God, Jesus, good, and suffering

Photo: Victory of Joshua by Poussin

This is the sixth post in my debate with David Quinn of the Iona Institute about the nature and source of morality. In this I am responding to David’s thoughts on why he believes that the Christian God exists, why God’s nature is good, and why does God cause or permit suffering.

The posts so far in this series are:

Question 1 — the Existence of the Christian God

My first question to David in my last post was: How do you, in the first instance, justify your belief in the existence of the Christian God?

David responds: “Michael starts out by asking me how I can justify belief in the existence of the Christian God? Notice what is being asked here. He isn’t asking me to explain why I believe in God, but in the Christian God specifically.”

This gives me an opportunity to address why the questions that I asked David in my last post are relevant to the issue that we are discussing, which is how we can each justify claims of morality.

David is supporting Christian morality. I think that’s a good approach for David to take. Believing in an abstract god, or a deistic god, gives you no link to any moral code. Believing in a specific god gives you a specific moral code to link to that belief.

In this discussion David is seeking to justify the moral code linked to the Christian God, which presupposes good reasons for believing that the Christian God exists.

David continues: “Well, as a Christian, I believe Jesus Christ shows us what God is like. I believe in the Christian God because I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe Jesus is God made Man. Why do I believe this? One reason is because I believe Jesus rose from the dead. I think this is evidence of his divinity.

On this point, I can suggest interested parties read the likes of N.T. Wright who ably explains why it is reasonable to believe in the physical resurrection as well as discussing the divinity of Christ more generally.”

Okay, I’ll follow up on the thinking of N.T. Wright when I get a chance. David, what writings specifically would you recommend?

The Christian Bible has different stories about the relationship of Jesus to God. In the letters of Paul, Jesus is a human Jewish preacher who gains a special relationship with God through his resurrection. In the Gospel called Mark, the relationship comes through his baptism. In Mathew and Luke the relationship is more ambiguous, but comes through his conception. And it is only when we reach John that Jesus was part of God from the beginning.

The version that David believes is that Jesus was God made man, which would be on the Mathew, Luke and John end of the spectrum. And one reason that David believes this is that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this is evidence of his divinity.

But many religions throughout history have believed that people rose from the dead or were taken to heaven and became divine. Excluding purely mythical heroes, these people include Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Apollonius of Tyana, Antinous the slave of Hadrian, Rabbi Judah, Kabir, Sabbatai Sevi, Lahiri Mahasay, and Sri Yukteswar.

Even if we restrict ourselves to Christianity, the Bible tells stories of many people who rose from the dead, assisted by Elijah, Elisha, Elisha’s body, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and presumably God.

  • In 1 Kings 17:17-24, Elijah returned to life the dead son of a widow at Zarephath, by lying on the dead body and crying out to the Lord.
  • In 2 Kings 4:32-37, Elisha returned to life the dead son of a couple in Shunem, by lying on the dead body and making it warm.
  • In 2 Kings 13:20-21, a dead body was thrown into Elisha’s tomb, and it returned to life and stood up when it touched the dead bones of Elisha.
  • In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus returned to life the son of a widow at Nain, by telling the dead body to arise.
  • In John 11:39-44, Jesus returned to life Lazarus from Bethany, by telling the dead body to come out of the tomb in which it had been buried for four days.
  • In Matthew 27:52-53, as Jesus died on the cross, tombs broke open and the bodies of many dead holy people returned to life. After the resurrection of Jesus, they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.
  • In various paragraphs, Jesus rose from the dead.
  • In Acts 9:40, Peter returned to life the dead body of Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek) at Joppa, by praying then telling the dead body to arise.
  • In Acts 20:9-10, Paul returned to life the dead body of Eutychus, a young man at Traos who had fallen asleep during Paul’s talk and fallen out of a third floor window.

So, which is more likely? Are all of the religious resurrection stories true? Or are they all false? Or are all of the religious resurrection stories false, except for the ones in the Christian Bible? And if we restrict ourselves to the Bible, are all of its resurrection stories true? Or are they all false, except for the story about Jesus? Or are all of the resurrection stories true, but only the Jesus story is evidence that rising from the dead is a sign of being God?

For these and other reasons, even if we were to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that would not be on its own good evidence to believe that the Christian God exists. In fairness, David does only say that this is one reason that he believes that the Christian God exists. But he does not mention any other reasons. It would be helpful to hear what these other reasons are.

Question 2 — Why is God’s nature good?

My second question for David in my last post was: Why is God’s nature good? Is it good for arbitrary reasons, or is it good because it corresponds to independent standards of goodness?

David responds: “I believe it is good because the nature of Jesus is good.”

This is a circular response, given that David believes that Jesus is God made man. So David is saying that God’s nature is good because God’s nature is good. This doesn’t even begin to address why God’s nature is good, and specifically whether it is good because it corresponds to independent standards of goodness?

David continues: “Even atheists tend to admire Jesus. I believe Jesus is the truest reflection of the nature of God. We respond to Jesus as we do because we instinctively see the best of ourselves in him, and the reason for that is precisely because we are made in God’s image and likeness. It makes sense that we find Jesus so attractive. The good in us is attracted to the infinitely good nature of God seen in Jesus.”

It is true that some parts of the Bible portray Jesus as giving good moral guidance. And it is true that many atheists admire the character of Jesus as portrayed in those stories. However, each of the Gospels and the Book of Revelation also portray Jesus as giving bad moral guidance. Here are some examples.

In the Gospel called Mark:

  • Jesus says that the reason he speaks in parables is to confuse outsiders in case they understand him and are saved from Hell (4:10-14).
  • He sends demons into a large herd of pigs who then drown (5:11-13).
  • He says that cities that do not receive his disciples will be treated worse than Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment (6:11).
  • He criticises Pharisees for not obeying the law of Moses that anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death (7:9-10).
  • He says that you should cut off your own hand and foot, and pluck out your own eye, if they cause you to risk being thrown into Hell where the worms that eat them do not die and the fire is not quenched (9:42-48).
  • He tells a man to sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor (10:17-21)
  • He says that anyone who is not baptised will be condemned (16:16).

In the Gospel called Matthew:

  • Jesus explicitly endorses the barbaric laws of the Old Testament, saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (5:17-18).
  • He says that most people will go to Hell (7:13-14) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12).
  • He says you should fear God who can destroy both body and soul in Hell (10:28).
  • He says that he did not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword, and that he has come to turn man against father, daughter against mother, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (10:34-36).
  • He says that anyone who loves their parents or children more than they love him is not worthy of him (10:37).
  • He says that God will tell people who are cursed to depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (25:41) where they will be punished for eternity (25:46).

In the Gospel called Luke:

  • Jesus repeats much of the above bad moral guidance.
  • He also tells his disciples, before the incident in the Garden of Gethsemane, to sell their clothes in order to buy a sword (22:36).

In the Gospel called John:

  • Jesus says that people are condemned or saved based on what they believe (3:18) and that God’s wrath remains on those who do not believe (3:36).
  • After healing a crippled man, he tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him (5:14).
  • He causes some of his disciples to leave him when he says that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life (6:53-66).
  • He says that people who leave him will be thrown into the fire and burned (15:6).

In the Book of Revelation:

  • When Jesus appears to John, he has white hair and eyes like flames, and a sharp two-edged sword comes out of his mouth (1:14-18)
  • He tells one Turkish church that a woman called Jezebel had seduced his servants to fornicate, so he is going to kill her children with death for their mother’s sins (2:20-23)
  • After bringing John to heaven, Jesus goes to war with the Devil. His robe is soaked in blood, he casts the Devil and his false prophet into a lake of fire burning with brimstone, and he kills the Devil’s army using the sword that comes out of his mouth (20:11-21).

I, of course, accept that Jesus as portrayed in the Christian Bible also gives good moral guidance. But his moral guidance is at best mixed, given the amount of bad moral guidance he also gives. At a minimum, it does not look like what David describes as “the infinitely good nature of God seen in Jesus.”

Question 3 — Why did god create suffering?

My third question for David in my last post was: Is it logically possible for the Christian God to have created a universe without suffering or evil? If so, why did he not do so?

David responds: “This is the perennial question. Even Jesus suffered. But the very proposition that suffering is evil, presupposes that metaphysical good and evil (evil being the absence of good) exist. When atheists say suffering is ‘evil’, they go beyond what their atheism permits. They can only say suffering is undesirable.”

I don’t believe that suffering is ‘evil.’ I do believe that suffering is bad, and that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong. But here I am asking how a Christian would address the question from a Christian perspective, and that does include the concept of ‘evil.’

David continues: “I don’t exactly know why suffering exists, especially physical suffering, but it doesn’t cause me to doubt the existence of God because I simply do not believe that nothing made everything, which is essentially what an atheist believes.”

The first part of this is a good and honest answer. The second part contains a conclusion that does not follow from the premise, which by the way is also not true. Let’s start at the end: atheists do not believe that nothing made everything, or at least not all atheists believe that. We don’t know how or whether everything came into being, or whether everything is eternal.

But even if you do believe that something caused everything except itself to exist, there is no necessary link between that something existing and the nature of suffering. The question would still remain: is it logically possible for that something to have created a universe without suffering or evil? And if so, why did it not do so?

David continues: “The likes of CS Lewis and Pope Benedict (among many other Christian writers) have written ably about suffering. Lewis does so in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, for instance. Pope Benedict has said that if we want to eliminate suffering, the first thing that must go is love. Why? Because we suffer most when those we love suffer, or when those we love treat us badly. The less we care about others, the less we suffer.”

Okay, I will follow up on the Lewis sources when I get a chance. The Benedict quote does not seem to make sense from a Christian perspective. He says that if we want to eliminate suffering, the first thing that must go is love, because the less we care about others, the less we suffer.

Does this mean that there is no love or caring in the Christian heaven, or does it mean that there is suffering in the Christian heaven? Alternatively, if the Christian God can create an environment with love and without suffering in heaven, why can it not create the same environment on earth?

David continues: “This is why, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, love no longer exists. It is why all strong attachments and passions have been eliminated, including religion and politics and the family. They cause too much suffering and so they are no more.

Many writers have spoken about how suffering can bring out the best in us. It can crush us, but it can also draw us out of our selfishness and inspire incredible acts of self-sacrificial love on behalf of the person who is suffering. Countless stories depict the redemptive power of suffering which can both alienate people from God, and draw them towards him.”

I agree that love can cause suffering, and that suffering can sometimes bring out the best in people. That is what I would expect to see in a world that was not designed by a God that is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing.

Such a God would be able to create a world in which love does not cause suffering, and in which suffering is not necessary in order to bring out the best in people. The fact that the world is as David describes seems to me to be an argument against, rather than for, the existence of the Christian God.

Questions 4 to 7

David has said that he will return to my further four questions in the next week or so. I look forward to the responses, and to continuing this discussion. The next four questions are:

  1. How do you justify, as objectively moral, the Christian God repeatedly ordering the Israelites to slaughter children and infants of other tribes without mercy?
  2. How do you determine which parts of the Bible are obviously objectively morally good, and which parts are on the face of it morally bad, so that you have to evaluate or reinterpret them to make them consistent in your mind with being morally good?
  3. Is doing good for the purpose of eternal cosmic salvation not utilitarian?
  4. If the point of moral duties, on the cosmic scale, is that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished for eternity, then how is it just that people who lead morally evil lives can escape their eternal punishment by simply repenting on their deathbed?
God, Jesus, good, and suffering

2 thoughts on “God, Jesus, good, and suffering

  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cogs.12138

    ”…exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”

    Keep the Lies about gods away from children!

    Forcing religion onto minors is essentially a form of child abuse, which scars their ability to reason and also limits their ability to consider the world in an unbiased manner.

    Bible stories are not good for children:



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