God and Suffering  

What I am not trying to do here is to prove that no god of any sort can exist. That would be a waste of time. Clearly, one could always define god in a way such that it might possibly exist. For instance, you may say that there is a god who is composed of the fabled dark matter or dark energy, something about which we know virtually nothing at the moment.

What I want to do is to look at the sort of being that most people nowadays would regard as embodying the essential requirements to be 'God'.  At the very least, in most peoples' eyes, to qualify as god you have to be vastly more powerful and knowledgeable in some way than us and preferably have created the universe in some sense. Being god entails being extremely highly-regarded, either out of fear or respect or love or all of these.  This 'respect' would go well beyond anything given to a mere human and may well be formalised in some system of worship or propitiation.

In the early days of the idea of god, of course, he was one of many beings who had control over day-to-day aspects of our lives, such as the state of the weather, the rivers, the mountains, trees, the success of the crops or the hunting.  Over time, there was something of a war of the gods - the tribes who won battles imposed their god(s) on those they defeated.  Thinkers had their influence too, refining the idea of god so that there was gradual progress towards fewer gods, but more powerful ones.  Eventually, there was the claim that there was only one god. Unfortunately, different people claimed that theirs alone was the one true god.

The standard Christian idea, however, is of a god who is all-powerful, all knowing and everywhere. At the same time, he is a god of justice (and retribution) and a god of love.  Not much left over.  In fact, we may have overdone it with the attributes.  If someone is all-knowing and all-powerful, then being everywhere is not required in order for godly action to take place.

So then, let's look at this version of god.

Well, to begin at the beginning: the difficulty I have is with the contradictory claims it makes and its inability to reconcile the new testament view of a caring God with what we see around us every day.  Let me explain.

The old testament tells us that God created the world.  The Psalmist and Job, to name but two, praise the mountains, rivers and other evidences of God's hand.

Unfortunately, we now find that the world (and it seems neighbouring planets) bears the hall-marks of being not simply a large chunk of rock with things growing on it, but a complex system of solid and liquid matter which generally does nothing very quickly, but sometimes, by its very nature produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, much to the surprise, often (literally) short-lived, of those who live nearby.

El Niņo, we now know, prods the atmosphere into producing tempests, hurricanes, floods and mud-slides close by and also on the other side of the world.

Any analysis of how life operates on earth will show it to be species feeding off species.  It is a mainly parasitic world.  We may criticize bacteria and viruses for attacking us, but that is how they survive - and everything tries very hard to survive.  We try hard to survive and we eat the meat of 'lower' orders of animals and of course the plant life which is around us, in order to do so. Unless animals and plants feed off each other, everything dies.  But providing that the next generation has been born before the parents are eaten, the species can survive.  Even though plants have the benefit of photosynthesis, they also rely on the recycling of organic matter from dead plants and animals in order to grow and reproduce.

So, we are on a planet where we rely on eating the remains of other (formerly) living things to survive, and the other living things live off other living things, including us.  That's how it is.

We are on a planet which by its physical nature is a very dangerous place to live on if you happen to be born in the wrong place - by a fault line, a volcano, a delta where in response to El Niņo an area of thousands of square kilometres may be inundated by the sea, or just in a valley where a flash flood may overcome you.

We now know a lot more about this sort of thing and so where the risks lie, although still not enough actually to predict the timing and force of earthquakes or volcanoes.  Even on Archbishop Usher's view of life on earth having started only 6,000 or so years ago, however, there was still a lot of time when nobody knew what was going on and the explanation for disasters seemed to be that a God was punishing them, rather than the sort of rational explanation we can now give.

So given that there isn't a capricious, hating or vengeful God, but a caring God, where does this leave the nature of his care?   If God had only recently arrived and seen the problems we have, it would be reasonable to ask such an all-powerful and caring being to remodel things so that the very ground on which we live was not capricious with our lives.  We could reasonably ask that he remove the risk of our being eaten, not just by the odd lion but, more importantly and insidiously, by micro-organisms.  We could ask that he repair or redesign our DNA so that it does not attack us from within.

Here though we have a God who was the creator of everything that we see. "For without him was not anything made which was made".

How do the religious leaders defend their concept of a merciful, loving and just god?

Well, certain of them have said that destruction by earthquake, wind and fire takes place where the villages and communities affected are like Sodom and Gomorrah.  If so, there must be a remarkable degree of recidivism. Because those areas are time and time again affected by such disasters. You'd think that they'd learn.

Maybe it's our own fault because those in the worst affected areas are not listening to nature and so persist in staying in the same place, despite the fact that so many of their forebears were done for by a disaster originating in God's handiwork (which, incidentally, he saw was good).  Leaving aside the fact that even a first instance of such a disaster is one too many, it is difficult to see how there could realistically be mass migration of agricultural or fishing communities from the places of danger to - where? Where would the next disaster occur? They could not know.  They would not even know how the disaster had been caused so as to make rational decisions about it.  They might be walking blindfold from the frying pan to the fire.  And in the meantime God is keeping mum about the whole thing. The evidence of history is that he simply watches it happen. If we manage to find out why it happened, then that's our good fortune and often we make scientific progress despite the hindrance of his representatives here on earth.  Over the years, we have in fact managed very often to work out what is happening and, in many cases, find ways to overcome the nasty brutish nature of our world. So then, if illness and natural disaster were designed by god to whip us into shape, and we are now managing to reduce it, then a theologian ought to accept that we must now be less in need of such treatment. Well, that's a relief!

A view is sometimes expressed, in a somewhat confused way, that it must be all down to man's free-will. If only we did what we should do, then we would not have wars and such-like and, by extension, but usually unsaid, that we wouldn't have natural disasters either.  That this is nonsense requires only the stating of the proposition, but to make it quite clear, the exercise of free-will does not bring earthquakes into being and does not create viruses.  They are a product of how our planet works.

There is sometimes also an argument that Satan perverted the whole thing by bringing about the fall of man and variously:

i. re-worked God's previously kindly creation into something which is by its nature uncaring or cruel; or

ii. ensured that man was tipped out of the protected environment of the Garden of Eden into the dangerous environment which was always outside its walls.

The first is easily answered by referring back to the many passages in scripture where God takes the credit for the way that the world is and does not bemoan the fact that it is not what it used to be.

The second is answered simply by looking more closely at the argument.  It is an admission that God does not care how man suffers once he has disobeyed the God who created him.  He is exposed to the very worst that God's real world can throw at him.  Which is where we came in. How can a caring God who wishes us to acknowledge his love and show that same love to others in our lives possibly stand by and do nothing in the face of such extreme and capricious suffering?

Bear in mind that we are not just talking about our modern times, where it can be argued that, with the knowledge we have amassed, we as fellow-humans can and should do more to help out those affected by illness or disasters.  We need to look back over the creationists' entire period of 6,000 years (or perhaps just a little more) and ask what could possibly have been done to save people from famine, pestilence, flood and earthquake by the rest of the people on the planet. Other than those in the immediate vicinity, they would not even have known of the problem.  Even less did they have the means of providing effective assistance.  And so people kept thinking that if they just made one more sacrifice, they would appease the relevant God and get out of the mess they were in.

No, none of it hangs together.  Such a view of god is inherently self-contradictory.  Either there is a god capable of doing the big things but who does nothing significant to ease the suffering of humankind and so doesn't care, or there is perhaps some sort of god who is sitting on the sidelines watching - and as helpless as we are to do anything about it.  So it may be that any god which does exist is one with little or no power or not a moral being after all. Or that just possibly there is no god.


19 July 2004



Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy