My last post featured a woman named Mabel, who suffered immensely for several decades. She was blind, nearly deaf, and horribly disfigured. Yet through all of this, Mabel’s faith in God was unshaken, and she praised Jesus for being so good to her.
The first response to this post was enlightening. An atheist reader complained that the purpose of my post was to appeal to my readers’ emotions (as if atheists would never appeal to emotion when discussing the Problem of Evil—laugh, laugh). The real purpose, however, runs much deeper than emotion.
Consider the following propositions, both of which are true:
(1) Mabel suffered horribly, far more than most human beings will ever suffer.
(2) Mabel was a Christian, who believed in an all-powerful, wholly good God.
According to the Argument from Evil, intense suffering and theism are incompatible. But this raises an important question. If suffering and theism are incompatible, why didn’t Mabel question her belief in a God of love?
The most obvious atheist response would be that Mabel never thought about the problem. This is absurd, however. She was alone for twenty-five years, with little to occupy her time except her thoughts. Surely the question of why God would allow her to suffer surfaced at some point. Thus, this response is too superficial.
Next, an atheist might respond that Mabel simply wasn’t sophisticated enough to notice that God’s goodness and power are incompatible with intense suffering. If this is true, we have to wonder why Mabel never recognized the incompatibility, when it seems so obvious to atheists. (I would add that the world contains people who are sophisticated and who agree with Mabel that God and suffering are compatible.)
Third, one might argue that Mabel needed a “crutch” to help her through her suffering. (This was John Loftus’s response to the post. He said that people like Mabel are better off believing in God.) Yet Mabel seemed to exhibit tremendous joy in the midst of her suffering, joy beyond what we might expect from a placebo-God. In other words, if mere belief in Jesus is able to sustain a person through decades of intense pain and loneliness, and in the end the person is more joyful than ever, couldn’t we argue that this is at least some evidence that Jesus really is helping the person? Regardless, this isn't the reason Mabel's faith was unshakable. There's nothing about a "crutch" that would keep a person from recognizing some inconsistency during twenty-five years of thinking, and, again, there are plenty of people who don't need a "crutch" who find the Argument from Evil unpersuasive.
These responses are insufficient. But to turn the tables, let’s ask a different question. How might a theist account for Mabel’s faith? Tim sent a quotation from Augustine, which gives one theistic response:
Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor. (Augustine, City of
But is it sufficient to say that Mabel remained faithful to God because she was good, while someone who turns away from God is bad? I’m not sure. I wouldn’t argue that because Elie Wiesel declared that his first night at
Nevertheless, we could hardly deny that an atheist sitting on his couch and pondering the suffering of Elie Wiesel may be able to soberly examine the premises of the Argument from Evil. And, of course, such an atheist may conclude, based on the suffering of Holocaust victims, that God does not exist.
Yet this leads us to the same difficulty. For theists can also soberly examine the Argument from Evil, and theists find the argument unconvincing. Further, the difference cannot be a matter of intellectual ability, education, or anything of that nature, for people of comparable stature have taken different stances on the issue. Thus, we must agree with Augustine that the difference lies in the person who is suffering, and not in the suffering itself. Or, more accurately here, the difference lies in the people examining the argument, rather than in the argument. But if our response to evil is not a matter of premises and deduction, the difference between theists and atheists on this issue must be found among our values.
But if the atheist’s argument depends on his values, how can he be sure that his argument even works? To put it differently, Mabel had a system of values, and apparently these values prevented her from rejecting the existence of God because of suffering. The atheist has a different system of values, and he rejects God based on these values. But how can the atheist say that his values are right and Mabel’s values are wrong?