Evil and Suffering: Protest Atheism
Fowler (Charlotte)
Source: Heythrop Lecture Hand-out, 2010
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  1. The Problem of Evil and Suffering
    • The problem of evil and suffering can be presented as a logical puzzle.
    • If God is perfect, and His perfection is defined in terms of omnipotence / omniscience and omnibenevolence (as Epicurus suggested that it must be) then evil seems to create an ‘inconsistent triad’ (Hume)
    • Mackie said holding the co-beliefs
      → God exists and is omnipotent (omniscient)
      → God exists and is omnibenevolent
      → Evil exists
      Is ‘positively irrational’.
  2. Approaches to Theodicy: Robert Adams has suggested that the puzzle may be approached in 4 different ways:-
    • Deny the positive existence of evil (monism e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz)
    • Deny any one or more of God’s qualities (and/ or his existence) (e.g. JS Mill, Socinianism, Jewish ‘Yahweh Melek’ Philosophers)
    • Suggest a ‘morally sufficient reason’, a 4th proposition, which explains the necessity of evil (e.g. Irenaeus/Hick, Augustine, Aquinas BPW).
    • Deny the existence of a formal logical problem with holding the co-beliefs P1 + P2 + P3 (e.g. Alvin Plantinga, a Reformed Epistemologist)
  3. A Puzzle?
    • It can be interesting to analyse the problem of evil and suffering as a logical puzzle.
    • Reducing the discussion to this level can make things clearer.
    • However, this approach can lead people to become inured to the reality and importance of the problem.
    • The problem faced by believers in concentration camps is not easily reduced to a series of numbered propositions.
  4. The reality of evil and suffering
    • A Refugee Camp
    • The Holocaust
    • And the Suffering Continued in Siberia; Pol Pot’s Cambodia; Vietnam; Death Squads In South America; Bosnia; Rwanda; Afghanistan; Etc.
  5. The Holocaust
    • ‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.’
      (Elie Wiesel)
    • "I could not believe that they could burn people of our age, that humanity would ever tolerate it." His father replied "Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed."’. In the Nuremberg War Crimes trial, a Polish Guard at Auschwitz describes how children were thrown straight into the furnaces without first being gassed. He said: ‘They threw them in alive. Their screams could be heard at the camp. We don’t know whether they wanted to economise on gas, or if it was because there was not enough room in the gas chambers.’
      Elie Wiesel. ‘The Night’ p. 48.
  6. Theological responses to the Shoah
    • Prof. Richard Rubenstein’s work ‘After Auschwitz’ was popular in the 1970’s and suggested that the only intellectually honest response to the Shoah was to reject God and accept that all existence is ultimately meaningless.
    • Emil Fackenheim said that doing as Rubenstein suggested would be handing a posthumous victory to Hitler.
    • Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits suggested that for free will to be real God must remain hidden.
    • Jurgen Moltman wrote in ‘The Crucified God’ that God is not omnipotent but rather suffers along with us.
    • The majority of Jewish scholars have inclined to conclude that God is not omnipotent. The Yahweh Melek movement suggested that God is like a king who loses his temper sometimes!
  7. Modern Times – Chile: The following report appeared in the Independent on 20th October 1998 referring to a Chilean prisoner who had campaigned against the regime:
    • ‘Luis was taken to the Villa Grimaldi..... They stripped him and took him to a room which had a metal bed. He was blindfolded and laid naked on the bed on his back, legs spread apart. Electrodes were attached to his toes, penis, anus, ears and mouth. To improve the level of contact they poured cold water over him. There were five or six men in the room and they were shouting over the level of a radio blasting out at full volume. Luis remembers the sound of a generator. One man stood over him, holding another electrode he touched to various parts of his body. The shocks were horrendous. "It went on and on. They were shouting "This is a tough guy, this is a tough guy, let’s carry on". Then I started to see lights and my ears really, really ached." This went on from 11.00a.m. till after dark. They only stopped when his heart stopped beating.
    • The next day he was taken for interrogation again. This time he was beaten with a hammer. They hung him by his arms and beat his back with a stick and his feet with a hammer. They applied a soldering iron to his testicles and his anus. Eventually they dropped him to the ground... Over the next few months he was frequently beaten and by applying the soldering iron to his testicles.. He also saw worse, a man wrapped in a blanket and kicked; another shot in the hand and the stomach who then had electrodes attached inside his wounds. Both died......’
    • Luis married at 25 a girl of 22. She was tortured in the same way and refused to talk. One guard said to him: "That woman really loved you - she loved you more than your mother -because not a word came from her mouth."
    • President Pinochet who ordered the torture and murder of thousands and who, with the help of the US C.I.A. overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile, was entertained to tea by Margaret Thatcher and given British and US support.
    • In 1998 Pope John Paul II appealed to the British government for Pinochet’s release from arrest on charges of human rights abuse on humanitarian grounds.
  8. Iraq & The War on Terror
  9. Dostoyevsky
    • Dostoyevky was a committed Russian Orthodox Christian although he challenged the institutional Church of his time through his novels.
    • In ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ there are three brothers – Ivan (the oldest, who has been away in the ‘big city’ and has studied philosophy), Dimitri and the youngest son, Alyosha.
    • Their father is a somewhat corrupt, quite wealthy old man and the family house is in a small village.
      Ivan returns to his home and he and his younger brother, Alyosha, ‘get acquainted’ (‘The Brothers get acquainted’ is the title of the chapter in which Ivan’s challenge against God appears in ’The Brothers Karamazov’).
    • Ivan Karamazov’s challenge has been one of the most influential challenges against belief in God ever produced and had a considerable effect on 20th century thought.
  10. Ivan Karamazov
    • Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has suggested using the story of Ivan Karamazov with young people to help them engage with the issue of God.
    • This story is widely used in schools with children from 13 years old upwards – but it is challenging and disturbing.
    • Ivan believes in God – however Ivan rejects God and thus becomes a Protest Atheist.
    • Ivan’s grounds are the suffering of innocent children. He maintains that nothing is, or could be, worth the price of the suffering of children.
    • In Orthodox and Western theology, children under the age of 7 are held to be innocent and it is on the suffering of these children that Ivan focuses.
    • It is an emotive rather than a logical argument.
      → Ivan’s position depends on claiming that certain means can never be justified, no matter what the end.
      → God is Omniscient, God KNEW what would happen or at least what was likely to happen and should not have allowed it.
      → An Omnipotent God could have not created the world or could have created a better world.
      → Ivan’s claim is that God is ultimately responsible for the suffering of Children, cannot be Omnibenevolent and thus...
      → God Is Not Worthy Of Worship
  11. John Stuart Mill
    • Made a similar point...
    • He observed that the degree of suffering in the world indicated EITHER that God is not good OR that God is not Omnipotent.
    • He said that he would prefer to believe in a God of limited power, though worshipping such a God would be difficult.
    • In fact this was a theoretical point because Mill could not bring himself to believe in a God at all.
  12. The suffering of innocent children
    • Ivan starts by asking his brother, Alyosha, whether he believes in God. Alyosha says that not only does he believe but he is planning to enter the local monastery as a monk.
    • Ivan says that he, also, believes in God – but he cannot accept God because of the suffering of innocent children and he then tells Alyosha three stories which we now know were taken from Russian newspapers of the time…
  13. Story One
    • A little girl wets her bed one night so her mother strips her naked, covers her with her own excrement and makes her eat it and then locks her outside in a privy which she beats on the door with her tiny fists praying to her ‘Dear kind God’.
    • Ivan says that nothing – no eventual plan or aim of God – is worth the suffering of innocent children.
    • He therefore stands in judgement on God and rejects the God who would allow such suffering.
  14. Modern Times: This story might remind you of some stories in the news in recent years
    • Victoria Climbie was abused by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend. The pair thought that the little girl was possessed by the devil, so they left her naked and hungry, locked in the bathroom in the cold and then entertained themselves by burning her with cigarettes when they returned from Church.
    • Peter Connolly was beaten to death over a period of 17 months by his mother’s boyfriend, while his mother watched.
    • Khyra Ishaq (aged 7) was starved to death by her mother and mother’s boyfriend over a period of 5 months. Along with five other children she was subject to beatings, was imprisoned in outhouses and was routinely denied food and water for long periods.
  15. Story Two
    • A young boy throws a stone and hurts the leg of the local Lord’s favourite hunting dog.
    • The next time the Lord goes out hunting he sees that his dog is limping and when he finds out what has happened he calls the boy and his parents to him.
    • The Lord has the boy stripped naked and he is set off running across the fields – then the pack of hounds is set on the boy and they tear him to pieces in front of the parents.
    • Ivan asks Alyosha what he would do with the Lord. In a small voice, Alyosha replies “Shoot him”.
    • “Bravo”, says Ivan “You’re a fine hermit” – in other words even the novice monk is appalled.
      Ivan says that NOTHING justifies God in allowing such suffering to take place.
    • Even if, at the end of time, the Lord, the boy and the parents all embrace and shout ‘Hosanna’ he, Ivan, cannot accept this as the price of the suffering of children is too great.
    • Ivan rejects God.
    • Alysoha says that this is rebellion and Ivan agrees with this. Ivan says that he only has his ‘Euclidean mind’ – he is human and has only his human understanding.
    • He stands on his moral outrage against the God who allows the suffering of innocent children to take place and he will not play God’s game.
  16. Modern Times
    • In Liverpool in 2007 Rhys Jones, an 11 year old boy, was shot through the neck by 18 year old Sean Mercer (a member of the Croxteth Crew) and then died in his mother’s arms hours later.
    • Rhys was mistakenly believed to be associated with the Norris Green Strand Crew, who had killed a member of the Croxteth Crew 12 months earlier.
  17. Story Three
    • At the time Dostoyevsky was writing the Turks had invaded southern Russia and the Turks loved children.
    • They used to pick up the Russian babies and tickle them under the chin to make them smile – and they did smile.
    • They then threw the babies up into the air and shot their eyes out – the fun was doing this in front of the mothers.
    • Again Ivan says that nothing can justify God allowing the suffering of innocent children.
  18. Modern Times
    • Papua New Guinea Village Women Killed All Male Babies to Avoid War: Here’s one gruesome way of avoiding a tribal warfare adopted by two villages in Papua New Guinea: kill every male babies born! By virtually wiping out the ‘male stock’, tribal women hope they can avoid deadly bow-and-arrow wars between the villages in the future. ‘Babies grow into men and men turn into warriors,’ said Rona Luke, a village wife who is attending a special ‘peace and reconciliation’ meeting in the mountain village of Goroka. ‘It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,’ said Mrs Luke. ‘The women have had enough of men engaging in tribal conflicts and bringing misery to them.’
    • 313 children were killed in the recent assault on Gaza.
  19. Ivan’s argument
    • Ivan maintains that ‘the end cannot justify the means’. He holds that it is a principle of morality that a good end should never be secured by an evil means – if God can only bring about God’s plans (whatever these are) by allowing the suffering of innocent children, then the price is simply too high.
    • Ivan rejects the arguments of what he terms ‘the bar room boys’ – those who speculate about God’s reasons for allowing evil in order to justify God. NOTHING, for Ivan, can justify this suffering.
    • Ivan says that he has only a ‘Euclidian mind’ – he is only human and all he has is his human rationality. He makes a moral judgement against God, and rejects God.
    • Alyosha says that this is rebellion – and Ivan acknowledges this.
    • However his moral outrage at the suffering of innocent children leads him to reject the God who would allow this – no matter what the cost to him.
  20. Anthropomorphism: Thomas Hardy wrote ‘God’s Funeral’ between 1908 and 1910
    • VI
      'O man-projected Figure, of late
      Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
      Whence came it we were tempted to create
      One whom we can no longer keep alive?
    • VII
      'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
      We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
      Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
      And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.
    • VIII
      'And, tricked by our own early dream
      And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
      Our making soon our maker did we deem,
      And what we had imagined we believed,
    • IX
      'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
      Uncompromising rude reality
      Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
      Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.
    • X
      'So, toward our myth's oblivion,
      Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
      Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
      Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.
    • XI
      'How sweet it was in years far hied
      To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
      To lie down liegely at the eventide
      And feel a blest assurance he was there!
  21. Hardy’s Novels
    • Several of Hardy’s novels invite the reader to see the world as beset by suffering, suffering which is often made worse by institutional religion, and which makes faith in an all-powerful and loving God almost ridiculous.
    • Both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure ask the old question ‘why do bad things happen to innocent people’ in dramatic ways.
  22. Camus’ ‘The Plague’
    • Camus’ novel ‘The Plague’ explores the question of innocent suffering and the inadequacy of theodicies in the light of it.
    • The Jesuit Father Paneloux makes two sermons...
      → In the first he says that the plague is the ‘flail of God’ and that the town deserves it.
      → In the second he says that innocent suffering, though not rationally compatible with a belief in God’s love and power, must be accepted. This is a test of faith.
    • Camus’ own sympathies are clearly with the narrator of the novel, Rieux, who remains unconvinced by Paneloux’ theodicies, concluding that suffering shows more about the goodness in men than about God.
  23. The Bible: Jonah
    • The book of Jonah gives an interesting angle on this question.
    • Jonah is told by God to go and preach doom to Nineveh, something Jonah thinks is pointless if not contrary to His own principles of justice.
    • Jonah refuses and tries to reject God – literally to run away.
    • God pursues Jonah and, despite the prophet continuing to reject and refuse Him, forces Jonah to do his work, refusing even to let him die.
    • What does the story say about God?
    • It certainly casts light on what it means to be an Israelite (Israel means ‘he who struggles with God’)
  24. The Bible: Job
    • Job and his family before their destruction – William Blake
    • The story of Job is a story of a bet between God and Satan – Satan in the Hebrew scriptures is not the devil but the prosecutor in God’s court.
    • God points out to Satan the virtue of Job who is always righteous, always honest and always obedient to God. Satan replies to God that it is not surprising he is good – he has everything: excellent health, wealth and a marvellous family. Take these away and Job will soon turn against God.
    • God says that Satan can take everything away from Job and God is certain he will remain faithful. God’s only caveat is that Satan must not touch Job.
    • Satan duly kills all Job’s children and destroys all his possessions. Job cannot understand what has happened but he remains faithful to God.
  25. Satan Afflicts Job
    • God’s effectively says to Satan ‘I told you so’. Satan replies that he has not yet touched Job himself – if he could do this then Job would quickly renounce God.
    • So, again, God gives Satan permission to afflict Job in any way he likes – but Satan is forbidden to kill Job.
    • Satan pours boils onto Job (see the William Blake picture) and Job suffers terribly. Still he refuses to turn against God although he cannot understand what is happening to him or why.
    • He knows God is a God is justice and mercy – yet why does he suffer?
  26. Job’s ‘Comforters’
    • William Blake: Job and his ‘comforters’
    • Three friends of Job come to him to give him comfort in his distress. Their explanation to Job is simple. Good things – they claim - happen to the righteous, bad things to those who are wicked. Job is suffering so he must have done something wrong and should seek God’s forgiveness.
    • Job rejects this – and it is a turning point in theology. Job simply does not accept that the world works like this. He does not accept that suffering is due to wickedness and success and prosperity in the world is due to virtue. This was a rejection of the whole way of looking at God’s interaction with the world.
  27. Job’s Anger
    • Job’s begins to get angry with God – he ceases to be concerned only with his own suffering and recognises that everywhere the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.
    • Job is so angry with God that he wishes to place God on trial. It was impossible for anyone to see God and live and so Job asks himself whether God will destroy him. He says to himself ‘No, God will listen to me’.
    • Job’s anger is very similar to that of Ivan Karamazov – both are outraged by innocent suffering and both hold God accountable.
    • Finally in the 38th to 40th chapter of the Book of Job, God answers him.
  28. God’s Support for Job
    • God endorses Job’s position – Job is right to be angry, he is right to reject the simplistic theology of his comforters… BUT God says
    • “How Can You Understand Me?.... Where Were You When I Laid The Foundations Of The Earth? Do You Know The Ways Of The Wild Goats On The Mountains….?”
    • God’s point is simply that Job in unable to understand…. It is not a philosophic answer but it is one that Job is prepared to accept.
    • Job has faith and says that he will ‘put his hand over his mouth and say no more’. He will trust in God even though he cannot understand…
  29. Can the Puzzle be solved? Of the four approaches to theodicy it seems:-
    • That denying the existence of evil is tasteless.
    • Denying God’s power or goodness usually ends up in denying His existence.
    • The ‘morally sufficient reasons’ suggested by Irenaeus, Augustine etc. may not be ‘morally sufficient’ to account for the horrendous suffering of children.
    • Whether or not there is a formal logical problem there is a very real pastoral one!
  30. In the final analysis: Standing before the lime pits there may be two alternatives
    • Ivan rejects the God who allows suffering. This is Protest Atheism – the rejection of God based on moral outrage at the state of the world.
    • Job is just as angry as Ivan about innocent suffering and cannot understand why God allows it – but in the final analysis rests on his faith and trust in God.


Heythrop MA Philosophy of Religion Lecture

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