When I occasionally debate theists on the problem of suffering they will sometimes say that god had no choice but to create a world in which there is suffering. Or they will say that for every possible world that god could have created, there will always be one that is better, and so no possible world will ever be ideal. Given this constraint, god decides to create whatever world he sees fit. He's motivated, according to some theists, to create the possible world in which the maximum number of people freely enter into a loving relationship with him. Since this is often espoused by the likes of William Lane Craig, I want to add a few thoughts to this concept.
First, when I say "possible world" here I'm simply talking about a possible state of affairs or a possible reality that could exist. So one possible world could be a world where I was ever born, or it could be one where everything is exactly the same but there are no humans, or one where everything is the same but the Nazis won World War II, etc. It's just a possible alternative reality that god hypothetically could have created.
Now given god's omnipotence for all things logically possible, he could have created many other possible worlds if he so desired. So why create the one we live in? Why create man using a long multi-billion year evolutionary process, that required millions of years of conscious suffering? Surely god is not constrained by natural forces to create his objectives. He must have chosen it beforehand for some reason. What that reason is, is open to conjecture on the part of the theist, but if he entertains the notion that god takes pleasure in the evolutionary process unfolding like an artist taking pleasure in the composition, then god would have to take pleasure in watching millions of animals consciously suffer for millions of years.
Many atheists will ask, "If god wanted to create a world where we freely come to know and love him, why not just create a world where only people who would choose to freely love god are born?" This seems plausible at least on the surface of it. Why have billions of people born who are only going to end up in hell according to god's plan? It seems to me that if god is in the business of exemplifying maximal goodness, then this possible world where only those who would go to heaven were born would have outweighed the world we live in with all its unnecessary misery and suffering and billions headed to hell.
I may have found a way to allow it to occur without any violation of free will: Since a man ejaculates 100 million sperm cells, god could simply make it so that the one sperm cell that would produce a person who'd be a proper believer would be the one that fertilizes the egg, and the ones that would have created atheists and people of the wrong faith would never be born. This wouldn't violate anyone's free will and it would ensure that all persons born would freely choose to love god, and thus no one would go to hell. So why not that possible world? Does god instead want some people to go to hell? Does he enjoy their suffering? Some theists would say no, others would say yes.
And finally, if it's possible for god to create heaven—a place where everything's perfect, and there is no suffering and everything's intrinsically good, then why not just create heaven? Why create this world with all its misery for us to endure if the whole purpose of it is to create people who can freely love god? Why not just create a heaven populated with beings who'd also freely love god and yet never had to endure the hardships of a life on Earth? If god's purpose is to want beings to know him and love him, it does not seem implausible that he could have created a place where they do so voluntarily. It seems wasteful or perhaps even sadistic to create this world so that billions of years could pass until the one species arises that god really cares about, and then designs it so that most of those species members will end up in hell either due to having the audacity of critical thinking, or having had the unfortunate luck of being born into the wrong culture. It seems odd that an omnicient god would choose to do it that way, when he is not constrained by anything.
Theists over the centuries have tried to come up with enumerable ways to explain their way out of the problem if suffering. One common objection is based on original sin—but we have no good evidence that an episode or original sin every took place, and we know suffering took place before humans evolved. Another objection is that god has sufficient reasons for permitting suffering—but no one knows for sure what that reason is and we have to believe it essentially on faith. Yet another objection is one that I've addressed above, where god is constrained due to the impossibility of creating a world free from suffering and those who choose not to believe/worship him. I'm not buying this objection. Surely god's omnipotence gives him the power to create a world in which only those who would freely love him are born—at least from the fact that god can control what sperm cells are produced and which ones fertilize the mother's egg.
Either way, if god chose to create the world we live in, it doesn't seem like he was even trying to minimize suffering since we can all easily think of other plausible worlds that he could have created that are less miserable. It no doubt seems hopelessly at odds with god's omnibenevolence property.
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.