There are a limited number of “theodicies,” in fact most can be broken down into one of four basic kinds:
“Mysterious Greater Good” Theodicies. God has a cunning plan that cannot fail, so even if we canʼt figure it out who are we to lack faith in it, or in Him?
“Soul Making” Theodicies. God is using evil like an oyster uses a grain of sand, to create a pearl.
Natural Law Theodicies God canʼt make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. And he canʼt build a planet that circulates important minerals without also creating earthquakes. And he canʼt circulate the air and distribute heat in the atmosphere without creating tornadoes and hurricanes. An endless list of things God canʼt do without creatures suffering or dying, sometimes in massive natural disasters, famines, plagues, or even after a lifetime of suffering.
Free Will Theodicies. God wants creatures to love him freely, so he gives us the power to do both good and evil.
But for every theodicy there are simply more questions or even rational rebuttals.
“Mysterious Greater Good” Theodicies.
Rebuttal: This is not a rational defense but an assertion that rational discussion will not challenge that personʼs belief system. It is to accept blindly the spectrum of suffering “for some greater good,” from minor daily suffering and loses to major ones like mass deaths of animals and people, even if they are deeply troubling, even if one cannot offer rational reasons why God would do or even allow such things.
People employing such a blind assertion are also likely to comfort themself with the belief that the only “truly bad thing” that can happen to anyone is for them to NOT become a Christian. (Of course rival religions and cults assert the same thing, namely that the only “truly bad thing” that can happen to a person is for them not to love and believe in _insert name of deity, favorite religion, denomination, sect or cult, here_.)
Such a theodicy of blind assertion also resembles the thinking of a spouse who is too afraid to even question whether or not their marriage partner may be mistreating them. Consider these lines that abusive spouses use to assert control over their marriage partners: “You better not even think about leaving me.” “You better not even think about questioning me, my purposes, reasons. ” “I know best.” “Donʼt listen to anyone who doesnʼt understand what we have.” “Youʼre nothing without me.” “Iʼm only doing this because I LOVE you.” “Youʼre not worthy of my love.” “You donʼt deserve me.” “Youʼll never find anyone as good as me.” “Youʼre a terrible person and you need me to be better.” “You brought this upon yourself.” Religions that threaten damnation and assert Godʼs inscrutability whenever questions arise involving suffering and evil, function in ways that are similar to how and why an abused spouse convinces themself to not ask questions and instead remain in an abusive relationship. Relying on this form of theodicy is more like being trapped by a brain-washing mechanism based on fear, rather than providing an explanation for evil, pain.
Also, if “the greater good” consists in becoming a specific type of truly believing Christian (as opposed to “untrue Christians” or believers in other religions or no religion at all), then it does not look like this cosmos was designed in order to achieve “the greater good.” In fact if the “greater good” is defined as just stated, and if eternal damnation is the “lesser good,” then it appears more like this cosmos is simply a web in which God might catch souls for hell. Just consider the fact that we live relatively short lives, a couple decades long, limited further by oneʼs geographical place of birth and the culture into which one is born, so we have limited personal and cultural experiences, limited educations, limited time for study, and limited vision as to what lay on the other side of the metaphysical curtain, as well as living in a world containing a plethora of holy books and an even greater number of books containing rival interpretations of them. And one must add to such “less than good” circumstances the countless non-religious obligations one must expend time fulfilling daily just to survive — in a world already clouded and crowded with ignorance, waves of emotion, headaches, backaches, toothaches, strains, scrapes, breaks, cuts, rashes, burns, bruises, PMS, fatigue, hunger, odors, molds, colds, yeast, parasites, viruses, cancers, genetic defects, blindness, deafness, paralysis, mental illness, ugliness, ignorance, miscommunications, embarrassments, unrequited love, dashed hopes, boredom, hard labor, repetitious labor, accidents, wars, PTSD, old age, senility, fires, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and volcanoes. Knowing all such limitations and the full spectrum of suffering and ignorance, I donʼt see what rational sense it makes to claim that anyone, after they are dead, deserves “eternal punishment” as well.
“Soul Making” Theodicies.
Rebuttal: Soul making? What about all the things in this life and world that harden peopleʼs hearts or destroy peopleʼs souls? I mentioned some of them above. At best one could argue that this world appears just as good at destroying (or damning souls) as making (or saving) them. This world is practically a net in which Jehovah catches souls for hell with its ignorance, confusion, fears, endless holy writings and endless bickering over their interpretation, and with all of the other things mentioned above, the suffering and pains, with humans tossed on seas of emotion and cultural prejudice as well.
And I left something out of my list above, namely religions that claim you must believe (or be damned) even though you canʼt see what youʼre supposed to believe in. You canʼt hear or touch it. We donʼt get to see what Adam saw when he allegedly walked with God in the garden, or get to see what doubting Thomas saw when Jesus made a special trip back to the apostles just to prove his resurrection to that one doubter. We donʼt get to see heaven or hell either. Or Mohammed riding his horse to heaven. Or Joseph Smithʼs alleged golden plates. And not seeing is proclaimed a virtue in the Gospel of John. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Virtue for some maybe, but certainly a curse for those with inquiring minds.
Natural Law Theodicies.
Rebuttal: According to the Bible God can create heaven, apparently a place with no earthquakes where souls can supposedly grow and flourish forever. He can also create a Garden of Eden with a tree of eternal life in its midst that seemed safe and peaceful enough. But according to “natural law theodicies” God HAD to create an earth and cosmos like this one in which we “flourish” only on the trembling skin of one tiny planet, a third of whose surface areas is comprised of deserts or parched lands. See also this parody, a list of reasons Why We Believe in a Designer
Which reminds me of a joke. A man was having a pair of pants made by a Jewish tailor. But the man grew impatient over how long it was taking the tailor to finish them. The man complained, “It only took God six days to make the world, but itʼs taken you over a month to make the pair of pants I ordered.” The tailor held out the manʼs pair of pants with pride and said: “Dat may be so, but take a look at the world … den take a look at dees pants!”
Which reminds me of another joke. A preacher was visiting a farm and said to the farmer, “Godʼs been mighty good to your fields, Mr. Farmer.” “Yes,” the Farmer replied, “But you should have seen how He treated them when I wasnʼt around.”
Did God design the sawtoothed grain beetle, angoumois grain moths, Mediterranean flour moths, scale insects, cabbage worms, corn earworms, corn rootworms, cutworms, tomato fruitworms, etc., that destroy 30% of U.S. food crops by devouring leaves, fruits, grain, and also by spreading fungal and bacterial plant rots as well? Are we supposed to praise the Lord for designing such insects whose proliferation leads to human starvation?
Did God design the bacteria that infect the food we eat? Even prayed over leftovers from Thanksgiving Day? Microgram for microgram, the poisons produced by some bacteria in our food are more potent than all other known poisons on earth. It is estimated that one tenth of an ounce of the toxin produced by bacteria causing botulism would be more than enough to kill everyone in the city of New York; and a 12-ounce glassful would be enough to kill all 5.9 billion human beings on the face of the Earth. (The same goes for the toxin that causes tetanus.) Is that Godʼs handiwork?
Free Will Theodicies.
Rebuttal: Christian theologians continue to dispute how “free” the human will is. Some believe God knows the end from the beginning. But if God has such knowledge then everything must happen the way God knows it will. Therefore the doctrine of Godʼs foreknowledge and the idea of libertarian free will have been at odds with one another for millennia, and theologians continue to debate how “free” human “will” is.
Another dispute among theologians is how to reconcile the Christian doctrine of human depravity with libertarian free will. Both Luther and Calvin concluded that “after the fall ‘freewill’ is just a word, and not something we still possess. And if an historical Adam never even existed, as some Evangelicals are now proposing, what then?
Opposed to the view of Luther and Calvin are Universalist Christians who view “free will” as going hand in hand with eternal salvation rather than eternal damnation. Universalists point out that God has an infinite mind and infinite powers of persuasion at His disposal (and God is everywhere and in everything, at the core of everyoneʼs being, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” per Paul), therefore if God wants everyone to fall in love with the same things or believe the same things, and those things are the only true things, then there is no way a finite creature can resist Godʼs infinite will and infinite powers of persuasion eternally. Therefore, Universalists think the only logical view that someone who believes in a personal loving infinite God can hold is universalism. God has said that He will have “all” come to Him. Is any heart so dark (and without the slightest flaw or crack) such that the light of Christ could never penetrate it? Does not emptiness abhor a vacuum (neither does any such vacuum truly exist since God is in all things)? Hence every “heart” must eventually come to acknowledge the only solid and substantial truth that is. The early Christian father Origin appears to have argued in a similar fashion.
Also, the damnationist Christian portrays God as teaching, “If you donʼt freely love me, you will suffer for all eternity,” which is like saying, “Choose whatever you want to eat for dinner, just keep in mind that if you eat anything else but the green beans you will be puking it up so violently for all eternity that you will never be granted another choice.” (A similar damnationist perspective is used by rival denominations and religions that compete with each other for souls.) How free is a choice that is coerced via threats of eternal suffering, i.e., if you donʼt love and believe specific things?
If “free will” is of such grand importance to God, will there be free will in heaven such that people could still experience temptation there and even sin there? If not, then what types of circumstances has God set up to ensure that heavenʼs inhabitants will always be more tempted to choose good rather than evil? And why didnʼt he set up those circumstances right from the start?
Aside from the theological controversies above, has it been demonstrated that free will exists? There does not appear to be a way to demonstrate the existence of libertarian free will experimentally since we cannot place ourselves in the same exact time, place, and mental state in which we first made each of our “free” decisions to see if we might choose otherwise. Even if we could run such an experiment, going back in time and space, repeating a scenario multiple times, to show that people CAN make a different choice under the exact same circumstances, it would not demonstrate that the different decision was “better informed,” only that it was a “different decision” from the one previously “willed.” Of what use then would it be to have “free will?” Itʼs more to the point to be able to make “better-informed decisions” than “free” ones. To make the former you have to be connected with the cosmos, not free of it — you have to collect and analyze input from as wide a spectrum of the cosmos as possible, like a computer. Therefore, building a machine that collects ever-widening amounts of data and continues to subject them to comparative analysis would be of greater value than creating a machine or human that is disconnected from this cosmos and arriving at decisions “freely.”
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