Thursday, April 1, 2010

You'll Understand When You're Older

Quite some time ago, an acquaintance of mine, who is not a theist but was taking their side in this argument, came the closest I've seen to solving the problem of evil.

He suggested to me that, from God's perspective, the apparent tragedies endured by people are insignificant. Essentially, in a very Buddhist way, that our suffering is illusory and, once the test is passed, we would be let in on this secret. He drew a comparison to a parent refusing a child a simple treat, having the child's long-term health in mind. The child may scream and cry and view the denial of what seems a perfectly reasonable request as an act of great injustice. When the child becomes an adult, however, he or she will see that the cookie was minor and it was really in his or her best interest not to eat it.

This, in some sense, does equate unthinkable atrocities with the simple greed of a child, but I don't think that's invalid given the context. The entirety of our experience of the material may very well seem trivial from the perspective of the immaterial (or transcendent, which is probably the word theists would prefer to use).

The problem of evil, as I'm sure you know, is that God either allows suffering or is powerless to stop it. If he allows it, he's not that good. If he's powerless to stop it, he's not God. This, of course, assumes an omnipotent god.

This response partially grants the first point - that God allows the evil - but it follows with a caveat that it's not really "evil," which makes it somewhat more compelling than the usual Problem of Evil responses (which invariably grant either the first or the second conclusion, but those making the responses never seem to realize that).

It is, however, an invalid response. At the very least, it demonstrates a God who is without any consistent standard or message. The foundation of this argument rests on the assumption that the material is trivial, and the transcendent is vastly more significant. Childhood versus adulthood - the minutiae of childhood seems laughably simple compared to the challenges and, indeed, the consequences of adulthood.

However, while expecting us to be aware of the transitory and trivial nature of the material, God also assigns incredible importance to our actions in the material world. Our entire transcendent existence is predicated on the method with which we conduct ourselves in the material. The punishment for indulging those supposedly trivial urges is eternal torture. Even the most generous interpretation of Hell (i.e. separation from God, or annihilation) would seem to be extreme reactions to these behaviors.

To carry on the metaphor - the child demands a cookie. The adult refuses. The child whines and screams and, when the adult isn't watching, steals and eats the cookie. The adult, in response, sends the child to prison for the remainder of his or her existence. The more generous adult ceases all contact with the child; completely cuts the child off. When the child has grown to adulthood, presumably he or she regrets eating the cookie - but it is simply too late. There is no repairing the harm done. The individual simply should have known better when it was a child, and now it must endure the consequences. There can be no reparation.

Either the material matters, or it does not. If it does, then God still either permits or is unable to prevent suffering. If it does not, then morality is an illusion, and "Do what thou wilt" shall be the whole of the law.

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