessing if this character fits the claim being made of him: that he is perfectly good. The descriptions we have do not fit that character and so we should reject the claim that God is perfectly good. This we can conclude completely independent of whether or not the stories are true.

Jesus Has Been There Too

 

Justin’s last argument is that God suffered with us on the cross. “ God knows what we go through in pain, suffering, humiliation and fear, because he’s been through them too. ”.

If Jesus was crucified, then he certainly went through a horrific ordeal. But is it really like the pain and suffering that humans go through? Jesus, in Christian theology, is God. If that’s true then he knows the future. He knows he will be coming back to life after death. He knows he will be in paradise soon. Humans may believe that, but they can’t have the confidence that Jesus would have had. So the terror they might feel staring death in the face is unlikely to be the terror a deity would feel if they came to Earth.

Of course one might argue Jesus as a man didn’t know these things, he didn’t have access to God’s supernatural abilities when in human form. As Justin points out Jesus is in anguish on the cross and shouts “My God why have you forsaken me?” But to me this just reveals the contradictory nature of Christianity. If Jesus is God, does it really make sense for him to ask why he himself has abandoned himself? If Jesus doesn’t know the future how is he able to make predictions and do miracles? It seems he has God’s properties when it’s convenient for the Christian.

Furthermore, why should God suffering with us be a solution to the problem of suffering? How does it help? If someone could hear the prayers of a family member diagnosed with cancer, I suspect we would not hear “please send someone down from heaven to suffer with me”. I suspect we would hear “please rid my loved one of this cancer”. Of course some people are inspired by the notion of sacrifice. But Jesus wasn’t the first person to sacrifice his life for others. And again, if Jesus is God then his sacrifice seems less, mortal humans aren’t going to be coming back to life three days later. Yet again exactly how does the sacrifice of Jesus relieve the suffering of an animal dying of starvation or being eaten alive slowly?

Justin closes his chapter with the story of Oscar Wilde's “Selfish Giant”. He had previously posted a video at Oscar Wilde's memorial statue in London in response to Stephen Fry’s video condemning God’s cruelty. I, like Justin, Stephen Fry and many others, am a huge fan of Oscar Wilde. It’s worth reflecting on the suffering that Wilde himself experienced in Reading Jail, imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality. Perhaps God was thinking about that and the suffering of homosexuals around the world when he wrote in Leviticus 20:

13 If a man also lies with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

But what of the selfish giant? The garden he made is placed into permanent winter because of the giant's own selfishness in not letting children play there. Justin makes the Earthly comparison in his video, he tells us the whole world is bent out of shape because of us. Suffering is clearly our fault, not God's. But this brings us full circle to my own appearance on the show. We discussed the suffering of animals that existed millions of years before humans. How can that be blamed on a world bent out of shape by our actions? Again Justin writes as if this argument was never presented to him, but it was.

The giant eventually allows children back in the garden which leads to the return of its beauty and majesty. Eventually he is angry to find a child injured. “Who has injured you?” asks the giant. The child replies, “These are the wounds of love.” The analogy is obvious, the child represents Christ who has entered into the winter garden of our existence and suffered with us. But I hope I have demonstrated that the cruel commandments of God are not consistent with wounds of love, they are consistent with a malicious God, just as Stephen Fry described.

Believing that God joins us in suffering may comfort some people. And this is something I am uncomfortable with challenging, as a non believer. Do I really want to undermine someone’s faith if it brings them comfort? It’s a tough dilemma; if you think something is false and of great importance, then you feel obliged to point that out. But what if this worldview has benefits? Justin’s claim, that great times of need are when people are more likely to turn to God, is, I think, probably true. But this returns us to the earlier point; comfortable Western societies seem to be the ones least likely to believe in God. Perhaps then we should strive to alleviate suffering and this, according to Justin, may turn people away from God. But given God’s cruel character, I feel that’s a price we should be happy to pay.

 


 

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We turn our attention to crucial topics that failed to make the cut in Justin’s book. Over the past ten years of listening to the program, we were surprised that very little mention of miracles and prayer made it into the book. Spiritual warfare also comes up in conversation on the show quite frequently. These are major Christian doctrines that are particularly important to Justin. They are also major areas of contention for people who lose their faith.

The problem of evil is often conflated with the problem of suffering so that the Christian never has to deal with it. But the Bible starts with the problem of evil. When people are asked why they lost their faith, the problem of evil frequently comes up. So while these topics did not receive much space in Justin’s first book, we did not feel we could respond to ten years of Unbelievable without them.