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  1. Avatar
    hardindr  April 23, 2012

    Interesting thoughts, to be sure. I am often confused why believers do not take a more much simpler tack in answering the problem of theodicy: namely that God likes human suffering, or at least, is very indifferent to it. It would go long way towards explaining the world’s history and the way things are today. It also explains a large portion of the Old Testament, where God seems to cheer on, or even order, actions that cause great suffering. I first seriously considered this idea after watching a PBS drama where a character argued for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dx7irFN2gdI

    Also, how do we know that God couldn’t do something logically contradictory (like make a squared circled)? He is all powerful, isn’t He? Maybe he could create a universe where that is possible. It don’t see why He couldn’t.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 24, 2012

      Interesting ideas! Thanks,

    • Avatar
      Avery  April 24, 2012

      “namely that God likes human suffering, or at least, is very indifferent to it. ”

      It kinda puts a crimp in the ol’ God’s chosen people schtick, doesn’t it?

      • Avatar
        hardindr  April 25, 2012

        “Chosen” for what, I wonder…

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      Christopher  June 2, 2012

      I’m glad to see hardindr make these points, especially the one in his first paragraph. I could write at least an extra-long research paper–more likely a long, rambling book–in support of the idea that God “likes human suffering”. This thesis has appeared obvious to me since I was taught, at a very early age (over 35 years ago), about Christianity, in which some emphasis was laid on the doctrine of God’s intention to send many (indeed most) of us to eternal torture of the most exquisite, imaginable kind (i.e., Hell). I suppose Hell would be the epitome of God’s predilection for causing and enjoying human suffering. As unspeakably horrible as our worst temporal suffering on Earth is, it must be negligible in comparison with the perfect, eternal torments putatively designed by God for us in Hell. Thus, it has never occurred to me that the Christian God could be loving, benevolent, just, and supremely worthy of our greatest possible love: To apply such terms to this god is to rob them of all ordinary, recognizable, human meaning.

      But we are told that such laudatory terms are applicable in this god’s case, because, in effect, he means that perfect love is actually perfect hate, capricious infliction of suffering is justice, that the most horrible things are praiseworthy, etc. This idea that there is a supremely malevolent God who means for us to suffer, is the only thing in Christianity that I can’t quite liberate myself from (although I’ve made tremendous progress toward that goal). It seems, for a couple of reasons, highly improbable; but at the emotional level, it still haunts.

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    Mikail78  April 23, 2012

    The whole free wil excuse is just a desperate attempt to reconcile the reality of horrible suffering with the idea that an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God exists. I think deep down, these Christian apologists and their followers know that the reality of suffering can’t be reconciled with the idea that an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God exists, so this is the best explanation they can come up with. But even fee will doesn’t explain the natural disasters. Also, if free will explains everything, what about the free will of the victim? For example, no one makes the decision to be raped.

    I hate the free will explanation. Not only is it bullshit, but it insults our intellgence. I’m sure that most to all of us, if we had the opportunity to stop a criminal from raping and murdering a child, would prevent this horrible crime from happening. We would be called evil, and rightfully so, if we just decided not to interfere because we wanted to not inferfere with the criminal’s free will. Why, then, does the Christian god get off the hook? Why is there a double standard?

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    SJB  April 23, 2012

    I hope everyone reading this will seek out and read – and think long and hard about – Sam Harris’s new book on the subject of “Free Will”. Certainly we have the “illusion” of free will. But contemporary neuroscience increasingly calls the concept into question. It is disturbing and has profound theological implications. But the covenant the skeptic makes with reality is that you will follow the evidence wherever it leads.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 24, 2012

      His book is on my shelf, waiting to be read. I’m a bit afraid to, but I think I’ll choose to do so anyway. 🙂

      • TWood
        TWood  December 9, 2016

        I’m interested in your view of Harris and his books “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” I actually agree with him on a lot, but from my perspective his understanding of Christianity is amateurish. Any thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2016

          Very amateurish indeed. I very much like Letter to a Christian Nation. But The End of Faith operates under the very mistaken view that religion = fundamentalism (and vice versa).

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    JordanDay  April 23, 2012

    Good article Bart. I am curious… in your deconversion process, did you ever flirt with Deism or Panendeism? You know, the possibility that the universe was/is something like a “thought” inside of something we might describe as a “mind”? Rather than naturalistic/material reductionism?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 24, 2012

      I’ve thought about it, but never have been much drawn to the idea. Maybe it’s a personal preference sort of thing….

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    Avery  April 23, 2012

    There is an extension to the suffering is necessary argument that suppose to make God ultimately good and loving. That is, “suffering teaches us.” I’d like to get hold of the idiot who thought that one up.
    I suppose the correct sentiment should be “humility teaches us,” which may be true on general principle.
    However, as a medical aid, I have worked with the elderly and dying for nearly 20 years, and I have yet to see suffering teach anyone a damn thing–except how to be petty, demanding, self-centered and short-tempered.

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    Avery  April 24, 2012

    Doesn’t free will and self-control go hand in hand? Where would it end?

    “Your honor, I am not responsible for robbing that liquor store owner and shooting him in the head. You see, I have no free will.”
    “Neither do I. So don’t blame me when I sentence you to the death penalty.”

    Strange view of human existence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2012

      Good point! I still need to read his book, though. Maybe this week!

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    PaulH  April 24, 2012

    I watched an episode of “Apocalypse: The Second World War” on the Smithsonian channel tonight. The episode featured heavily on the “Holocaust by bullets” massacre in the Ukraine. Before the Nazi’s had perfected the gas chambers, they rounded up over 30,000 people in one day in Kiev and herded them off to a pit, stripped them naked, and shot them all. I still have the images burned in my mind of naked women standing in line to be shot, holding onto their babies. Truly horrible.

    Dinesh does as good a job brain washing conservative Christians into believing suffering happens for a reason in the same way Germans were brainwashed into thinking people subhuman. You cannot reasonable argue a point with a person who continually moves the goal posts. The bible gives conflicting accounts in numerous books as to why suffering happens. I remember watching one of you debates in which you rightfully pointed out that The prophets differ from Job, who differ with Revelations and Daniel who all differ from Proverbs when it comes to why people suffer. It’s really scratching at last straws to think Tectonic Plates somehow can point to the existence of a deity but Dinesh is fully aware that the bible never mentions Free Will. Free Will is a modern concept. Me personally, I think the world needs a lot less love and a lot more justice.

    I was going to purchase Sam Harris’ book on Free Will, but heard it’s only 80 pages and more pamphlet than book. Be interesting to hear your opinion.

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    stuart  April 24, 2012

    D’Souza’s argument reminds me of Plantinga’s effort to show that the problem of evil cannot be formulated into a strict logical argument. Both seem to put limitations on what God can do, and generally, in defense of God’s existence, take us a long way from the fatherly, loving God that Christians believe in. What good is it to show a God could exist, but that God but does not care for us? (because he is restricted to the physics of tectonic plates?) God becomes an invisible power, like gravity, but the whole concept of a personal God gets thrown out the window.

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    ApostateAbe  April 28, 2012

    I have found Dinesh D’Souza’s argument interesting, if a little perplexing. I am still skeptical and unsure of why earthquakes, tsunamis and catastrophic volcanic eruptions are an inevitable consequence of tectonic plates, and I am also a little skeptical that either tectonic plates or catastrophism are necessary for life to exist. The catastrophism that follows from tectonic plates is caused by releasing the potential energy that builds up after squeezing two plates together, like the breaking of a rubber band after you extend it too much. But most subduction happens continuously, without the need for catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis, and there seems to be no need for the Grand Designer to make any subductions catastrophic.

    Likewise, the eruptions of the more catastrophic variant of volcanoes (stratovolcanos, i.e. Mt. Vesuvius) follow from sudden releases of potential energy, and it is only one of several types of volcanoes (scoria cones and shield volcanoes), those others being more continuous and therefore more gentle to human populations, while still maintaining the geologic cycles that Dinesh D’Souza believes life needs to evolve.

    I would love to see Dinesh D’Souza explain the meteorite collision that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs (except for bird’s ancestors). Meteorite collisions are not necessary for the evolution of life. But maybe God did not want to send His son Jesus manifested as a Deinonychus to save the dinosaurs from their sins, because He didn’t like the way dinosaurs turned out, so He sent a meteorite instead, killed off the dinosaurs, and started over with small furry mammals.

    Dinesh D’Souza could have taken his argument to a higher level–pain and suffering of all sorts are at the essence of human existence, as the human species has been shaped from a long ancestral descent in a continuous struggle to subsist through disease, genetic defects, famine, war, murder, rape and abuse. Therefore, to remove such things would have made humanity significantly less human, and I am not sure we would enjoy it, given our present nature (not that we can’t have a different nature). Had he said this, I would have agreed. And of course that it is a solution to the Problem of Evil that makes God either passively indifferent or a Scientist in a lab unsaddled with animal abuse laws, where we are the lab rats.

  10. Avatar
    ChasingTheTruth  April 28, 2012

    Have you ever heard of HAARP?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 29, 2012

      I’m not sure that I have!

      • Avatar
        ChasingTheTruth  April 29, 2012

        HAARP standing for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program is a project based in Alaska and funded by the US government, it is thought to have caused many of the natural disasters in recent years. They use over 380 radio antennas each releasing 50,000 watts which they then send into the ionosphere and ricochet back to earth and can become very powerful.


        • Avatar
          ApostateAbe  April 29, 2012

          God doesn’t cause earthquakes, but the US federal government is actually responsible for a bunch of them?

          Be careful of urban legends and the claims of conspiracy theorists. There is nothing wrong with believing conspiracy theorists when they have dependable primary-source information to reinforce their core claims, but there seems to be no known reliable source for the claim, for example, that HAARP uses a billion watts or more. It seems to be just an urban legend. See this page for the debunker’s perspective:


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    tcc  May 12, 2012

    The idea that suffering is the price we pay for free will falls apart completely when it comes to just how much our species suffered for the first 100,000 years of our development. Our ancestors were lucky if they reached 25, and a countless number of their children died during childbirth.

    If D’Souza believes in a literal Adam & Eve, he’s only doing it so that original sin can somehow be responsible for the pain that’s been a constant in our history. He’s adjusting facts to suit his theology and not the other way around.

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    leetchy2  June 17, 2012

    In order to prove that natural disasters (and the subsequent suffering) are inevitable consequences for there to be human existence on earth, Dinesh would have to go through every single natural disaster and show that God had no other choice in his design. Instead, Dinesh just cherry picks one item (plate tectonics & earthquakes) and uses that to “prove” a broader argument. As a meteorologist, I can reel off a number of ways the earth could have been designed so that life can exist without other natural disasters such as lightning, hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m not a geologist, but my gut says an all-powerful God could have thought up something so that life could exist without shifting tectonic plates.

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    ecbrown88  July 26, 2012

    I have been moving to a completely different view of the idea of God and human suffering (I’ve just leaned this issue is called Theodicy, thanks Bart!)

    My thought experiemnt (I wouldn’t say it is a theory I subscribe to, just my current mental plaything) is that perhaps God allows suffering because suffering isn’t important. It is to us, but why does that make it important to God or to His purpose or even Love for us? Perhaps God is concerned with something far more important for us, and we have difficulty fathoming it. Another aspect of this line of thought is that many of the demands we make of our Model God are quite arrogant — they betray a sense of the self-importance of humanity in the (God’s) scheme of things.

    I once read Lewis’s “Till we have faces” which, in its climax, I read to take this position somewhat.

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    Inndesign  August 22, 2012

    I think the question of “Why Would God Allow Suffering?” is a tangent subject of a bigger question, “Why Does the Dichotomy of Good and Evil Exist?” Suffering is a part, a result of the “evil” so called as some might morally classify it. The problem of evil rests on two eminently plausible background assumptions: that if God exists then he is all knowing, all powerful, and perfectly good, and that evil exists in the world. It is on the remaining premise, which states that if God existed then evil would not exist, that most discussion of the problem of evil focuses. Of course, there are two responses to the problem of evil that do not grant the eminently plausible background assumptions. The first is the denial that God is morally good. The second is the denial that evil exists.

    I think to many of us, the existence of evil appears to be undeniable. There is widespread suffering in the world. We have all experienced some amount of pain, both physical and emotional; any large range of vexations in life confront us all. Some, however, have sought to deny the concept of evil (thinking of Mary Baker Eddy), and so to eliminate the problem of explaining how evil can exist in a world governed by God.

    I find that far more promising than the dismissal of evil as illusory is the Augustinian and Thomism view that it is nothing more than a privation of good. According to this view, evil is not a substance within its own sense, but merely an absence of good. Even if this account of evil were accepted, however, it would not completely resolve the problem of evil. For it may still be asked why God neglected to create those goods that are found to be lacking in the world. Even if evil is simply an absence of good, there is a tension between this absence of good and the existence of a Creator that knows how to, is able to, and wants to create all goods. The problem of evil and thus suffering in some form at least persists.

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    theology64  August 24, 2012

    There is suffering – the man or human suffering which is based on free will. God could get off lightly with that one. However, there is a “natural disaster suffering” in which human beings play no part. Let me see God in court. In fact, Let’s see this so called nasty, torturistic God locked up. Why do people on here, keep making excuses for God? Explain. Anybody. My philosophy is thus – how one wants to be treated, do so likewise. Angela has thus spoken and killed all the debates known to Human beings.
    Take care
    Angela, Sofija, Cepulis.

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    Cephas  November 14, 2012

    Suffering – natural or moral – makes perfect sense, if god a) exists, AND is either i) completely evil, ii) a congenital idiot, or both. I know it sounds facetious, but think about the second option for a moment.

    Imagine an omnipotent deity but without enough intelligence to realise he/she is unintelligent. Kinda like a savant – they can count matches, they can create matches out of nothing, but they burn themselves with the matches. Now think about plate tectonics. What kind of intelligence is needed for a deity to choose that as the best stirrer of the organic pot? One that picks his/her nose and eats it, that’s my guess.

    OK, I’m a bit skewed on the suffering thing, but I do know Aquinas was wrong in one sense – I can think of a far less-than-perfect deity, and it would be just as valid – just as close to infinitely intelligent – as his thought. Just sayin’… 🙂

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    diversecityusa  May 18, 2013

    While I’m certain of our differences of opinion on the Christian faith, I have to say, I still have yet to find an answer to the question of questions…Thanks for the post!

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