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God, Heaven, and Evil:
A Renewed Defense of Atheism

After EgyptAir Flight 804 crashed on May 19, 2016, I asked the same question that many others undoubtedly asked as well: How could God let this happen? Of course, this plane crash is just one relatively small tragedy in the whole scheme of things. When we add in all of the other tragedies—all the violence, pain, suffering, and premature death that occur on this planet—the same question becomes correspondingly more difficult to answer.

This is the problem of evil, an argument that is typically used in support of atheism. If God were omnibenevolent, He would want to minimize such evils as violence, pain, suffering, and premature death; if God were omniscient, He would know everything that is happening in the universe; and if God were omnipotent, He would be able to act on His omnibenevolence and omniscience to prevent most or all evil from occurring. Yet all of this evil still occurs. Therefore God—an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being—probably does not exist. If a higher intelligence exists at all, it probably lacks at least one of these three qualities.

Theists, or believers, generally respond to this argument by proposing two reasons to believe that God’s existence is perfectly compatible with all of the evil that we observe and experience:

1. Despite His omnipotence, God simply could not have created a world that lacked evil. If there is to be good, there must also be evil. The existence of evil makes good possible.

2. Evil contributes to a much greater or higher good. For example, suffering builds moral character or brings victims much closer to God or to each other.

Believers always have at least these fallback answers at their disposal to allay any theological doubts. But the very fact that these two hypotheses can be applied no matter the kind or degree of evil in question should make us suspicious. Quite simply, they prove too much. They commit theists to the incredible position that God’s existence should not be doubted even if the degree of evil in the world far outweighs the good. Atheists are right to respond to this theistic “spin”: if God exists no matter how much evil there is, then what good is He in the first place? Better, it would seem, to have much less evil and no God than much more evil and God.

Believers typically supplement (2) above with the “free will defense”: God preferred to create a world in which humans have free will and therefore the capacity to perform evil acts rather than a world in which they lack free will. He preferred this world, a world in which humans are free to do wrong, because it is far more valuable, both in itself and to humans themselves, than a world in which they are forced always to be good. Humans who consciously make the choice to follow God’s commands—notably the moral laws embodied in the believer’s holy text, such as the Ten Commandments—experience and exhibit a much more profound knowledge of, and love for, God than humans who follow them out of either primitive fear or blind compulsion, or don’t follow them at all.

So on the free will defense, the mere existence of God is hardly a guarantee of the non-existence of evil. What is required to wipe out evil is humans freely deciding to turn away from it and toward God. As the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis said in his classic 1952 book Mere Christianity, we live in “enemy-occupied territory”: only by freely choosing to follow God can we eventually escape it. President Kennedy echoed this sentiment in the close of his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961: “[L]et us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Does the free will defense work? Not really. Consider nonhuman animals. While hunting and factory farming evidence humans’ great capacity for evil in the form of cruelty—not to mention our equally great capacities for denial and rationalization—believers still try to reconcile these activities with the existence of God simply by falling back on the free will defense. On this view, it is preferable that humans gradually phase out violence against animals on their own than that they had never been violent toward animals in the first place. Better a victory earned along with some collateral damage than a game never played. The animals, however, would beg to differ. And one wonders why an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity would not take their feelings and preferences into account. Because they’re just animals? Because animals just don’t matter? This is an all-too-human response. Such speciesist partisanship seems grossly unfair and therefore entirely unbefitting of a supposedly morally perfect being.

The free will defense runs into several other problems as well. First, some philosophers and neuroscientists have offered compelling arguments against the very possibility of free will. According to these skeptics, free will requires something that is at least physically, if not metaphysically, impossible: full self-determination. Full self-determination is impossible because the self (or agent or person or soul or spirit) is or must ultimately be determined by factors outside its control, some combination of its brain, genes, personality, past experience, chance, and the laws of nature.

Second, even if full self-determination is physically or metaphysically possible, many of the people who commit the most evil in the world—violent criminals—suffer from debilitating mental illnesses such as psychopathy, psychoses, and schizophrenia. So the free will defense does not even apply to a large quantity of the very evil that it is designed to explain.

Third, even if the free will defense succeeded in explaining and justifying all human-caused evil, it does not help to explain or justify two other kinds of evil: “natural” and “accidental.” Consider animals again, this time wildlife. The very fact that there are carnivores means that there are inevitable victims. Lions, for example, could not have survived and evolved over the past 11 million years if there had not been billions of herbivores for them to stalk, chase, attack, kill, and devour. It would be one thing if their more gentle victims were, like plants and trees, incapable of suffering. But most lion prey are higher mammals and are therefore not only sentient but also capable of both deep emotions and deep relationships. So if God exists, He basically set these innocent creatures up. He subjected billions of feeling, thinking beings to the constant terror of being chased and killed, the excruciating pain of being shredded by sharp teeth and nails, and the anguish of losing close companions. The free will defense fails to justify any of this violence and suffering—this natural evil—because even higher animals like lions presumably lack free will, at least the level of free will that Christian doctrine attributes solely to humans.

Some philosophers have tried to get around this last argument by simply “biting the bullet” and denying the assumption that animals can suffer in the first place. For example, 17th-century philosopher René Descartes maintained that animals lack souls and are therefore nothing more than very sophisticated machines which exhibit, but do not actually enjoy, consciousness or the attendant capacity to suffer.

William Lane Craig, a philosopher of religion, does not go quite as far as Descartes, but he still goes pretty far. According to Craig, animals’ suffering is ultimately inconsequential:

[A]nimals like horses, dogs, and cats…do not experience a third level pain awareness, which is the awareness of second order pain, that is, the awareness that one is oneself in pain…. [T]herefore, even though animals are in pain, they aren’t aware of it. They don’t have this third order pain awareness. They are not aware of pain, and therefore they do not suffer as human beings do…. [O]nce we understand the biology of animals, what we see is that God in his mercy has spared the animal world the experience of suffering such as human beings exhibit.

Similarly, 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that animals do not possess a concept of the future or of death and therefore lack a conscious preference to continue living.

Such are the lengths that some believers will go to maintain their faith in the face of overwhelming natural evil. But they are simply wrong. As Gary Francione says in his brilliant book Introduction to Animal Rights (2000):

[D]eath is the greatest harm for any sentient being and…merely being sentient logically implies an interest in continued existence and some awareness of that interest…. Sentience is not an end in itself—it is a means to the end of staying alive. Sentient beings use sensations of pain and suffering to escape situation that threaten their lives and sensations of pleasure to pursue situations that enhance their lives…. Sentience is what evolution has produced in order to ensure the survival of certain complex organisms.

Francione goes on to offer several more persuasive arguments for the same intuitively obvious point: animals more intelligent than insects (and possibly insects as well) can indeed suffer pain, not to mention other negative feelings and emotions such as fear, loneliness, and grief. When we combine this (again, obvious) point with believers’ insistence that these animals lack souls and therefore cannot get into heaven, we are forced to conclude that God is a bad—in fact, the baddest—Samaritan, just sitting by and letting billions of His creatures suffer and die for no good reason, at least as far as they are concerned. Quite arguably, it would have been far better for all of these animals never to have lived at all than to have endured all of that misery without any eternal reward. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” For humans maybe, but not for animals—again, according to Christian doctrine. This is completely unfair.

I turn finally to accidental evil—the seemingly senseless hardships that so many humans (and nonhumans) have suffered and continue to suffer through no fault of their own. Examples include poverty, disease, war, tyranny, mental disorders, physical disorders, serious birth defects, natural disasters, traffic accidents, and plane crashes. In most of these situations, there is not necessarily any free will involved. But if the free will defense is inapplicable, what else could possibly justify God’s allowing all of these evils to afflict so many sentient beings? How can God just let all this happen? Where is He when we need Him most? Believers generally offer this response:

3. Similar to (2) above, while all of this accidental evil may appear to be unnecessary, it isn’t. God caused it or let it happen as a means to some higher good.

Because (3) is logically possible and beyond empirical evaluation, atheists cannot disprove it. But (3) is still highly unpersuasive.

Consider this example. Suppose that I have a terrible—many would say irrational—fear of flying. Suppose also that I happen to be on an airplane when it suddenly starts spinning, wobbling, and dropping from the sky. My very worst fears are being realized. Five minutes later, like EgyptAir Flight 804, it crashes into the sea and kills everybody aboard.

In order for this horrific event to be consistent with (3), it must be the case that there was a greater good that justifies those five minutes of terror and premature death for me alone, not to mention the terror and premature deaths suffered by all of the other passengers. What could this greater good possibly be?

Theologians have offered four answers to this question:

4. At least some of us deserved this terrifying, fatal accident because of our prior bad behavior. It was “divine justice.”

5. For those of us who did not deserve this terrifying, fatal accident, we will go to heaven. And heaven is such a great place that it will more than make up for it.

6. Many other human beings will be better off as a result. For example, maybe there was a future Hitler on board, somebody who would have taken over a country and orchestrated genocide. Or maybe society will learn the cause of this accident and help to secure all airplanes from the same kind of malfunction.

7. There is some higher good that only God, not us mere mortals, can understand. Try as we might, we simply cannot know what this higher good is. It is “inscrutable.”

None of these responses, however, constitutes a persuasive theodicy. First, response (4) applies only to people who have committed comparable acts against others—that is, terrorizing and killing them. And while there is a very small chance that one or even two people on my flight had committed these crimes, most of us—certainly the young children and I—have not. So (4) remains inapplicable to most victims on my flight and, we may safely assume, to most victims of accidental evil generally.

Response (5), the “heaven hypothesis,” is just as weak as (4) for two reasons. First, it conflicts with (1) above. If heaven is such a great place—presumably a place where its occupants enjoy a permanent blissful existence, completely free of (accidental) evil and suffering—then why didn’t God make Earth like this in the first place? Why did I first have to go through those five minutes of terror and premature death? The same questions apply to all other (undeserving) victims of (accidental) evil. The stark contrast between Heaven and Earth once again throws God’s perfection into doubt.

Perhaps my terror and premature death are what earned me a spot in heaven. Perhaps this “cleansing ritual” was necessary to reverse my ultimate destination from hell to heaven. But even if we concede this entirely speculative—and presumptively harsh—point, it still fails to address the young children and all other passengers who were much more good than bad. They were already innocent (enough) and therefore heaven-worthy. So their suffering was gratuitous; they could have gotten into heaven without it.

Second, as bad as the plane crash was for me, an older man, it was many times worse for the infants and young children, who were deprived of so many more years of earthly life—all of that opportunity for love, enjoyment, achievement, and growth (moral, spiritual, and intellectual).

Third, all of this lost opportunity is infinitely worse if there is no heaven to begin with, which is very possibly the case. The heaven hypothesis is just that—a hypothesis. We have absolutely no evidence that this hypothesis is true. We also have good reason to believe that it is not true: the concept of heaven is virtually impossible to reconcile with the material universe as we know it. This is why the death—especially premature death, including suicide—of loved ones is so painful. Most of us have an instinct—some deep, primal knowledge—that death of the body, whether human or nonhuman, is the very end; that there is no consciousness or soul that somehow—in conflict with nature as we observe and understand it—lives on afterward in some mysterious, non-physical realm.

Response (6) is even weaker than (4) and (5). It privileges other humans over my fellow passengers and me. Yes, they may—may—enjoy safer travel because of the information that may—may—be learned from our own tragedy. But what about us—the victims? We never got to enjoy this benefit; at best, we suffered and died for them. God used us to make other people’s lives better. Such unfair exploitation is entirely inconsistent with His supposed perfection.

Given all of the problems with (4) through (6), believers are really left only with response (7). The idea behind (7) is that humans’ finite intellects cannot possibly understand God’s reasons for causing or allowing accidental evil. We can speculate, as (4) through (6) do, but these speculations will not come even close to the reasons that God actually has. All we can know is that God does indeed have these reasons and that they are very good, infinitely good actually.

The notion of an inscrutable good can mean one of two things: humans are either (7a) “cognitively closed” or (7b) only “informationally closed” to it. On (7a), inscrutable good is “noumenal”; our finite intellects are in principle incapable of comprehending it in just the same way that even the smartest dogs are incapable of comprehending calculus. On (7b), inscrutable good is incomprehensible only relative to the information that we currently have; if we received enough new and relevant information, the inscrutability would disappear and we would understand the good that God had in mind. An example of (7b) would be rocket science for the ancient Greeks. Given all of their scientific knowledge, they could not possibly have understood this field. But with certain additional information, they could have.

(7a) is nonsensical, as nonsensical as inscrutable moral principles. Because normative concepts like good and right are human constructs, it is difficult to accept the possibility that they could ever lie beyond human understanding. “Good” has meaning only insofar as we humans give it meaning; so “inscrutable good” as defined in (7a) is oxymoronic. If my five minutes of terror and premature death are justified by a higher good that no human being can possibly understand, then there is no meaningful sense in which this so-called higher good is good in the first place.

To suggest, then, that a victim of evil (or her loved ones) should still take a more positive attitude toward her plight because God has an inscrutably good reason for it makes very little sense, as little sense as telling an intellectually disabled person simply to trust that his captors are torturing him for reasons that are good but, given his mental deficiencies, beyond his capacity to understand. Whether or not he trusts them, he is significantly worse off than if they were not torturing him to begin with.

Response (7b) makes more sense than (7a). It certainly cannot be disproven, any more than the ancient Greeks could have disproven rocket science. But it still fails. The only additional information that could possibly help us to cross the line from ignorance to understanding how my five minutes of terror and premature death are actually good is some subsequent state of affairs in which they are far outweighed by a much more pleasant and enriching experience. And the shorthand term for this offsetting or redemptive experience is “heaven.” So (7b) really reduces to, and therefore runs into the very same problems as, the heaven hypothesis.

In the end, we can certainly understand believers’ motives. Suffering and premature death are often so terrible, so disturbing, and so unfair that we need some story to help soften the blow. Unfortunately, the very comforting story that Christians have developed inevitably unravels under close, rational scrutiny. It is just too speculative and implausible. It requires us to posit some fictitious, invisible compensation for all of the evil that we observe, to treat it all as somehow a blessing in disguise. This kind of conversion of evil into its very opposite is a species of magical thinking and denial. And denial is not only irrational and insulting to victims; it also encourages complacency and fatalism.

Instead, we should be willing to acknowledge evil for what it is, or at least for what it appears to be. We should take it at face value. With this much more hard-nosed, realistic attitude, we will feel much more deeply for its victims and act much more vigorously both to learn from it and to minimize its future occurrence.

There is no heaven. The heaven hypothesis is too fantastic, in both senses of the word. But rather than despairing about this harsh truth, rather than continuing to dream of some blissful redemption in the afterlife, we should do everything within our power to approximate that blessed state in this life, in the here and now. To the extent that evil—human, natural, and accidental—impels us toward this noble, life-affirming goal, it may not be justified, but it is at least partially excused. END

About the Author

Dr. Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at LSU Law School in Baton Rouge, LA. He received his J.D. from Columbia Law School (2002) and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Rutgers (1999). His principal areas of expertise are constitutional interpretation, criminal law, criminal psychology, criminal theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is currently finishing up a book, Free Will, Responsibility, and Crime: An Introduction, which will be published by Routledge. View a list of his academic publications.

This article was published on January 8, 2019.

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