Tag Archives: suffering

Worst possible misery for everyone

Sam Harris, in his book “The Moral Landscape”, defines good as that which moves away from “the worst possible misery”.

Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone” then we can talk about taking incremental steps towards this abyss. -Sam Harris, Moral Landscape, pg 39

While listening to Sam’s opening speech in his recent debate with William Lane Craig (audio, video), it occurred to me that by “misery”, Sam means, “physical misery”. That made me wonder, what about nonphysical misery? It seems that Sam’s dedication to physical materialism could prove to be a great hinderance here.

The best example of non-physical pain in my estimation is phantom pain experienced by amputees. In this case its the memory of a limb is the source of pain. I’m sure physicalists would argue that the neurons in the brain which supposedly constitute memories are the physical source of pain in this instance, but it seems like a stretch to think that memories themselves could be the source of pain since, in our memories, our limbs are still in tact. Phantom pain is not only the recollection of a limb that no longer exists, but an extrapolation from there that the body must be in pain since the limb is no longer providing feedback to the nervous system.

Next to phantom pain for non-existent limbs would be psycogenic pain, ie mental disorders. Mental anguish is one of the most common forms of pain we experience all the time. From mild discomfort (ie small insults or slights) to insurmountable pain (ie the loss of a loved one).

In conclusion I believe there is sufficient evidence for the claim that metaphysical pain trumps physical pain in

  • Duration – it is not possible to remove metaphysical pain through medication or amputation.
  • Intensity – while both metaphysical pain can be mitigated somewhat through medication, its intensity is not limited by natural constraints.
  • Capacity – physical pain does end at some point. Nerves get overloaded and either shut down (become numb) or the body builds a tolerance or the body itself shuts down (ie the person passes out). Metaphysical pain is bound by none of these physical constraints.

So if the greatest possible pain is not confined to physical states of affairs, it follows that any solution to the problem of pain would need to entail a metaphysical component to it if it is to be a complete and coherent. Sam’s solution is simply incomplete. It fails to adequately address metaphysical pain which would still exist even under the most ideal physical circumstances. And since it is possible for the metaphysical to effect the physical, and not vice versa, it also follows that any solution to the problem of pain should come primarialy from a metaphysical source, not a physical one.

So while I agree with Sam that morality would entail the transition from a state of pain to a state of pleasure, I find Sam’s solution to be shallow and incomplete. The greatest possible pain is not physical, its metaphysical. So the solution we ought to be looking for, if we are serious about looking for an exhaustive solution, should be metaphysical, not physical.

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God just needed another little angel so he took her

Have you ever been in a small group where someone has uttered something like the couple in the video above? Papering over a deep tragedy with answers that were not only paper-thin but actually damaging if closely scrutinized?

I have.

And like the grieving mother, I’ve also felt like an ass when I couldn’t stomach it anymore and decided to call everyone to examine the implications of what was actually being said.

I often wonder whether regular church goers actually realize how shallow and trite they make following Christ sound when they offer answers like the one above. I wonder if they know how much damage they do.

Like the couple above demonstrates, most often these answers, this shallowness is only allowed to grow and flourish in the absence of cross examination or close scrutiny.

The question of pain and suffering is immense. It is perhaps the largest question Christians face. It certainly is the root of why many cannot (note the inability here, not merely the unwillingness) place their faith in Christ. Accordingly, it requires us to spend many hours studying it.

We need to have both an immediate answer to those freshly grieving as well as a more nuanced answer for those able and willing to explore the deep questions surrounding death and suffering in the world God has made.

Here are three resources I highly recommend on this subject:

The Death and Resurrection of Debbie

[HT Frank Turek]

Does a Good God Exist? Dembski vs Hitchens

[HT Eye on Apologetics]

Does God give people cancer?

A section out of this story caught my eye recently:

A Baptist of Calvinist leanings, Chandler believes everything is in God’s hands and foreordained in a way people can’t fully understand. As he’s tried to stay well, he’s continued to preach to his youthful audience that they should get ready for suffering, and trust God will walk them through.

Trusting God to bring us through difficult circumstances is one thing, praising God for giving us a life-threatening disease is quite another.

We trust God to sustain us through difficult hardships, and we might even praise Him for bringing about good in spire of those hardships. However when we praise God for giving us those hardships we begin to raise some potentially faith-destroying questions about evil and suffering and how God fits in with it all.

Many are reluctant to address this subject because of the deep emotions that it often illicit, especially from those who are suffering through these circumstances. And while I recognize there is a time and a place to discuss this issue in a more objective sense, I believe that sloppy theology around the questions of natural evil like this cause many to run, not walk, away from the faith every year.

Natural evil

First lets examine what natural evil is.

Evil and suffering exists within a fallen and broken world. This includes not only man-made evil like rape, murder, and infidelity. It also includes the state of affairs we should expect to find in a less than perfect world. Things such as tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, etc.

Also diseases.

The one thing that all of these have in common is death. And we know from Scripture that God not only did not create death but came and volunteered to taste death so we wouldn’t have to, thereby defeating it.

Now it would be wrong to say that God never causes the death of others. He does many times in Scripture. He uses disease, war, and famine to chastise nations. However these occasions were 1. proclaimed ahead of time 2. only done as a result of punishment and 3. they had as their aim correction for the purpose of reconciliation, that is, they were not vague in the least.

So the logical conclusion here is that if God is sovereign in the sense that Matt claims He is, that is “everything is in God’s hands and foreordained in a way people can’t fully understand”, then God must have given Matt the brain tumor and is therefore must be punishing Matt.1

Denying the logical conclusion

Some might object,

Chandler’s videos have often addressed the difficult questions of suffering, including whether it’s God’s will.

During a break at his most recent visit to Baylor hospital, Chandler said, “At the end of the day, I don’t believe God gave me this cancer, but I do believe he could have stopped it and didn’t. … God is not punishing me, but somehow, for my joy and his glory, he’s let me endure this and walked me through.”

Chandler is the first to acknowledge that he’s balancing Christian resignation with a flat-out effort to stay alive.

Why would their be a need to balance “Christian resignation with flat-out effort to stay alive” if the “Christian resignation” is not based on the belief that God ultimately gave him cancer?

Matt Chandler is a wonderful guy and it pains me to watch him struggle not only with a physical disease, but also with a theological disease.

As I pointed out above, Chandler’s view of God’s role in nature is causal (“everything is in God’s hands and foreordained in a way people can’t fully understand”). That is, God causally determines all things to come to pass according to His will (this is a belief shared among many Calvinists like Piper, Sproul, Voddie Baucham Jr., etc.). So if you combine this causal view of God’s role in nature with his last statement which follows a traditional compatabalist position, you end up with the logical conclusion that God gave him cancer. What is sort-of amusing (if it weren’t for the fact that it has the potential to completely destroy a person’s faith) is that he recognizes this conclusion as the logical outcome, and like a man jumping in front of a train in a valiant (but utterly futile) attempt to stop it, he issues the statement cited above. However, like a train, the logical force behind the earlier view of God’s sovereignty (interpreted to mean causal determinism) steamrolls right over this attempt to prevent the logical conclusion from following. The simple fact remains that no amount of convoluted reasoning can help him avoid the ugly logical conclusion his theological system forces him to.

Beliefs like this one are toxic.

It is the #1 reason people walk away from or are discouraged from pursuing Christ is that pastors like Matt call into question God’s character with their sloppy theological systems.

Matt has cancer because he lives in a fallen world. Period.

If any lesson is to be gleaned from his tragic situation it is that this world is broken and fallen and is in desperate need of a savior.

  1. If this sounds familiar, it should. This line of reasoning is exactly what many of Job’s friends followed. []

How not to answer the question of evil

Here is Voddie Baucham Jr.‘s treatment of the question of evil:

A couple of things need to be observed here:

  1. Voddie completely dodges the question.
  2. Voddie turns the question around to be about the questioner.
  3. Voddie derides the questioner by assaulting their intelligence (his preamble regarding first year philosophy students is not only uncalled for but a clear appeal to authority, namely his own)

Man does not put God under a standard by asking the question. The problem with Voddie’s approach, which seems typical for most Calvinists, is that it attempts to avoid the real and serious question by attempting to turn it around to be all about the questioner. This attempt at trivializing a weighty subject is the paramount of both arrogance and ignorance in my estimation.

The issue is this: If God causally directs all events “for His glory” as men like John Piper have often claimed in the past, then

  1. How can we say that evil really exists (since all things are causally directed by God)
  2. How can we hold any other creature accountable for something they have no causal control over (beating a dead horse is the phrase that comes to mind here) and
  3. How are we to make sense of God claiming to be at war with something he secretly causes to bring about his ends.

You see, none of the above issues..

  1. ..depend on a standard of holiness that is independent of God (though I’m sure you’ll take the time honored tradition of redefining words in a desperate attempt to further weasel out of this problem) or
  2. ..have anything to do with the questioner, these issues would still exist even if all men (and angels) were wiped out in the next instant.

As one person pointed out in an earlier conversation regarding this issue. This does not have to be an issue that does great damage to Calvinism. Afterall, many Calvinists like Alvin Plantinga have long since accepted the fact that only by upholding the limited freedom of other causal agents such as men and angels, as the Bible clearly teaches, can we avoid the horrible implications raised in a causally closed universe. However this is a very damaging challenge against a particular brand of hyper-Calvinism which depends on a causally deterministic view of God in relation to His creation.

For any answer to the problem of evil to be considered even remotely good it needs to satisfy the following criteria:

  1. It needs to recognize the pain and suffering in the universe.
  2. It needs to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of the question. Flippant appeals to sovereignty, mankind’s depravity, or anything else simply will not do here.
  3. It needs to actually show how it is logically possible for evil to exist in a world created and sustained by an thrice holy God. This means showing both
    1. How evil can even exist and
    2. How God is truly separated from that evil

For a good example of how to answer the question of evil I recommend this material from Dr Little, this debate between Michael Brown and Bart Ehrman, and this lecture by Dr William Lane Craig.

Now because I don’t want you to form the opinion that all of Voddie’s material is worthless. Here is an excellent clips of him dealing with the issue of marriage and how men ought to love their wives:

Death according to Buddhism

I’ve recently come across an author for American Thinker, Robin of Berkley. I absolutely love her work and story telling style. Here is an ex-script from her post titled “Tiger, the Buddha, and me”:

Here’s my favorite story about the Buddha: A grieving young mother from a poor background begged him to revive her dead son. Not only was she heartbroken, but she feared her husband’s wealthy family would punish and shun her for the child’s death.

The Buddha promised to bring the boy back to life if she returned with a mustard seed from a home where death had never visited. She thanked him profusely and set off for town.

The young mother knocked on door after door and heard heartbreaking stories of loss. Finally, she grasped the Buddha’s teaching: that sorrow is a part of life. She returned, bowed deeply to the Buddha, and asked him to help her bury her child.

It’s too bad that the mother didn’t visit Jesus’s home. While He may not have given her a mustard seed, He might have given her faith of about the same size1. That faith might have been large enough to move mountains, including the mountain of death that we all face2. She might have also realized that while the Buddha is right, death has touched every house3, he was wrong in that death is not just a natural part of life. That we should just dispassionately accept it and move on.

Death is not natural4, it is the result of evil5. Not everyone has tasted death6, and even those who have are not without hope of having their condition reversed.7

The good news is that death will one day be defeated.8. Then, those of us who have decided to stand with Jesus will say:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
-Isaiah 25:8, 1 Corinthians 15:55

  1. Matthew 17:20 []
  2. Romans 6:23 []
  3. Including God’s own house. []
  4. Genesis 2:17 []
  5. James 1:15 []
  6. Hebrews 11:5 []
  7. John 3:16 []
  8. 1 Corinthians 15:26 []

More thoughts on the problems with the greater good theodicy

Here are some additional thoughts from a conversation that ensued following my previous post on this subject:

God does not create states of affairs and thus such we are under no compulsion to claim such states of affairs as having to have some sort of “greater good”.

I think the greatest difference here is in how we view the will and sovereignty of God. You see, evil does exist but the person who holds to a “greater good theodicy” often does so out of a misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty wherein God MUST be the cause and initiator of all events that take place. Which, consequently, must be either directly or indirectly willed by such a sovereign God since, as this definition of sovereignty goes, God always gets his way and is always glorified in all that comes to pass).

Under this view of God’s sovereignty it is actually impossible to call anything evil since, if all is both willed by a God who is the definition of good and if all is for the glory of this God who is the definition of good, then it logically follows that nothing is really effectively evil. In this case we manage to not only destroy the language of good and evil but we end up rendering large swaths of Scripture completely incomprehensible as well.

Therefore, the reason I would side with Dr Little’s assessment that a greater good need not automatically and inextricably flow from every evil is because I believe evil actually does exist and is in no way compatible with a holy, just, and good God.

This does not negate God’s ability to use evil, but it does decouple good from evil and thus destroy the dangerous duality setup by adherents to the greater good theodicy wherein evil is rendered necessary (implicitly or explicitly) for the ultimate attainment of good.

Finally, I would reject entirely the notion that Ephesians 1:11 has as it’s focal point all events that have occurred throughout human history (including and especially all of the sinful ones). While God does account for and work into his plan the sinful actions and choices of men, to charge God as the initial or causal agent behind such sinful choices and actions is to do violence to God’s holiness.

Further, no amount of equivocating on the word “good” will allow you to escape the plain and simple fact that either 1. God caused sin/evil/death/unrighteousness and is therefore culpable and marred by it or 2. God created a world in which he allows other causal agents limited freedom in choosing either according to or contrary to his will thus rendering God blameless for the freely chosen sinful acts of his creation.

Depravity, is it total?

In a recent discussion on Facebook with a few Calvinistic brethren of mine, we ran across the topic of Total Depravity. Here is a segment of that conversation wherein I discuss the Reformed view of this doctrine’s flaws.

Jared, your view of man’s depravity seems to be rather chaotic and confused. Much like Luther and Calvin’s views on the matter were. Especially Calvin.

I remember reading in the Institutes on several occasions where Calvin would say in one chapter that Man was unwilling to submit to Christ while in the next he would go on about how man was unable to submit to Christ. Which is it? It seems fashionable in Reformed doctrine to attempt to have both. To have your epistemic cake and eat it too. However this is not merely a mystery (the favored escape hatch of Calvinists when faced with the logical and philosophical paradoxes elicited by the conclusions of their theological system). Rather, such notions of man’s inability to do good is antithetical, or logically opposed to the notion that man is unwilling to do good.

And therein may lie another difficulty for us. For the good I speak of is good meritorious unto salvation. In that respect we can certainly make a case that no man seeks after God of their own accord. However we’ve thankfully also been shown that God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in the world drawing all men unto Christ. So in the end, the Calvinist notion of no man seeking is only half true. The rest of the truth is that man has been given all he needs in order to “seek and ye shall find”. As such I completely reject the notion that I Corinthians 2:14 is a normative prescriptive statement regarding man’s noetic capabilities such that, apart from Christ, a man is wholly ignorant of all spiritual truths.

Regarding Matthew 7:11, the focus of the passage is on the father who gives the ultimately good gift of his son. The focus is on the giver, not the gift. This ought to be pretty plain since gifts cannot, in and of themselves, be either good or bad. It is the giver and their intentions in making the gift that determine the goodness or not of the gift. I would say that I am surprised that you attempted to avoid this relatively straightforward and simple teaching of Jesus but I must admit that I have come to expect theological contortions like this when one holds to a man-made theological system first and foremost as opposed to simply taking the text at it’s plain meaning.

What is a text’s plain meaning? I would argue that it is what someone, saved or not, would understand the author to have meant.

But therein probably lies another great gulf between us for I do not think one can make the honest case (without severe epistemic ramifications) that apart from Christ dwelling within us we can not know or be certain of our knowledge regarding any truths whatsoever.

Oh, and regarding the LBC, WMC, etc. I hate to tell you but none of them are Scripture. Further I would argue that they all suffer from the same philosophical short-sightedness in that they somehow manage to miss the glaring problem with evil, sin, and suffering they create by their view of God’s sovereignty and how all things that come to pass (including sin) were somehow ordained by God. You can cling to the notion of a greater good if you wish, but I would argue that the scores of people whose faith has been wrecked and destroyed by such a heinous view of God ought to be a clear warning that such a notion is not only logically and morally untenable, but that in practice the fruit it yields is far from serene comfort.

The fact is that God is not in league with what he claims to be waging war against (name sin, death, and hell).

Must Good Come From Every Evil?

I recently ran across this article by Dr Little regarding the question of evil and suffering in the world. Dr. Little asks the often overlooked (or assumed) question of “Must good come from every evil in the world?”

Dr Little’s answer may surprise (and anger) you, especially since it goes against what many pastors tend to offer their congregations. Sadly, however, such an answer is not only inadequate when it comes to answering the evidence of gratuitous evil in the world around us, but such pat answers also pose very real potentially faith-wreaking threats to anyone who is not content with simplistic answers and, instead, decides to probe deeper.