The Problem of Evil

Religions have always grappled with the problem of evil. The old Pagan religions portrayed hordes of ‘gods’ fighting one another and choosing favourites among suffering humanity.  It was impossible for humans to escape becoming collateral damage for one or more of the bickering gods, and a form of fatalism emerged in the Pagan world.  Judaism focussed the problem of evil around a conflict between God and Satan, with supporting roles for angels and demons.  Judaism is technically a monotheistic religion, but a dramatic narrative requires conflict between equally matched adversaries. Satan appears as a powerful source of supernatural evil, but Jewish theology attributed human evil to freewill.    

 

God is busy the problem of evil

 

If you ask Christians why evil exists, they will trace the problem back to Adam and Eve and Original Sin. The story of Eden was well known to Judaism but was interpreted as an allegory for the use of freewill.  Augustine’s interpretation was totally different, Original Sin became the moment at which the natural order fell into corruption and the human will became depraved.  The human will was no longer free to do good or evil, as Judaism had conceived it, but was permanently damaged and wholly evil, deserving eternal damnation.  As previously noted, this theology was introduced by Augustine in the 5th century, revived in its Reformed version by Luther and Calvin, and restored to prominence by modern Creationists.

 

Disciples of Wrath have consistently believed that attributing the problem of evil to a specific time (4,000 BC), place (Eden) and agency (human) absolves God of all responsibility.  The Wrathful solution to an age old question has created numerous problems. 

 

The Gospel of Wrath’s God created Adam and Eve as perfect human beings in a world that had never experienced sin, suffering, evil or death.  No animals had ever died.  Lions and T-Rexes were all herbivores. No mass extinction of dinosaurs had ever occurred. No natural disasters had ever wrought havoc.  Adam, Eve and all created things lived in blissful harmony.

 

Had no ‘Fall’ occurred, Adam and Eve would have brought children into that perfect world. The animals in Eden also reproduced their own kind. None of them would have died because there was no death in Eden. How long would it have taken at exponential rates of reproduction for the world to become uncomfortably crowded, spurring competition for scarce resources?  Would reproduction have eventually been regulated by divine or human agency? 

 

What if Adam and Eve had not sinned, but one of their descendants? If Cain had eaten the forbidden fruit instead of murdering his brother,  would Adam and Eve have been punished for the sin of their child, or would Cain alone have been driven out of the Garden?  If Adam and Eve had remained in Eden while the descendants Cain lived in the wilderness, would cherubim with flaming swords have kept the two populations apart so that the sinless humans continued to live inside the garden while Cain and his offspring alone were afflicted outside with sin, suffering, evil and death? Speculative questions become absurd because the premise of an eternally perfect garden inhabited by non-sinning, freewill-endowed humans is neither plausible nor Biblical.   

 

Original Sin, rooted in a literal place called Eden, does nothing to resolve the problem of personal sin. Yet disciples of Wrath still insist that their God punishes the wicked because of depravity inherited from Adam and Eve.

 

Disciples of Anti-wrath do not blame sin on Adam but they cannot explain why a benevolent God permits earthquakes and tsunamis, or would have established dangerous laws of nature and set them on auto-pilot. Why does God allow innocent babies to be born with horrible deformities and painful infirmities?  There are difficult questions for people who do not resort to Original Sin as the explanation for all sin, suffering, evil and death, but want to believe that God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

 

What is going on When Bad Things Happen To Good People?  This question was answered in 1981 in the best-selling book by Harold S. Kushner, a Jewish Rabbi. The Christian gospel of Anti-wrath has much in common with Kushner’s form of Judaism. Both faiths agree that the Garden of Eden is not literal history and that Original Sin is a metaphor for the human condition.  Rabbi Kushner offers no particularly good reason why multitudes suffer so much and so often. However, he argues that faith, based on Biblical texts, is the best way to preserve moral values and the sanctity of human life.  Faith provides strength to keep going when our suffering becomes too much to bear, and our shared humanity stimulates compassion so that we love and comfort one another in times of suffering. This belief in the value of compassion and altruism, and the collective strength derived from them –with or without additional divine intervention –is shared by many religions.  

 

Atheists have no need for the God hypothesis. They explain natural evil with natural laws. They explain human evil with human nature. For atheists there is nothing complicated or mysterious in all of this ‘evil.’ The chaos and suffering we observe are precisely what the theory of No-God would predict.  Atheists understand that human compassion and mutual assistance are important because what else is there? Of course we should love and comfort one another in times of suffering, but this is a purely human response to a God-less universe.

 

Throughout history, a minority of people have believed that freewill is central to the human condition, even if this freedom is the cause of much suffering.  They have understood that true freedom must be unrestricted and unrestrained. God cannot be constantly intervening, not even to prevent theft, murder, rape and war in all their horror. This is not to say there is no accountability or justice, but victims cannot be protected from violence without depriving criminals of freewill and personal responsibility for their actions. This is difficult to accept and has never been as popular as the belief that God constantly intervenes in the world, even if the only explanation for the suffering of victims is that they are being ‘punished’ for known or unknown sins. The Gospel of Wrath is very quick to blame victims, even if they are believers, for incurring the wrath of their God. 

 

Freewill has consistently been attacked as a false and dangerous deception by disciples of Wrath and radical atheists alike. Augustine devised his doctrine of Original Sin by refuting Pelagius’ ‘heretical’ ideas about freewill.  The Protestant Reformers defended their doctrine of predestination by attacking Arminius’ ‘heretical’ ideas about freewill.  Modern neuroscientists provide evidence for radical atheists that freewill is a delusion, like God.

 

Freewill requires God to be mostly non-interventionist in the affairs of the world, neither causing nor preventing disasters or diseases. However, certain types of intervention occur with such reliability that even the greatest sceptics are forced to admit a direct correlation between prayer and response. This proposition will sound like fundamentalist magical thinking to disciples of Anti-wrath and pure religious fantasy to atheists.

 

There is abundant evidence that seeking the will of God and surrendering to the will of God cause measurable changes in believers.  Atheists can argue that the changes are purely psychosomatic. People who work hard at developing musical talents develop better ears and greater dexterity than non-practitioners.  Therefore, why would people who strive after compassion not become better at it from their own efforts?  Prayer may or may not be the cause of these changes, but the high rate of correlation suggests cause and effect.   

 

The law of freewill requires God to grant humans unrestricted use of their freedom, but it does not prevent God from intervening in the lives of people who seek divine assistance.  Freewill means we can ignore God and divine law, but we are also free to seek God and experience an infusion of divine qualities such as generosity, patience, integrity, and compassion.  In short, when the believer is willing to live in harmony with the will of God, then divine assistance is provided. This makes some sense if we imagine our final destiny as a choice between good (complete harmony with the will of God) and evil (the complete absence of God), as we will consider in the final essay. 

 

Twelve-step programs overcome addiction more effectively than pure willpower by seeking the assistance of a ‘higher power.’ It is confusing for disciples of Wrath, who believe God only blesses born again believers, that the ‘higher power’ makes no distinction about creed, or lack of religion. There is no evidence that one religion or faith has greater access to the ‘higher power’ of 12-step therapy than any other belief system.  Even atheists can call upon a ‘higher power’ in whatever form they conceive it. The only factor that matters is a sincere desire to live in harmony and obedience – a word that rankles in our self-willed culture – to the higher power. This phenomenon of surrender (cause) and healing (effect) is problematic for atheists, who must seek some ‘evolutionary advantage’ for the many benefits that flow from surrendering to a ‘higher power.’

 

The result may be psychosomatic but the process has the merit of being comprehensible and predictable.  Addictions are broken. Lives are restored.  This transformation via a ‘higher power’ sheds light on the human condition and provides a realistic understanding of the divine.

 

Return to Radical Atheism

 

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10.  Sin and Salvation

 

11.  Judgement and Justice  

 

12.  Eternity, Hell and Heaven

 

Questions or Comments?