In this post, I will assert the following:
- There is good reason to believe that gratuitous suffering exists.
- God has no valid excuse for any instances of presumed gratuitous suffering.
- The onus in the debate over ST is equal on both the theist and the atheist.
Even though it appears last in the bulleted list, the issue of the onus is the briefest to address. Theists and atheists are frequently guilty of eschewing responsibility in the debate over ST and gratuitous suffering. Both have an equal burden: if the theist argues that gratuitous suffering does not exist and that God has a reason, he must show why God probably has a reason. He should also, contrary to the common sense of atheists, try to show why gratuitous evil is not so. Although outside the realm of theodicies and ST, the theist could argue that gratuitous evil and the idea of a just/omnibenevolent God are not incompatible.
On the other hand, the atheist must show that gratuitous evil is likely and that God either does not have a reason or no reason could suffice. I am going to prove all three: gratuitous evil is likely to exist, God likely does not have a reason, and it would not matter regardless because no reason could suffice.
Gratuitous evil is likely to exist.
What is the nature of gratuitous evil? I believe gratuitous evil is exemplified by needless suffering. Needless suffering is simply gratuitous evil in action. Here are some characteristics of needless suffering:
- Could not be prevented
- Lessens the quality of life
Does anything exist that fits those criteria? Perhaps the most looming example is birth defects, but cancer, ebola, and some cases of HIV/AIDS all qualify as well.
Let’s start by analyzing birth defects and cases where HIV is passed from mother to newborn child. Is it undeserved? Well, the baby/the soul of the baby had no chance to commit any act at any time to deserve it, so yes. Is it incurable? Yes. Could it be prevented? No, birth defects cannot really be prevented. In the case of mother to newborn HIV transmissions, it depends. Do HIV+ women have a moral obligation to not bear children? Either way, the baby could not do anything to avoid getting it. Finally, does it lessen the quality of life? Absolutely.
What about cancer? I think it’s non-controversial that cancer is largely incurable, cannot really be prevented, and certainly lessens the quality of life. However, can one deserve cancer? Cancer is a cruel punishment even for the most aggressive of sinners. Furthermore, plenty of relatively innocent people get cancer while many guilty ones do not. Finally, what a person does during their time on Earth can be punished when they pass. If God expects his suffering admirers to wait until the afterlife for the joy he promises them, then God can wait until judgment day to punish aberrancy. It is unjust to do otherwise.
An important example of gratuitous evil often cited by atheists is deaths resulting from natural disasters. The question of incurability does not apply here, but natural disasters cannot be prevented and they certainly lessen the quality of life. This sends us back to the question of deserts and for the previous reasons, I will maintain that it is not possible to deserve getting killed by a natural disaster; this is highlighted by the fact that many babies die in natural disasters.
It is unlikely that God has a reason for perceived needless suffering.
Theists often try to make excuses for God such as “a perfect being need not explain himself to sinful humans” or “God has good reasons for not telling us why certain evils happen,” but this obscures God’s very agenda. Either God wants people to believe in him and establish a relationship with him or he doesn’t. Why is God dodging the hard questions, so to speak? His doing so hurts his credibility as a candidate for truth.
God obviously has no obligation to explain why X occurs, but he certainly must know that many people choose not to believe in him as a result of X. Again, if God loves his creations, why leave them wondering? Why alienate them when other believers receive “answers” to questions and prayers? I will express this as a syllogism below. Please keep in mind that this prong of ST and the problem of evil is theology-dependent.
1. Some humans perceive needless suffering.
2. Some of the humans in P1 refuse belief in God as a result.
3. God is capable of addressing the humans in P2 and explaining to them the error of their reasoning.
4. God does not do this.
5. From 4, God does not care if everyone believes in him.
6. If God loved his creations, he would want them to go to heaven to be with him.
7. If one is capable of belief and refuses belief, then one does not enter heaven.
8. God could assure all humans capable of people of belief believed without compromising faith.
9. God does not do this.
10. From 5, 6, and 9, God does not love his creations.
This is an aside, but I don’t see how God could blame humans for not believing in him. God is basically the worst father on the planet. He leaves his kids at the very first sign of defiance and refuses to come back to them, but still leaves minor clues of his existence all over the place to torture them with the thought. When the skeptical kids die, they’ll get to meet their father for one time before he obliterates their soul or sends them to be tortured for all eternity. That does not sound like a responsible parent, much less a perfectly loving or totally knowledgeable one.
No reason could possibly suffice.
This is my personally favored objection to ST because it allows the conversation to continue. If the theist maintains that God does have a reason for X, albeit one unknown to us, then the atheist can assert that it wouldn’t matter since no reason can cover God.
Even if God a bigger plan, he could have made a world in which it was achieved through different means. The fact that he did not is in and of itself cruel. From all this, I would derive as truth that God does not care about or is indifferent to human suffering; in other words, reducing the suffering of humans is not his priority. How can a being of even the slightest benevolence have such a stark disregard for human suffering?
Now that I’ve finished going over my three arguments in this post, I want to wrap this essay up with an analysis of arguably the best defense of ST.
CORNEA stands for condition on reasonable epistemic access. This condition is as such: the corollary of “There is no X” from “I see no X” is only valid if one would expect to see X in the first place. For example, it would be warranted to say “There is no elephant” based upon “I see no elephant.” Implied in this defense is that it would be unwarranted to infer that there is no reason God would allow X based upon one’s seeing no reason God would allow X.
The sensation of seeing an elephant is equivalent to there being an elephant in manner Y. Conversely, the sensation of not seeing an elephant is equivalent to there not being an elephant in manner Y. There is no need to make the corollary in the case of elephants or anything else accessible through sensory input.
Let X = reasons for needless suffering or gratuitous evil. We are not actually failing to see reasons for X; this is not a matter of sensation but rather perception and cognition. One’s failure to access reasons for X come as a result of unsuccessful deducing or conceiving of X. It does not follow that one’s failing to deduce or conceive of X means there is no X, but what if it is not possible to conceive or deduce X, i.e., only God can understand X. (What may be more important is that conceiving of or deducing X does not mean X exists, either).
This results in there being hidden reasons that only one hidden entity can understand. If X is impossible for humans to conceive or deduce, but possible for humans to understand, then this means there are hidden reasons that only one hidden entity knows about. This kind of truth is mysteriously ad hoc, and it’s more likely that there is no entity which knows about this truth; that is, needless suffering exists and the problem of evil succeeds.
CORNEA still succeeds in showing there could be reasons, but it is unlikely. If everyone goes to heaven, the problem of evil fails by default. Sure, needless suffering would still be bad, but it would take away much of its potency. For example, it’s easy to overlook one slap on the face if you’re being given a million dollars for it. It might be more accurate to say that I would be less passionate about the problem of evil and the follies of a hypothetically omnibenevolent God if everyone got to experience eternal bliss after death.