Archive for February 25, 2011
Leibniz vs. Voltaire: Can an Omnipotent, All-Benevolent God be Reconciled with this World of Suffering?
A few days ago, I wrote a post about the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, but one important point I did not mention is his theodicy. Leibniz firmly believed that this world of ours was “the best of all possible worlds,” because an all-powerful, all-benevolent God would never create the second or third best possible world. He would choose the best of all possible worlds.
Shortly after reading Leibniz, I also re-read Voltaire’s philosophical novella Candide. One of the characters in the story is Doctor Pangloss, who is a Leibnizian philosopher that keeps preaching the doctrine of the “best of all possible worlds” even in the face of the most outrageous suffering. Through his sometimes quite funny parody, Voltaire sharply criticizes Leibniz. If this is the best possible world, he wants to know, then what do the other worlds look like?
Another thinker who criticized theodicy was Immanuel Kant. He thought that all philosophical attempts at a theodicy had failed, and I tend to agree with him. The only theodicy that I find at all tenable is not a philosophical one but simply the cross of Christ. This is a cautious Christian approach to suffering, admitting that ultimately we do not understand it. We might never know why God lets us suffer so much, but we know one thing: If there was any way around it, God Himself would not have come to suffer. Since He did, since He suffered indescribably and even died, the picture has changed. He has taken His own medicine, so to speak, and therefore we can trust Him.
The cross of Christ is thus the only credible theodicy. One cannot argue with a martyr. And if God Himself is a martyr, well, then there is no arguing with Him, is there?
Of course, you actually have to believe in the incarnation of Christ to be convinced by this. But it shows how someone who believes in God can find in the picture of the suffering God a solution to the problem of theodicy—not a solution that answers all intellectual questions, but one that satisfies on a more emotional level. And I would suggest that the main problem people have with theodicy is an emotional one, not a purely intellectual one.
Beyond this picture of the suffering God, a traditional theodicy has been the story of the Fall. In that view, the world was utterly perfect until we humans messed it up. It’s all our fault, including earthquakes and diseases and itching noses. God, in his infinite grace, is in the process of restoring the world, and he paid the ultimate price for it. So what are we complaining about?
Nowadays, this line of thinking can only be maintained by Young-Earth Creationists, that is, by people who believe that God created the world a few thousand years ago and that all modern scientific views on the age of the earth and of life on earth are completely wrong. Even most Intelligent-Design (ID) advocates affirm that the earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago, that during the Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago invertebrates spread widely in the oceans, trilobites became common, and the first mollusks appeared. ID advocates generally embrace the earth’s history as now understood, from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic, including dinosaurs and all. Consequently, they also believe that death, pain, and discord existed in the world long before humans came into existence.
This, so to speak, throws the ball of the problem back in God’s court. We are not to blame for the basic fact of suffering after all. “Why, God, did you create a world of discord, pain, and death—not just for us humans, but long before we ever appeared on the scene?” This is the new question of theodicy that modern science has pressed on the theist.
The traditional answer that this earth is a kind of training ground for better things to come is hard to believe in light of earth’s long and long-suffering history. If one were to hunt for answers to theodicy in the Book of Revelation, for instance, this is one of the answers you would get (in addition to the more important “answer” of the Lamb of God, the suffering divinity nailed to a cross, which is probably the most central aspect of Revelation).
In Revelation 8 and 9, there are seven angels blowing seven trumpets, and at each blast of a trumpet a horrible disaster befalls the earth: natural catastrophes, pollution of oceans, shipwrecks, contamination of drinking water, harmful changes in the atmosphere, demonic attacks, yes, even Satan himself wreaking destruction. And then it says in chapter 9,20-21: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.”
Now I want to stress that Revelation was an “occasional” letter, meaning it was written for a specific occasion of real people that the author believed were either undergoing terrible suffering or were about to undergo terrible suffering. It is not a philosophical treatise or an intellectual answer to the problems of theodicy. But were one to approach the text in this way, it would suggest that people suffer because God wants to warn them of even greater suffering to come. It is His way of pouring cold water on the heads of sinners and waking them from their spiritual slumber.
Proclaiming this pain-stricken earth to be God’s training ground for eternity, however, has mostly failed to bring the skeptic to his knees. Instead, it has caused outrage or at least a lively discussion on why such an idea is problematic.
The first problem is that it completely ignores non-human suffering. Is the deer expected to repent of its sins when chased by a lion? And is a torn deer supposed to serve as a warning to its comrades that eternal torment is awaiting the unbelieving deer soul? Hardly. No verse in the Bible promises eternal life to animals. Why then, from a purely theological perspective, do they need to suffer? Evolution does provide a sensible biological answer here, but not Revelation.
Second, there are ethical limitations on how much suffering one can inflict for a future good. If I see a group of people approaching a mine field and find myself in the position to warn them, am I justified to issue my warning by mowing down half of them with a machine gun and maiming the rest? Is there any court in the world that would sanction my action? And what are the many diseases, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, and storms but a constant killing and maiming of earthly life?
Third, suffering as a way of steering people away from future suffering only makes sense when they know the good that will come of it. Unless you tell a child that a vaccination will prevent disease, it is hardly going to turn its naked shoulder to the pointy needle. Granted, you sometimes have to force someone into their own good, such as with a baby or a mentally handicapped person. But with them you are not aiming at voluntary submission, which is what Revelation is aiming at.
To take a different example, every soldier-to-be knows the purpose of recruit training. He can therefore interpret its hardships in the right light, knowing that they are necessary for his successful career as a soldier. Applying this to humanity as a whole, one can imagine all people being born in another sphere where God instructs them about His purpose for their eternal lives, before sending them to this earth as a temporary training ground. If this were the case, life on earth would still be a test so hard as to border on cruelty, but at least people knew what they were in for. As it is, however, we are born on this earth and know no other. Different people say different things about the purpose of our planet. There is little agreement on whether this is a boot camp for something better or as good as it gets. And as long as there is still any disagreement on why we are here, Revelation’s take on suffering falls flat.
Forth and last, Revelation itself admits that the whole scheme simply does not work. A minority starts believing in God because of their suffering, yes. But only a minority. For many people, it was not only the Jews and gypsies who died in the Holocaust, but God, too.
Let me reiterate that a more cautious Christian approach to suffering is to admit that ultimately we do not understand it. But in the cross of Christ a believer can see a God who has taken His own medicine and is therefore trustworthy. This can be a comfort to believers, but probably is not something that would convince a skeptic.
Either way, I am with Voltaire not to gloss over the suffering in this world. It is real, and as human beings we all sit in the same boat—on the same Titanic, one could say. Let me close this all-too long post therefore with an excerpt from a poem that Voltaire wrote after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake, an earthquake that, one can argue, had a huge impact on European discussions of theodicy:
Horror on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain,
Approach in crowds and meditate awhile
You shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire,
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain? …
But when like us Fate’s rigors you have felt,
Become humane, like us you’ll learn to melt,
When the earth gapes my body to entomb,
I justly may complain of such a doom.
- Translated by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771)