God On Trial: How Can An "Intelligent Design" Include So Much Suffering?


Wednesday, Oct. 05, 2005

A story is told of a group of Auschwitz inmates who decide to put God on trial on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, celebrated yesterday and today. At the conclusion of His trial, the death camp inmates find God guilty.

Once they reach their verdict, however, they do a curious thing. The Jews in the death camp rise and recite the Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and tells of His greatness.

The recent hurricanes and last year's Tsunami, along with much of human history, raise anew the age-old questions confronted by the people in the story, and by people of all religious faiths: How could a benevolent God -- the sort who would deserve and listen to people's prayers -- allow the commission of atrocities and the existence of natural phenomena that, together, cause such unfathomable suffering among the faithful and the faithless alike?

One might even phrase the question less charitably: What sort of a God would design a world in which so much pain and despair touch so many lives? Why would He permit bad things to happen to good people?

The Book of Job's Account of Suffering

The Biblical Book of Job provides one kind of answer to this question. It confronts the problem of evil by saying that human beings do not have God's capacity to understand heaven and earth, and are therefore in no position to judge God's work. In other words, we should simply have faith that things that seem wrong to us, in our shortsightedness, are actually right and good in the infinite scheme of things.

This answer is somewhat ironic. Those people of faith who would teach creationism or "intelligent design" in public schools say that the creation story is intuitively compelling: A design readily suggests a designer, they claim. We do not ordinarily encounter a great machine or a piece of sculpture, and conclude that it randomly came into existence without the guiding hand of an inventor or an artist. How much more so, they argue, does the world, in all of its beauty and logic, require us to conclude that there was a creator, rather than the random workings of natural selection.

The irony is that if we cannot trust our moral intuition that a world filled with misery, cruelty, and suffering is wrong, then how can we possibly trust what our intuitions about machines or sculptures have to tell us about the origins of the universe?

Alternatively, if our own intuitions about how the world came into existence are to be trusted, then why can't we also trust our own sense that the death and devastation that occurred in New Orleans, and that occurs daily in our volatile and violent world, is morally outrageous, and that whoever is in charge -- if indeed someone is in charge -- is complicit in that outrage?

If we are bold enough to infer a creator from our observations of the world, then we might also be bold enough to judge that creator for the horrors that we cannot help but observe as well.

Defending God: This is a Test

In some sense, the Book of Job's answer is not really an answer at all. It simply tells us that we cannot understand the world, and that our question is therefore a product of our limited nature. Some, however, have attempted to answer the question more directly.

One of the common responses to the problem of evil is to say, as the Book of Job also says, that God is testing our faith when he makes us suffer. Job's wife and children are killed and his wealth taken away, in order to prove to Satan that Job truly is a good man. He is not, as Satan had suggested, simply behaving well as a condition of living the life of ease.

But this answer just replaces one question with another: Why are the deaths of innocent children and good people an acceptable price to pay for proving to Satan that Job is a good person? Why aren't such "trials" cruel and sadistic, as they would seem to most of us if a human being rather than God subjected another human being to them?

Testing people by hurting them, and then seeing how they react, is an unethical sort of experiment to perform, whether the experimenter is a nonbelieving scientist or whether He (or She) is God.

Another Defense: Free will

Some have offered another -- perhaps more sophisticated -- response to the problem of evil in the universe. Believers say that without free will, there would be no good in the world, only innocence. Goodness is a decision to do the right thing in the face of alternatives. Therefore, when a person truly cannot choose to do evil, it would not be accurate to call that person good.

If one accepts this argument, then the problem of evil is simply an inevitable byproduct of giving people the great gift of free will. If we have choices, then some of us will make the wrong ones. To allow for the possibility of the saint, God had to create a world in which the possibility of the sinner existed as well. Choice is an essential part of the good, but it carries with it the bad.

One problem with this scheme is that it does not actually reflect the way we seem to judge people in everyday life. Those who are tempted to do very bad things, but nonetheless refrain, are not considered the greatest people. Instead, we tend to admire most the people who appear to be irrepressibly drawn to do good, those people who would never even have thought of harming others.

By the same token, we tend to view the sociopath -- the person who does not feel any pull of conscience toward doing the right thing -- as a truly bad character.

The people, in other words, who exemplify good and evil, respectively, seem to be those for whom these two alternatives are not experienced as real choices at all.

In keeping with this observation, God could, then, have created everyone with the option, but no desire, to do terrible things. Under these conditions, the possibility of doing evil would theoretically exist, but no one would make that choice. If there were no genocide, then, goodness really could nonetheless survive. It would still be chosen, but not against the force of any contrary desire.

A second problem with the "free will" argument for God's benevolence or existence is that it does very little to explain natural disasters. When a storm comes along and drowns people, it is because the world that God created, by hypothesis, is designed to flood and otherwise wreak suffering on its human and nonhuman inhabitants.

One could, I suppose, say that because human beings helped to bring about the flood, through behavior that has led to global warming, the flood too is simply a byproduct of the gift of free will.

Natural disasters, however, long predated global warming and other human alterations of the natural environment. Indeed, pre-technological societies were, in many respects, at greater risk of destruction by natural causes than modern ones.

Why the Death Camp Inmates Prayed

There remains one loose end in the story of the inmates at Auschwitz. They convicted God in connection with the Holocaust. Necessarily, then, they rejected the arguments from Job, testing, and free will, just as I have. Yet they went on to recite praises to God. Why? Weren't they paying attention during the trial that had just concluded in a conviction?

There are a few possibilities to consider. The first is that the group did indeed conclude that God is arbitrary and malevolent. That realization, however, drove them to do what anyone might do in the face of a cruel and powerful dictator: attempt to mollify him with praise and servility.

A second possibility is that the inmates concluded that God does not truly deserve their prayers, but that people's prayers have never really been for God's benefit. Human beings pray because it gives them comfort and solace in times of anxiety and distress.

On this account, a person's faith in God does not reflect her sense that life is fair or good. Instead, it helps to bring about a sense of satisfaction with life as they experience it. Like eating, sleeping, and forming relationships, praying can be sustaining for people, and the belief in a benevolent deity can meet a need, regardless of whether it corresponds to the Truth.

A third possibility is that the inmates, like Job, accepted that their understanding of the universe -- and their sense that God is guilty -- is necessarily limited and that what may look like pure evil to mere mortals, is instead the work of a great and good deity.

If the third interpretation of the story is the correct one, then perhaps the lesson is this. We cannot judge God, because what looks bad to us in the present may turn out to be good.

And if that is the lesson, then perhaps religious faith encourages a somewhat ironic moral relativism. Though some of us may view others' actions as wrong, perhaps we should not be so quick to judge. Our moral intuitions are finite and thus flawed, and another person's "bad" behavior may come to seem "good" to us when we understand that person more fully.

To consider the possibility that we may be wrong when we judge others, would truly reflect a lesson of humility and patience in the face of what we do not understand. And that is perhaps the essence of what religion has to teach all of us about the problem of evil: We may not have the wisdom to judge our neighbors, even if one of those neighbors is God.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her columns on criminal law and procedure, among other subjects, may be found in the archive of her work on this site.

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