The Amount of Horrific Suffering Makes The Existence of God Improbable

Recently I participated in an online debate on an omni-god and suffering. My Catholic opponent mostly quoted from the Bible and Church fathers. Like so many others he had a strategy of nitpicking and using up my time in the cross-examination. Here are my opening and closing statements.

My 10 minute Opening Statement:

Believers will argue that not even a god could create a world without some minimal level of suffering in it. But what about the amount of horrific suffering that exists? That’s my focus.

Here’s the problem: If a god exists who is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good, then the amount of horrific suffering in our world needs an explanation. Either this god isn’t smart enough to eliminate it, or isn’t powerful enough to eliminate it, or doesn’t care enough to eliminate it. The reason is that an all-knowing god would know how to eliminate it, an all-powerful god has the power to eliminate it, and a perfectly good god would want to eliminate it.

For the sake of argument what if such a god exists?

Then why did god create something in the first place?

Believers typically respond by saying creation was an expression of god’s love. But wasn’t god already complete in love? If love must be expressed, then god needed to create, which means he lacked something.

But let’s say instead that god decided to create something anyway. Then why didn’t god just create a spiritual world in heaven? Believers say a heaven awaits them when they die, where there will be no “death, or mourning or crying or pain,” where believers will have incorruptible bodies, in a perfect existence. So why didn’t god just create such a perfect existence in the first place? If there’s free will in heaven without sin, then god could’ve created such a world.

To say god initially did create such a world but that there was a Satanic rebellion in heaven merely places the problem of suffering back in time. How is it possible for Satan be in the direct presence of a god who has unlimited power and still desire to rebel against him? It makes Satan out to be suicidal, and dumber than a box of rocks to think he could defeat an all-powerful god. Even if this is possible, why didn’t a good god squash such a rebellion before it happened so there wouldn’t be so much horrific suffering?

But let’s say god decided to create a physical world anyway. Then why did god give us free will? God shouldn’t have given free will to his creatures if by doing so he knew it would lead to horrific suffering. The giver of a gift is blameworthy if he gives gifts to those whom he knows will terribly abuse those gifts. Any mother who gives a razor blade to a two year old child is culpable if that child hurts himself or others with it.

But let’s say god decided to create a physical world with free creatures in it anyway. Then what is the purpose of creating such a world? It appears to be a cruel game of hide and seek, where god hides and we must find him, and only the few who find him will be rewarded while the many who don’t, are punished when they die. If god has foreknowledge then why didn’t he just foreknow who would find him even before creating them, and simply place them in heaven in the first place?...then there’d be no one punished for not finding him. If this world is to teach us the virtues of courage, patience, and generosity in the midst of suffering, then those virtues are irrelevant in a heavenly bliss where there is no suffering or pain.

In creating such a physical world god should’ve had three main moral concerns:

Concern One: that we don’t abuse the freedom god gave us. God should not allow any genocides like the Holocaust; no Joseph Mengele’s who tortured concentration camp prisoners; no atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima; no gulags, no 9/11’s, no Cambodian children stepping on land mines, no Columbine shootings, no Jeffrey Dahmers, no gang rapes, or brutal slavery.

Good mothers give their children more and more freedom to do what they want so long as they are responsible with their freedom. And if children abuse this freedom, their mothers will discipline them by taking away their ability to make these choices. It’s that simple. If my mother sat by and did nothing while my older brother beat me to death, and if she had the means to stop him and didn’t, then she is morally responsible for letting me die.

God should keep us from abusing our freedom. He could’ve created us with a stronger propensity to dislike doing wrong just like we have an aversion to drinking motor oil. We could still drink it if we wanted to, but it’s nauseating.

God could also implant thoughts into our heads to prevent us from doing evil.

God would have many other means at his disposal here: One childhood fatal disease or 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 with that truck bomb. Several of the militants who were going to fly planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 could’ve been robbed and beaten by New York thugs (there’s utilitarianism at its best).

A poisonous snakebite could’ve sent Saddam Hussein to an early grave averting the Iraq war before it happened. The poison that Saddam Hussein threw on the Kurds, and 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). Sure, it would puzzle them, but there are a great many things that take place in our world that are not explainable. Even if they concluded god performed a miracle here, what’s the harm? Doesn’t god want us to believe in him?

Concern Two: that the environment god places us in will not cause us excessive suffering. god should not allow any pandemics, like the Black Death Plague in the 14th century which killed 100 million people, the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 which killed 20 million people. There should be no tornado’s, no floods, no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no devastating fires, no volcanic eruptions, no lethal parasites, or major diseases like cancer, polio, malaria, pneumonia or AIDS. There should be no poisonous creatures like the brown recluse spider, and no poisonous plants like Yew (eat it and you die within minutes).

If god exists and wants us to believe in him, then he should’ve made it a priority to prevent religious diversity by clearly revealing himself in this world. In this way he’d prevent all religious wars, Crusades, Inquisitions and witch burnings. There’d be no religiously motivated suicide bombers, no Muslim terrorists, and no kamikaze pilots.

If god exists he should stop all natural disasters too, like the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. If god had prevented it, none of us would ever have known he kept it from happening, precisely because it didn’t happen. Any person who is supposed to be good would be morally obligated to prevent it, especially if all it took was a “snap” of his omnipotent fingers to do so.

If the believer claims natural disasters are the result of sin, then the punishments simply do not fit the crimes. God’s purported punishments are barbaric when compared to our own. We simply put criminals in jail.

If god allows these disasters for a greater good, what’s the greater good here? Any paltry benefits to the victims could’ve been gained by other means. To say the victims are going to be rewarded in heaven for their suffering can never morally justify why they suffered in the first place, otherwise the final eternal state, even if it’s pleasant for them, only compensates them for their sufferings. This same reasoning could justify us torturing anyone, so long as we later compensated them for their sufferings.

Concern Three: that our bodies will provide a reasonable measure of wellbeing for us. God could’ve created all human beings with one color of skin. There has been too much killing, slavery, and wars because we are not one race with one language.

God could’ve created us with much stronger immune systems such that there would be no pandemics which have decimated whole populations of people. At the very least, he could’ve given us the knowledge to cure these diseases the day after he created us, but he didn’t even do that.

God could’ve 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 be made to heal itself, or an amputated leg grow back in a few weeks? If that’s all we experienced in this world we wouldn’t know any different.

We find a lot of things in nature that god could’ve done for us. He could’ve made us wings on our backs so we could fly to safety if we fell off a cliff, and gills to keep us from drowning.

Only if the theist expects very little from such a being can he defend what god has done. Either god isn’t smart enough to figure out how to create a good world, or he doesn’t have the power to do it, or he just doesn’t care. These are the logical options.

In response, believers respond by asserting we just cannot fathom god’s omniscient ways. But what needs to first be shown is that this god exists, and the empirical evidence of the amount of horrific suffering is as close to a refutation of his existence as we get. For their response cuts both ways. We’re told god’s knowledge is so far above ours that we can’t understand his purposes. But if god is as knowledgeable as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world, especially since we can easily suggest how he could’ve created differently.


My Closing Statement [From my book How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist, pp. 213-215].

I have found Christian apologists to be experts at picking and choosing between God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence (or perfect goodness), depending on the problem to be solved. When it comes to God’s omnipotence in the face of so much intense suffering, apologists conveniently negate it by focusing instead on God’s omniscience, saying we cannot understand his ways. God, like a father, knows best, they’ll say when it comes to explaining why an omnipotent God allows so much suffering. So in order to save their faith from refutation they must allow God’s omnipotence to go only so far, and no farther. This is where his power arbitrarily ends, where the apologist needs it to end to solve a problem for faith. [Process theologians like John B. Cobb Jr. and David Ray Griffin have even been forced to deny God’s omnipotence in order to solve the problem of suffering. According to them God merely has the power to persuade. He doesn’t have coercive power.]

When it comes to God’s omniscience in the face of so much intense suffering, apologists conveniently negate it by focusing instead on God’s omnibenevolence, that God created a perfectly good world despite the fact that doing so meant there was the probability (or real possibility) free creatures would disobey. They will claim God didn’t know how to create free-willed creatures who never disobey, or at the minimum don’t disobey very often, or in such inhumane ways. So in order to save their faith from refutation they must allow God’s omniscience to go only so far, and no farther. This is where his knowledge arbitrarily ends, where the apologist needs it to end to solve a problem for faith. [Evangelicals such as the late Clark Pinnock, along with John E. Sanders, Richard Rice, and Gregory Boyd, are even embracing Open Theism, which denies God can foreknow future free-willed human actions.]

Christian apologists will even negate God’s omnibenevolence if that is what’s required to believe. Since there is clear evidence for a great amount of gratuitous suffering in the lives of so many people—suffering that has no ultimate explanation for the individuals who are suffering—evangelicals such as Michael Peterson, the late William Hasker, and Bruce Little deny what is called meticulous providence. In their view some of our suffering is because God is not directly involved in our daily lives. According to them, God does not care to be involved in our daily lives, so we suffer as a result. If this isn’t their point, then what is? 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?

It should be easy for God to eliminate the horrendous suffering in our lives. That’s not too much to ask of a truly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, is it? If you name any specific example of horrendous suffering in this world I can easily show how such a God could have eliminated it without adversely affecting anything else, since such a deity would be able to perform what I have previously called perpetual miracles. If we accept that God is omnipotent for instance, and that he created the universe from nothing, then he should be able to perform perpetual miracles. So God could miraculously intervene without us ever knowing that he had done so. He could have stopped the underwater earthquake that caused the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 with the snap of his omnipotent fingers, and a quarter of a million people would not have died. Then, with a perpetual miracle, he could have prevented it from ever occurring in the future. We would never be the wiser if he wanted to remain hidden for some unknown reason, for, from our perspective, it would never have taken place!

The fact is that the more knowledgeable and powerful a person is, the greater that person’s moral responsibility to help others who are experiencing horrendous suffering. Just think of a helpless slave girl who was being whipped by a Southern Plantation owner. A person who didn’t know that this was taking place could not have been held morally responsible for not doing anything to stop it. A person who knew it was taking place but had no power to stop it could not have been held morally responsible for not doing anything to stop it. Since God is believed to be both omniscient and omnipotent, he bears the highest possible degree of responsibility to stop it. The best explanation for God not helping that girl, or any of us who intensely suffer, is that God isn’t omnibenevolent. So in order to save their faith from refutation, Christian apologists must allow God’s omnibenevolence to go only so far, and no farther. This is where his perfect love ends, where the apologist needs it to end to solve a problem for faith.

Christian apologists look at the world and force their conceptions of God to fit what they see. It is emphatically not the case that they first define their God based on the perfect-being theology derived from Anselm’s Ontological Argument to God’s existence. The greatest conceivable being than which no greater being can be conceived ends up being the same one that best suits their need for faith. For when it comes to their conceptions of God they conclude he didn’t have the power to create a world without naturally caused suffering, that he didn’t know how to create a world where there are free creatures who never disobey, and that he doesn’t care enough to intervene in our lives on a daily basis. Either their ontological conceptions of the perfect being really mean something, or they don’t. Christian apologists cannot arbitrarily negate them when it suits their faith. What they should do instead is take their ontological conceptions of God and ask what kind of world should exist if such a God created it, rather than look at the world that presently exists and force their conceptions of God to fit it. Doing what they do is little more than special pleading. They cannot continue this type of intellectual gerrymandering if they want to be taken seriously. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ask not what kind of god should exist given such a world. Ask what kind of world should exist given such a god.