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Problem of evil - Burmese cyclone piece

The Rev Sam has forwarded me a link to a piece on the problem of evil/suffering. Worth a read... here.

What is the author's point? Seems to be that belief in God provides hope in the face of such horror. But this is irrelevant to the objection raised by the problem of evil - that such horror is surely extremely good evidence against the existence of such a God.

It's like saying: "But believing in Santa provides these starving orphan children with hope" after those children realize that there's overwhelming evidence there's no Santa. How does that deal with the evidence?

It doesn't.

But I may have misunderstood.


Anonymous said…
Interesting article. I didn't think the author was saying God provided hope or meaning to people when they were faced with suffering as such. Rather I thought he was saying that we are tragically split in some way from God, and the evil things that happen to us are not willed by Him.

Our aim should be to condemn such evils, hate them wholeheartedly, refuse to ascribe any meaning to them, but at the same time seek salvation or unity with God - which occurs only through Grace.

It ties in with the idea of Sin doesn't it? We have free will and must bear the tragic consequences. Sin means we are outside the Kingdom of Heaven, and what happens to us is not God's Will as such...

I don't think I really understood it as I was left thinking it was a sort of trade-off between omnipotence and beneficence - which is presumably not an impression the author would have liked to leave. God is all good but not all powerful in this world, hence we should seek redemption and entry to Heaven. Suffering is against His Divine Will, and that's the cosmic tragedy.

I expect I've completely missed the point though. I have yet to grasp what Grace and Sin actually mean to Christians.
Stephen Law said…
Yes, I agree there a bit of that in there as well, Paul. And also some blaming bad stuff on "the enemy".

The irritating thing about this piece is that:

(i) it begins with the suggestion that atheists who raise the problem of evil as an argument against belief in God have misunderstood what the faithful believe:

"It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe."

(ii) it then waffles on with lots of references to philosophers and sages, plus a bit of latinate language, thus generating the illusion of much learning, sophistication and profundity, but

(iii) leaves it very obscure what his response to the problem of evil actually is.

Frankly, I think this is just a lot of pompous, pretentious bullshit and evasiveness - but say that and you get "You're just not sophisticated enough to understand."

I say: it's the Emperor's new clothes...
AC said…
I was left with the vague impression that he was saying "Original Sin broke the world, so it's not God's fault." Although presumably it's within his power to 'fix' the world?

It smacks of a cross between postmodernism and the seemingly standard "lack of sophistication" ad hominem to me.
jeremy said…
"...our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave."

I agree, Stephen. Indeed, in the above passage, the author seems explicitly eschew the theologican's need to account for the world's evil. Rather, he appears to see God as something that will eventually remedy this evil. Another passage:

"...rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes..."

As such, he seems to sprint risibly past the point that the problem of evil (at least in its "evidentiary" form) is absolutely fatal to the very notion of God in the first place. Not very impressive.
Stephen Law said…
Yes, I underplayed the original sin thing, didn't I? That is the main thrust of it, really.
Paul C said…
This essay was rancid when it was first published after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and it remains rancid today. Stephen, he is clear about his position in the final paragraph, when he explains that

rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

The argument seems to be that suffering now is absolutely fine, because at some undisclosed point in the future, his god will just erase all that suffering through some unknown mechanism for at least some people. Since the vast majority of the victims of the tsunami (and of hurricane Nargis) were not Christian, then presumably they're bang out of luck - their suffering, and the suffering of their families - will not be alleviated at any point.

As I said, it's a rancid argument, and - if I have indeed understood it properly - I have nothing but contempt for its author..
Anonymous said…
It's not really what is said in church either, rightly or wrongly.

I can't imagine a missionary in Africa giving his would be converts such a complex intepretation of suffering, and I'd be very surprised if the author or other Christians would have the gall to say this sort of stuff to surviving relatives of the recent earthquake.

Or would they?
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, I am very interested in the way some Christians who reject young earth creationism and accept that there was no Adam and Eve nevertheless try to run a version of the Augustinian theodicy on which we are to blame for natural disasters through our original sin.

I don't know if Hart is one of them.

What's the official Catholic position? I am ashamed to say I don't know...

I did read a very strange Adam-and-Eve-free version of this sort of theodicy recently by the philosopher Van Inwagen. God populated the world with human beings who could avoid natural evils (I have a mental image of Super Heroes able to lazer collapsing buildings with their eyes and leap tsunamis in style), who then failed to do what God said, and that ruined them, resulting in the loss of their ability to avoid natural evils, and we have inherited that condition. We cannot get out of this situation by ourselves, but God holds out to us the offer of redemption. Van Inwagen didn't say this has happened, but maintains that it could have - we can't rule it out. It's in his edited collection Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil.

There's info here:
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen.
I am glad that you too don’t seem entirely certain what argument this piece puts forward because neither am I! Apart from expressing his contempt for the ‘secular moralists’ and atheists, Hart takes around 3,000 words to say that:

1) It is our own fault for the “ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths”

2) The victory over evil and death has been won but it hasn’t actually happened yet: “And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.”

3) Apart from it being own fault, we don’t really know why a merciful God allows such suffering but we will find out one day :

“We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes;”

There is little here apart from typical theologian arrogance and obscuration. This is little more than science fiction nerdery.
anticant said…
Worth a read? Not really. I switched off in the first paragraph when he said "once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside..." Presumably he means the callousness of 'God', who is supposedly responsible for the universe if not identical with it.

I agree with other posters that this article is just hifalutin piffle. Like most theologians the author is logically illiterate and intellectually dishonest.

A sort of male Mother Teresa.
Anonymous said…
I forgot to add that Harts ire directed towards the journalist who raised questions towards creationists was particularly stupid as Hart equivocates between creationism which has a well defined and understood viewpoint, to these generic ‘religious persons’. He then spends about five paragraphs outlining six conflicting views which religious persons may hold and a few paragraphs explaining why these views are wrong. ‘Religious Persons’ then seems to cover a wide range of conflicting views while creationism is somewhat consistent.

I also found this passage quite disturbing:
“Nowhere does it address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God.”

It appears in the article as part of Harts criticism of Voltaires poem but it does seem to summarize the main themes of the piece. I found the last phrase of the quote disturbing because of its implications: ”… and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God.”. Spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to god?
Unknown said…
I haven't read the article, I just wanted to answer S.Law's question about the Catholic position on Adam and Eve.

Catholics are required by faith to believe that Adam and Eve were the first fully human beings, Catholics are allowed to believe in evolution so long as they recognise that God directed the process. The important document here is [i]Humani Generis[/i] by Pius XII.

The relevant bits of the Catechism are around 280ff., or you can follow this link (

There will of course be Catholics who don't hold this position.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Q.scoNE. If you can spare another minute - are we to suppose, then, that Adam and Eve are literally responsible for original sin (by eating of the tree of knowledge, as described in Genesis)?
That article is a shining example to wordy pompous waffle. The guy is clearly suggesting that the devil is repsonsible for the disasters and we are responsible for the devil by virue of original sin. Utter garbage which completely dodges the question of why God allows such evils to occur. Its nearly insulting that that is the conclusion the athour comes to after such smug dissmisal of the suggestion that faith in a good God might be shaken by these kinds of disaster.

I wish I could learn to un-read things. That arrogant twat grates something awful
anticant said…
It's only those who want to believe in an all-good God, against all the evidence, who have a 'problem' with evil.

Occam's razor disposes of such unnecessary conundrums.

Occam's razor doesn't dispose of anything, does it?

I thought Occam's razor merely points out that the simplest explanation is more often the correct one. The simplest is not nessesarily the correct one.

I only bother to bring this up because I have recently come accross some folk using occam's razor as if it were some form of proof.
Jit said…
A warm gush of empty words. It's all smoke and mirrors - it has to be, because if you strip Christian theology down to its essentials you're left with absurd propositions - original sin being one.

And what is it with apologists and The Brothers Karamazov? They refer to it as if it's the atheist bible.

Just how bad does a natural disaster have to get before the theologians get it: the universe is indifferent to humans. The Earth will still go on orbiting the Sun long after we've been annihilated. Another thing they love to do (this one didn't, to his credit) is to chalk the little girl saved by a 'miracle' up to God, but not blame Him for the 10,000 who died.
Unknown said…
I'm not really sure, Stephen. I'm a Christian atheist with a lapsed Catholic (but still theistic) girlfriend. You'd have to ask a proper believer, though I'm sure Catholic Answers ( would be more than happy to answer your question.

Personally I think they're being deliberately vague so that there's more leeway for the Church. That said, I can't see any reason for keeping a belief in an historical Adam and Eve in the Catechism unless it's there for original sin purposes, as it were.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks - yes I think they are being vague. I think the original sin and Adam and Eve thing is really a major problem for Catholics. Maybe I'll do a bit of reading and a post...

I should add that I am not annoyed with Hart because he is attempting to deal with the problem of evil - I really admire Alvin Plantinga's attempts to deal with the problem: they are clever, well thought out, and clear (if not convincing to me). My problem with Hart is that he's a pretentious windbag who revels in obscurity, dressing it up as sophistication.
anticant said…
Catholics don't have a major problem over doctrine. The Pope lays down what "Catholic truth" is on any issue, and his followers accept it if they're devout or ignore it if they are cherry pickers like the 'good Catholic girl' Cherie taking her contraceptives to Balmoral.....
I've written something about Hart's article here.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Sam

I know this sounds bit rude, and I guess it is, but I guess my mystification now is not about what Hart's explanations and manouevres are - because we teased them out, and you have also done a good job at clarifying them on your website - but about how anyone could take any of these manouevres remotely seriously as a response to the problem of evil. I guess we could go through them all one at a time, but boy would it be tedious and time consuming, and so you "solve" the problem of evil, in the end, simply by getting your opponents so frustratingly bogged down they give up and go home for tea....
Anonymous said…
You know, theologians always whine that atheists never engage with modern theology. But it seems to me that the average church going person also does not engage with theology because its smoke and mirrors is completely incomprehensible to them as well.

I remember reading a Times Online survey which stated that at the current rate of decline the church of England is set to become a minority religion by 2050. So while I doubt the accuracy of the prediction, should atheists even waste their time attempting to extract meaning from pompous articles like this? Why shouldn’t they concentrate on the more direct apologists and creationists who very much have the wind in their sails at the moment?

Let the theologians huff and puff because as far as I can tell, neither the religious or the atheists are listening very closely.
Stephen Law said…
Actually, maybe I am being unfair to Sam. I take it, Sam, you do take some of these moves by Hart seriously, so why not set out the best ones, and we can discuss?

Not good enough for me just to say they're poor, is it? Let's take a closer look.
I'm not sure that it counts as his best argument, but I think the point that would be worth unpacking more is this one: "Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all." In other words, as I put it, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves.

I think that this touches on the radically different foundational assumptions that people bring to the discussion, so it might be worth spending a bit more time on it. Not that I have any expectation of either side convincing the other, but it might help clarify the differences.
Stephen Law said…
Well I will put that in a new post for discussion, then, if that's ok with you....

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