Yesterday, the discussion on this thread got into the subject of the problems of evil and suffering. One of the participants in the discussion suggested that the dilemma could be resolved if God had reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist, even if we don’t know what those reasons are. On the surface, this is not necessarily a bad suggestion. For instance, we’re familiar with the idea of enduring suffering when there is a larger payoff at the end: surgery and chemotherapy to remove a life-threatening tumor, or even something as mundane as the pain we feel from exercise, knowing it makes us stronger in the long run. There are even cases where we inflict suffering on others for their own well-being, even though they may not be aware of the benefits, such as immunizations for young children.
So is it possible that God uses some of the bad moments in our lives to teach us important lessons and help us grow as individuals? Well, it’s possible that someone could learn how relatively unimportant possessions are if he lost his home in a natural disaster, or spent some time living in poverty. Those experiences could help him grow into a better person. Or perhaps someone could overcome a severe illness, and through that, learn that she wasn’t spending enough quality time with her loved ones. Now, none of those examples are miraculous in nature, so they don’t require God’s involvement to happen. Nevertheless, I can see why some religious people view things like this as an explanation for the evil and suffering that exist in the world.
Unfortunately, examples like the ones above are not the upper limit of the tragedies that can occur in life. If God is real, what is his role when a child dies? Before you say that God doesn’t cause things like that, but only allows them because he’s given man free will, I have two objections:
First of all, children don’t just die because some person kills them. Many children die each year from “acts of God,” like natural disasters, house fires, and illness. God could stop all of those deaths without infringing on anyone’s free will.
Secondly, if God intervened in the murder of a child, he would not be infringing on the free will of the murderer, only on the outcome. The murderer would still have the ability to decide to kill the child, and even to put the plan into action. But just as God supposedly stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac just before the knife made contact, God could similarly act whenever a child is in danger. No harm to free will.
So when children die, is God teaching us a lesson? Are we learning how to become better people for it? Studies have shown that parents have a shorter life expectancy when they suffer the loss of a child (not that we probably need a study to tell us that). They’re more susceptible to illness and depression as well.
But beyond that, let’s talk about the ethics of killing a child in order to “teach the parents a lesson.” We see this kind of rationale in movies, sometimes. How many gangster movies have you seen where someone threatens a character’s family in order to make them do something? Is it the protagonist or the villain that typically does the threatening in those movies? In Gladiator, when Maximus’s wife and child are killed, does he then rally support by trying to kill the wives and children of his enemies? It would be hard to like such a character. We instinctively know that targeting someone’s family, especially their children, is the lowest, vilest act a villain can perform.
So why would Christians be willing to attribute such actions to God? If you think about it, the Book of Job does just that. In the first chapter, Job has 7 sons and 3 daughters, who were apparently all quite close to one another. But when God and Satan make their wager about Job, all of Job’s children are killed. But hey, not to worry, Job gets 7 more sons and 3 more daughters at the end of the story! Happy ending!
Such a story should fill us with revulsion. Don’t harm my children to teach me a lesson — I’ll gladly remain ignorant of whatever education you’re passing out.
But maybe such a story made sense to the people living at that time. There have certainly been other cultures that didn’t seem to value human life (even that of their own children) in the way that we do today. But this is just another reason to see the story of Job as a man-made fable, and not a literal, God-sanctioned event.
Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
— Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
When I see throughout this book, called the Bible, a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales and stories, I could not so dishonor my Creator by calling it by His name.
— Thomas Paine, Toward the Mystery
If we think about the level of evil and suffering that exists in our world, it makes the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God seem extremely improbable, if not impossible. And if he allows evil to occur in our world just so a few of us can “learn something” from the experience, then we can certainly cross out the “all-loving” quality. It’s possible that a God exists, but if he/she/it does, it’s not the version we find described in the Bible, so why bother hanging onto it? Yahweh and Jehovah belong in the ranks of mythology, along with Zeus and Thor.