The Problem of Perfection
This is the third in a series of five articles addressing Irish writer Michael Nugent’s “twenty reasons why God seems implausible,” as he explained them in a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig in March of this year. During Mr. Nugent’s opening remarks he listed twenty or so reasons in rapid-fire succession, each leading into the next. Cumulatively, they built a pretty strong case for his position. This article addresses the points from that list which dealt with the problem of claiming God is perfect.
A note to the casual reader: Nugent’s comments touch on the weighty subject of evil, pain, and suffering. Entering into this subject matter is a difficult thing that must be handled with care. There are different ways of viewing the problem of pain and suffering. In my role as a software architect for a healthcare company, I viewed “cancer” as a disease category and “oncology” as a medical discipline. This is much different than the view I held of those two words when I watched my good friend John waste away and die from the disease at forty-six years old, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. I have experienced the personal side of this issue of pain and suffering. For the purposes of this article, I am intentionally limiting the scope of my comments to its philosophical and theoretical side.
Nugent’s points are written out below verbatim from the debate.
Reason 9: If god is all-perfect and all-good then it would have created a perfect universe. At a minimum, a perfect universe would not contain suffering or evil.
This reason hinges on the unspoken definition of a “perfect universe.” In the process of creation, perfection is inextricably linked to intent. An architect can call a house “perfect” when it perfectly matches the blueprints he drew up. A songwriter can say a song is “perfect” when it perfectly captures what he intended to say. And if Nugent had created the universe, we could look to him to define what would constitute a “perfect” universe. But since he did not, the only way he can claim that a universe that contains suffering and evil is imperfect is if he knows the teleological purposes of that universe. If God intended to create a universe free from suffering and evil then we would have to agree that He failed and is not all-perfect. However, Christianity teaches that God’s highest value is not freedom from suffering, but rather love:
“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”—Matthew 22:36-40
Love is only possible when expressed voluntarily by free moral agents. Free moral agents necessarily have the power of choice. This means the possibility of those agents choosing evil over good must exist in any universe in which love can exist. Therefore, a universe in which suffering and evil do not exist is a universe in which love cannot exist. And I submit that a universe without love is less perfect than a universe with suffering and evil. (For an in-depth explanation of this theory, see my article The Divine Gift-Love Theodicy.)
Moreover, we know from our experience that suffering can and often does lead to good. The Bible is full of passages that express that truth. Consider Genesis 50:20 or 2 Cor 1:3-4. There is also Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”—Romans 5:3-4 (Emphasis mine)
Christianity teaches that God has morally just reasons for allowing pain, suffering, and evil to exist in the universe. Therefore, the claim that the concept of an all-perfect, all-good God is incompatible with a universe that contains suffering and evil is demonstrably false.
It’s interesting to note that Nugent maintains that a universe that contains suffering and evil is less good than a universe that does not contain them. In doing so, he is passing a moral judgment on evil and suffering. This is perfectly aligned with the Christian worldview. Christians believe that good is better than evil, and joy is better than suffering because we believe God is the source of joy and goodness. It would be interesting to learn the logical basis on which Nugent holds these same moral positions. He must have a standard against which he measures possible universes to determine which are closer to the standard (good) and which are further away from the standard (bad). But without an ultimate source of objective moral perfection as its anchor, whatever standard Nugent is using has no logical ground. And here we see that not believing in God leaves him in a difficult position. Nugent is not only asserting an arbitrary moral standard—one that is based on random choice or personal preference rather than an objective standard—he has not solved the problem of the evil and suffering that exists in our universe. Rather, he has stripped away any chance of finding meaning or hope in it.
On the Christian view, as described in the verses above, suffering has a meaning and a purpose. Christians believe (because we have seen) that God brings good things from bad circumstances; he brings comfort to those who mourn, he exchanges beauty for ashes (Isa 61). On the atheist view, suffering ultimately serves no purpose at all. Richard Dawkins, arguably one of the most famous atheists alive today, sums it up well:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
Ironically, Dawkin’s short statement above, which ultimately concludes that there is no good and no evil, no justice or morality, is filled with moral sentiments. Phrases such as “beyond all decent contemplation,” “whimpering with fear,” and “starvation and misery” all convey a sense of moral condemnation. But I digress…
Reason 10: If you respond that even a perfect god can only do what is logically possible, then it is logically possible to have a universe without suffering or evil.
Agreed. However, as stated above, a universe without suffering or evil would not contain love.
Reason 11: If you respond that the universe is actually perfect, we just don’t understand how, then why would god have to intervene in this perfect universe through miracles?
Christianity does not claim that God intervenes in this universe to fix imperfect things, but rather to call people to Himself. Miracles authenticate God’s message and his messengers; they demonstrate God’s sovereign power over creation and attest to His commitment to the ultimate good of His people.
Specifically, the New Testament miracles served to authenticate the character of Jesus and his relationship to God. Their purpose was to demonstrate that God sent Jesus, that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, and that He is the Messiah and the Son of God.
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”—Acts 2:22
(See also Mark 16:20 and Acts 14:3)
For the reasons stated above—that the “perfection” of a created thing is defined by its creator, that love is a higher Christian value than the absence of suffering, that suffering can lead to moral good, and that God’s miracles are not due to a lack of perfection in the universe—I submit that Nugent’s arguments regarding the perfection of God fail to provide sufficient evidence or logical reasons to support his premise that the existence of God is implausible.
Next in the Series—Part 4: God and the Nature of Goodness.