Another Failed Christian Attempt to Explain Away Suffering: Mary Jo Sharp's Review of the 2nd Loftus/Wood Debate

I have debated David Wood in person on the problem of suffering for his belief in the Christian God. If you haven’t yet seen it you can do so by clicking here. (My PowerPoint presentation was not in sync for the first 3 ½ minutes). Later on January 12th 2007, I was on “The Debate Hour” with Mr. Wood once again debating the problem of evil, which was hosted by Reginald Finley (i.e. the Infidel Guy). It no longer seems to be available online. Mary Jo Sharp of Confident Christianity called this second debate "another failed argument from evil" so it’s time I comment on her criticisms, even if so late. I said I would write a response to her, so better late than never, especially since I now see she has a link to it on her blog.

The topic of the debate was expressed in a question: “Does the extent of suffering in the world make the existence of God implausible?” But it wasn’t a formal debate. In a formal debate each participant is given a certain amount of time for an opening statement; a rebuttal or two, or three; time for questions and answers; and then a final statement, or something like this. Our debate was one-on-one for about an hour and a half, if I remember the time correctly, with Finley commenting and interjecting a few questions during that time. If someone put a stop watch on it then Wood dominated with about 65% of the time, Findley with 10% of the time, and me with the remaining 25% of the time. Most always when I began speaking Wood interrupted me. Finley did not give me equal time. I was just not going to get in a shouting match, which would’ve been required several times to get a word in edge-wise.

I shall not rebut every point Sharp made. It’s not necessary, although I think I treat most everything she said in what follows. We just see things differently, no doubt. I did make a formal argument, too, which was earlier expressed clearly in our first debate in my opening statement, of which this second debate was a continuation of that one.

Sharp wrote:
Loftus claims that he is looking at this world and asking whether or not God exists while Wood already believes God exists and is trying to explain intense suffering “given that prior belief.” From the outset of his argument, Loftus assumes that only the theist has prior commitment to a belief. However, this idea is oblivious to the atheist’s own commitment to the non-existence of God, which is a governing worldview itself. Loftus takes the position of being the only one who is able to objectively argue due to his non-commitment to a religion, whereas Wood must “punt” to his worldview considering the reality of evil. I do not find a solid line of reasoning for Loftus’s statement; it is simply an attempt to discredit the ability of a theist to argue objectively. However, both the theist and the atheist come to the debate carrying their worldviews on their back.
Well, in the first place my worldview includes every belief I have about the world, but atheism, per se, is not a worldview. There are many kinds of atheism and many differences among people who call themselves atheists. Another thing Sharp should realize, but which most theists don't understand, is that the only thing I affirm is that Christians have not made their case. My atheism is a position of last regard. I came to it by the process of elimination. She herself is an atheist when it comes to Islam. I just reject her God with the same confidence she rejects the Muslim faith. I simply reject one more God than she does. I don’t think any believer in any religion has made her case. I don’t even have to make a case that there is no God, but I do. Furthermore, since the argument from evil is a serious problem for the believer, as admitted by everyone who has ever written about it (otherwise why write on a non-problem?), then if this is the only issue we had to deal with to settle the question of the omni-God's existence, it would be obvious that such a God does not exist. Christians retreat, or punt, to background beliefs to help settle this problem without which they would not believe in the first place. I mean really, if she looked at this present world and were asked whether or not an omni-God created it without reference to any other background belief of hers, I dare say she would conclude as I do.

Sharp wrote:
What kind of world should we expect an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good being to create? Wood handles the question by suggesting that a world in which human pleasure is maximized and human pain is minimized is not what would be expected of this type of Creator. He posits a two-world theodicy in which ‘good’ is maximized: this world with its goods, and the next world (heaven) with its goods. Neither world can contain all of the goods (since some of them are mutually exclusive) and therefore the best possible situation is one with both worlds, in which the world of greater goods is eternal and the world of lesser goods is a limited world.
The words "lesser goods" is a euphemism for things like gang rapes, genocide, witch hunts, brutal slavery, the Indonesian tsunami, cholera, hurricanes, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, and many parasites of which it's estimated that from them one person every ten seconds dies. Yeah, these are "lesser goods." Well if these things are "lesser goods," then what would it take for Wood or Sharp to call something evil? And what notion of a perfectly good God do they have anyway, that would allow for these "lesser goods"? The bottom line is that Wood is expressing a consequentialist ethic in his two world's theodicy, in which the ends (heavenly existence) justify the means (earthly existence). Conservative Christians reject such an ethic, so my challenge is for them to be consistent. Either acknowledge the argument from evil succeeds, or change your ethic.

Sharp wrote:
In order to maximize good, this world could not be by-passed, for there are goods in this world that cannot be achieved in the heavenly world in God’s full presence. Wood gives several examples of the goods of this world, including the choice of whether or not we will follow God, morality, and virtues such as courage and compassion. Morality in this world is only possible due to our free will to choose whether or not we will act morally. If God’s presence were fully known in this world, either His presence would overwhelm human will or humans would only be following God due to a fear of being “zapped” by this all-powerful watchman. By contrast, the goods of the heavenly realm include a lack of suffering and the full presence of God—the latter being the ultimate good.
With regard to the two world's theodicy, what possible good can come in this world that is important in the next one? Courage, generosity, and compassion are only needed in the face of poverty, suffering and pain, so how are these virtues even needed in heaven without pain and suffering? Besides, I truly think neither Wood nor Sharp understands the nature and value of free will.

I also find it very odd that in order to exonerate God they must explain the lack of his revealed goodness due to an "epistemic distance," otherwise known as divine hiddenness. I find no satisfactory understanding for why God created in the first place such that he wanted any creatures to love him. Theists ask if God is to be blamed for creating this world and for wanting people who freely love him. Yes, most definitely yes, until or unless she can tell me why a supposedly reasonable triune completely self-fulfilled God wanted this in the first place (“grace” is not an answer at all); why libertarian free-will is such an important value to God when compared to the sufferings that have resulted from this so-called gift; whether human beings actually have free-will if God created us with our specific DNA and placed us within a specific environment (an environment that actually obstructs many people from receiving the gospel because of the “accidents of birth”); why God suspends some people’s free choices (i.e. Pharaoh) but not others; why God even cares to have free-willed people who love him, knowing full well the consequences for the billions of people who wind up in hell (the collateral damage), and why God will allow sinners in hell to retain their freedom but take it away from the saints in heaven (and who subsequently completes the sanctification process for these saints without their own free choices doing it).

There are three attributes of God we're dealing with here, God's power, his love and his knowledge. God must reveal his love to us irregardless of whether he reveals his power to us. If a man courts a woman and tests her to see if she loves him by not showing her his true love, then that is quite simply a false test. If she doesn't see him as a loving person she will naturally reject him. So the woman would not actually be rejecting that man but only the man he showed himself to be. And so likewise, if God is all-knowing then he would know we only rejected a false caricature of him and not who he really is. So I find it wildly improbable to think this settles anything for Sharp or Wood or any Christian theist. Maybe Mary Jo should try this on her own children if she has any, and see how her own children react to it. See what that gets her as a mother and she'll understand the seriousness of the problem.

Sharp wrote:
At this point in the program, Reginald Finley, the host, asked how Satan could have been in God’s perfect presence and yet still rebelled. However, this is a misunderstanding of the theodicy. In Wood’s theodicy, this present world and the restored, future world are the two worlds. The “heavenly realm” from which Satan fell could not have been a place of God’s full presence or Loftus would be correct in stating that Satan would be “dumber than a box of rocks” for rebelling. More accurately, Satan would not have been able to rebel in the full presence of God. So this original heavenly realm is not the same as the restored heaven and earth to come. Loftus interjected, “So there’s a rule change then.”
Yes, I "interjected" because that's all I could do as Wood droned on.

Satan is a mythical figure derived mostly during the inter-testamental literature. He was not viewed as an evil being in the Old Testament itself. In the OT Satan was a fully credentialed member of the heavenly court who is best described as a prosecutor, the high ranking head of the ancient barbaric "thought police." Prosecutors are not evil because they are doing their jobs and we find him in God's heavenly court a few times in the history of Israel simply doing his job. As such he was not the serpent in the Garden of Eden earlier, otherwise God later allowed sin in his presence if he allowed Satan to be a member of his heavenly court. Christians deny God allows sin in his presence and they also claim sinners could not bear to be in God's presence. So why do we find Satan in God's presence doing God's will later in passages like Job 1-2; Numbers 22:22-32; II Samuel 24:1 (cf. I Chron. 21:1); and Zechariah 3:1-5?

But even if Wood's concocted view is correct, he has merely pushed back the problem of evil before the Fall of humankind. Why didn't God allow Satan into his direct immediate presence to see all of his power and love such that Satan would neither desire to rebel against him or think he could succeed? Because of this divine decision every person who suffers in this world and every person who will suffer for all eternity (along with Satan himself) will do so because God failed to show Satan his love and power. Apologists say God did this to show us his glory and grace, but then that's using people for his own ends. This is the ethic of consequentialism, again. Why does God hide his love from his creatures, for instance, knowing it would cause such intense suffering? This theodicy sounds much more like an excuse for what God should have done than it offers anything by way of a reasonable justification for a so-called perfectly good God.

Given the suffering that resulted from Satan's supposed rebellion, why didn't God simply deal with him and put him down immediately? That's what a good and reasonable ruler would do. Listen, does a perfectly good God want a peaceable kingdom, or not? A good ruler would not allow such an evil in his kingdom in the first place. Evil like that is to be eliminated as soon as possible by a good ruler. Too many innocents would be hurt if he didn't do this immediately.

Sharp wrote:
The argument Loftus presents, at its foundation, reasons that if God had foreknowledge of those who would choose Him and those who would not, He should have only made those who would choose Him. This argument essentially disregards free will, making it appear as practically useless in this world.
Not so. If God has foreknowledge of future free-willed contingent actions then he could foreknow our free choices. We wouldn't have to actually choose anything since if God has this kind of foreknowledge he would already know who would.

Sharp wrote:
Loftus believes that it would be better for us to have no free will, but to live a utopian life in which peace, happiness, and health are maximized. Although I have seen this type of existence portrayed on Star Trek, I highly doubt this is the type of existence we really desire. In listening to Loftus, I wondered if he had spent any time formulating what that type of existence would actually look like.
I'm merely thinking of what the theist conceives heaven to be: a heavenly existence, is after all, the one Christians believe they will experience in the future, with an incorruptible body including eternal peace and happiness in a world of utter bliss.

Sharp wrote:
Loftus uses instances of immense suffering to bolster his argument, but he ignores the issues of “not-so-immense” suffering such as the girl who doesn’t feel ‘pretty enough’ who wants to commit suicide. How would this situation be remedied in Loftus’s utopia? Would God therefore have to make every person look alike so as to avoid even the smallest amount of suffering? (He does argue that God should have only created one race of people.)
Listen, the argument from evil is only as forceful as the suffering that exists in this present world. If there was no intense suffering the argument would lose most of its force. If there was no suffering at all then it would have no force at all. I have struggled in life, although I have not experienced any prolonged intense suffering. I've always had good health, with enough food and money and friends to get by. So if my kinds of struggles are good enough to test me then why couldn't everyone's struggles be no more than mine? Why do some suffer for years and years, and a few commit suicide because of their sufferings? Do they need this suffering whereas I don't? Not everyone suffers the same. Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths while others struggle with financial woes and health issues and the loss of loved ones throughout their whole short lives. Why?

Sharp wrote:
Loftus’s assessment of this life as a cruel game of hide and seek is, to quote him in another statement, “expecting way too little of God.” This judgment of God’s method of Divine expression oversimplifies the total issue. The atheist, as Wood explains later in the debate, has to explain why anything exists at all. The problem is amplified when we consider the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the cosmos for life, the design on earth that enables survival, and the astronomical odds that complex life would arise on this one planet, in order to even get to a brain that can ponder the problem of evil. The theist has a foundation for the existence of God rooted in all of these things to which he then adds theodicies to help make sense of suffering in the world. What evidence should we expect from a God-level intellect concerning His existence? The evidence He has provided in the cosmos, nature, human reasoning, and the written Word allow humankind to thoughtfully consider who we are and where we came from without being mindlessly forced into accepting God as our Creator.
Here is but another example of how Christians count the hits and ignore the misses. They do this with prayer too. If a prayer is answered they count that as a hit. If it's not, they ignore it. With regard to the universe and its form they simply ignore the vast amount of natural evil in it, as I mentioned earlier. One cannot look at this universe objectively and come away believing in the omni-God Sharp believes if she takes into consideration all of the evidence of unintelligent design. At best one should be agnostic about what the evidence can lead us to think. Even if one is to conclude some divine entity created a "quantum wave fluctuation" we don't have an explanation for where this divine being came from, nor whether he still exists, nor whether he is good, or all-powerful. For her to believe in God she must believe in a historically conditioned interpretation of a selected group of ancient anonymous superstitious writings. And we certainly cannot verify the claims of miracles by the historical method, especially as outsiders looking in. Those beliefs of hers are to be described simply as bizzaro! If she understood the full range of problems for the Christian faith, then as I argued with respect to William Lane Craig, she would never have believed in the first place!

Sharp wrote:
In the argument from evil, the atheist points out instances of intense suffering, especially undeserved suffering of innocents such as children and animals. In an attempt to make this the sole issue regarding God’s existence, the atheist skips over any good found in the world. The scales of good and evil thus tip to the evil side making it appear as though evil, all by itself, is enough to prove a godless world. The problem is that the scales are tipped and weighted on one side, not putting enough consideration on the good side. One of the differences in the perspectives on this issue is that Loftus and Finley view this world as bad and the (imaginary for them) future world as good, whereas Wood views this world as good and the future world as good.
This claim of hers is quite simply a red herring. For me personally life is good. That has nothing to do with the argument itself. My claim is that neither Sharp nor Wood can actually see the blood stained whip in the slave master's hand, nor smell the flesh of the witches burned at the stake, nor hear the screams of the woman whose child is eaten alive by a pack of wolves, because they are blinded by their faith. They cover their eyes their noses and their ears to the truth of this world in order to have the comforts of a delusional belief. Whether we think this present world is a good one over-all, probably depends on where we were born. If someone was born in the Gaza Strip, life right now would be terrible. Besides, we're not just talking about whether this world is merely good, anyway. We're talking about whether this world reflects a perfectly good God.

Sharp wrote:
Wood argued thus: Given our world, God can either put animals in it or not put animals in it. If He does put them here, then they are going to be a part of our world, which is governed by natural law. Animals are good-in-themselves. Wood suggests that Loftus’s question is spurious by giving an example of the tiger. Tigers are in danger of going extinct in the wild; however, no one says, “Hooray! Now all the animals the tiger hunts will no longer have to suffer.” In fact, the general feeling is that we should keep tigers from going extinct. Why do we react this way if tigers just cause a lot of pain and suffering? Returning to what Wood said, we must know on some level that animals are good-in-themselves. If we want a world with less animal suffering, then God offers us one—the heavenly world. If we reject that offer, then we still have this world, which is good.
Whether or not we are concerned if tigers go extinct is another red herring. We are concerned because of our delicate ecosystem and its ability to support all life. My question has to do with what God should be concerned about and that makes all the difference in the world. My question is whether or not a fine-tuned ecosystem is more important to God than one in which divine maintenance is needed to correct anything in an incomplete ecosystem, given the massive amount of intense suffering in it. I think God should care more about sentient beings than having a fine-tuned ecosystem that causes this much suffering. Is God lazy, or what? Can God do perpetual miracles by miraculously feeding human beings through the process of photosynthesis without any animals at all--animals who have viciously preyed upon one another for hundreds of thousands of years prior to our arrival on earth? Finally, when it comes to animals do all dogs go to heaven?

Sharp wrote:
...the theist could turn this argument around and ask what a universe should look like without a God and point out all the instances of good, concluding that there must be a God because there is immense good and incredible joy in the world.
Such a tactic undercuts the Christian claims, I think, for such arguments cancel each other out, leaving nothing but a blind indifferent world, which is actually what I'm arguing for.

Sharp wrote:
Nearing the end of the debate, Loftus and Finley agree that naturalism better explains immense suffering in the world. Wood responds by stating that naturalism cannot explain the standard by which the atheist views certain events as evil. Presupposed in the atheist argument is some sort of standard of goodness. Wood explains that though Loftus denies God’s existence, the morality he bases his argument on has as its foundation an absolute Moral Law Giver. Atheists may be able to say that naturalism explains suffering better than theism, but then they have to explain the concept of ‘right and wrong’ through naturalism as well. This is one area where atheism can be seen to lack the explanatory power of theism.
I have dealt with Wood's red herring extensively right here. I have briefly dealt with the problem of an atheistic ethic here. I adjure Wood and Sharp not to try to escape their problem by claiming I have one too. I've adequately deal with my difficulty. They need to adequately deal with theirs.

Sharp wrote:
At one point, Loftus was asking Wood to answer the question, “Was it good that God did not stop the earthquake which caused the Indonesian tsunami?” How would answering this one particular instance explain the universal problem of evil? It would not help. Wood is correct in consistently reminding Loftus that the argument itself needs to be dealt with in order to discern whether the argument is sound. Loftus can ask “why?” all day long, but as Wood has said, “why?” isn’t an argument.
Asking Wood to answer the massive amount of suffering in this world is, I think, an important strategy for a theodicy. My argument, since I couldn't fully express it given Wood's propensity to interrupt me, can certainly be expressed as a rhetorical question, for that's what it was. I say he cannot sufficiently explain why God did not stop that earthquake, for if he had stopped it no one would ever know he stopped it simply because it wouldn't have happend (and thus God would stay "hidden"). If that earthquake was needed for the ecosystem then I see no reason why God didn't wait a few years when better warning systems would be in place. Most importantly I see no reason why an omnipotent God who created the laws of nature could not have performed a perpetual miracle by stopping that earthquake from ever have taken place.

I think the more power a person has then the more of an ethical obligation he has to alleviate suffering. If, for instance, a woman is being gang raped, no one would fault me if I didn't physically try to stop them, for then I would be beaten up and perhaps killed along with her (although I would be held morally responsible if I didn't call the police). But if I was Superman and did nothing then everyone would rightly fault me if I didn't stop them. So since God supposedly has all power he is the most obligated to alleviate suffering in our world. Without a suffient explanation for these things I argue that it's probable such an omni-God doesn't exist. Wood has not made his case.

Sharp wrote:
In the end, Wood shows that the background information presupposed in the argument from evil itself points to theism....Loftus’s argument is that suffering provides enough evidence to lead us away from God. However, suffering itself is just not enough evidence in light of a comprehensive look at the world to move the theist away from a reasoned, evidenced belief in God.
With regard to Wood and Sharp's worldview background beliefs I have thoroughly debunked all of the important ones in my book, one after another. Given the demise of their background worldview beliefs they no longer have a leg to stand on in the face of the massive amount of intense suffering in this world, since it becomes quite obvious that without them they cannot sufficiently explain why a good God allows this suffering.

Sharp wrote:
The theistic worldview explains the conditions assumed in the argument from evil far better than atheism does. In fact, atheism does not satisfactorily account for any of the conditions presupposed in the argument. When the atheist points to suffering as his reason for rejecting the existence of God, he assumes all of these conditions, which atheism simply cannot account for. Hence, theism has far more explanatory power than atheism, and the argument from evil therefore does not make the existence of God implausible.
Atheism, as I understand it simply means one is a non-theist, or a non-believer in the particular religion being discussed. Christians, after all, were called "atheists" by the Romans. So the options are not between being an atheist (qua metaphysical naturalist) or a Christian theist. There are a host of other positions on this question, most notable panentheism, or process theology. My claim is that the more beliefs a person has that are essential to his worldview then the less likely the whole set of beliefs comprising his worldview are true. He must maintain not only that there is a three-in-one God, but that the collection of books in the canonized Bible are all inspired by God, and that God became incarnated through a virgin in Bethlehem, atoned for our sins, resurrected from the grave, and will return, for starters. These beliefs, along with a multifaceted number of others, all stand or fall together. If one is shown wrong then his whole worldview collapses. By contrast, as I said earlier, the only thing I affirm is that Christians have not made their case. My atheism is a position of last regard. I came to it by the process of elimination. I don’t think any believer in any religion has made his case. I don’t even have to make a case that there is no God, although I do.