Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Pain and suffering in mortal life just is NOT a challenge to the validity of Christianity - to suppose it is, is to mis-frame the question, and thereby render it unanswerable.

Different Christians have different (valid) answers to the 'problem of pain' or human suffering, or evil - and each sincere and knowledgeable answer captures or highlights something of the truth; but not all of it - since that is the nature of answers.

(After all, how could anybody capture the whole truth in just one short sentence? The idea is absurd. And having written or uttered a sentence, how would be be sure that everybody understood it correctly?)

And there does not need to be one single cause of evil and suffering in the world.

There is the free will of men; the purposive Good-destructive evil of Satan and his minions (which themselves need explaining); the limitations - some logical and practical, other perhaps fundamental - on God's power and influence; the indifference (or hostility) of the 'non-living' world (e.g. natural disasters). And so on.

But at the bottom of it all is the fact, that ought to be blindingly obvious to anyone who understands enough about Christianity to become one, that nobody who knew anything about Christianity ever claimed that Christianity was about producing perfect or even optimal happiness in this mortal life on earth.

Surely it is crystal clear? (even to an Archbishop) that Christianity is about our happiness in the eternity after death and resurrection?

(Our happiness is this world is indeed affected by Christianity - very much so. But the degree to which perfect happiness is created - measured, as it will be, by existant, labile, partly corrupt evaluations - is not a measure of the validity of Christianity; nor is the failure of Christian belief to create perfect earthly happiness a refutation of its validity!)

This world and our mortal life is extremely important - and it is not merely 'a means to an end' - but surely the voices of the New Testament are unamimous and unambiguous that the Christian importance of mortal life is not about God making mortal earthly life maximally happy and eliminating pain and suffering on condition of belief...

Where (on earth) did people get that idea? Not from the Bible! That idea just is not a part of the message.

The provenance of the made-up notion that Christainity, if it were valid, would eliminate pain and suffering from the world is surely demonic, not divine.

This idea of suffering being a threat to the validity of Christianity is a pseudo-problem, falsely framed.

Which is why, having accepted this frame, the question cannot ever satisfactorily be disposed-of - 'doubts' induced by the sufferings of mortal life lead, not to answers, but to to more-doubts - and to the erosion of faith.

Which is not an accident.

We do indeed often seek an explanation of pain and suffering - and we may or may not find it (the reason is likely being personal to the seeker and specific to the cause - typically, general reasons will not satisfy us)  - however our failure to understand the reason or meaning or causes for specific sufferings has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity (it is 'orthogonal') - this just is not a reason for 'doubts'.

The valid domain of consideration that may (sometimes, for some people) be induced by the existence of extreme pain and suffering and evil in this mortal life, is an enquiry concerning the relationship between God's Goodness and His Power.

Christians have been told unambiguously that God is wholly Good; also that he is the creator and the most powerful of 'god's. To understand evil and suffering some people need a satisfying general explanation of how these divine attributes might fit-together.

And any explanation must start either with God's Goodness, or with his power. Which divine attribute you start-with (and this is a metaphysical assumption that probably should be based on interpretation of divine revelation) determines the range of possible answers you will end-up-with.

But none of this is to do with the validity of Christianity supposedly being challenged by the existence of suffering and evil. Our ancestors knew this - and their direct experience of suffering was, on average, far greater than our own.

However, our own experience of evil is greater than theirs. They knew, with considerable precision, what was Good. Yet we live in a world of moral inversion in the official arena of public discourse, a world of evil routinely and by high status persons propagandized as Good; and of Goodness depicted as evil - all this by communications (including everything from the arts and sciences to advertizing and public relations) whose reach and influence is (via the mass media) now almost all-pervading and universal.

And THAT fact of living inside an actively-evil world, is the reason why modern people have been duped into supposing it is valid to state that the sufferings of mortal life constitute as lethal challenge to Christianity.

The debate is itself a product of modern moral inversion.  

Note: Thans to commenter Joel whose questioning provoked this very full response: I hope it satsifies him!


  1. Couldn’t agree more. Excellently put. If you’ll forgive me advertising my own wares I wrote something similar (but not as eloquent) when Stephen Fry made his childish outburst a while ago. It basically involves the fact that this world is a school not a holiday camp. That's not all there is to it but if those who agonised over the existence of evil asked themselves what this world is actually for they might find some answers. Not glib solutions but enough to justify faith.

  2. “Christians have been told unambiguously that God is wholly Good; also that he is the creator and the most powerful of 'god's. To understand evil and suffering some people need a satisfying general explanation of how these divine attributes might fit-together.

    And any explanation must start either with God's Goodness, or with his power. Which divine attribute you start-with (and this is a metaphysical assumption that probably should be based on interpretation of divine revelation) determines the range of possible answers you will end-up-with.” - Bruce Charlton

    Let's assume God is for purpose of this philosophical inquiry.

    Is God the creator of good, or is God good?

    Which brings us to the question: What is good, and what is evil?

    Are good and evil a duality with good and evil in their most rarefied and extreme forms the poles?

    I don’t think that the argument can be advanced that God is good - or merely good. The presence of evil argues strongly against it, unless God is not omnipotent and omniscient. If, therefore, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and evil exists, it is because God has an aspect that expresses itself as evil.

    The question then becomes, “Is the wilful failure to attempt to prevent or to inflict suffering evil, and conversely, is the wilful attempt to prevent or alleviate suffering good - whether by God or man?” The question has a quid pro quo or two since there are no doubt other things to which good and evil apply, and simply taking a Judge Dread approach to the problem by making a hedonic reduction could very well lead to non-existence or non-manifestation of this universe. Hence, a hedonic definition - by itself - is not wide enough to encompass the shades and tones which are expressed between the scroll and the tailpiece of the violin of good and evil.

    Are good and evil necessary for the expression of meaning? Is the expression of meaning of such importance that it justifies the creation of the violin?

    The universe expresses in a way that results in the evolution of sapient beings who amongst their cruelties and kindnesses are driven to find and create meaning. Despite, or perhaps even because of entropy, complexity expresses as the living world we exist upon. That drive to express a meaning seeking and reflective intelligence seems to be more an essential quality than a derivative one. Certainly it is through the universe unfolding entropically that complexity surfaces in the form of life and intelligence.

    It may be that I am just too much the poet not to see that as a means by which the universe is able to be self-aware.

    So, is hedonic evil necessary, when a universe is driven via entropy to express intelligence?

  3. @Nicholas - so many questions! I would almost think you don't want answers!

    I have answered all of these, from the Mormon perspective, in numerous blog posts - many of which you have read (or, at least, commented on) - so you would first have to explain why *my* explanations do not satisfy you.

    "I don’t think that the argument can be advanced that God is good - or merely good."

    But this is the Mormon position - God is indeed wholly good; but he is not 'omnipotent' in the abstract philosophical sense of classical theology.

    Mormonism also says that God is wholly good in the sense that good is antecedent to God: there is an already existing good, and God is wholly that.

    (This in *contrast* with the view, held by over a billion monotheistic religious adherents, that Good is God - i.e. that Goodness is defined by whatever God does.)

    But I agree with your implicit premise that God is either wholly good, or else infinitely omnipotent: *but not both* - unless we assume that humans are not capable of judging good (such that what seems bad to us is actually good).

    But *that* is not a position I would be prepared to take. There are some things - like the extended torture of innocents - which I would regard it as monstrous to call good - I believe humans can rightly judge at least *some* things to be evil. Ergo, these horrors are *not* the will of God, but occur against his will, ergo God is not omnipotent.

    An important reason for the non-omnipotence of God, from the Mormon perspective, is that each and every man and woman is an autonomous agent, assumed to have an eternal pre-mortal origin (not as a full person, but as a unit of being - we only became persons when we became pre-mortal, spiritual sons and daughters of God). This essence was not created by God, and is to some extent independent of Him. This is how we can make real choices.

    However, all the above, is not THE Christian answer - but specifically the Mormon Christian answer. I certainly would not expect all true Christians to agree with the Mormon explanation. The explanation is a second order thing, no particular explanation of suffering is essential to Christianity - indeed some explanations are clearly way beyond the comprehension of many/ most Christians.

    My point here is not to push a particular explanation of suffering - but to show that earthly mortal suffering is NOT a challenge to the validity of a religion based on the reality of eternal life, and the happiness of that post-mortal life.

  4. @ Bruce and Nicholas:

    I watched this interview with author Anne Rice this morning before going to work. I had a sense of 'calm amidst the maddening crowds' as a result that carried me through the day. I realised that as a former rational atheist and currently weak and inconsistent Christian I am not alone, nor am I the first or last to walk the long walk back to faith...are you not on that path Nicholas and fighting it?

    As a former atheist and a 'Thomas the doubter' by nature and also by way of modern indoctrination, I am extremely good at asking lots of questions, finding problems, pulling things to bits...I have been the skeptic, the cynic, the self - induced existential despairer, I have been Wittgenstein ' s fly in the bottle (and probably drunk too on the wine fumes at the time)...but in the end I have been humbled by the realisation that the human intellect is limited, even for the brightest, and whilst I am not stupid nor can I boast any great capacity of intellect or faculty that I sense at times in others (it stands to reason intellects can be greater than humans but what being could be inferred?). I do know that I cannot know all the answers (although I certainly do try to understand as far as I can) and if I did I'd be God or a God...and well, it turns out I'm not...

    Anyway, sooner or later us intellectual types, trying to figure everything out all the time, hit the side of the bottle and can go not further...and then there is a *choice* about *making sense of what that means,* a choice (grounded in those knotty metaphysical assumptions that Bruce likes to talk about here because they are 'the rationalists gateway to faith'). Intellect alone cannot propel us out of the bottle...We need God's wonderful love and Grace to let us free...Of course even then if he opens the bottle and like a human fly we bumble on against the same glass edges, then the exit remains unnoticed and we chose to keeps looking for another way out, then we remain stuck...

    To put it more simply and plainly: Nicholas! God loves you and wants you to respond to his promptings by returning to his love. I almost feel silly for saying this but as I sat on the drive way after work today outside my house I suddenly felt that he wanted me to tell you personally that he loves you and ask you to stop messing around by making things excessively intellectual to obscure that truth from yourself...if you just surrender all the questions and let that love in, you may find you can have an experience like the one described by Anne Rice in this video. I know I did and as for her, most wonderful moment of my life :-) The real barometers of truth are hope and love; if atheism were true then why would it be tinged with a cold sense of desolation, a sense that beneath the veneer of intellectual accomplishment is a phenomenologically empty, incompleteness and inconsistent play of smoke and mirrors...When you feel that love it is a completeness of being!


    Anyway I hope this helps...I get the feeling God really does too :-)

  5. I have never, by God's grace, struggled with this problem of Theodicy.

    It is very simple: if we think evil actually is evil, then the prior, existential requirement for this to be true, is that God be all-good and transcendent, pure Act and non-contingent Being which is constitutive of the Good. If we do not believe in such a God, then evil is not evil and there's nothing to complain about. In other words, to be angry against evil, is to admit necessarily that God exists as He exists. If we don't believe in such a God, there is no problem of evil with which to malign Him.

    And, just by the way, there is no distinction between God's goodness and His power; the Divine attributes and operations are all an integral unity with the Divine Essence. They can be distinguished in theory (i.e., for our purposes of discussing them), however.

  6. Hmm...The plot thickens...have just found this:


    I suppose, therefore, that even the most seemingly profound change of heart can shift again with time in both directions...

  7. Well David, it was entirely predictable that the author and celebrator of perversion and evil was not going to stay "converted" for very long...

  8. David, Anne Rice is an acquaintance, and she considers herself to be very much a Christian, though she has divorced herself from the church. She follows the goings on of the Roman Catholic church and has great optimism with respect Pope Francis. Her values reflect a blend of humanism and Christianity, which Bruce appears to categorically oppose as leftist corruption of Christianity. If I a speaking incorrectly concerning Bruce's views, I trust that he will correct me.

    Even so, she has written a series of Christian novels which are well regarded by many. Whether that speaks favourably is another matter, depending upon how you view such things. My experience of her is that she is most genuine with regard to her formally unaffiliated Christianity. Many of her vampire novels have a strong presence of Christian symbolism, and she is deeply religious. Where she struggles - in my opinion - is with human indecency, hypocrisy and meanness. She left the church because of this, and has written about it fairly extensively. A little more web searching will yield enough to help form a reasonable view of who she is, and what she values.

    I do appreciate how Bruce give superiority to goodness over potency, and that the Mormon view also places benevolence ahead of power.

    But this is the Mormon position - God is indeed wholly good; but he is not 'omnipotent' in the abstract philosophical sense of classical theology.

    Mormonism also says that God is wholly good in the sense that good is antecedent to God: there is an already existing good, and God is wholly that.

    If this God is, it is definitely more approachable than the traditional omnipotent and omniscient God. The thing is, I am philosophical - some would say stubbornly so, and they would not be wrong. For better or worse this is my bias, and I do bang my head into the side of the Wittgenstein's bottle, and no it is not because it feels so good when I stop. I see struggle as essential to progress, and I take some pleasure in it, even though it leaves me without the comfort that a Mormon view provides. My a-theism is more about avoiding the problem of projection than positively asserting that God is not. I do not want to be narrowly confined or as Shakespeare said in Hamlet: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
    king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams." Bad dreams are not the fear of being unmade in death - which is the crux of nihilism in the modern age - but that in being bound within a theology on the basis of a theological metaphysical axiom that the boundaries are defined and incomplete in terms of the image that is supported by them.

    I keep coming back to being a finite entity in a very large and complex universe who grapples with the mystery of what lies further back than I can perceive or possibly know. There appear to be epistemological limits to what can be known and experienced. Certainly while bound within my particular nutshell this is true. Perhaps in the approach to death, there will come an elongated moment that sits between being and no-thingness; time and timelessness; where time slows to a stop and what is appears as it is without any filters. Even this, I have to set aside though, because if is also a frame. To experience without a frame - if it is possible - for but a moment. William Blake goes on about this in his first verse of "Augeries of Innocence":

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour

    Yes, I have a metaphysical axiom, which is if I want to see experience things as closely as I can to as they are, I have to part the doors and veils of perception as completely as is possible.

  9. Solving the problem of evil gives rise to a new problem: the problem of man's response to evil. Every evil in the world is either something that God is unable to stop (because he is not actually omnipotent) or is unwilling to stop (presumably because stopping it would be even worse than allowing it to continue).

    Even if God is not omnipotent, he is surely vastly more powerful than man. Therefore, any evil which man is capable of stopping must be in the latter of the two categories given above. That is, it must be something which God allows because, all things considered, it is morally better to allow it. -- But then who is man to stop it? Who is man to have eliminated smallpox, when God obviously had some good reason for allowing it to exist? Who is man to lock up violent criminals, when God respects their free will? If God is right to permit these evils, shouldn't we permit them as well?

    (One's own sins are an exception to this logic. God cannot stop me from sinning without violating my free will, but I can stop myself. But when it comes to stopping another person's sins, or stopping natural evil, the logic seems pretty solid.)

  10. @WmJas - You have some assumptions here which I do not share - so I do not acknowledge this dilemma. In particular, I regard the autonomy of individuals as a given - it is not something that God 'allows' or that he has given to us.

    This autonomy extends to Men and Angels - but on my metaphysical scheme I believe that it extends beyond and embraces everything to a greater or lesser extent - in the sense that everything is 'alive' and 'conscious' - although often to a very limited extent.

    (This is a consequence of my reasoning that either everything is alive, or nothing - since there is no boundary between the two states).

    I regard the debate on God's 'omniscience' as badly-formed - indeed a kind of nonsense since nobody understands what absolute abstract omniscience actually means - so it is an illegitimate reference point.

    Instead, we need to decide what is the basic metaphysical set up. I am a pluralist (like your namesake) so I do not believe everything reduces to one thing (nor even to two things) but that there are many things.

    God's 'creation' is therefore a matter of something like shaping and organizing (a la Joseph Smith) and - with Men - of Fathering. God is working to make the universe Good - but He is not the only Good (we, for example, have autonomous Good in us, intrinsically), and this is an open-ended project.

  11. The theodicy problem is a real one. Mormon theology clearly addresses it in a different way than classical theology, a way that I find more satisfying. But at least classical theology confronts the issue.

    The theodicy problem is a much more pressing problem for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), the civic religion of the declining West.

  12. @Leo - I agree it is a real problem - but not in the way that Welby frames it. His reference is purely to mortal life on earth.

    A major neglected factor is that suffering is heterogeneous - much of it (but not all) can plausibly be understood as *potentially* good for our eternal souls: clearly the world is designed as a challenge rather than a holiday.

    For MTD even the existence of death is a major problem, which is why all disasters are presented in terms of their death toll - because for them death is the end; whereas for us it is an absolutely necessary transition to something greater: death is the indispensable means to resurrection.

    For mainstream secularism life extension and 'immortality' are self evident goods - but for us, 'immortality' in our present form would be arrested development.

  13. @ Nicholas:

     "To experience without a frame - if it is possible - for but a moment. William Blake goes on about this in his first verse of "Augeries of Innocence": 

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
    And Eternity in an hour.

    Yes, I have a metaphysical axiom, which is if I want to see experience things as closely as I can to as they are, I have to part the doors and veils of perception as completely as is possible."

    What you describe sounds very much in accord with a Buddhist or Eastern Philosophical perspective. Particularly your first sentence, which sounds like a 'quest' for moments of enlightenment, the kind of transcendental experience induced when the grosser aspects of reality are striped bare or penetrated to induce a sudden lucid apprehension of a Platonic ideal form such as love, beauty or interconnectness of phenomenonology; a moment of Satori as the Zen Buddhists describe or perhaps from another perspective, Christian 'insight' into God's design for creation. The 'frame' you are describing sounds like it is metaphysically 'optional' in the sense that if I hang a picture capturing a transcendental 'truth' about a deeper reality on my living room wall - a family scene embodying loving relationships, say - the frame can be Buddhist (the frame is deluded), Christian (a God of love frames the picture) or even existentialist (a refusal to have a frame as, accordingly, any attempt to have a picture frame should be abandoned as meaningless), or agnostic (I think the picture needs a frame but I can't decide which compliments my picture most aptly yet). Either way I'd argue the picture still needs a frame or it will be 'incomplete' in an essential way and to say otherwise is bunk.

    I used to have a Buddhist frame but then I realised it was deluded about delusion, then an existential non - frame which as far as I can tell boils down to an intellectualised form of denial of reality played out by Frenchmen smoking pipes (that don't exist) and basking in the self - satisfied glow of their supposed genius; but actually it would save everyone a great deal of effort and flowery language to undercut the whole thing by saying "I don't know" or "There is an impenetrable mystery at the heart of all things." Which leads me to agnosticism (which is my default position), nihilism (a kind of arrogant forceful imposition of a metaphysical assumption on the world) or Christianity (see definition of nihilism but reverse it)...The clincher for me was combining:

    1) There is an impenetrable mystery at the centre of all things that (to me at least) demands a meaningful explanatory frame

    2) My experience that Love is the greatest power in existence and has such character and qualities as exemplified by the life and wilful submission to his own death for love of Jesus Christ (but then resurrection, otherwise it would be a unfathomably sad story about the futility of the human condition).

    But the powers of love (combined with free will) can and will conquer all things and are boundless; even Shakespeare ' s nutshell cannot contain that my friend :-)