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After realizing all this, then, I gradually settled into a kind of deism – that is, I still believed in God, but I didn’t confine him to one particular religion. The way I figured it, humankind’s flawed religions may have been unable to fully encapsulate the power and glory of God within their rigid dogmas, but that didn’t mean that God wasn’t real. Just because all the religions had such wildly disparate views of God’s nature didn’t mean that they weren’t all tapping into the same thing when they prayed and communed with him. Maybe they were just all seeing different sides of the same universal, nondenominational deity; maybe there was one God with a thousand different faces. If there was one thing I believed, it was that there was at least some kind of all-knowing and all-loving and all-powerful deity up there, watching over us and looking out for our best interests.

In time, though, I started to realize that even this concept had its problems. For instance, if there really was a God who was all-loving, and all-knowing, and all-powerful, then why was there so much gratuitous suffering in the world? I mean, I knew a lot of people who attributed their belief in God to the fact that they had so many blessings in their lives – but to me, that seemed like a pretty self-centered way of looking at things, considering that there were millions of other people out there (especially in the most poverty-stricken parts of the world) who never received such blessings and whose lives were just an unrelenting barrage of anguish and misery. Sure, you might have gotten a nice promotion at your job, or given birth to a beautiful, healthy child – but if you count those things as evidence for God’s existence, then does the fact that 5.6 million children die every year before they reach the age of five (i.e. one child dying every six seconds) count as evidence against it? As David Attenborough put it in a TV interview:

When people talk about saying that God created all of these things, they always think of beautiful things, like roses and hummingbirds and so on. But I also think of a little African boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa, with a worm eating its way through his eyeball, so he’s going to be blind in the next few years. Now if you’re telling me that God created the rose and the hummingbird and all the rest of it, presumably he also created this thing in your eye. And it didn’t evolve in the way that I believe it did, but you believe that it was created by God. Some way or another, God said, “I will make a worm that can only live by boring through people’s eyes.” Now I don’t actually find that compatible with the Christian idea of a God who cares individually for the welfare of each of us.

Templeton also talks about this issue (known as “the problem of suffering” or “the problem of evil”) at length:

Is there anyone who has not asked some of the following questions?

  • If there is an omnipotent and loving God, why does he permit earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and other natural disasters to kill indiscriminately tens of thousands of men, women, and children?
  • How could a loving God originate as part of his creation such horrible illnesses as encephalitis, cerebral palsy, the various cancers, leprosy, Alzheimer’s, and other incurable diseases, and permit them indiscriminately to afflict tens of thousands of men, women, and children?
  • When an earthquake in Turkey buries thousands alive, when a typhoon drowns 150,000 Pakistanis over a weekend, when a drought in Somalia kills thousands of men, women, and children by starvation, why does a loving God not do something to help the helpless?
  • How could a loving God create an endless hell and consign the majority of the world’s people to it, year after year, century after century, simply because they do not worship him?


What has been called “the problem of evil” has puzzled men and women of every generation in every part of the world. Why, in a world created by a loving and omnipotent God, are disease, suffering, and death an inescapable part of life? What is the reason for it? The theologians have attempted to address the question and have offered a variety of answers, but none of them are convincing.

Most of the horrors cannot simply be attributed to or blamed on humankind’s sinfulness – so many of those who hunger and suffer and die are decent men, women, and children. Some are babes in arms. When an earthquake or a plague devastates an area, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands injured and other thousands homeless, or when a prolonged drought turns productive soil into a desert, the people stricken by these natural disasters are not the wicked getting what they deserve; they are more often than not the poor, the defenceless, and the children.

We have come to understand something about natural disasters and are sometimes able to ameliorate their impact, but we are not the cause of them and can do little if anything to control them. A meteorologist may accurately predict the onset of a hurricane, a geologist may warn of an imminent earthquake, but neither can keep them from happening. They are, quite simply, beyond human control.

The insurance companies continue to call them acts of God.


There is also a host of personal disasters over which we have little or no control. They include incapacitating illnesses, genetic defects, metabolic disorders, and those physiological or psychological aberrations that produce such horrors as Down’s syndrome in the newborn and Alzheimer’s in the aging. The victims and those who love them often suffer piteously. A foetus may be hopelessly afflicted before it is born. Some have been called “human vegetables.” Others cannot breathe without a respirator. Many of the aged are afflicted with brain or motor degeneration. Flesh and bone diminish, the body wasting away to the point where the individual is as much as dead.

Indeed, in some cases they would be better off dead.


But there are other kinds of suffering, many that have nothing to do with natural disasters or with disease. A member of the congregation of which I was the minister, a zestful, intelligent, and beautiful woman in her early twenties, was so afflicted. I officiated at her wedding. The man she married was personable, intelligent, and apparently successful in business, but he proved to be an inveterate liar and physically abusive. And he deserted her a few months into the marriage when he learned she was pregnant – emptying their joint bank account as he left.

The pregnancy palliated her sorrow somewhat. The life growing within her gave her hope and purpose and a reason to live.

I visited her in hospital the day her child was born. She was heavily sedated, and when roused by the nurse looked at me through vacant eyes. When I held her hand and spoke to her, she made no response. The baby, I was informed by the nurse, had been born hydrocephalic and would die within days. I was shown the infant: a boy, quivering spasmodically in a respirator, the upper part of his head twice normal size and visibly pulsing with the heartbeat.

Later that week I performed the child’s funeral. It was private. I can’t recall what I said – I’m sure it was all the obligatory things: vapid statements about how God’s ways are not ours and are often mysterious and beyond human understanding; but that we must have faith in his divine purpose, believing that, one day, it will all become clear…

Afterwards, I said nothing. I simply held the woman in my arms, trying to will strength into her while she wept great, shuddering sobs. I hadn’t the wisdom – or the temerity – to offer the usual explanations.

Her tragedy was soul-destroying. But consider for a moment the millions of children in the Third World who are cursed from the day they are born: by their sickly bodies, their indifferent parents, and their place of birth. They grow up in slums, in many instances lacking home and family and affection. They suffer from those deficiencies and illnesses caused by malnutrition and the poor health of the mother. They are raised in poverty, clothed in rags, illiterate for want of schooling, and from early childhood, forced by events to scratch out a living any way they can.

Millions of children – yes, millions – are doomed from the day they are born.


Some years ago a missionary friend told me of a girl who came into the world in Calcutta. From her birth and throughout her lifetime she never knew one moment of affection. She was born onto a filthy piece of cardboard in a filthy inner-city dump. Her mother was a teenage prostitute. She suffered from rickets from birth, and as a child of four was put onto the streets to beg. From the age of ten, the man who had fathered her sold her daily to various men for a few rupees. She was dead at the age of fourteen from pneumonia complicated by syphilis and malnutrition.

Hearing about her I was reminded of the little song we sang in Sunday school,

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Black and yellow, red and white,
They are precious in his sight…


CARE International reports that some five million children die each year from cholera simply because they lack clean water to drink. The World Health Organization estimates that forty thousand people a day die from preventable diseases. Thousands of others die in famines such as those in Eritrea, the Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere. Who can ever erase from their memory the pictures on television showing these men, women and, most pathetically, children – human beings literally starving to death. Mothers with babies, whose limbs are like bundles of dry sticks, held to a dry breast. Children without the energy to cry or raise a hand to drive the flies from their eyes and the corners of their mouths.

Yes, the politicians and the feuding armies and the various warlords in the region are partly to blame – often they appropriate for their own use the shipments of food and medicine sent to the area by foreign governments or charitable institutions – but these children did not choose to be born into this world nor were they or their parents the cause of the drought.

It is sometimes argued that these innocents suffer not so much from nature’s failure as from man’s inhumanity to man. But surely both are true. Yes, many of them die because evil men do evil, but beyond that and apart from it they die because there has been no rain! – something over which neither they nor their parents nor the politicians nor anyone else has any control.

And all the while, other people in other parts of the world are dying by the tens of thousands because there is too much rain! When, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo swept through the Caribbean, it killed hundreds of Jamaicans and left thousands homeless. Every year there are reports from various parts of the world of towns and settlements wiped out by high winds or by what are called “storm surges” – masses of water driven before an oncoming hurricane. Who can forget the reports of the onslaught of the elements that swept across Bangladesh in the spring of 1991, killing 125,000 men, women, and children and leaving ten million homeless.

It was not the first time it had happened.

Nor will it be the last. Who was not moved to pity in December 1988 by the newspaper and television reports of those Armenian refugees who, driven from their homeland by their traditional enemies, the Turks, fled to the apparent safety of Azerbaijan only to have a violent earthquake kill fifty thousand of them?


The pervasiveness of pain and suffering and death is equally horrific in the animal world. It is a world pervaded by – based on – suffering and death.

According to the first chapter of Genesis, before God made man he created animals: the great and lesser beasts, the birds, the reptiles, the fish, and “all manner of creeping things.” They are all in different degrees sensate creatures. They manifest fear, they feel pain, they suffer and die. Their life and death is part of what has been called nature’s grand design.

This being so, one is bound to ask why the loving God found it necessary to base the sustaining of the life of so many of his creatures on killing and devouring? Surely it would not be beyond the competence of an omniscient deity to create an animal world that could be sustained and perpetuated without suffering and death.

Why does God’s grand design require creatures with teeth designed to crush spines or rend flesh, claws fashioned to seize and tear, venom to paralyze, mouths to suck blood, coils to constrict and smother – even expandable jaws so that prey may be swallowed whole and alive?

There are three basic types of animal: the herbivorous, the carnivorous, and the omnivorous. The herbivorous ingest plant life, the carnivorous subsist mostly on flesh, and the omnivorous – which includes us – on anything that has nutritive value and can be ingested.

As a consequence:

On land: the big cats kill zebras or wildebeest or impala or any creature they can bring down. Hyenas and jackals kill anything they can overwhelm by numbers. Crocodiles kill anything driven to their waterhole by thirst. Wolves kill hares. Grizzly bears kill salmon. Foxes kill birds and burrowers. So do snakes, which also kill larger prey through the injection of venom or by squeezing the life out of them or by swallowing them alive.

In the waters: whales kill krill, killer whales kill seals, sharks kill porpoises, porpoises kill mullet, sea-lions kill penguins, conger eels kill squid, bass kill fingerlings, mullet kill minnows.

From the air: eagles kill salmon, hawks kill rodents, vultures eat carrion, gulls eat anything they can ingest, alive or dead. On and on, day and night, the maiming, killing, and devouring continues, with all the omnivorous or predatory creatures “doing what comes naturally.”

The grim and inescapable reality is that all life is predicated on death. Every carnivorous creature must kill and devour another creature. It has no option. Meanwhile, all the herbivorous creatures engorge themselves on grasses and grains and berries so that – albeit unwittingly – they may provide nutrition for the carnivores through what is called the food chain.

This is the way the world works. All life is predicated on death. Ingest some living thing or die of starvation.

The reader of these lines – unless he or she is a vegetarian – is alive because a steer or lamb or pig or calf or chicken was butchered and brought to market. In one large Canadian city 12,500 cattle, 8,000 pigs, 1,700 sheep and 50,000 chickens are slaughtered every day so that we omnivorous humans may live.

Nor is mercy admitted to the occasion. When animals kill, as often as not the victim’s death is painful and protracted. When a pack of hyenas or wild dogs runs down a zebra they first cut it from the herd and then bring it down through sheer numbers. No individual could accomplish the kill. The prey is seized by the muzzle. Another member of the pack clamps onto the tail or fastens on a haunch, and the remainder swarm in to bring the victim to the ground. Hyenas cannot do as a lion might, break the neck or close off the windpipe, and as a consequence their victims die slowly. Usually, because it is the area of easiest access, predators go in through the belly, often beginning to devour the innards while the victim is still alive.

The predators – at whatever level and whatever their method of killing – are not evil; they are doing what they were born to do. It is the way the world works, and has been across millions of years as various species of mammals, birds, fish, snakes, and insects – and even humans – have perpetuated themselves by eating one another.

Nature is, in Tennyson’s vivid phrase, “red in tooth and claw,” and life is a carnival of blood.

The grand design also includes the creation of parasites: worms, fleas, ticks, lice are themselves unable to kill, but following their destiny, are capable of penetrating the skin, burrowing into the body, or flourishing in the lungs, bloodstream, or digestive system, often destroying the health of and sometimes killing the host creature, and generally making life miserable.

On an even more minuscule scale are the bacteria, the viruses, the aberrant cells that attack the body or the organs or the brain, and the malignant cells that stimulate abnormal growth or the development of diseased tissue.


Consider for a moment the epidemics or plagues that in every age have devastated the population in various parts of the world. The word plague is used to describe any contagious, malignant, epidemic disease. The bubonic plague and the black plague – so named because multiple haemorrhages beneath the skin turned it black – were two forms of the same disease, one transmitted by fleas from infected rats, the other by infected squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. The afflicted died in three to four days. And there was no cure.

The earliest visitation of which there is a record took place in Europe in 430 B.C. and began in Athens. An outbreak in Rome in the third century B.C. killed as many as five thousand men, women, and children daily. The most widespread plague in Western history began in Constantinople in 1334 and moved through Europe – spread in part by the returning Crusaders who had been off killing infidels to the greater glory of God. It is estimated by historians that, in fewer than twenty years, that particular plague killed as much as three-quarters of the population of Europe and Asia. In untreated cases – and there was little if any treatment available – the mortality rate ran as high as 90 per cent.

After Columbus “discovered” the Americas he was followed there by the Spanish conquistadores, who brought with them various European diseases. The Latin American Indians had no antibodies to protect them and sickened and died in uncounted numbers. In Brazil alone, the pre-conquest population of 2.4 million was reduced to slightly more than 200,000.

Today, we are facing a relatively new international plague – AIDS. The cause is the HIV virus. There is no known cure. The virus spreads by passing directly from the blood of an infected person into the blood of an uninfected person – or, less commonly, through semen or saliva. In North America it is primarily (although not exclusively) a homosexual disease, but in parts of Africa, where the disease is rampant, it most commonly afflicts heterosexuals, men, women, and their children alike.

Let me add to this list of physical afflictions that degeneration of the human brain commonly called Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is a geriatric illness that diminishes and even erases memory, and in its late stages obliterates any sense of personal identity and family relationships. The Alzheimer’s sufferer may manifest few physical symptoms, may not be confined to bed, and may be able to function in many ways, but – and this is surely the ultimate loss – he no longer knows who he is!

In its later stages, the victim of the disease cannot be permitted to leave his place of residence alone because he cannot recall where he lives, those he lives with, or even his own name, and within a city block from home can become hopelessly lost.

How by any reach of the imagination can this bizarre and tragic affliction serve any good end? It commonly destroys marriages, parenthood, friendships, and a sense of family – the things on which most loving relationships are predicated – and replaces them with quarrelsomeness, rancour, resentment, estrangement, despair, and finally, death.

How, one must ask, could a loving Heavenly Father so order it? Alzheimer’s is not a punishment for wrongdoing; it does not afflict only the wicked. It seems to be genetically destined and strikes indiscriminately and without apparent cause both the decent and the reprobate. Perhaps the worst aspect of the illness is that it destroys not only the victim but the victim’s loved ones. For the families of Alzheimer’s sufferers, it is as though the loved one had died and been resurrected as an irascible look-alike stranger. Love and affection has been replaced by estrangement, suspicion, and resentment. Somewhere in the brain of the individual the past has been erased.


How could a loving and omnipotent God create such horrors as we have been contemplating? Jesus said: “Are not five sparrows sold for a penny, and not one of them is forgotten before God; and are you not of more value than many sparrows?” But if God grieves over the death of one sparrow, how could even his eternal spirit bear the sickness, suffering, and death of the multiplied millions of men, women, children, animals, birds, and other sensate creatures, in every part of the world, in every century since time began?

Especially when he would know that it all stems from his creativity!

The inescapable answer is that “a loving God” could not possibly be the author of the horrors we have been describing – horrors that continue every day, have continued since time began, and will continue as long as life exists. It is an inconceivable tale of suffering and death, and because the tale is fact – is, in truth, the history of the world – it is obvious that there cannot be a loving God.

Harris emphasizes some of the same points in a debate with the Christian apologist William Lane Craig:

Nine million children die every year before they reach the age of five. Picture an Asian tsunami of the sort we saw in 2004 that killed a quarter of a million people – one of those every ten days, killing children only under five. That’s twenty-four thousand children a day, a thousand an hour, seventeen or so a minute. That means before I get to the end of this sentence, some few children very likely will have died in terror and agony.

Think of the parents of these children. Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared; and their prayers will not be answered. But according to Dr. Craig, this is all part of God’s plan.

Any god who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them or doesn’t care to. He is therefore either impotent or evil. And worse than that, on Dr. Craig’s view, most of these people – many of these people, certainly – will be going to Hell because they’re praying to the wrong god. Just think about that: Through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture, where they got the wrong theology, and they missed the revelation. There are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment. Most of them are Hindus; most of them therefore polytheists. In Dr. Craig’s universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are praying to the monkey god Hanuman, you are doomed – you’ll be tortured in hell for eternity. Now is there the slightest evidence for this? No. It just says so in Mark 9 and Matthew 13 and Revelation 14.

So God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus; he engineered the circumstance of their deaths in ignorance of revelation, and then he created the penalty for this ignorance, which is an eternity of conscious torment in fire.

On the other hand, on Dr. Craig’s account, your run-of-the-mill serial killer in America, who spent his life raping and torturing children, need only come to God, come to Jesus on death row, and after a final meal of fried chicken, he’s going to spend eternity in heaven after death.

One thing should be crystal clear to you: This vision of life has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.

And please notice the double standard that people like Dr. Craig use to exonerate God from all this evil. We’re told that God is loving and kind and just and intrinsically good. But when someone like myself points out the rather obvious and compelling evidence that God is cruel and unjust, because he visits suffering on innocent people of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath, we are told that God is mysterious. Who can understand God’s will? Yet this merely human understanding of God’s will is precisely what believers use to establish his goodness in the first place. If something good happens to a Christian – he feels some bliss while praying, or he sees some positive change his life – we’re told that God is good. But when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parents’ arms and drowned, we are told God is mysterious.

This is how you play tennis without the net.

And I want to suggest to you that it is not only tiresome when otherwise intelligent people speak this way – it is morally reprehensible. This kind of faith really is the perfection of narcissism: “God loves me, don’t you know? He cured me of my eczema; he makes me feels so good while singing in church; and just when we had given up hope, he found a banker who was willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.” Given all this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that’s being imposed on some helpless child at this instant, this kind of faith is obscene.

To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings. And if God is good and loving and just and kind, and he wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery? Why give us a book that admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes, like witchcraft?

Of course, there’s a way of not taking these questions to heart. According to Dr. Craig’s divine command theory, God is not bound by moral duties. God doesn’t have to be good; whatever he commands is good. So when he commands the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, that behavior becomes intrinsically good because he commanded it.

Here we’re being offered – I’m glad [Craig] raised the issue of psychopathy – we’re being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It’s psychotic because this is completely delusional: There’s no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster Yahweh. But it is psychopathic, because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. This so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children.

Just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There’s absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can say against their behavior in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong god. If they had the right god, what they were doing would be good, on divine command theory.

Now I’m obviously not saying that Dr. Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics – but this, to me, this is the true horror of religion: It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.

And I’m not the first person to notice that it’s a very strange sort of loving God who would make salvation depend on believing in him on bad evidence. If you lived 2000 years ago, there was evidence galore – he was just performing miracles – but apparently he got tired of being so helpful. And so now we all inherit this very heavy burden of the doctrine’s implausibility. And the effort to square it with what we now know about the cosmos and what we know about the all-too-human origins of scripture becomes more and more difficult.

And it’s not just the generic God that Dr. Craig is recommending; it is God the Father and Jesus the Son. Christianity, on Dr. Craig’s account, is the true moral wealth of the world. I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame, but Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice. Christianity is not a religion that repudiates human sacrifice; it is a religion that celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective: “God so loved the world he that gave his only son” – John 3:16. The idea is that Jesus suffered the crucifixion so that none need suffer Hell – except those billions in India, and billions like them throughout history.

This doctrine is astride a contemptible history of scientific ignorance and religious barbarism. We come from people who used to bury children under the foundations of new buildings as offerings to their imaginary gods. Just think about that. In vast numbers of societies, people would bury children in postholes – people like ourselves – thinking that this would prevent an invisible being from knocking down their buildings. These are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible.

If there is a less moral moral framework than the one Dr. Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it.

Of course, as Templeton and Harris note, there have been plenty of attempts by religious apologists to explain the problem of suffering – most of which boil down to some variation of the idea that all the suffering in the world is “just part of God’s plan” and that it all serves some higher purpose that’s ultimately for our own good. But as Harris points out, this idea doesn’t do much to explain why our universe is the way it is, because it could just as easily be used to explain any universe with any amount of suffering in it:

The human respiratory and digestive tracts share a little plumbing at the pharynx. In the United States alone, this intelligent design feature lands tens of thousands of children in the emergency room each year. Some hundreds choke to death. Many others suffer irreparable brain injury. What compassionate purpose does this serve? Of course, we can imagine a compassionate purpose: perhaps the parents of these children needed to be taught a lesson; perhaps God has prepared a special reward in heaven for every child who chokes to death on a bottle cap. The problem, however, is that such imaginings are compatible with any state of the world. What horrendous mishap could not be rationalized in this way? And why would you be inclined to think like this? How is it moral to think like this?

TheraminTrees offers another perspective on the idea that all this suffering must be for our own good:

For many folks, doubts about their religion get stirred up by distressing life events involving illness, loss, injustice, death. At these times, when many cry out, “Why, Oh Lord?” and crave robust answers, it seems all religions have to offer is a welter of mimsy platitudes. People are told: “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” In rebuttal, one word: suicide. When people take their own lives to escape some anguish – whether that anguish comes from chronic pain, relentless bullying, insufferable loss, or an inability to construct a future – they have, by definition, been given more than they could handle. People are told: “God doesn’t give you the people you want. He gives you the people you need.” In rebuttal, again one word: pedophile. Is anyone seriously going to argue that their god gave sexually-abused children the pedophiles they needed?

If you assume that everything must be part of God’s plan, that means that every act of abuse, cruelty, and sadism must happen because God wants it to happen. In other words, it means that he causes evil to exist on purpose. And the Bible actually has quite a few verses in support of this idea: In Isaiah 45:7, for instance, God says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Amos 3:6 says the same thing: “Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” And so does Lamentations 3:38: “Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?”

Again though, just asserting that God is all-loving, and that all the world’s suffering must therefore be for the best, doesn’t answer the question of why his perfect plan should cause so much suffering, or why so much of it should be so gratuitous and excessive. As Peter Singer puts it, “Some say that we need to have some suffering to appreciate what it is like to be happy. Maybe – but we surely don’t need as much as we have.” In fact, Christianity itself rejects the idea that it wouldn’t be possible to have a world full of happy people without also making them suffer – because after all, according to Christianity, such a world already exists; it’s called Heaven. The whole point of Heaven is that it’s better than Earth, and everybody’s maximally happy, precisely because of the lack of suffering there. So if you’re trying to argue that suffering must exist in order to make happiness possible, you have to explain how a place like Heaven could exist (and how, for that matter, the Garden of Eden could have existed – since after all, it too was originally created as a place of perfect happiness without any suffering). It’s one thing to make a general argument that some amount of suffering might help us appreciate happiness more – but it’s another thing altogether to say that the only way happiness can be possible is if you also constantly have billions of people and animals being agonizingly tortured to death by disease and war and famine and so on. That argument just seems indefensible.

(And in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that you could make a reasonable case that no amount of suffering is actually necessary to help us appreciate happiness. Why not? Well, just think about it from the opposite direction: Could someone experience real suffering without also experiencing happiness? Imagine someone living their entire life in a state of constant pain without having ever experienced joy or contentment or anything like that (e.g. an infant with some fatal birth defect). Would you then say that because that person never experienced happiness, and therefore never had anything to measure their suffering against, that they’d never truly suffered at all? Was some amount of happiness really necessary to put their suffering into perspective? Or would it be perfectly valid to say that they truly were suffering, arguably even more so than if they’d had some sliver of happiness to hold onto? It seems clear to me that it’s the latter; so why, then, shouldn’t that logic apply in the other direction as well? Why isn’t it valid to say that if somebody had a happy life, they’d be able to experience the full measure of that happiness without also having endured some suffering along the way? Admittedly, this is a purely theoretical question, so I can’t claim to know what the true answer is; but to me, the “suffering is wholly unnecessary” stance at least seems plausible enough to be worth considering. I think there’s a fair case to be made that, as John Green’s character Hazel Grace Lancaster puts it, “the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.” (And if you wanted to take this idea even further, you could even argue that the existence of suffering actually makes it less possible for us to feel maximally happy, since it forces us to be aware, even in our happiest moments, that those moments can only ever be temporary, and that we’ll eventually have to experience suffering again.) Like I said, this is all purely theoretical – I’m not making any definitive factual claims here – but it does seem telling to me, at least, that we don’t typically see therapists recommending that their patients try to increase the amount of stress and pain in their lives on the basis that it will make them happier in the long run. Notwithstanding certain gentle techniques like exposure therapy, I suspect you’d have a hard time making a living as a therapist if your advice to your patients always included suggestions like “Have you tried gouging your eyes out? It’d probably make you a lot more appreciative of all the other parts of your life that aren’t as horrible!”)

And this raises another idea similar to the “suffering helps us enjoy life more” argument, which is the idea that suffering must be necessary for the purpose of character-building or “soul-making.” According to this argument (also known as the Irenaean theodicy), we have to have all this suffering in the world not only because it makes us happier, but because it helps us develop resilience and other important character traits.

As the Wikipedia article summarizes, though:

The Irenaean theodicy has been challenged [firstly] with the assertion that many evils do not seem to promote spiritual growth, and can be positively destructive of the human spirit. […] Horrendous suffering often leads to dehumanization, [and] its victims in truth do not grow spiritually but become vindictive and spiritually worse. […] A second issue concerns the distribution of evils suffered: were it true that God permitted evil in order to facilitate spiritual growth, then we would expect evil to disproportionately befall those in poor spiritual health. This does not seem to be the case, as the decadent enjoy lives of luxury which insulate them from evil, whereas many of the pious are poor, and are well acquainted with worldly evils. Thirdly, states [G. Stanley] Kane, human character can be developed directly or in constructive and nurturing loving ways, and it is unclear why God would consider or allow evil and suffering to be necessary or the preferred way to spiritual growth.


This reconciliation of the problem of evil and God, states [Nicola Hoggard] Creegan, also fails to explain the need or rationale for evil inflicted on animals and resultant animal suffering, because “there is no evidence at all that suffering improves the character of animals, or is evidence of soul-making in them”.

On a more fundamental level, the soul-making theodicy assumes that the virtues developed through suffering are intrinsically, as opposed to instrumentally, good. The virtues identified as “soul-making” only appear to be valuable in a world where evil and suffering already exist. A willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to save others from persecution, for example, is virtuous precisely because persecution exists. Likewise, we value the willingness to donate one’s meal to those who are starving because starvation exists. If persecution and starvation did not occur, there would be no reason to consider these acts virtuous. If the virtues developed through soul-making are only valuable where suffering exists, then it is not clear that we would lose anything if suffering did not exist.

In light of the failure of these arguments, then, another approach apologists sometimes take is to simply deny that such a thing as suffering even exists at all. The most common phrasing of this argument is that “evil is just an absence of good,” in the same way that cold is just an absence of heat. The problem with this approach, though, is that it doesn’t actually resolve the issue; it just rephrases it. We can grant for the sake of argument that suffering might be nothing but an absence of well-being, but all that does is redefine the question at hand from “Why does God allow suffering?” to “Why does God allow an absence of well-being?” Besides, not to put too fine a point on it here, the idea that suffering actually does exist just seems so self-evidently true that it’s hard to imagine anyone could think otherwise unless they were specifically trying to rationalize away this particular theological problem. As the article above points out: “Scholars who criticize the privation theory state that murder, rape, terror, pain and suffering are real life events for the victim, and cannot be denied as mere ‘lack of good.’” It’s hard to tell someone who’s in intense agony that what they’re experiencing is actually good, just less good than it could be. Clearly, what they’re experiencing is honestly, genuinely bad.

Given all this, there’s one more line of defense against the problem of suffering, which is just to say that although all the suffering in the world may in fact be terrible and unnecessary, God is the one who created us, so that gives him the right to do whatever he wants with us, and we have no right to condemn him for it or say that anything he does is bad. This is an argument that Dinesh D’Souza once used in a debate against Singer; but Singer was ready with a response, as he recounts:

D’Souza argued that since God gave us life, we are not in a position to complain if our life is not perfect. He used the example of being born with one limb missing. If life itself is a gift, he said, we are not wronged by being given less than we might want. In response I pointed out that we condemn mothers who cause harm to their babies by taking alcohol or cocaine when pregnant. Yet since they have given life to their children, it seems that, on D’Souza’s view, there is nothing wrong with what they have done.

Tim Maroney adds to this:

[One response] I have heard to this sort of argument in the past [is,] “You can’t judge God by the same standards as man.” In that case, why is it that I keep getting told that God is good? Are there two meanings of the word “good”, one of which forbids murder, deliberate starvation, infecting people with disease, and so on, and another which allows these things? I suggest that there is already a word for the second meaning. That word is “evil”.


Let’s see how Yahweh/Jesus stands up to his own standards. In Matthew 26:41-46, we hear the King, “Next he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.’ … And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.”

In the light of this, [God] himself is the worst of sinners; if there is no double standard, he will be at the head of that line into eternal punishment. He is guilty of every crime of which he accuses the damned.

Of course, there are actually ways of explaining the existence of suffering that could still allow for God’s existence. For instance, maybe some kind of benevolent deity really does exist, but he just isn’t all-powerful. A few Bible verses actually support this idea, as before: In Judges 1:19, for example, God is unable to overcome his enemies because they have iron chariots (“The LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron”). And in Titus 1:2 and Hebrews 6:18, the Bible says that it’s “impossible for God to lie” (notwithstanding the parts of the Bible mentioned earlier in which he actually does lie). Still, I think it’s safe to say that most believers don’t take the idea of a non-omnipotent God very seriously – and it’s understandable why they wouldn’t, since a deity that’s powerless to do certain things just wouldn’t seem quite as worthy of being called “God” as an all-powerful one. As Epicurus (supposedly) put it:

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?

There’s still another possibility here, though, which is that maybe God is both all-loving and all-powerful, but he just isn’t all-knowing. In other words, maybe he wants to help us, and it’s theoretically within his power to do so, but he simply isn’t aware of everything that happens, so a lot of otherwise-preventable cases of suffering fall through the cracks. Again, there are a number of Bible verses supporting this idea: In Genesis 3:8-13, for instance, Adam and Eve hide from God and he’s unable to find them at first – then, when they confess what they’ve done, it seems to catch him by surprise:

[Adam and Eve] heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

Later on, in Genesis 11:4-6, God hears about the Tower of Babel and has to go visit it in person to see if what he’s heard is true. And later still, in Genesis 18:20-21, he hears about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and has to do the same thing again:

And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and, if not, I will know.

Verses like this appear throughout the Bible, with God having to question people and investigate things in order to obtain information that he would already know perfectly well if he were omniscient. In Hosea 8:4, he even flat-out admits that it’s possible for certain things to escape his knowledge: “[The Israelites] have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not.”

Again though, in spite of these verses, I don’t think many believers actually take the idea of a non-omniscient God seriously, for the same reasons that they don’t take the idea of a non-omnipotent God seriously. A God who doesn’t know everything seems less like an actual supreme cosmic overlord and more like one of the flawed gods of Greco-Roman mythology. (Plus, if God really were omnipotent but not omniscient, he could simply snap his fingers and make himself omniscient any time he wanted to.) So omniscience seems like it should be a given.

That being said, if we assume that God must be omniscient, that assumption brings a whole new set of complications of its own. After all, one of the most common explanations for the existence of suffering is that it must be necessary in order to allow humans to have free will; if we didn’t have the ability to choose between good and evil (even if it sometimes led to harmful results), we wouldn’t have true freedom at all. But the thing is, if God knows all things – past, present, and future – then he already knows everything that’s going to happen in advance. The course of our lives is already set in stone – our choices are already determined – and so free will must be an illusion.

Besides, even if we imagine free will to be possible, it still isn’t sufficient to explain all the world’s suffering. As mentioned earlier, there’s still plenty of suffering caused by things other than human choice (birth defects, natural disasters, etc.), and there’s still all kinds of suffering in the animal kingdom, separate from human actions. On top of that, even if we only limit ourselves to the evil caused by humans, it’s not clear why the ability to make free choices should include the ability to cause suffering. We could easily imagine, for instance, an alternative universe in which humans still had free will but were simply impervious to harm (i.e. if you shot someone, the bullet would just bounce off them). Alternatively, we could imagine a universe in which humans had the full ability to make choices, but they simply weren’t inclined to choose evil and so never did. Such humans shouldn’t be a challenge for an all-powerful God to create; after all, according to the Bible, Adam and Eve themselves were created with both free will and the ability to live completely sinless lives. The only reason they didn’t was because God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil right in the middle of the Garden of Eden where they could stumble across it – but if not for that oversight, Earth would have been a place that both had free will for its inhabitants and was completely free of suffering.

Likewise, Christianity describes Heaven as a place without suffering – and yet its inhabitants, the angels, presumably have free will of their own (otherwise, there could be no such thing as “fallen angels” like Lucifer who choose to reject God). The angels who remain in Heaven (i.e. the non-fallen ones) enjoy the ability to choose freely; they simply always choose to do what’s good. Why, then, could God not have created a world that was exclusively inhabited by such beings?

You could even include Jesus himself in this class of beings that have both free will and the ability to live without sinning. As Underlings discusses:

According to the Bible, Jesus was the only perfectly sinless man. God specifically created him to grow up to be without sin. Yet as a man, Jesus presumably had free will, right? If so, that means it is undeniably possible for God to create free-willed human beings incapable of sinning. Apologists may insist that Jesus was God incarnate, and that it was in his nature to be incapable of sinning – but that only confirms that it is completely possible for God to create humans that are, by nature, sinless. The fact that he didn’t indicates that God must have wanted human beings to be capable of sin, regardless of whether or not he gave them free will.

To sum up, then, the “free will” argument doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for why suffering must exist. Nor, for that matter, do any of the other aforementioned arguments that assume the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for there to be any kind of theistic solution, mind you – maybe God exists, but he simply has bigger priorities than maximizing the well-being of his creations; or maybe there’s some other explanation (I’ll speculate on a few later). But the existence of suffering does seem to preclude the possibility of having a Christian-style God who’s both all-powerful and wants the best for all of his creations during their time on Earth. The only option left, aside from conceding one of those traits, is to consider that there might not actually be anyone up there watching out for our well-being at all.

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