God and Horrendous Suffering

By John W. Loftus | 1 March 2024
The Secular Web

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. (Credit: Wikipedia / Public Domain)

This article was originally published in the Trinity Journal of Natural & Philosophical Theology, Vol. 1, Issue 2 (Spring 2023), pp. 53-68, in collaboration with the Trinity Graduate School of Apologetics and Theology. Don McIntosh, the Editor-in-Chief, will write a rebuttal in the next issue, and John Loftus will be given the last word. The version presented here has been slightly modified in formatting. Used with permission.

The evidential problem of horrendous suffering is one of the most powerful refutations of the theistic God as can be found: If there’s an omni-everything God, one who is omnibenevolent (or perfectly good), omniscient (or all-knowing), and omnipotent (or all-powerful), the issue of why there is horrendous suffering in the world requires an explanation. The reason is that a perfectly good God would want to eliminate it, an all-knowing God would know how to eliminate it, and an all-powerful God would be able to eliminate it. So the extent of horrendous suffering means that either God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is not smart enough to eliminate it, or God is not powerful enough to eliminate it. The stubborn fact of horrendous suffering means something is wrong with God’s goodness, his knowledge, or his ability.

Just think of this in terms of who has the greatest moral obligation to help someone who is suffering. It’s the person who knows of the suffering, who cares the most to alleviate it, and who has the greatest ability to alleviate it. Therefore, the person who has the greatest obligation to alleviate horrendous suffering is a theistic omni-God, if he exists. Anyone who is wholly good would be morally obligated to prevent horrendous suffering, especially if all it would take was a “snap” of the fingers.

There are two categories of horrendous suffering that must be adequately explained by apologists for God: (1) moral evils (that is, suffering caused by the choices of moral agents). Examples include: the Holocaust, the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terrorist beheadings, childhood molestation, torture, slavery, gang rapes, wars, and so on. Then there’s (2) natural evils (that is, suffering caused by natural disasters). Examples include: pandemics, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, earthquakes, massive wildfires, and so on, including the enormous suffering caused by the “kill or be killed” law of predation in the animal kingdom.

There are several levels of suffering stretching from mere hunger pangs to the horrors of the Holocaust. But we don’t need to determine the exact demarcation point when the suffering becomes too horrific for an omni-everything God. For the greater the suffering is, then the greater the problem of evil is for an omni-God. My focus is on horrendous suffering, the kind that turns our stomachs. It’s the best kind of suffering to test the probability of a good God. If believers cannot solve this problem except by focusing on hypothetical possibilities rather than on probabilities, or by punting to ignorance—by saying “God’s ways are above ours”—then that God has allowed more suffering in the world than is reasonable for reasonable people to accept. Surely a God who created reasonable people should provide what reasonable people need, if he wants us to believe.

If we think exclusively in terms of probabilities, the more horrendous suffering that exists, the less probable an omni-everything God exists—and there is too much horrendous suffering for God to exist! In legal terms, the theistic omni-God could easily be convicted of the crime of depraved indifference. This is when a defendant’s conduct is “so wanton, so deficient of concern, so lacking in regard for the lives of others, and so blameworthy that it warrants the same criminal liability imposed upon the person who intentionally causes the crime.”[1]

The strength of the problem of horrendous suffering depends on one’s religious views. It’s much greater for evangelicals who believe in a God who inspired the horrific tales in the Bible, including sending people into an eternal conscious torment in Hell. So apologists like William Lane Craig have said: “The problem of evil is certainly the greatest obstacle to belief in the existence of God. When I ponder both the extent and depth of suffering in the world, whether due to man’s inhumanity to man or to natural disasters, then I must confess that I find it hard to believe that God exists.”[2]

Apologist James Sennett echoed what Craig said: “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil. I tell my philosophy of religion students that if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.”[3] The strength of this problem is perhaps the greatest for Calvinists who believe in theological determination, as opposed to non-Calvinists who believe in free will. But every believer faces this problem. Pantheists believe suffering is an illusion (or maya) but they cannot avoid suffering throughout their lives. For polytheists, their multiple gods aren’t powerful enough to decisively overcome suffering, and are believed to cause much of it.

Process theologians like John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin believe their God can’t force free-willed agents to do good. Their God can only persuade people to do good. But given the fact of horrendous suffering, such a God is shown to be useless in the face of natural disasters, and powerless when it comes to the choices of liars, thieves, molesters, rapists, kidnappers, and killers who refuse to be persuaded. For protest theologians like John Roth, God’s continual inaction must mean God is directly responsible for the suffering in the world. Their response should be to protest the lack of divine action in hopes that publicly shaming him will goad God into doing good. For deists, suffering has little force, but only because they already admit their God is an absentee slum landlord of a world that should be condemned as unsafe for habitation.

Then there are misotheists (from the Greek word miseo, “to hate”) who hate God. Their view is a moral position, not a stance on the existence of a God. For them it’s immoral to praise and worship any moral monster, including a divine one, real or conceptually held in the minds of believers. So scorn, mockery, and rebellion against religious authorities are their appropriate responses. By contrast, for atheists who don’t believe any God exists, the fact of horrendous suffering is not an intellectual problem at all. Suffering, even horrendous suffering, is what we expect to find in a world that evolved by natural selection.

Four Moral Concerns

Let’s turn now to consider four moral concerns that an omni-God should have considered when creating a world. Suppose a perfectly good deity exists who didn’t need or want anything, yet decided for some mysterious reason to create a world to test free creatures. Okay? Then such a deity should have four moral concerns.

Moral Concern One: The first moral concern for God would be that we don’t abuse the freedom given to us.

The giver of a gift is blameworthy if he or she knowingly gives gifts to people who will terribly abuse them. Any parent who gives a razor blade to a two-year-old is culpable if that child hurts himself or others with it. Good parents give their children more and more freedom to do what they want so long as they are responsible with their freedom. If children abuse their freedom parents will discipline them by taking away their freedom to make bad choices. It’s that simple.

Furthermore, children shouldn’t have to suffer Draconian kinds of punishments for their actions when they err. When my children misbehaved I didn’t send a proverbial hurricane their way. In fact, as a parent I sought to protect them as much as I could from the severe consequences of their actions. A little pain was a good thing so they could learn from their mistakes. But no caring father would let his children suffer the full brunt of their mistakes, certainly not broken bones or being beaten within an inch of their lives. If a father sat by and did nothing while his children suffered these and similar horrendous consequences for their misdeeds, the father would be morally culpable for letting it happen. He would certainly want all predators, killers, and rapists locked in jails and prisons away from his children. Since God doesn’t do this for us in our world, he is not even as loving as a typical human parent.

An omni-God should have kept us from abusing our freedom by creating us with a stronger propensity to dislike wrongdoing, in much the same way that we have an aversion to drinking motor oil. We could still drink it if we wanted to, but it’s nauseating. Such a deity could easily keep a person from molesting a child or raping someone if at the very thought of it, the person began to suffer severe nausea. We have the ability to do this with alcoholics when it comes to drinking, so it shouldn’t be a problem for a good deity to do this with respect to the most heinous of crimes. Nothing of value to God would be lost by him doing so. Since God supposedly can read our minds, he can still judge our character by our intentions alone. After noting our intentions to do harm, God could implant good thoughts into our heads to prevent us from actually carrying out our bad intentions.

An omni-God has many other means at his disposal to keep us from harming others. A heart attack could have killed Hitler and prevented WWII. Timothy McVeigh could have had a flat tire or engine failure while driving to Oklahoma City to blow up the Murrah Federal Building and the people in it. The militants who flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 could have been robbed and beaten by New York thugs before they could do so (there’s utilitarianism at its best!). A poisonous snakebite could have sent Saddam Hussein to an early grave, averting the Iraq war before it happened. The Zyklon B pellets dropped down into the Auschwitz gas chambers could have simply “malfunctioned” by being miraculously neutralized (just like Jesus supposedly turned water into wine).

Moral Concern Two: The second moral concern for God would be that the environment he placed us in will not cause us excessive suffering.

At the very minimum, an omni-God should prevent all natural disasters. If such a God exists the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed approximately a quarter million people should never have taken place. If God had prevented it with a miracle, by stopping the underwater earthquake before it happened, no one would have been the wiser, precisely because it didn’t happen. By doing so, God could have remained hidden, for some hidden reason. Then with a perpetual miracle he could keep it from happening in the future. Such a God could stop all naturally caused horrendous suffering in this manner, and none of us would be the wiser. We would just conclude this is how the natural world works, with much less suffering in it.

An omni-God should not have created predation in the animal world, either. The amount of animal suffering is atrocious, as creatures prey on one another to feed themselves. The extent of animal suffering cries out against the existence of a good God. This horrific suffering is perhaps the most difficult problem of all. To say these creatures do not feel pain is to reject the overwhelming evidence of evolution that proves we are all related as creatures. In lieu of this, an omni-God should have created all living things as vegans like herbivores such as rabbits, deer, sheep, cows, and hippos. And in order to be sure there is enough vegetation for all of us, God could have reduced our mating cycles and/or made edible vegetation like apple trees, corn stalks, blueberry bushes, wheat, and tomato plants grow as plenteous as wild weeds do today.

An all-powerful God didn’t even have to create us such that we needed to eat anything at all. Since theists believe their god can do miracles, he could sustain us all with miraculously created nutrients inside our biological systems throughout our lives, and we wouldn’t know anything different. Such a deity could simply do a perpetual miracle here as well. In fact, there is nothing prohibiting god from feeding us by the process of photosynthesis, just like plant life, thereby not requiring animals at all. Given that God didn’t do this, many animals are farmed for human consumption under horrible conditions in intensive factory farms, abused in experimental labs, or trapped in horrible ways without any condemnations of animal abuse in God’s alleged revelation in the Bible.[4]

Moral Concern Three: The third moral concern for God would be that our bodies provide a reasonable measure of well-being.

All that seems to be necessary for God and his plan of salvation is that we have rational powers to think and to choose, the ability to express our thoughts, and bodies that will allow us to exercise our choices. So we could have been created much, much differently.

An omni-God should have created all human beings with one color of skin. There, that was easy! There has been too much institutional racism, race-based slavery, and too many tribalistic wars because we don’t all have the same color of skin. Such a deity should also have made all creatures capable of sexually self-reproducing, like zebra sharks, Komodo dragons, some reptiles, and other species. If God had done this it would eliminate gender discrimination and gay hate crimes, since there wouldn’t be any gender or sexual differences between us.

An omni-God should have created us with much stronger immune systems so there would be no pandemics that decimate whole populations, or chronic diseases like cancer, emphysema, leukemia, or for that matter, babies born with deformed limbs, blindness, deafness, muteness, and so on. This is horrific suffering that God should never have created, or used as any sort of punishment for our misdeeds, or allowed for any good overarching mysterious purpose.

Such a God could have created us with self-regenerating bodies. When we receive a cut it heals itself over time, as does a sprained ankle or even a broken bone. But why can’t an injured spinal cord heal itself? Why can’t an amputated leg grow back in a few weeks? If that’s all we experienced in this world we wouldn’t know any different. Many animals can regrow new parts of their bodies to replace those parts that have been damaged. Lizards can grow new tails. Sharks continually replace lost teeth. Spiders can regrow missing legs. An octopus can regrow severed arms. Starfish can regrow new arms and even grow an entirely new body out of a severed arm.

We find lots of examples in nature that an omni-God could have created in us but didn’t. Such a God could have created us with a much higher threshold of pain. He could have given us fish-like gills to keep us from drowning. He could have given us wings on our backs so we could fly to safety if we fell off a cliff. Or, he could have made us much smaller in size so if we accidentally fell off that cliff we wouldn’t get hurt, just like ants who have a very low terminal velocity.

Moral Concern Four: A fourth moral concern for God would be to prevent a wide diversity of religions in the world.

If there is an omni-God he should have made it a priority to prevent religious diversity by clearly revealing himself in this world such that only people who consciously refuse to believe would do so. There would be no such thing as reasonable nonbelief in the one true sect-specific religion, regardless of when and where we were born, or how we might be culturally indoctrinated otherwise. Such a God would have made his revelation available to every culture and buttressed it with some astounding evidence-based miracles. This deity would provide a naturalistic moral code for everyone that excluded all religions that were misogynistic, racist, homophobic, nationalistic, and otherwise barbaric. In this way, he’d prevent religiously motivated wars, crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, suicide bombers, and terrorists. Given the horrendous suffering caused by religious diversity, the probability that an omni-God exists is directly proportional to the amount of religious diversity that exists, and there is way too much of it to suppose he does.[5]

To sum up so far, given these four moral concerns it is crystal clear for many of us that a God who created this world just doesn’t care about us. God had a reckless disregard for our safety by giving us the gift of freedom before we could use it responsibly; he placed us in an environment that causes us excessive suffering, and gave us bodies that don’t provide a reasonable measure of well-being. On top of all that he failed to let us know which religion is true, out of a great diversity of religions.

Only if theists expect very little from their divine being can they defend what their God has done. Either their God is not smart enough to figure out how to create a good world, or God doesn’t have the power to create it, or God just doesn’t care. These appear to be the only options given this world.

Four Apologetic Strategies

Marilyn McCord Adams admits that “the standard apologetic strategies for ‘solving’ the problem of evil are powerless in the face of horrendous evils.”[6] When it comes to animal suffering, C. S. Lewis admitted that “the Christian explanation of human pain cannot be extended to animal pain. So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it.”[7]

Still, there are four apologetic strategies used in solving the problem of horrendous suffering. According to one strategy, God won’t help us since he’s more interested in building our character, and horrendous suffering builds character.

This is one of the least successful strategies for answering the problem. Suffering is one thing. Horrendous suffering is another. We’re talking about the supposed value horrific suffering produces for the very people who suffer, not lessons for future generations that can only be learned with hindsight. It’s also improbable that the virtues we learn in this world, such as compassion for the poor, patience in times of turmoil, forgiveness for someone who has wronged us, and the like, will even be needed in a heavenly bliss where there is no pain or suffering for which to have compassion, patience, or to grant forgiveness.

I am a white male who is not butt ugly (or so a few people tell me), who grew up in a middle class family with all the privileges that entails. To date I have never spent a night in a hospital bed, nor have I gone hungry. I have had my wits about me (most of the time anyway). Yet life has been hard for me. This life has tried me to the core, though I haven’t experienced any horrendous suffering in it. So this world doesn’t need horrendous suffering, if my life is any indication. All that a good God must do is to eliminate the horrendous kinds of suffering in our lives. There is plenty of suffering left in this life to challenge us.

A second strategy used by apologists is to maintain that God can’t help us when free will is involved, or he cannot help us very much. God needs to let our free choices play themselves out.

But as it stands, theists are the first ones to say unrestricted freedom is not a good thing. In the case of heinous crimes we put criminals in prison. We do not let them roam the streets once they are discovered. They lose their freedom in the interests of having a safe society. Safety is a higher value than freedom. The theistic God has a mixed-up sense of what is more valuable, for that God thinks human freedom is more valuable than having a safe society.

All of us have a very limited range of free choices anyway, if we have any at all. The limits of our choices are set by our genetic material and our environment. It does absolutely no good at all to have free will and not also have the ability to exercise it. Some people don’t have the strength needed to stop an attacker, while others don’t have the rational capacity needed to spot a con artist. I could not be a world-class athlete even if I wanted to. Our free will to do what we want is limited by our age, race, gender, mental capacity, financial means, and geographical locality. Since we already have limited choices, then God should further limit our choices if we seek to cause horrific harm to others.

A third strategy is to say that God cannot do away with horrendous suffering because suffering is a necessary byproduct of causal natural laws. To have the one is to have the other.

However, the apologist believes God created the universe from nothing, along with the laws of nature. So, if God can do that, he can also create a different universe with different laws of nature without any horrendous suffering in it. It just doesn’t make any sense that God chose to create this world with so much horrific suffering, when he could’ve created a better one without it.

Even if God failed to create a good universe initially, he could still do miracles in this world to correct any errors in it. An omnipotent miracle-working god can do anything in the material universe, or he’s not a miracle-working god. Even apologist Richard Swinburne agrees: “God is not limited by the laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them—if he chooses…. He can make planets move in quite different ways, and chemical substances explode or not explode under quite different conditions from those which now govern their behaviour.”[8] In a 2003 debate on the existence of God with Eddie Tabash, chair of the Center for Inquiry, Swinburne said God could “raise this stadium into the air.” However, from what I can see, all God does in today’s world is to imprint an image of Jesus on a potato chip!

Since this world is causing so much horrific suffering, the question for the theist is why the laws of this world are fixed and necessary when God could intervene to alleviate the most horrific kinds of suffering. If changing the world requires some miraculous adjustment, what’s the problem? People should matter enough for God to do that. I wonder if theists have really thought through the implications of a God who prefers this present set of natural laws with its sufferings over constant miraculous maintenance. Does their God care? Is their God lazy?

When apologists defend the miracles in the Bible and elsewhere, they will talk about an omnipotent God who created the world out of nothing, who sent fire down from the sky, and parted a sea that allowed six million Hebrews to pass on dry ground, Hebrews who lived in the desert for forty years where their sandals never wore out, and who were fed by manna from Heaven. “An omnipotent God can do anything,” they’ll say. It even says so in Matthew 19:26: “With God all things are possible.” Their God is a miracle-working God. So it shouldn’t be difficult to believe God does miracles, they’ll add. Yet when it comes to alleviating horrendous suffering, many apologists seem to argue that God can’t do that. This appears to be nothing less than intellectual dishonesty.

I maintain that the burden of proof is upon apologists to show why any of my suggested changes to the world are improbable for an omnipotent miracle-working God. Nothing short of this will do. I am suggesting there are several things an omni-God could do to eliminate horrendous suffering without producing a chaotic world, or inhibiting our character development, that would help draw us to him, all of which are easy to conceive and already found in the animal kingdom. Since God, if he exists, could have done differently but did not, he is to blame for all horrific suffering in this world.

A fourth strategy used by apologists is to punt to mystery by claiming we simply cannot understand God’s reasons for allowing horrendous suffering in this world.

The truth is that it seems very likely we should be able to see God’s reasons for allowing it, since most theists also claim God wants us to believe in him, and will condemn us in the afterlife if we don’t. More importantly, this answer cuts both ways. We’re told we can’t understand God’s purposes, and this is true. We can’t begin to grasp why there is so much suffering in our world if a good omnipotent God exists. But if God is omniscient as claimed, he should know how to create a better world, especially since we do have a good idea how he could’ve created it. So which is more likely—that we cannot begin to understand God’s omniscient ways, or that we can have some kind of idea about them? If we consider the idea that we’re all created in God’s image, the answer seems obvious. We should indeed have some kind of idea about God’s omniscient ways. Since this is so, and since we have good ideas on how God might have done things differently, the most reasonable conclusion is that an all-powerful, omniscient, perfectly good God does not exist.

Conclusion

If you name any specific example of horrendous suffering in this world, I can show you how an omni-God could have eliminated it, which would still leave plenty of suffering for an omni-God to test us in this world (if that’s important to a God who can predict what we will do anyway).

In order to evade my challenge, I have found Christian apologists to be experts at cherry-picking God’s supposed divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, depending on the problem to be solved.

When it comes to God’s omnipotence, apologists embrace this attribute when it comes to believing he created an unfathomable and mysterious universe that continually surprises us. But when it comes to horrendous suffering, apologists conveniently negate it by saying God cannot create a better world than he did. One apologist, Thomas Oord, has stated this forthrightly, saying God cannot interfere in the world he created, or with free-willed choices intent on doing harm. According to him, God simply doesn’t intervene in the world.[9] How do apologists like Oord know this? They don’t. They just affirm it because of the need to believe. So in order to save their faith from refutation, they must allow God’s omnipotence to only go so far, and no farther. This is where God’s power arbitrarily ends, where the apologist needs it to end to solve a problem for faith.

When it comes to God’s omniscience, apologists embrace this attribute when it comes to God reading our minds, hearing billions of prayers at the same time, and knowing everything that can be known, including minute details into the distant future billions of years from now. But when it comes to horrendous suffering, apologists negate it by claiming God didn’t know how to create a good world without animals, or without natural disasters, or one in which free-willed creatures do no harm. Many apologists, such as William Hasker and Greg Boyd, have come to embrace open theism, which denies that God can foreknow free-willed human actions, so their God isn’t to be blamed for what we do know. How do apologists know this? They don’t. They just affirm it because of the need to believe. So in order to save their faith from refutation they must allow God’s omniscience to only go so far, and no farther. This is where God’s knowledge arbitrarily ends, where the apologist needs it to end, to solve a problem for faith.

When it comes to God’s omnibenevolence, apologists embrace this attribute when it comes to God’s love in sending his son Jesus to pay the ultimate price by dying a horrible death for our sins. But when it comes to suffering, apologists like Michael Peterson and Bruce Little appear to negate it by claiming God does not care that much about our daily lives. In their view, God does not care enough to “micromanage” the world. So they claim that God is off the hook for much of the suffering we experience in the world.

How do apologists know this? They don’t. They just affirm it because of the need to believe. So in order to save their faith from refutation, they must allow God’s omnibenevolence to only go so far, and no farther. This is where God’s omnibenevolence arbitrarily ends, where the apologist needs it to end, to solve a problem for faith. If this is not their point, then what is it? Certainly an omniscient God knows how to intervene. Certainly an omnipotent God has the ability to do so. Shouldn’t an omnibenevolent God have the motivation to do so?

So the evidential problem of horrendous suffering is one of the most powerful refutations of the theistic God as can be found.[10]

Notes

[1] USLegal, “Depraved Indifference Law and Legal Definition.” <https://definitions.uslegal.com/d/depraved-indifference/>.

[2] William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Evil” (n.d.). Reasonable Faith blog. <https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popularwritings/existence-nature-of-god/the-problem-of-evil/>.

[3] James F. Sennett, “This Much I Know: A Postmodern Apologetic” (n.d.) [unpublished manuscript].

[4] For a fairly exhaustive discussion of these biblical passages, see John W. Loftus, Christianity is Not Great (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[5] Religious diversity is the problem I seek to solve in my book The Outsider Test for Faith (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[6] Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Eds.), The Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 212.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1962), p. 129.

[8] Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? Rev. ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 7.

[9] Thomas Jay Oord, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2019).

[10] For a book-length treatment, see my anthology God and Horrendous Suffering (Denver, CO: Global Center for Religious Research, 2021).

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist who earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under William Lane Craig, earning a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion. John also studied in a Ph.D. program at Marquette University.

Before leaving the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and taught at several Christian and secular colleges.

He’s the author/editor of thirteen critically acclaimed books, including Why I Became an Atheist, The Outsider Test for Faith, Unapologetic, The Christian Delusion, Christianity is Not Great, Christianity in the Light of Science, The Case against Miracles, and God and Horrendous Suffering.

He has an online blog at debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com.

God And Horrendous Suffering – John W. Loftus

“The Jesus We Find in the Gospels Never Existed!” (John W. Loftus)

The Case Against Miracles: John W Loftus

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