The Language of God-7: The problem of theodicy

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007.)

Any defense of god has to confront a tough question: Why would a benevolent and omnipotent god allow suffering? The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

Collins has nothing really new to say about this age-old problem but to his credit he does not avoid it. On the question of suffering to people caused by other people, he blames free will.

[We] have somehow been given free will, the ability to do as we please. We use this ability frequently to disobey the Moral Law. And when we do so, we shouldn’t then blame God for the consequences. (p. 64)

Collins seems to give a curious excuse for the evil caused by religious people, the very people who should be acutely able to distinguish between right and wrong.

In some unusual cultures the [Moral Law] takes on surprising trappings – consider witch burning in seventeenth century America. Yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic actions? (p. 39)

He also points to the suffering caused by non-religious people throughout history, as if that explained anything. I hear this argument often and always find it an odd one for religious people to make, even accepting for the moment the dubious proposition that throughout the course of history nonbelievers have caused more suffering than religious people. Is it really considered an argument in favor of a benevolent and omnipotent god that his followers have caused less suffering than non-believers?

On the more difficult question of suffering caused by natural disasters that god presumably has the power to avert and in which free will is not involved, Collins gives a confused answer, suggesting that these occur due to ‘natural’ laws and causes, and for god to prevent such events would require him to make repeated interventions in contravention of these laws. He says that this, for some reason, would be bad.

Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm and would be interfering with human acts of free will. (p. 65-68)

The notion that people prefer suffering to the ‘chaos’ caused by repeated intervention by god in the world is a specious argument. If parents had a child who was dying of cancer, I bet that they would want more than anything for god to intervene and cure her, and wouldn’t give a damn if that caused ‘chaos’ for anyone else, including those scientists doing cancer research. In fact, religious people are always praying for god to intervene in such ways. That is when their need for god is greatest. If the people god supposedly created and whom he supposedly loves deeply want god to intervene to do a manifestly good thing and don’t care about chaos, why does god care? Or if he really wants natural laws to work but also cares about curing people of cancer, why doesn’t he whisper in Collins’s or other scientists’ ears the mechanism he used to cause cancer cells to emerge and how they can cure it?

Recognizing that saying what is effectively “Hey, stuff happens!” is weak consolation for massive and widespread suffering due to natural disasters or the actions of people, Collins inevitably retreats to a reliable refuge and plays that old get-out-of-jail-free card, the ‘mysterious ways clause’.

[If] God is loving and wishes for the best of us, then perhaps His plan is not the same as our plan . . . We may never fully understand the reasons for these painful experiences, but we can begin to accept the idea that there may be such reasons. (p. 65-68)
. . .
Recognize that a great deal of suffering is brought upon us by our own actions or those of others, and that in a world where humans practice free will, it is inevitable. Understand, also, that if God is real, His purposes will often not be the same as ours. Hard though it is to accept, a complete absence of suffering may not be in the best interest of our spiritual growth. (p. 305)

In other words, suffering might be good for us. But while pleading ignorance of god’s intent when it comes to suffering, like all religious believers, Collins seems to have extraordinary knowledge of god’s character and nature when it works to his advantage, like when he knows which act is a miracle of god and which isn’t or how god has chosen to act. For example, when arguing against young Earth creationism ideas, he says “Is this consistent with everything else we know about God from the Bible, from the Moral Law, and from every other source – namely, that He is loving, logical, and consistent?” (p. 237)

Eventually this is what all believers in god end up doing: Defining god in such a way that it suits their own personal emotional needs, adding ad hoc assumptions to deal with any and all problems created by their definition, and invoking the mysterious ways clause as a last resort when even the ad hoc additions aren’t sufficient.

Francis Collins, for all his sophistication and scientific expertise, is no different.

POST SCRIPT: Tim Russert

It should be no surprise that his fellow Villagers are praising the late Tim Russert as a great journalist. He was, after all, one of them, serving their interests faithfully. But while I am sorry that he died suddenly at an early age, Jonathan Schwarz captures my feelings exactly about how people like Russert endlessly drive their preferred chosen narrative, even if it is contradicted by facts.

How Tim Russert Planted The Seeds For Iraq War

December 19, 1999: With Al Gore as guest, Tim Russert says on Meet the Press: “One year ago Saddam Hussein threw out all the inspectors who could find his chemical or nuclear capability.” Russert asks Gore what he’s going to do about this.

Soon afterward: Sam Husseini leaves a message on Russert’s answering machine, and speaks to two of his assistants, telling them the inspectors were withdrawn by the UN at the request of the United States.

January 2, 2000: With Madeleine Albright as guest, Tim Russert repeats the error on Meet the Press: “One year ago, the inspectors were told, ‘Get out,’ by Saddam Hussein.” Russert asks Albright what she’s going to do about this.

January 21, 2000: Sam Husseini writes a letter to Russert, again laying out the facts, and requests a correction.

January 22, 2000-March 19, 2003: Russert never corrects his error.

March 19, 2003-present: Hundreds of thousands of people die in Iraq War. Russert dies, not in Iraq War. Official Washington weeps copious tears for Russert and his Extraordinary Journalistic Standards.

Notice that even if Husseini was not considered important enough to be listened to, it looks as if none of the many, many Village journalists who knew Russert bothered to tell him the truth about the inspectors either. They all live together in their Village and believe their Village myths, and then foist them on us. It was because of this relentless driving of the White House’s preferred war narrative that so many people, even now, believe so many false things about the Iraq war.

David North and David Walsh provide a much better review of Russert and his career than the hagiography that went on over the weekend.


  1. says

    According to the Case Daily, Collins is the winner of the Inamori Ethics Prize, and he’ll be speaking here on September 4.

    I might have to take the opportunity to grill him on some of these topics 😉 His dismissal of natural disasters and cancer-via-genetic-misspellings as “order” (as opposed to chaos) seems like it would be particular nonsense to any rational person. Hope to see you there!

  2. says


    Yes, he is coming here but his visit is related to bioethics and on that issue he is very good. I will be writing about Collins and bioethical issues later this week and/or early next week.

  3. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    The issue of theodicy is quite interesting. Indeed, I suspect many more people abandon religion because of this point than because of logical inconsistencies in defending the existence of god. It goes back to the values issue: if god does not provide value (e.g., mitigating personal suffering) of what use is god?

    Not surprisingly, the topic of theodicy is central to many theological discussions and writings, both ancient and modern. I’ve seen it written by several people that theodicy is the central religious issue.

    There are numerous ways to “tackle” this problem, some perhaps less compelling than others. Personally, I agree that Collins’ “freewill” theodicy (a rather common one) falls short of the mark.

    I also find the “mysterious ways clause” as you put it rather unsatisfying, too, although I do not think I feel that it is as weak an argument as you make it out to be. I often use such an argument to persuade my children that they should do what I say instead of what they are inclined to do. If they want to play on the front seat of the car, for example, I might very well simply state “no, that’s not safe” and (depending on their age) point out that I am in a much better position to know what is safe for them and what is not.

    But I think a better approach to the theodicy problem is to simply abandon at least one of the two attributes that Epicurius attributes to God, either omniscience or (better I think) omnipotence. Indeed, a god that is not all powerful and/or not all-knowing certainly will not be in particularly good position to act in any kind of “supernatural way” so as to remove some specific suffering.

    I realize that this kind of model for god is not the “dominant paradigm” one hears about these days, but on the other hand this kind of viewpoint not an entirely negligible minority view either. This forum is not really the place to go into it, but several authors have written coherantly on “liberal” theologies where certain assumed characteristics of god, such as omnipotentence, and supernatural existence, and so forth are abandoned. Examples of this kind of thing include Alfred North Whitehead who coined the term “process theology” and Harold Kushner who wrote a number of popular books on the subject.

  4. Greg says

    Hi Mano,

    This constant regurgitation of this “good and loving god that wishes the best for us” doesn’t make sense to me. To me it seems like people who keep saying have never actually thought about what they are implying when they do. Technically speaking why would an hypothetical omnipotent being that has no limitations such a physical body to produce the chemicals necessary to experience emotions of love, fear, etc even care about anything?

    Also why would such a “loving and good” god banish billions upon billions of people to an eternal life of hell for simply not believing in him in the absence of any evidence that he actually exists or because they were taught the wrong religion?

    On a much smaller scale…
    Is a person not considered evil, sick and or depraved in any society if they torture another just because their love wasn’t returned?

    With regards to free will… does that not imply that we are entitled to have our own thoughts? Because the threat of eternal damnation seems to me like a pretty big push against free will.

  5. says


    The problem with abandoning either or both omnipotence and omniscience is that you have to then start drawing lines about what god can do and know. Presumably it is more than what a human can do or know but how much more?

    It may be possible to carefully circumscribe god’s abilities to make him undetectable and unknowable but the end point of that is a god who does not do anything. And then Epicurus’s last question “Then why call him god?” becomes pertinent.

    The metaphor of god as a father and humans as small children who cannot understand his purposes is a little condescending to humans. It is also of limited use since it can be invoked only in a narrow range of situations. Presumably if your children were on the verge of doing something really dangerous, you would not bother with trying to persuade them of your superior judgment and knowledge that they are not privy to, but would simply physically prevent them from doing it.

  6. says


    Regarding your point about the harsh treatment that god supposedly metes out to unbelievers, you might be interested in an article that supports your view that appeared in Harpers magazine, Dec. 2007, p. 28. It is titled “Another argument against god” and is by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher.

    I will be writing about it in the near future.

  7. Greg says

    Thanks Mano,

    I’ll definately go search that article out. Just recently found your blog entries and I must say I’m extremely impressed. As someone who has been fasinated with these subjects for a long time I’m really grateful too have stumbled upon your site.

    Excellent work. Looking forward to reading through your book (just ordered) archives and future articles.

  8. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my comments. This has been a very interesting series of posts.

    This question of “why call him god” is quite interesting. If your definition of god is an all-powerful and all-knowing, supernatural being, then those theologians who espouse a model of a god that is neither omnipotent nor omniscient — by this definition — are not religious. Indeed, such a criticism has been leveled at this kind of theology by religious conservatives.

    There have been several reasons put forth for “believing” in a god who is neither ominipotent nor omniscient. As we have discussed in the past, many people find personal, emotional, and social value in their religious perspectives and practices. For some people, enjoying and sharing these values does not require that one have a specific beliefs about whether god has some particular metaphysical property, such as omnipotentence. The value is in the metaphor. In this sense, the value of god and religion is similar to the value of art or music or poetry. I do not rely on a painter to be omnipotent to obtain real personal value from the painting. I can be deeply touched by a musical composition even if someone might argue that this is “merely a human construct”.

  9. says


    I don’t disagree with you at all about this. But I suspect that what you are describing, god as metaphor, would be unacceptable to most religious believers.

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