The Problem of Suffering: Why and When to Use It

Suffering is an inevitability of the human experience. We spend so much of our finite lives trying to minimize it or postpone it, but we can never truly escape it. That’s why the problem of suffering remains a potent issue for the religious after thousands of years — it’s a universal question that lacks a universal answer.

Many atheist hobbyists deal constantly with apologetics, logical arguments, fallacies, and high-minded philosophical nonsense. As a result, we forget that most believers don’t care about any of that! The old lady on the frontmost pew doesn’t know what tu quoque is — she probably thinks it’s a new Tex-Mex dish. Her reasons for belief may not be swayed by a logical syllogism, because she doesn’t know what that is.

But she knows pain. She knows heartache. She’s been sick. She’s seen people die – perhaps before their time, perhaps after a long, sad decline. She’s seen hurricanes in the news from Andrew to Katrina to Harvey. If she’s from Texas like me, she’s seen dozens of small towns flattened by tornadoes. And she’ll deny it to your face, but she’s had doubts about God’s goodness through it all. Even if she doesn’t dwell on it, there’s a part of her at least a little aware that what she’s read doesn’t match up with what she’s lived.

We pride ourselves as atheists for our logic and supreme rationality, and we tend to laugh among ourselves at the blind faith of many believers, guided by raw emotion. But these people still vote. They still work to influence public policy and affect the lives of others, and so it behooves us as non-believers to engage with them on matters of faith.

When having these discussions, it’s important to tailor your arguments to your interlocutor. An argument that you find compelling may not always be compelling to someone else, even if your argument is 100% correct. As we know from the steady supply of charismatic televangelists over the years, there’s a difference between being right and being able to convince people you’re right.

This is why the problem of suffering remains a problem for the faithful. A person’s beliefs may be informed by their hearts more than their heads. As Westerners in a first-world country, we have the luxury of being isolated from the difficulties faced by the less fortunate on the other side of the world. It can be jarring for even the most intellectual apologist to come face-to-face with a deformed child, supposedly hand-crafted by God in their mother’s womb.

That’s why theodicies exist — the best attempts of believers to reconcile a good and loving God with the evil and suffering in the world. Their answers are not designed to convince you and me. They’re meant to be just convincing enough for apologists and the rest of the flock who will grasp at something, anything, that seems to reinforce their existing assumptions of God’s goodness. A thoughtful atheist can easily poke holes in these paper-thin rationalizations.

I do want to add one caveat: as atheists, we don’t want to be tragedy vultures. Believers are trained to prey on people in their moments of weakness. I was a Christian in the suburbs of New York City when 9/11 happened, and it sickens me to remember how my fellow believers thought it was wonderful that so many people flocked to churches in the wake of that tragedy. Aren’t we supposed to be better than them? Atheists face enough unfounded distrust and disdain in society without going up to mourners at a funeral and scoffing, “Where’s your God now?” I would suggest that these times are better used instead to show how, contrary to their preconceived notions, atheists can be caring and compassionate human beings without a God telling them to be.

Maybe Things Just Aren’t Perfect

I formulated my recent post on morality in part to counter the Christian objection that, without a perfect moral standard, non-theistic morality is flawed and therefore worthless. Since then, I’ve observed a similar theme with the arguments of believers on a variety of topics. The claims include:

  • Christians have God as a dependable source of truth, while atheists depend on fallible human cognition which evolved for survival, not truth.
  • Christians can always rely on God in times of trouble, while atheists have no one to rely on except their own error-prone selves.
  • Creationism is a comprehensive explanation for the diversity of life on earth, while evolution is missing transitional fossils and the ultimate origin of life.

Setting aside the problems with these specific arguments, note that they are all designed to pit the perfect against the imperfect. The idea is to present atheism as lacking and incomplete when compared with the Christian God. And of course it will! It’s incredibly easy to set up an impossible standard, lambaste your opponent for not living up to the standard, and claim victory.

Believers employ arguments like this because it allows them to gloss over the most important step. You have to demonstrate that your all-powerful, all-knowing god actually exists. Arguing in this way is the apologetic equivalent of saying, “Your girlfriend isn’t as hot as my girlfriend (she’s in Canada — no, you can’t see a picture).”

There’s another reason why Christians find such arguments persuasive (and think that you would be persuaded also). From beginning to end, the Bible has a running theme of “perfection or nothing”. In the Old Testament, the slightest blemish made a lamb unworthy for sacrifice. In the New Testament, the slightest sin makes a soul unworthy of heaven and deserving of an eternity of hellfire.

Imperfect but existent humanity is superior to a perfect but non-existent god just by virtue of being real. I touched on this fact in my morality post. Like morality, we can wish we had a perfect, 100% reliable source of truth and bemoan our easily-fooled human brains. However, these brains may in reality be all we have to work with. A non-existent god can’t be a source of morality, truth, or anything useful. It can only be a source of deception.

Morality is Subjective – and That’s Okay

Atheists often face the charge that we have no true basis for morality. How can we, lacking a belief in a supreme law-giver, hold people accountable for their actions? Without God, isn’t morality just a matter of personal preference, with a nun’s opinion no better than a serial killer’s? Why should anyone follow anyone else’s standard?

Believers assert that only a transcendent, objective standard of morality, i.e. God, is sufficient for regulating human behavior. They say we need a standard that applies to all of humanity and is not simply one’s own individual opinion. However, a closer examination reveals that, even if divine morality can be shown to exist, it faces the very same shortcomings that believers ascribe to subjective morality.

Before they even begin the discussion, believers need to demonstrate that objective morality actually exists. More often than not, objective morality is taken for granted, but its existence is a claim that needs to be backed up. If believers want to point out deficiencies in subjective morality, that’s fine, but what if it’s all we have? You may wish you had a car that reliably starts and isn’t rusting through the floor, but if it’s your only form of transportation, you’ll have to use it in spite of its flaws!

What’s more, the objective morality asserted by believers simply wouldn’t work as well as they think it would. For one thing, God-based morality is not universal, despite the protestations of apologists. If the Christian God is held out as an objective source of morality, why should a Hindu care? Or a Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, and so on? If morality is based on any particular god, those who don’t believe in that god cannot be held accountable to that standard. In this way, a believer’s own “objective” morality falls short in the same way as subjective morality.

It gets worse. If we accept God is the source of morality, how do we then determine what is and isn’t moral? The problem is that objective morality is necessarily filtered through one’s own subjective human brain. If morality is revealed through a sacred text, then it comes down to the subjective interpretation of the reader. If morality is revealed through personal revelation, then of course this is subjective to the one who receives it. The end result is that every believer thinks they know objective morality, when in reality they can never be sure they have it right!

Observing the history of the church should make this obvious. Somehow, despite having access to the purported source of objective morality, Christians wind up on both sides of every major social issue. From abolition of slavery to feminism to civil rights to gay marriage to transgender issues, Christians seem to receive contradictory messages from their own God. How is this supposed to solve the “problems” of subjective morality?

The truth is that subjective morality is not as deficient as believers claim. Somehow, civilizations throughout history have converged on many of the same conclusions when it comes to moral behavior. There is no thriving modern society that allows for wanton murder, gratuitous theft, or unchecked rape. That’s because we’ve figured out that human beings thrive when we are all working together for the betterment of everyone. Barbarians don’t build skyscrapers, after all. Once we are no longer preoccupied with protecting our families and property, we can use the same time, energy, and resources for greater purposes.

Of course, there will be areas of disagreement as progress marches on, but the core tenets remain the same. Christianity is no improvement in this area. No one disputes the Ten Commandments, but practically all other issues are open to interpretation. All Christianity adds to the moral question is a dubious claim to divine authority and an unwarranted sense of superiority.

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Book Review: Cold-Case Christianity

In The Case for Christ and other books in the series, Lee Strobel paints himself as a serious reporter who know how to ask the tough questions and ferret out the truth. Strobel uses his journalistic credentials to give his book weight, but by lobbing softball questions at a single side of a multi-faceted story, he shows a distressing lack of professional standards.

It is therefore appropriate that Strobel provides the introduction to J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity. Wallace is a former homicide detective and cold-case investigator who proposes that his bona fides him unique insight into the most famous death in history: the crucifixion and purported resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, like Strobel, Wallace does his profession and his faith no favors when he selectively applies his job experience to an unrelated field.

In order for Wallace’s credentials as a homicide detective to bolster his case, he must apply his skills consistently, going through the same process with the death of Jesus as he would with the deaths he investigates professionally. If he fails to apply the same standards to both investigations, he undermines the very thesis of his book. Moreover, Wallace must make solid connections between his cold cases and the case for Christ; he is not a historian, so it is important that he demonstrate that his job experience still applies to 2000-year-old events. By the end of the book, Wallace has failed on both counts.

Wallace can’t make it past chapter 2 before showing his hand. He notes that the deaths he investigates fall into one of four categories: natural, accidental, suicide, or homicide. In detective work, there is no category for “supernatural death”. However, when it comes to the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus, Wallace insists that a supernatural option must be on the table. One of his favorite phrases is “bias against the supernatural,” an accusation he lobs at skeptics whenever possible.

So why doesn’t Wallace consider supernatural options as part of his day job? Is he not demonstrating his own “bias against the supernatural” by failing to do so? Wallace never gives any explanation for the differing methodologies. He claims that, in the case of the resurrection, divine intervention “accounts for the evidence most simply and most exhaustively, and it is logically consistent (if we simply allow for the existence of God in the first place).”

However, an all-powerful, omnipresent God is a simple and exhaustive explanation for literally any phenomenon — until, as has happened since the dawn of modern science, a naturalistic explanation supplants the supernatural. The tooth fairy perfectly explains how lost teeth get replaced with money, until one’s parents are caught in the act.

Of course, in order to a find naturalistic explanation for an event once thought to be supernatural, we must at some point acquire new information. In Wallace’s cold cases, this could take the form of new eyewitness testimony or previously unavailable DNA evidence. If no new evidence comes to light, the case remains cold.

In these investigations, Wallace never takes the additional step to say, “I have no natural explanation for this murder, therefore God must have teleported a bullet into this man’s cranium! This explanation is simple and accounts for all the evidence — and saying otherwise shows an anti-supernatural bias on your part!” And yet, this is exactly how Wallace treats the data points surrounding the resurrection. Were Wallace applying his professional standards consistently, Jesus’ death would be filed away with the rest of his cold cases.

The first half of Cold-Case Christianity has Wallace recounting incidents from homicide investigations that he believes are analogous to investigations into the gospel accounts. However, the connections he draws are often specious and unconvincing. One chapter compares the martyred apostles with suspected criminals pitted against one another under interrogation. Why didn’t the apostles rat each other out like suspects often do, instead choosing to go to their deaths? The problem is, Wallace explicitly compares Peter in Rome with Thomas in India, where one was never in a position to rat out the other.

In another chapter, Wallace notes the importance of keeping eyewitnesses at a crime scene separated before detectives arrive, lest they start comparing notes and ultimately give homogenized, collusive accounts. Wallace also observes that the gospel accounts often agree with each other, sometimes verbatim, but to him this affirms their reliability as eyewitness testimony. He says these facsimiles “may be the result of common agreement at particularly important points in the narrative, or (more likely) the result of later eyewitnesses saying, ‘The rest occurred just the way he said.’” But don’t both Christian and secular biblical scholars widely accept that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source? Wouldn’t access to other accounts make them unreliable eyewitnesses by homicide investigation standards?

This is one of many examples where Wallace ignores obvious, well-established objections to the gospel accounts in favor of weaker targets. For instance, he spends a whole chapter defending a very early (pre-70 CE) date for gospel authorship, and he specifically contrasts this with his own atheistic assumption of second- or third-century authorship. Both dates are minority views among biblical scholars; Wallace glosses over the more common view that the gospels were written in the late first century. Why the omission?

In addition to this, Wallace repeats the classic apologetic that the apostles would not have allowed themselves to be martyred for what they knew to be a lie. But what if the disciples weren’t lying? What if they were just plain wrong? Wallace doesn’t address this reasonable alternative, going after the easy mark instead.

Possibly the worst example comes toward the end of the book, where Wallace questions what would have inspired the disciples to preach the gospel even as it cost them their lives. Making a comparison to cold cases, Wallace claims that “Sex, money, and power are the motives for all the crimes detectives investigate. In fact, these three motives are also behind lesser sins as well.” He ably dismantles the notions that the disciples were inspired by any of these three incentives (which no skeptic has ever claimed), but he ignores the elephant in the room.

What about religious fervor? Surely Wallace has seen the lengths people will go and the things people will do in the name of their god. It’s in the news every day! Is Wallace oblivious to the idea that the disciples were religious zealots? Or does he simply ignore an obvious explanation because it doesn’t fit into his narrative?

Going into these books, I try to assume the author is sincere until they give reason to believe otherwise. Unfortunately, Wallace gives plenty of reasons to doubt his sincerity. He seems to have found an interesting hook that looks profound on a book cover, but his apologetics ring hollow because he knows he’s preaching to the choir. He’s not intending for his audience to apply the slightest amount of scrutiny that would reveal the holes in his arguments. If he’s trying to build a legal case for Christ, it would ultimately be thrown out of court.

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the “minimal facts” approach to Christian apologetics and briefly touched on three events surrounding the resurrection that apologists claim are beyond criticism. As it turns out, the cases for the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus are not as airtight as apologists would have you believe. There are still a couple more “facts” worth addressing, and as you can imagine, they’re quite problematic as well.

4. Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

From the historian’s perspective, we don’t have independent sources for many of Jesus’ purported post-resurrection appearances. The Emmaus road experience is only found in Luke. The Sea of Tiberias appearance is only reported by John. An appearance to “five hundred brethren at one time” is only mentioned by Paul, as he quotes an early church creed while writing to the Corinthians.

The creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 is often cited as evidence that Christians believed from a very early date that Jesus had appeared to others after his resurrection. However, the fact that Christians believed something had happened is not necessarily related to what actually did happen. This will come up again.

Apologists will claim that this creed arose far to early for legends to develop surrounding the resurrection. Nonsense! How long did it take for nutcases to start claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, or Tupac was still alive? And that’s with the wealth of information available in an Internet-connected society! How quickly will legends spring up when all your information comes from the rumor mill buzzing around town?

Might these supposed appearances have a naturalistic explanation? We do know that grief-induced hallucinations are surprisingly common, and we also know that stories tend to grow in the telling. Maybe one or two of the disciples had such an experience and told the others. Over time, the experiences of a few disciples evolved into the experience of all the disciples, seeing Jesus at the same time. This is certainly a more plausible explanation than the dead coming back to life.

5. The disciples came to truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

How one responds to this “fact” depends on how it is phrased. I don’t know of any scholar who disputes that the disciples and earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead — but far fewer would conclude that Jesus actually did.

It should be pretty obvious that belief has no inherent relation to the truth of a proposition. People believe in the power of Jesus, astrology, crystals, homeopathy, CrossFit, Santa Claus and all kinds of incorrect ideas.

Moreover, people sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Apologists often object that no one would allow themselves to be martyred for proclaiming what they know is a lie. Agreed, but who said the disciples were lying? They may well have been sincere in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead — sincerely wrong.

So we see that, as usual, Christians have trouble getting their facts straight, but even if we were to grant apologists all of their claims, the minimal facts approach still suffers from a fatal flaw.

Think of it like a magic show, with the classic trick of the magician sawing their lovely assistant in half. Unless you’re a stage magician yourself, you might not have access to all the ins and outs of how magicians perform their tricks. All you have are a handful of facts that you and the rest of the audience have all observed.

  • The assistant is a whole person before lying down in the box.
  • The magician saws through her.
  • The assistant appears to be split in half.

If you can’t figure out the trick, do you immediately assume that the magician has real magic powers? Or do you pick from a list of unconfirmed but entirely mundane explanations? Perhaps the saw is fake. Maybe there’s a secret compartment, or a mirror. The supernatural is probably dead last on your list, right below secret alien technology.

The minimal facts should be treated the same way. We simply don’t have access to all of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath, and, barring some monumental archaeological find, we probably never will. Somehow, when communicating to humanity the most important story in history, God has left us to play connect the dots without all the dots. The information available to us is simply not enough to get the full picture of these three days in Judea two millennia ago, and certainly not enough to determine that a crucifixion victim rose from the dead.


Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 1

The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”

At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!

It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.

Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.

1. Jesus was crucified.

This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!

2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).

So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).

It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?

Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)

3. The tomb was found empty.

Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.

Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”

Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?

For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.

No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.

But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.