(For previous entries in this series)
Maitzen’s argument is emotionally compelling, but as a philosophical exercise—and a theological one as well—it is hamstrung by its own premises. Where is his god’s moral obligation to intervene in said suffering? Maitzen has established key attributes of knowledge and power, but doesn’t include among those any moral obligation to act.(28) This omission would appear to undermine any argument that could be made. Perhaps, though, this is implicit in the argument in that Maitzen wishes to indict his god into violating the undefined OM that has been established. Even if this thought experiment is brought down into the world of human experience, unless one provides a justification for the obligation to act, it doesn’t follow that the person suffering is being exploited or that inaction is a result of one being imperfect. Indeed such an argument has tremendous emotional power but it should be understood that such an argument poses a false dichotomy.
First, it must be established from where a sense of “oughtness” comes and, second, from where a sense of “duty” springs. Both of these assumptions, which seem to be part of Maitzen’s argument just appear midstream as if they were hidden rocks. Further there are three key adjectives that Maitzen uses to define the suffering that his argument presents.
In order to say that any of these adjectives are true, then they need to be justified, because they are assuming something about the person. Indeed, we may ask the question in regard to a child, asking, what did they do to deserve such a state? Very well it could be answered that the child did not do anything. Indeed, it could be said that the vast majority of suffering is in fact involuntary. There is no doubt that the vast majority of people would not willingly suffering anything even remotely painful or severe, unless there was some spectacular reward waiting on the other end of such an experience. But then there is the question of whether or not suffering is necessary. Interestingly, psychological science gives us insight into the question by uncovering the curious effect upon the sufferer, namely, as one abstract notes, that the, “severity of past adversity predicts increased empathy, which in turn, is linked to a stable tendency to feel compassion for others in need.”(29)
If such is the case then it seems that suffering is necessary. And if necessary, then perhaps it is deserved, which would explain the involuntary nature of suffering. It may, indeed it is conceivably likely, if not absolutely certainly be that God, who knows what his creatures need in order to act compassionately toward their fellows, causes them to experience suffering. Indeed, the Christian confesses that, “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”(30)
Also the Christian lives with a certain realization of the world that he inhabits, as will be discussed later. The atheist that puts forward such an argument as Maitzen is not arguing against the Christian God, whose knowledge is predicated upon his own actions and decisions, and who knows his creatures because he has made them. As the Psalmist writes, “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”(31) Maitzen’s objection is, in fact one not founded in any reality that can be meaningfully measured. The god that he posits is, in fact, an idol of his own creation; it is not one of stone or wood, but is fashioned in his imagination.
Maitzen wants to assume that there is something inherently wrong with suffering, but what is his starting point to come to such a conclusion? If suffering is a necessary component of human experience needed to extract a specific sense of responsibility, then it would seem to logically follow that God would be wrong to not cause it, either directly or indirectly, to be experienced. Therefore, even Maitzen’s god, because of such omniscience possessed, does nothing that is morally insufficient in inducing an environment where suffering can occur, even if such suffering seems unnecessary and undeserved from a human perspective. The added qualifier of “involuntariness,” which is simply another way of saying that there is a “lack of consent” only adds a layer of questionable logic.
The Biblical Foundation
As previously alluded to the Christian theist, especially those who emerge from a reformed tradition, begins with the foundational premise that Scripture is the absolute authority.(32) It is only by beginning with this that one can even begin to make sense of the world that human beings inhabit, validate the expectations that arise from experience, and justify any moral or logical claims.(33) In fact, it is only in light of revelation that one can make any claims about the nature of the God that is readily known by all human beings.(34) This foundation begins with the cause of suffering.
Turning to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find that, “…creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”(35) It does this because, “[it] was subjected to futility…”(36) The Apostle to the Gentiles seems to have the fall of man in sight as described in the third chapter of Genesis.
To give a brief recounting of this, in the Garden that God established, from which his good rule was to extend over the earth, man was brought in to learn and extend what he learned out to the rest of the world. In this garden of God was planted all kinds of trees, including one that could bestow knowledge. The wife of the man, being deceived by a rebellious throne room guardian, partakes of the fruit of the forbidden tree and gives to her husband who, willingly and blatantly in spite of the command to not imbibe, consumes the fruit of rebellion. To this end, part of the punishment, along with ejection from the garden, man will no longer have free and ready access to the plenty of the garden, but will have to scrape to get by and work to have plenty to eat, but that the earth is also cursed to add to this struggle.(37) It is from this primal rebellion that human suffering springs and extends over the earth. Whether one accepts this as an actual historical fact or as merely a theological explanatory device is up to the reader. Regardless of how one accepts this, it cannot help but be admitted that suffering is a ubiquitous part of the present experience of the human condition, something God has not excluded himself from, in that he who is God the Word clothed himself in the flesh of humanity in order to demonstrate the goodness and kindness of God.(38) For in this fact Christ was not spared any suffering or humiliation, but was poor, destitute, and abused, so that he might be compassionate and therein commiserate with us, and intercede for us.(39) The atheist unbeliever, when it comes to the matter of suffering, seems to be at a loss when it comes to justifying that there is such a thing as suffering without therefore assuming that there is grounds upon which to complain, namely the grounds that presupposes the truth of Christianity.
Indeed, to even begin to speak of suffering in regard to whether it is, in fact, “undeserved,” as Maitzen interjects, seems to beg the question, is any suffering deserved? If some suffering is, in fact, deserved, what separates the deserving from the undeserving?
For Maitzen, age appears to be one factor that is considered. But also is condition by his mention of the love-lorn. But this implies that suffering is unjustified. By what then, is he making such a pronouncement?
The Christian recognizes, because of his position as a creature, more importantly, as a fallen creature, both morally and relationally, his life has no guarantees upon it. Man now lives outside of the hedge of God’s protection that existed in the Garden, and is now subject to the whims of chaos because of his rebellion. God is free to intervene but, when he does, only does so to undeserving creatures who only deserve his contempt and wrath for their insolence by his mercy.(40) Maitzen’s rejection of the Christian acceptance of the Fall as both a theological and philosophical starting point results in borrowing concepts (ie justice and moral requirements) that Christian theism presupposes to begin any discussion, much less any complaint, about suffering and any responses that should exist.(41)
28. By use of the modal verb “can” in point (4) of his primary argument I am assuming that Maitzen is implying the “ability”established in point (3) to define the term “power” that I am using here.
29. Lim, D., & DeSteno, D. “Suffering and compassion: The links among adverse life experiences, empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior.” Emotion, 16(2). 2016. pp 175-182.
30. Romans 5:3-5, ESV
31. Psalm 103:14, ESV
32. Bahnsen, Greg. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. Robert R. Booth, ed. Covenant Media Foundation. 2011. p. 16
33. Van Til, Cornelius. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, volume 2. Presbyterian And Reformed Publishing Co. Phillipsburg, NJ. 1969. p.15
34. Romans 1:18-20, ESV
35. Romans 8:19, ESV
36. Romans 8:20,ESV
37. Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Ream: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Kindle edition. Lexham Press. Bellingham, WA. 2015. pp. 86-7
38. Athenasius. On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 2nd ed. T. Herbert Brindles, trans. The Religious Tract Society. London. 1903. p. 43
39. Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV
40. Psalm 51:1, 13-15, ESV
41. I am emphasizing the modal verb “should” to emphasize that there is a requirement of duty, or some obligation, to respond to suffering.