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Saturday, October 06, 2012

Tough Questions

Stop me if you've heard this before. No, don't.

Here's the question (read "challenge"). Something really bad has happened and animals have died. So have people. A fire, a storm, a tragedy of some sort. Maybe or maybe not human caused. Maybe it's not even a catastrophe. Some poor baby zebra lost its life to a hungry lion. How sad! So ... why would a loving God allow such a horror? (Note that behind the question is "And, oh, by the way, without an answer that I ultimately find acceptable, I will never believe in God.") (And behind that is the obvious, "Oh, and, by the way, that will never happen.")

Okay, so it's clearly a smoke screen. "Can an all-powerful God make a rock He can't lift?" Not a serious question. A smoke screen. "Can a God who can do the impossible make an unstoppable ball rolling toward an impenetrable wall?" Not a seeker; a challenger. And not a challenger to you; a challenger to God.

But, look, we're required to be ready to make a defense. What do you do with it?

Have you ever thought about what's behind the question? Think about what undergirds the question. Where does it start? What are the premises? Well, clearly there is the fundamental "Death is a bad thing." Included in that -- part and parcel -- is the requirement "Life has value." Interestingly, the question typically seems to require that human life and animal life have the same value. It is just as tragic for an ant to die as it is for a baby to die. (And, oh, by the way, there are always babies involved. If the question can't aim to bypass the brain by zinging to the heart, it's not worth being used as a question, is it?)

But there's something else underneath this question that never gets noticed. Let me point it out by giving you some startling statistics. In the history of the world not one single solitary animal that has ever lived has survived life. The death rate of all animals on the planet is 100%. But wait! Beyond that, the death rate for humans is only slightly better. If you ask an atheist, it is the same -- 100%. If you ask a Christian, it's 100% minus three. Three people. That's it. In all of history. Oddly, then, it seems that no one is complaining that people and animals die. Apparently death is fine; it's just "premature death" that is bad. It's not that people and animals die; it's that some die "too early" or, perhaps, that some suffer before they die. That's bad. (Read "evil".)

So, now we're asked to explain our God. "How could a loving God allow for such a travesty of justice? Justice demands that no one ever die! No, wait, that's not right, of course. Okay, so justice demands that no one die until I think it's okay! Yes, that's it!" And people and humans, based on a value that cannot possibly be demonstrated without a God, are being cheated by a God that doesn't exist because, clearly, it's wrong to suffer and die ... which everyone does anyway.

I'm sorry. This question just falls apart to me. It's like the pot yelling at the potter who made it and shouting, "Why did you make me like this??!!" It operates on values stolen from theism and then twisted to make squirrels and humans of equal value. It ignores completely the fact that everyone dies. "Okay, fine, but do you actually approve of this?" I'm surprised they would need to ask. That which God does doesn't require my approval. The trick, instead, is to correct anything in me that would disapprove.

Postscript: After writing this, I came across an article by Randy Alcorn on the subject. He says in part, "Sometimes we make the foolish assumption that our heavenly Father has no right to insist that we trust him unless he makes his infinite wisdom completely understandable to us. What we call the problem of evil is often the problem of our finite and fallen understanding." My point exactly.


Anonymous said...

I would like to quote from a book by DJ Brown on a fire in Minnesota in 1894.

“[After the fire] they found bodies. They found them in piles amid the foundations of houses… They found then in wells and root cellars, asphyxiated but unburned. They found them splayed out facedown in the streets, burned to a crisp… They found Ida Martinson and her children half buried in the mud, the clothes burned off their blackened backs… Bodies that were little more than piles of white ashes and bone fragments… Anderson began to weep, realizing that the smaller corpses must represent at least half of his Sunday school class… Many of them seemed to have clasped their hands over their mouths in their last moments of life. Wisps of smoke were still rising from some of them, and the air reeked of burned hair, flesh, and bone… The marks of his fingers still showed in the burned soil where he had desperately tried to dig his way into the earth… Intestines were protruding from abdomens, eyes bulging out of their sockets and liquefying, foul-smelling black fluid running from gaping holes that had once been mouths. Disembodied hands, feet and clumps of hair were scattered about the field… The bloated bodies of horses and oxen were scattered up and down the streets, their glistening legs sticking grotesquely into the air.”

I’d wager that more that 50% of evangelicals would say that the biosphere had no suffering or death in it prior to humans sinning, though Stan is on record as saying they are wrong. I think their hearts are in the right place; they figure that if He is clever enough to give them a pain-free immortal physical body in an afterlife, He is clever enough to have done that here on our planet. He stopped doing that for humans because they are headstrong, contrary beings and they don’t deserve something better on Earth. He stopped doing that for nonhuman creatures because ________. (I don’t guess I have ever heard a Believer fill in that blank, and clearly to Stan the matter of animal suffering is inconsequential, not something that Bible Believers should worry about.)

I challenge some Believer who visits here to pray, “Lord, continue to treat us sinful humans in the way You have been treating us. We deserve it. But if there is some holy principle within You that insists nonhumans die, from now on please consider letting nonhuman creatures die peacefully in their sleep. Lord, I believe You are powerful enough to make that come to pass.”

Stan said...

"Sometimes we make the foolish assumption that our heavenly Father has no right to insist that we trust him unless he makes his infinite wisdom completely understandable to us." That would be most of us, but it clearly describes you. Except, of course, that I don't think there is an acceptable answer. No reason that God could give you would be suitable to you.

For clarification, then ...
1. I don't believe there was no death prior to the Fall. I believe that there was no human death prior to the Fall. But plants? Animals? Why not?

2. If no believer has ever filled in that blank, then it is a sad commentary on believers because the Bible fills in that blank. Romans 8 indicates that all creation was subjected to "futility" because of Man's sin and God's judgment.

3. You find the notion that humans (or, worse animals) might suffer -- apparently for any reason at all -- a horrid concept. If there was a God, the only right thing for Him to have done is to prevent all sin and its necessary consequences. What I find remarkable is that you have never offered any basis for this "better way", for this "higher morality" (my terms, not yours). You are appalled that animals suffer and die (although all animals suffer and die as part of life's cycle) and yet can offer no basis on which to build this value for animals. You appear to value humans at the same level and, again, offer no basis for that valuation. I doubt, in fact, that it is actually possible within the realm of reason to offer any genuine basis for this value system or for any objective moral system at all in the absence of a God. It doesn't seem like you try. Instead, it appears that your approach is to sit in the "cheap seats" and take shots at other viewpoints without actually solidifying your own. Now that's not really fair, is it?

Dan said...

I would fill in that blank with "I don't know". No matter how much I DO know, the more I know, the more I know that I don't know.

The bible says that knowledge puffs up. We only know a little. But compared to what we knew a thousand years ago we know quite a lot. Then we think we know enough to attribute our existence to some chain of chance events proving the Bible true. Compared to all there is to know our knowledge probably amounts to a gnat compared to the sun... perhaps it does... I don't know. I assume that knowledge is infinite.

But here is what I teach my children. I make the case to them the same one that Anonymous is making. I will probably read this to them actually. Then I say that many reject God because he did not create their existence to their liking... too much suffering, evil and death. Then I asked them a question. I suppose for them that we all did that; reject God. Then I ask them to tell me what would change. Is there suddenly no death? No suffering? Of course they know that there still is. It is a wash then... but there is one exception: can you guess what it is I say? There is now no evil. Of course they look confused. (they wouldn't now) Then I make the case that no chemical reaction in our heads that makes us do one thing or the other can be deemed as evil, there is no basis for it. We are in fact flesh machines. We now laugh when we see a car with "wash me" written on the back window because I have asked them so many times if that car really wants to be washed. They know that no matter how complex a machine is, it is in the end only a machine.

But as far as evil goes, if I torture a baby, or if I feed it when it's hungry, there is simply no moral basis to do one over the other. One of them says that I would feel bad if I tortured a baby. I ask why, much like anonymous is asking Stan why something. I ask where does that feeling come from? If there is no God then the only answer offered today is evolution. Ultimately there is a finite regression as to the cause of that feeling and it leads to... well nothing. We are machines. It is morality ex nihilo. That is logical, but man rejects it because the truth of it, assuming that it is true, is too much for him to bear, as is the existence of a God that, not allows for suffering, but rather will ultimately hold him accountable for his actions. That is the real rub I think.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stan and Dan for grappling with this issue. I have met Believers who don’t seem to have given it much thought.

I don’t see how Stan holds both point 1 and point 2 in his head at the same time: “Animals suffered PRIOR to humans sinning. Animals suffer because humans HAVE sinned.” Is it that God looked forward and saw that humans were going to sin, so He went ahead and cranked up the process of death for animals ahead of time?

Stan wrote, “It appears that your approach is to sit in the 'cheap seats' and take shots at other viewpoints without actually solidifying your own.”

I am 80% sure that I have referred you to certain books, “if you are truly interested.” I may have mentioned ‘Good Without God’ by Greg Epstein and ‘Moral Minds’ by Marc Hauser, which I have on my bookshelf, and ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, which I borrowed from the library years ago.

Dan wrote, “But as far as evil goes, if I torture a baby, or if I feed it when it's hungry, there is simply no moral basis to do one over the other.”

If someone burns a baby to death while a robust being stands by and does nothing to stop it, is there a moral basis for you to praise the (in)action of that being?

If someone raised in a village in Pakistan says, “Allah allows babies to suffer. The Qur’an says we must praise Allah for everything, so I praise Him,” do you think that villager is being morally good?

Stan said...

I said animals died. I suppose, in your mind, "die" = "suffer". In my experience, the vast majority of animals that I've seen don't seem to experience death as humans do. I don't see them as synonymous -- not even in humans.

Bertrand Russell would be a bad choice for the question at hand. Russell agreed that without God there is no actual basis for an objective morality. "Good" becomes relative. But I suppose if I'm going to get an actual answer on this point I'll have to go out, buy the books you recommend, and read them.

You appear to have missed Dan's point on killing or helping babies. Your position offers no reason why one is better than another. For instance, you find it unconscionable that "a robust being stands by and does nothing", but offer no reason for such a moral value call.

Indeed, I've heard this one before. There is a serious disconnect. The suggestion is that humans and God are equivalent. The "robust being" is the same as the baby being burned. And it is, I suppose, the fundamental position expected and required. In biblical terms, it is "I will be like the Most High." Suffice it to say that Creator and creature are not equivalent.

So far we are without an agreement on a basic rationale for any sort of moral judgment, so I can't answer your last question with any intelligent content since your "moral" and mine are not the same thing.