(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 28, 2015.)
[Here is a brief summary of a piece by B.C. Johnson, “Why Doesn’t God Intervene to Prevent Evil?” It offers a devastating critique of the possibility that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god.]
Are there any good excuses for someone (or a god) not saving a baby from a burning house if they had the power to do so? It will not do to say the baby will go to heaven since one suffers by burning to death. The key is the suffering. If the suffering was not necessary, then it’s wrong to allow it; if the suffering is necessary, the baby’s going to heaven doesn’t explain why it’s necessary.
It doesn’t make sense to say that a baby’s painful death will be good in the long run, and that’s why the gods allow it. For that is to say that whatever happens, in the long run, is good; since if something happened it was allowed by the gods, and it must, therefore, be good in the long run. We could test this idea by burning down buildings to kill innocent people. If we are successful, then we know that this was part of some god’s plan. But this is absurd. Moreover, this doesn’t show why the gods allow babies to burn to death, it merely says there is some reason for this suffering, a belief we have since we assume the gods are good. But this argument is circular; it merely assumes what it is trying to prove. (That the gods are good.) “It is not unlike a lawyer defending his client by claiming that the client is innocent and therefore the evidence against him must be misleading—that proof vindicating the defendant will be found in the long run.”
In conclusion, we simply cannot excuse a bystander who could save the child but who doesn’t.
We might say that we ought “to face disasters without assistance,” so as not to become dependent upon help. But this suggests that the work of doctors and firefighters, for example, should be abolished. But if this kind of help is good, then good gods should help like this. But they do not. If this kind of help is bad, then we ought to abolish it.
Similarly, we could say that the gods would reduce the moral urgency to make the world better if they intervened in evil. But should we abolish modern medicine and firefighting since they help people, but thereby reduce our urgency to help people? Of course not. Moreover, this argument suggests that the gods approve “of these disasters as a means to encourage the creation of moral urgency.” 85 And if there were not sufficient baby burnings, the gods would have to bring them about. But this too is absurd. We shouldn’t create moral urgency by burning babies.
Maybe suffering is necessary for virtues like compassion, mercy, sympathy, and courage to be exercised. But even if this is true, the non-believer is simply claiming that we could do without burning babies and still have plenty of suffering to elicit these virtues. Furthermore, we value efforts to improve the world, and we don’t consider the possible reduction in opportunities to practice virtue a good reason not to improve it. If we can’t use this as an excuse not to improve the world, then neither can the gods. Developing virtue “is no excuse for permitting disasters.” The argument that the gods allow suffering to humble us is open to the preceding objections.
One could claim that evil is a by-product of the laws of nature and the god’s interference would alter the casual order to our detriment. But lives could be saved if serial killers had heart attacks before committing their crimes. Such occasional miracles wouldn’t necessitate changing the laws of nature. How often should the gods do this? Johnson says often enough to prevent particularly horrible disasters like child torture.
As for the claim that the gods have a higher morality such that what seems bad to us (child torture) is really good, and what seems good to us (modern medicine) is really bad, it is hard to make any sense of this. You could say we just don’t understand the god’s ways like children don’t understand their parent’s ways, but as adults, we might conclude that some of our parent’s actions were bad.
The main reason all these arguments fail is that they are abstract. None of them really explain why all good, all-powerful beings watch helpless infants burn to death since none of the excuses such being would offer seem convincing. One could claim that the gods just can’t prevent the evil, but it is strange to believe in gods less powerful than fire departments and medical researchers.
At this point one may retreat to faith, simply believing the gods are innocent like you might believe in the innocence of your friends even if the evidence is against them. But Johnson argues that we don’t know the gods well enough to trust them like friends. In addition, we have good reason to believe the gods are not good since in the past they have allowed so much evil. You could still claim that you trust in the gods and nothing anyone can say will undermine your belief, “but this is just a description of how stubborn you are; it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of God’s goodness.”
Furthermore, all the reasons offered as to why the world’s evil is consistent with good gods could be used to show why it’s consistent with evil gods. For example, we could say that an evil god gives us free will so we can do evil things. Or we could say that evil exists to make people cynical and bitter (instead of compassionate and courageous), or it exists so that we quit caring about others (instead of becoming morally urgent.)
In short there are 3 possibilities concerning the gods: 1) they are more likely to be all bad (a theist doesn’t want this to be true; 2) they are more likely to be all-good (but this can’t be true since any evidence for this thesis will also support #1); or 3) they are equally likely to be all-bad or all-good. But if 3 is true, then what excuses do the gods have for allowing evil? They have none. And the reason is that for any excuse for evil’s existence to be justified, it must be highly probable that the excuse is true. But note that option 3 rules this out, since according to 3 there is no more reason to think the excuse is valid than that it is not valid.
Why then don’t the gods intervene according to Johnson? Because they don’t exist.
(Of course, explaining evil without positing gods is easy—humans do bad things.)