Saturday, June 19, 2010

What about the four?

In September last year a South African Airlink Jetstream 41 crashed just after take-off from Durban International Airport. The aircraft had the capacity to carry about 30 passengers, but this was a maintenance flight and all the seats were empty; there were only three crew members on board. The pilot managed to crash-land the plane in a school field without diving into any homes. As luck would have it, it was a public holiday, so the school was empty.

I recall listening to the news report on the radio that day, and I remember the news reader saying that the accident could have been much worse, and added: "God was smiling on South Africa today." I guess, if I had any belief in the supernatural at all, that I could bring myself to accept the idea that God chose to guide the pilot's hands so as to avoid the homes; that God somehow tweaked the natural order of events so that there were no passengers on board; that God somehow arranged that this happened on a holiday, so that no children were injured.

I could bring myself to accept all this, but for four problems . . .
  • Captain Alistair Freeman: he later died from his injuries.
  • Co-pilot Sonya Birman: she sustained multiple fractures and broke both her ankles.
  • Flight attendant Rodelle Oosthuizen: she sustained a fractured spine and facial injuries.
  • Ebrahim Mthethwa: a municipal worker on the ground who was hit by the plane, and later rushed to hospital in a critical condition.

God might have been smiling on South Africa, but was he smiling on these four, and their families? Some theists claim that God is all-loving and all-powerful, but if this is the case wouldn't he have used his omnipotence to help all parties involved by ensuring that this accident didn't occur at all?

If a theist praises an all-loving god for only helping some and not others, are they not implicitly acknowledging a god who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, against suffering; a god who has the ability to help only a little, but is often beaten by forces greater than himself; a tinkerer of events, rather than the master helmsman? If I ever come to a point of believing in some sort of god again, this is the only concept of god that would make sense to me, considering what we observe in the world around us.


CyberKitten said...

It does make me roll my eyes lots when people use the miracle word about plane crashes. Remember that one recently that crashed into the ocean with only a single survivor? It was, rather inevitably described as a miracle - not much of a miracle for the 200+ people who died I couldn't help thinking.

Phil said...


Based on your previous posts and your testimony as an "ex-Christian," it seems you are fairly familiar with the Bible. Based on your understanding of the scriptures, do you believe the only answer for why suffering occurs is that God "struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, against suffering"? I believe the Bible gives us a much different reason for why pain, suffering, and tragedy exist, and it's not because God is unable to prevent them (nor is it because He is unloving). I'd be glad to elaborate if needed, but I think you may already know. Incidentally, I agree that saying God was "smiling on South Africa" is a bit insensitive toward those who were affected by this horrific accident.

By the way, I love the new look of the site!

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Thanks for the comment. At the moment I can think of two possible responses to my post. The first would be the greater good defense, which argues that God only allows meaningful suffering. That is, that suffering that ultimately leads to some counterbalancing good. For example, suffering can sometimes result in positive personal and character growth.

The second response would be the argument for free will. God has given human beings free will, which in itself is a great good (without free will, we would be simple robots). Free will only has meaning if we can choose between certain polar opposites of behavior. So evil behavior (which sometimes results in suffering) has to exist in order for free will to have any meaning at all.

I’m not an apologist, so I don’t know if I’ve described these adequately; but am I close enough?

Phil said...


Yes, I think you pretty adequately summarized two of the more well-known alternative views to the idea that God is unable to prevent suffering and/or not loving enough to prevent it. My personal view is along the lines of the first you mentioned above. However, I don't believe God's endgame is merely personal growth for the individual (though it can include that), but rather cosmic restoration and the glorification of Himself. Thanks for taking the time to respond! By the way, notwithstanding your current (lack of) belief, do you think the two views you shared above are reasonable positions if we could presuppose the God of the Bible does exist?

Karla said...

I think my first comment got lost in cyberspace so I am trying again:

Both of those are common Christian answers. Though I wouldn't give the former, and the later is partly along the lines of what I think. The thing is that we live in a world that has fallen from alignment with the goodness of God. The reason there is suffering (in the general sense) is that we are outside of the habitat we were designed to live within. We are not in line with God. (I say we in indicating all of humanity and creation that has ever existed).

We are in a broken world so to speak. And I think most of us can look at the world and see many things that "ought not to" be that way. We see suffering that should not happen and yet we do not stop and ask how we know it ought not to happen other than that we should not like it to happen to us. But something deeper is resonate within us than self-preservation, there is a sense of justice and yet science cannot give us a source of that knowledge. If we can see the world broken, we have some sort of knowledge of what a fixed world would be and if we have that we have to ask where that came from?

In the specific sense as to why some die on an airplane crash and others live, I do not know. But that happening is more evidence of a broken world in need of repair.

Also it is necessary to look at the reason for goodness in the world. Why is there pleasure? Why is there good? How are we able to know what ought to be even when we cannot live it out?

Ana R Kist said...

Interesting , not sure if you have come across blogs on cognitive dissonance?

This blog piece is well writen and may help with another way of tackling things.

I am a recovering christian more so than just a ex christian.

Christoff said...

Hi Guys,

To respond to these two "general replies" normally provided by religious people, here's my criticism on these replies:

"... suffering that ultimately leads to some counterbalancing good ..."

So is God a Utilitarian then? Is it ok to allow suffering if it can be demonstrated that this is necessary to accomplish some greater good? So can we (under the same "rules") take one person's life if it will ensure the survival of 5 others (eg. harvesting one perfectly healthy individual's organs to transplant into 5 sick people awaiting donor organs)?

I doubt that we would allow this, yet we "allow/condone" exactly this when using this "greater good" argument in defence of God...

"God has given human beings free will"

This "free will" argument seems like a good one on the surface, but it borders on ridiculous. What is meant by "FREE" when one says we have "FREE will"? Our choices are not free.

For one, the range of choices available to us is limited, thus inhibiting us from making the choice we would LIKE to make, if we had an unlimited range of choices (have you seen the movie "God On Trial"? The Nazi soldier telling the Jewish father that he can choose which ONE of his THREE sons he'd like to keep, is a good case in point)

Secondly, our actual choice-making is also heavily influenced by our upbringing, culture, religion, etc. This also limits our "free" will. Eg. When a Roman Catholic couple feels they have enough children already, using condoms as part of the family planning strategy is a no-go, because of their religion. Their choice, their free will to make a choice, is thus not so free after all.

What if there is no theistic God? What if planes sometimes crash. What if all survivors sometimes die? What if some passengers sometimes survive? What if planes sometimes crash in heavily populated areas and sometimges in deserted areas? What if all of this is just the natural order and NOT part of some divine plan of some super-being?

Phil said...


Thanks for providing some thoughtful criticisms to the earlier discussion. I have some thoughts in response, from a theistic (specifically Christian) perspective:

Reagarding your first criticism, we as humans do in fact encourage some forms of suffering in order to faciliate a "greater good" (such as amputating a gangreneous limb to save a life, or a father disciplining a child to bring about obedience). It's just that your example of killing someone to harvest organs is not one in which a greater good is in fact achieved. The reason you stated, "I doubt we would allow this" seems to indicate that for you, and probably most people, the greater good would in fact be to follow God's commandment not to murder (whether or not you believe in God), because such a subjective practice of life-taking would undoubtedly lead to all sorts of abuses by a depraved human society. However, for an omniscient, just God who forsees all contingencies in advance, it would be His divine prerogative to allow for whatever suffering He deemed appropriate in order to bring about an ultimate greater good... even if we humans, with our limited knowledge, can't recognize it at the time.

Regarding your second criticism, I don't believe proponents of the "free will" position are trying to state that humans have an unlimited range of options for every decision. The term "free will" is usually used as an antithesis to fatalism, the idea that God is a cosmic puppet-master pulling everyone's strings and enforcing every one of their decisions for them. In other words, fatalism gives people zero options to choose from because they have no choice to begin with. I believe making that distinction lends a little more credibility to the "free will" argument, though it's not the position I personally espouse as the strongest.

Shirley said...

As a Christian, I find your blog very interesting. While I am a strong believer, I also understand why many want nothing to do with it. If you can claim Christianity yet live however you choose ... yet cheat on your spouse, or abuse children, or cheat on your taxes, etc., I can see why many choose against it! If divorce is as high in the church as well as out of it, something is very wrong! And I am the first to say there is a whole lot wrong in the church ... and it is sad, because that is not the way it is supposed to be.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Good responses! Sorry for the late response: I have been quite busy of late.

With regards to the free-will argument: I don’t yet see a clear connection between suffering and the application of free-will. One would expect, if we accept the argument, that good people (who use their free-will wisely) would suffer less; and evil people more. I guess it can be argued that we do see this where people make intentional choices that directly cause suffering, but in many cases some events cause suffering that randomly strikes anyone, irrespective of whether they are good, bad, poor, rich, atheist, theist, Republican, Democrat, etc, etc. In these cases I don't see any link to free-will.

In fact, the patterns of some forms of suffering seem to be linked to other factors. I am an atheist, but despite the fact I have rejected who you believe is the creator of the universe (an evil act, a major misuse of my free-will?), I suffer less than many Christians living in some African countries where starvation and disease is a daily reality. So in this case suffering doesn’t seem to be linked to the choices I’ve made in terms of doing evil or good, but rather linked to the socio-economic situation of the country in which I was born.

Phil said...

Thanks again for responding, Kevin! I certainly agree with parts of your most recent comments, with perhaps a slightly different outlook on others... I'll try to explain briefly.

As a general principle of life, I believe we usually reap what we sow: if we make foolish, evil choices, we are more likely to bring about undue suffering both in our lives and in the lives of those around us (the Proverbs have much to say on this topic). This general rule already establishes at least somewhat of a connection between free will and suffering.

It seems from your comments above that we probably agree on that, but you have rightly pointed out that suffering also touches the lives of the "innocent" (the biblical story of Job comes to mind), and in fact those who try to live for God's glory sometimes suffer even more (2 Tim. 3:12).

So, how can a Christian maintain that "free will" accounts for the suffering of the righteous? By taking into account the universal effects of original sin. By Adam and Eve making a "free will" decision to sin in Eden, they brought this world (and their descendants) under a curse (Rom. 8:20). So, now humanity has to deal with tragedy, evil, and sorrow even when we each individually attempt to live in godly ways.

So, while specific suffering is often linked to individual free will (by our own personal evil decisions), the ultimate reality of human suffering-- which affects all persons indiscriminately-- is linked to the free will of our ancestors. Either way, I believe the Bible clearly has an explanation for us, should we choose to accept it.

Zac said...

Hi Kevin, just came across your blog recently.
I've been a Sunday morning Christian for a long time, and have only recently started actually trying to go deeper in my faith recently. I've always had some doubts. I've been looking at stories of people who really searched for God with all their hearts and never found him at all.

I don't have a good answer for why God allows suffering. And I hate, just hate, when every thing that appears to go well immediately gets attributed to divine intervention.

I do raise this one point that perhaps is brought up too often, but does make sense in some ways: Christians tend to say that we are not to be about this life, but the next, and this thinking (I think) is what keeps those going who are Christians and have suffered terribly. Just another point to throw in the mix.

At the moment my point of view is "Christianity doesn't make a lot of sense, but it makes more sense than anything else".

I have to say that I have rarely found an atheist with such an insight and humility. And unfortunately, I don't find many christians who understand atheists either. I think the points you raise are things that every Christian needs to grapple with, and far too many ignore.

Kevin Parry said...

Zac wrote
At the moment my point of view is "Christianity doesn't make a lot of sense, but it makes more sense than anything else".

Welcome Zac! Good point, but a further question to ask yourself is: "are the claims of Christianity consistent with reality?"

Phil wrote
By taking into account the universal effects of original sin.

But doesn’t this invalidate the free will argument, in terms of relating to an individual?

Moreover, this would make sense for a righteous person who suffers, but what of an unrighteous person who prospers? I am an atheist who has committed the ultimate sin, but it seems as if I have been untouched by the consequences of original sin (in terms of suffering), but also untouched by the consequences of my free will.

But this brings me closer to the main point I want to make. You asked previously if your explanations are reasonable positions if we could presuppose the God of the Bible does exist? Yes, they are reasonable on paper, but we can’t test their validity in reality because what we would expect to see if your explanations are true are indistinguishable from what we would expect to see if events in this world are not guided at all, but are indeed truly random.

So we have a world where events do seem cause random and meaningless suffering. If that weren’t the case, apologists would be unemployed :-) Suffering seems to have no pattern in terms of who it strikes, or why it occurs in some instances. We have two explanations: either we do indeed live in a world where events are not guided, or there is indeed a God who guides events (for reasons we don’t really know) in such a way – and this is the crux of my point – so as to make it appear as if the suffering is random. There is no way to tell the two explanations apart, so wouldn’t it be simply logical to accept the explanation with the fewest assumptions (ie, suffering strikes people because they were in the long place at the wrong time, and that’s all to it).

Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comments . . . study and work are keeping me very busy.

Phil said...

Hey Kevin,

No apologiges needed for your delay in response; I know this is a hobby for you and that we probably all have more pressing matters in our lives at times. Still, I appreciate you continuing to take the time to read my ongoing thoughts, and your responses are truly keeping my mind at work. I'll try my best to respond to your thoughts, and I'll try my best to be succinct :-)

Your first question was "doesn't [the universal effects of original sin] invalidate the free will argument in terms of relating to an individual?" I think you are confusing my argument above with arguments you have heard from other Christians: I did not ever state that each and every person's individual free will somehow collectively accounts for the sin-curse that was placed on the world. My argument was that it was Adam and Eve's free will decision that alone brought the sin-curse, the disasterous consenquences on this world that all humans unfortunately have to experience. In other words, I am saying that the reality of the free will phenomenon does in fact explain why we see suffering today, but it is not necessarily because of the free will that each individual exercises-- it is rather because of the free will which was exercised by certain individuals in past history. In short, we're paying the consequences for our ancestors bad decisions (as well as our own).

You also asked, "what of an unrighteous person who prospers?" I suppose it depends on what you mean by "prospers." the Bible says sin is pleasing (i.e., can bring prosperity) for a season. If it didn't, I suppose there wouldn't really be any temptation to sin in the first place! So, of course we may look at certain evil people doing certain evil things and be deceived into thinking that it actually pays off to do that evil, but doing so fails to take into account the ultimate end of such lifestyles (see Psalm 73; it will save me a lot of typing here).

You also commented, "it seems as if I have been untouched by the consequences of original sin (in terms of suffering)." I beg to differ: if you've ever gotten sick, ever lost a loved one to death, ever been exhausted from hard work, ever experienced conflict in your marriage, etc., you have been touched by the consequences of original sin. None of the above problems existed when God first created the universe and declared it "very good"-- original sin is responsible for all that. And additionally, your own individual free will plays a part in some of those situations (how many of us could have avoided a painful argument or conflict with a loved one if we had chosen to conduct ourselves differently at the time!).

(see part 2 below)

Phil said...

(continued from above)

Your final paragraph seemed to revolve around one central point: "Suffering seems to have no pattern in terms of who it strikes..." Again, I disagree. In my experience, suffering is more likely if I make an irresponsible (sinful) decision. If I am lazy and don't complete a school assignment, I must suffer the consequences of a low grade. If I don't take responsibility to properly discipline my children, I must suffer the consequences of their rebellious insubordination (something I've observed first-hand many times). If I am unfaithful to my marriage vows and commit adultery, I may have to suffer the heartache of divorce (and increase the risk of physically suffering with an STD). If I mouth off to my boss at work, I will suffer the loss of my job and income. My point is not that well-mannered folks never suffer (again, original sin affects us all)-- my point is that we will likely suffer so much more if we use our free will to make foolish choices. There is indeed a pattern, one so simple and foundational to our lives that we often don't even recognize it.

Again, these basic principles and realities that we see manifest in everyday life are exactly the type of principles we see affirmed in Scripture, and I see no intellectual difficulty believing in such a God. Even you concede that these explanations are "reasonable on paper." I believe it's more than reasonable; it is the best explanation for the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Erm, I think you missed something even bigger, beyond that plane crash and the unfortunate four South Africa overall isn't quite utopia. Far from it and those neighbouring countries even worse. I suppose god doesn't just frown upon them he would ---- on them? But to be fair I don't think it's common christian belief that God intervenes haphazardly as such. I think it's just a news reporter using that as soon segway or closing line.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Sorry for the late response. I’ve just finished the current semester in terms of my studies, so I have more time to devote to my blog (yay!). Just two thoughts on the free will defense to the problem of evil:

(1) Let’s consider an instance of rape: if I understand the free will defense correctly, God is allowing an instance of rape to occur because he has provided freedom to the perpetrator to make his or her own choice in terms of doing (or not doing) the act. But what about the victim’s free will? In the case of rape it doesn’t seem that the victim has the freedom to exercise her (or his) free will in terms of making a choice to be raped or not. In other words, the free will defense doesn’t make sense because at the end of the day there is often a victim of an evil act whose free will is compromised.

(2) If God prefers not to interfere with free will, then how does one consider intercessory prayer? I’ve heard Christians pray that God should ‘guide the hands of the surgeons’ when praying for a friend who is on the operating table. But if God does this, isn’t he limiting the free will of the surgeons in terms of the range of decisions (either right or wrong decisions) they have to make during a medical operation?

BC500 said...

Reading the last paragraph of your post on, “What about the four?” You state a presumption as to what a loving God should be doing in the world. How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we cannot foresee? A small child will resist painful sting of the parent’s application of the orange nacure-a-chrome that will cure and prevent a serious infection. We cannot comprehend God’s action or apparent lack of action sometimes, any more than the small child with a bleeding cut. We can trust God the same as the child can trust the parent. God did not cause the child’s injury but He will heal it.

Which one of the following is true?
1. God does not exist because He does not match the God you think He should be.
2. God does not exist because He simply does not exist.
3. God exists regardless of what any human understands about him or not.