I promised myself that I’d finish my review of Nick Hawkes’ Who Ordered the Universe?, and, after a very long delay, I’m finally getting round to it! This will be the final part, I hope, my assessment of the third chapter, with a few final comments.
The question of why there is suffering has always been one of the most challenging for religions that invoke a loving Creator, such as Christianity. If God created the world and populated it with humans, whom He loves, and sentient animals who presumably can’t even choose their fate, why does life involve such a prevalence of suffering, almost ubiquitous, often hideous and inescapable?
Nick Hawkes says, “Nothing sorts out the validity of philosophies and religions like the issue of suffering,” and he boldly entitles the third chapter, “The Evidence of God in Suffering”, so, whether he sees suffering as a reason to question the existence of a loving creator, he certainly suggests that it is evidence for one.
He begins by acknowledging that it is, at least for others, a problem, citing a survey he himself conducted, in which 41% of 311 tertiary-trained people believed that suffering suggested “no loving God is in control”. Strangely, though, he makes no attempt to analyse why they might think that, simply moves on, and never returns.
If God exists, it will be almost impossible to believe that he has not left clues about himself and his purpose in this key area. Just as importantly, if it can be shown that the Bible’s teaching on suffering is unusable, simplistic, inadequate, or untrue, we can dismiss the idea of God. However, if biblical teaching on suffering gives the fullest and most satisfying answers possible, the signs are good that God exists.
There’s not much to argue with there, except maybe Hawkes’ preference for “clues” rather than evidence. We’ll see how well his thesis passes these tests.
He gives a brief statement of how Hindus, Buddhists and Humanists view suffering, dismisses atheism as requiring meaninglessness, and then tells a story:
There was once a young man who fell into a pit with walls so steep that he couldn’t get out. Leaders of several of the world’s religions came to the edge of the pit and said that if the man had behaved better and been wiser, he wouldn’t have fallen into the pit. After they left, a New Age devotee came and said to the man that if he closed his eyes and practised trancendental meditation, he could pretend the pit wasn’t there. The next person who came to the edge of the pit was a postmodernist. He called down to the imprisoned man and told him that he had a valid lifestyle and had obviously been liberated from the shackles of conventionalism by being in the pit. Meanwhile, the man remained trapped in the pit.
Can Christianity fare any better? […] Does Christianity make sense of what we see in life and address adequately the full complexities of this difficult subject? […] I don’t just want to explore the claim that Christianity makes people happy. Plenty of deluded people are happy.
The answer Hawkes will provide in some detail over the rest of the chapter is indicated briefly by another anecdote, in which he responds to an atheist who was badly wounded in Vietnam and thus doubted that God was looking after him. Hawkes criticised the veteran’s conception of God as a “good-luck charm”, saying “I wouldn’t believe in that god either”, and then he states who “the one true God” is:
the God who loves you, who died for you, and who said he would never leave you, even in the bad times … the God who said that Christians are not immune to suffering, but would be persecuted like he was … the God who calls us to be faithful and work with him on a project to defeat sin and suffering – the God who actually exists.
There is no denying the emotional impact of this statement. I suggest that it would make anyone want to believe, especially when they’re suffering. But we should therefore note its potential for being a comforting delusion. In this short description there is the comfort a human adult can be expected to desire, the dedicated love of a parent (but all-powerful, and forever); there is the hand-holding in “the bad times”, which is obviously comforting; there is the idea that our suffering (if we embrace Christianity) is going to be worse than other people’s, but it is their fault (we are persecuted by heathens), which helps to transform our suffering into self-righteousness and belief in our superiority; and this is further emphasized by the message that maintaining our faith helps God’s grand scheme to finally defeat suffering. Not mentioned specifically, there is the temptation of life after death in heaven. Hawkes again simply moves on, apparently without noticing this potential for deluded comfort, despite suggesting only a moment ago that he’d take this problem seriously.
Readers with even a cursory knowledge of Christian theology will already know the reason why “sin” and “suffering” are connected in that phrase, but will have no idea just how ridiculous Hawkes’ claims are about get to support this ancient dogma. Suffering, we will be told, is the result of humans failing to follow God’s will. But this is a book by a self-styled “scientist”, a trained biologist who does not deny evolution (however badly conceived), so there should be at least one elephant in the room, in fact, millions of elephants…wilderbeest, kangaroos, dinosaurs…
These, we infer, suffer too, but aren’t even of the same species and aren’t required to be ethical. Fear not, the good doctor will explain why billions upon billions of sentient animals have ripped each other apart, parasitized each other, frozen or baked, drowned, fallen into a ravine or slowly rotted to death from a casual wound for millions of years before humans evolved on the plains of Africa.
Two Causes of Suffering: Your Fault and Everybody’s Fault
Hawkes divides suffering into two types. First, there is suffering due to one’s own personal choices. He gives a quick list of some behaviours that the Book of Proverbs says cause “needless suffering”, including laziness, lack of generosity, sexual immorality and failing to discipline your child. While we may argue about some of the categories, there is little wrong with the logic here: poor choices can lead to suffering; only a fool would dispute it.
But we should also note that this first type of cause is categorized as “sin”, which Hawkes describes as “fall[ing] short of God’s holiness in some way”, without a moment’s thought that it might be innocent mistakes, ignorance, genetic programming, determinism, random chance, or a complex mixture of these. No, doing something that results in suffering is morally bad and impious.
Presumably these acts can’t explain suffering of the ignorant beasts who came before us, or any humans who have not been educated in exactly what God wants in any particular situation and have the faculties to understand and conform to it. Perhaps other Christians might bother to exclude those who have not heard of Jesus yet, or those who are mentally incapable of understanding God’s demands, or innocent children; Hawkes doesn’t. It’s easy to pass over a casual reading of this, especially if already familiar with Christian teachings, without noticing what a condemnatory philosophy it is. If you suffer from making a bad choice, you are bad, not just the choice. This sinfulness of poor choices is casually reinforced by the next sub-heading, which asks, “Do bad things only happen to bad people?”
The other kind of suffering, Hawkes says, is due to “the rejection of God by all people, and of the world’s choice to go down a path that God never intended.” We are introduced to this category of sin by Jesus himself explaining why a tower fell on eighteen people and killed them, despite this happening to people in Jerusalem, not the “northern troublemakers” in Galilee. This was Jesus’ explanation for what Hawkes describes as “a tragic accident which had nothing to do with people’s poor choices.” In this way, he says, “Jesus crashes against this simplistic thinking” that only bad people suffer.
Indeed, you can expect to suffer for other people’s badness as well as your own! But there’s no relaxing of the blame, is there? A “tragic accident” is still not happenstance, nobody’s fault at all, according to Jesus. For everyone’s sinfulness we are told we must “turn to God and seek his forgiveness”. But there is no suggestion that seeking forgiveness removes the suffering, either. We suffer anyway, and must repent (other people’s sins): “Forgive me, Father; somebody sinned…”. This is attrocious, ethically monstrous. Imagine parenting or teaching children this way (I suppose we have Catholic schools as exemplars, so we needn’t imagine).
Hawkes says, “This teaching makes sense. It in no way supports the silly idea that only evil people suffer.” He has all through this book demonstrated his ignorance of the fact that many ideas can be said to “make sense” without this indicating their ontological reality. Within a deliberately narrow view, from firmly attaching blinkers to your head, anything makes sense. Pantheism “makes sense”. A flat earth “makes sense”. Scientology “makes sense”. If these things didn’t “make sense”, nobody would believe them. All this “making sense” means is that some kind of internal logic has been found, relating the claim to one fact or another, ignoring all other relevant facts and competing hypotheses.
Don’t Get Abducted by Bad Logicians!
This is something called “abductive reasoning”, which Hawkes uses to confound himself and his readers endlessly in this book. If we were being punished for general impiety of the species (hypothesis), we might expect to find that innocent people suffer (prediction and observed fact). This style of reasoning tricks people like Hawkes into thinking they’ve found strong evidence for their hypothesis. It is, in a sense, evidence, it’s just very weak, circumstantial evidence. They reverse it in their minds into proof of a causal relationship. It could be a cause, but it’s not being compared with any other possible causes, and only one fact is being considered.
The fact that innocent people suffer does not demonstrate that we are being punished for other people’s sins, since there could be any number of other causes that make better sense. I can argue that people arriving wet at my front door supports the hypothesis that a malevolent garden pixie occasionally throws buckets of water over them, but rain is a more likely cause.
Meanwhile, his thesis does support the silly (and sickening) idea that God has tarrred us all with the same brush, and we’re all going to suffer for it. It’s impressive just how seamlessly this philosophy of inescapable punishment and grovelling is merged with the comfort of the father figure who loves and cares for you. I can’t help but be reminded of the victims of psychopaths, endlessly tortured, simultaneously required to love and obey, and often blamed for inciting the offence. I’m not the first to point out the similarity with Stockholm Syndrome, either.
Hawkes presumably doesn’t see this, only that “Jesus’ teaching points to the reality that life is inherently ‘spoiled'”, and this is because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, resulting in “the land being cursed (Genesis 3:17-19)”. Hawkes says, “This is not just a fanciful story,” which I assume is a redundant use of the word “just”: I’m guessing he’s a literalist.
But wait, he’s just thrown in a third origin of sin! It’s not just your evil or everyone’s evil, but Adam and Eve’s evil. It’s getting a bit like the Monty Python sketch. Our two weapons are fear and surprise…and ruthless efficiency…
Although the cursing of the land mentioned in Genesis is in the passive voice – “the land was cursed” – we must not drift past the question of who did the cursing. God cursed the land. Let that sink in. Eve was beguiled by a snake, someone ate something they weren’t supposed to, and God cursed the whole of the world, at least for this “spoiled” instantiation of it, and for all sentient beings. Hence, life being “spoiled” is also down to God. God spoiled the world with a curse. God could presumably have chosen otherwise, forgiven his children, explained again which types of fruit should be ignored (I’m pretty sure this was their first transgression).
Hawkes adds detail to the masochistic-comforting tale, emphasizing that “early Christians” knew they were “sharing in the sufferings of Christ” and “considered this to be a privilege”. We’re reminded of Job, remaining faithful to God in his suffering: “‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him‘ (Job 13:15)”. Rather than noticing anything awkward, unwarranted, disturbing about keeping the faith in a God who’s cursing us and slaying us, Hawkes fawns that this is “the greatest compliment anyone can give to God”, and “a faith that God can throw in Satan’s face.”
And presumably (though I don’t think Hawkes bothers to mention this) the snake was acting on behalf of Satan, or was Satan. I don’t think Satan has been mentioned yet, and I can’t remember if he is again. But we now have a fourth culprit, Satan, or fifth if we consider Adam and Eve separately! This is how much sense this all makes.
…and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…
So we need some clarity, obviously. Is suffering due to Adam’s and other people’s and my sin, or God’s curse? This rests on how free God was to respond differently.
I’m reminded of how confused Hawkes was in earlier chapters on the issue of whether God could be considered responsible for the condition of the world. God was described as both the creator of the world, but also that he wasn’t able to change certain things, for instance, that he had to set up an evolving universe to lead to worshipping creatures, and evolution involved suffering and death. We were told that a new concept of God came with the scientific method, a God who created the laws of nature rather than directing the motions of planets across the sky at every moment, but we were told that these laws could be suspended, for instance, to “insert Jesus into history”.
Now again we have Hawkes presenting contrary views of the cause of suffering, even of the type that isn’t our own fault: it’s the fault of everyone; it’s the fault of Adam and Eve; it’s the fault of Satan. But we didn’t curse the world (nor did Satan). We didn’t directly cause suffering, God did. If I beat a child for swearing at me, because their bullying friend told them to, their bruises weren’t caused by the swearing. Unless…
If God is not omnipotent, perhaps the rules about eating fruit and the consequence of cursing the world, weren’t up to him, and the cause of suffering can be seen as Adam’s bad behaviour (or Eve’s, or Satan’s). If God is omnipotent, however, then God, of his own free and unlimited will, chose to curse the world and punish everyone for Adam’s disobedience.
If Hawkes spelled out that all suffering is ultimately due to God’s free choice in responding to disobedience, we could be clear: God makes us suffer, whether this is to toughen us up or to boast about how unconditionally he’s adored whatever he does to us. Doing a little further research, although opinions vary greatly on this matter, the consensus seems to be that the serpent represents Satan.
But it gets even more circular: God created Satan (as a perfect angel, but knowing, since he knows everything) that Satan would rebel against him, beguile Eve, etc., etc. So the upshot seems to be that God knowingly created the world, including beings whom he knew would rebel and spoil it, and humans whom he knew he would punish for it. Kind of sick, no? Didn’t he have the self-restraint just to live in eternal silence and not bother with the horrendously costly experiment, the result of which he already knew? How about that kind of a sacrifice from a loving God? Just STFU?
No. He was lonely. God’s wish was to have the company and love of humans, so he created us – and with free will to choose to love him or reject him. However, since he is omniscient, he would know that we would rebel and all hell would break loose. Therefore, his desire to be loved by us and, despite knowing that we’d reject him, his insistence on going through the motions anyway, appears to be the primary cause of suffering.
Hawkes rightly points out that pain can be a warning, so suffering can be a good thing (there’s not been much science in this chapter at all, so it’s worth noting). After pointing this out, he acknowledges that
this doesn’t justify torture chambers, the deaths of millions of people in plagues, or the genocide perpetrated by evil regimes. These cannot be explained by saying that God has allowed it to facilitate a greater good.
So, let’s dig deeper.
The digging deeper is basically a quick overview of several stances on the question of whether God is omnipotent and whether he intervenes in life. Hawkes appears to reject those views that constrain God, and finally states clearly, if paradoxically:
I don’t believe that God can choose to be less than omnipotent and omniscient.
(In case you don’t see the paradox: if God is omnipotent, he can choose anything! What if he chose not to be omnipotent…?)
So presumably this wraps it up. God was the unnamed one who cursed the world, which he chose to do from his complete free will and in complete knowledge of the truly sickening millennia of suffering he was causing. Okay. Got it.
Every Little Thing’s Gonna be Alright
Hawkes reminds us that God’s coming kingdom will make everything alright, all suffering wiped away in an “eternal, pain-free” future life. Summarizing: God’s plan for us is perfect; he’s preparing us for his coming world of perfection; for this, a “backdrop” is needed, a world of horrific suffering so that a) it can finally be “killed off” and b) we can choose freely whether to accept the love of God. This is in stark contradiction of his earlier insistence that “torture chambers, [etc.] cannot be explained by saying that God has allowed it to facilitate a greater good.” Apparently, now it can.
As well as this contradiction, we should note an embarrassment of causes at this point, which is always suspicious. We’re told that suffering is caused by the sin of disobedience. If that was the cause, it would be enough. However, in addition, we’re told that suffering is necessary as a “backdrop” to the eventual redemption. This suggests that, had Adam not eaten of the tree of knowledge, suffering would still have been necessary. While you can have multiple causes of a phenomenon, in this case the second reason obviates the first. We can’t throw someone in jail if and only if they commit a crime and also for the character-building it will provide, and how much more they’ll enjoy freedom.
But let’s backtrack to that necessary “backdrop”. If God is omnipotent, why is he constrained by this necessity at all? Why should the ultimate perfection of the coming kingdom rely on a resolution, the end of something really terrible? The idea that we might only know pleasure because of the existence of pain is intuitively appealing, but an omnipotent God would have the ability to create a world in which pleasure can be enjoyed fully without knowing pain, undeniably.
Even our intuition about the necessary pairing of pain and pleasure isn’t possible to verify. Since everybody suffers, we can’t test what pleasure would be like without pain. When we conclude this, we are probably just remembering how relieved we’ve been when pain is replaced by pleasure, or just stops, and assuming that pleasure couldn’t be known without pain.
What kind of a pathetic God can’t make a nice world? Or what kind of psychopathic God makes a world involving untold terror, abject hopelessness and cruelty, so that it’ll be lovely when it’s finally over?
The Time-Machine ‘Theory’
Hawkes certainly makes a play of struggling with all this. He applies himself to the story of the Fall again, trying to reconcile the “spoiling” of the world with the scientific evidence that suffering predated humanity. This is a limited kind of application, obviously. He doesn’t bother to ask when in history or pre-history the first human male was constructed from the mud, followed by the first female from his rib (or even mention these elements of the story, funnily enough), nor how that fits with humans evolving from pre-humans in a continuous stream, and thus no ‘first human’ at all. But he makes a pretense of applying himself.
And he comes up with “A theory“. It’s not, of course, a theory; it’s a ridiculous conjecture starting from the ridiculous premises of scripture, one that ameliorates his cognitive dissonance and saves him from giving up his comforting delusion and martyr complex. It rests on the eminently reasonable question, “Why did dinosaurs get osteoarthritis?”
No, I insist, this is an eminently reasonable question! It’s only his answer that is mind-bogglingly mental. I’ll give the whole of his answer, verbatim (with the odd additional comment), as it is so jaw-dropping:
As God stands outside of time, an offence against God by humanity at any point in time can have implications for all of time. In other words, a judgement on sin can go backwards in time as well as forwards. Just as the death of Jesus was retrospective in paying for all sins committed by humankind before Calvary, so human sin was also retrospective in its consequences for the universe.
What, then, does this mean for the sequence found in the Genesis 1-3 narrative? Here we read that God created all things in a state of goodness, then human beings sinned against God, then God cursed creation, then suffering and death entered into creation.
…on this occasion, he does specify “God cursed creation“…
The answer is surely that we are to understand “first” things in the creation sequence of Genesis as primal, foremost, normative – the way things were intended to be, are still intended to be, and indeed will be. They are not to be understood literally in the sense of “earliest” or “initial”.
And so we have a model of suffering that fuses biblical principles with science. [Or rather, accommodates Biblical principles with science via blatant invention of arbitrary science-fiction rationalizations.] Because God stands outside of time, sin against God brings a consequence that affects all of time. The curse of sin [the curse of punishment] goes backwards and forwards in history – just as the implications of Jesus’ death on the cross go backwards and fowards in history.
This understanding means that:
- Dinosaurs can get osteoarthritis. [Q.E.D.]
- Wasteful, primitive mass extinctions can occur.
- Human sin remains a reality. [Hoorah!]
- The need for both nature and humanity to be renewed remains intact (Romans 8:22-23).
- The hope of God’s coming kingdom continues to motivate. [Not really. It’s coming anyway.]
- The principles of Genesis remain in place. [Hoorah!]
- The scientific reality of a dangerous, creative, self-complexifying universe is maintained.
This, I submit, is consistent with biblical principles and with scientific understanding.
Wonderful isn’t it?
My pencil note below this says: “Great, we can shout that down the pit.”
Hawkes says something different.
Remember the man who had fallen into the pit? Let me tell you the ending of the story:
After the last of the others had left, Jesus came to the edge of the pit. He saw the man at the bottom, climbed down into the pit, and lifted the man out.
But he didn’t, did he? Hawkes himself, just prior to this, describes the “triune nature of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit),” apparently in an attempt to further fudge the issue of God cursing us for things we never did. When we’re calling out to God in pain, the Father is firm and will “have the last word”, but has also set a time to make everything right, the Son can empathise with us (or outdo us), having been crucified, and the Holy Spirit can help us through the suffering by, er, being there for us. Which of these lifts us out of the pit?
And the dinosaur with osteoarthritis? The incomprehensibly vast suffering of all the sentient beings since life began? The non-human suffering animals can’t gain the above comforts, and nobody can explain to them why God’s curse was sent backwards through time to make their lives a misery. But the guy down the pit is also blamed and punished for causing all that, by being of the same flawed type as Adam.
No, Jesus has to play by the same disparaging, sarcastic rules everyone else does in this little vignette. So, Jesus calls down to the man and says, “You’re stuck down there, until you die, because someone you never knew ate something Dad told him not to, and that’s your fault, or Satan’s, or Eve’s, or somebody’s. But it’s okay, because at some time in the future – for me to know and you to find out – you’ll come back to life and have a great time in heaven (if you believe all this)! Besides, it’s good for you to suffer, or you won’t know pleasure, and it’s part of Dad’s test to see if you’ll choose to love him despite everything, which you must choose of your own free will and not because of eternal bliss. No, it wasn’t ‘an accident’! And stop torturing dinosaurs!”
That brings us to the end of the chapter and, despite there being several more of them absolutely stuffed full of utter nonsense, I think I’ve suffered enough, and so have you if you’re still awake.
Hawkes does not ask what a scientific, naturalistic explanation of suffering might look like, which is odd, given the intended scope of the book. The nearest he gets is his dismissal of atheism as compelling a view that life is meaningless. Nowhere does he bother to ask, What does science say about possible origins of suffering?
I started to formulate the beginnings of my own naturalistic explanation, and then did an internet search. The first page of results was dominated by religious apologetics. I may return to the subject in a later post, because it seems to me that a naturalistic approach has the greatest chance of satisfying Hawkes’ ostensible quarry, “the fullest and most satisfying answers possible”.
These he failed to find simply through his own obtuse inflexibility. Such is the danger of faith: valuing constancy of belief as obedience to his Lord, Hawkes raises confirmation bias to a fine art, and remains ignorant.
Returning to his test, he has adequately confirmed the idea that “the Bible’s teaching on suffering is […] simplistic [and] inadequate,” and I’m happy to support the corollary, “we can dismiss the idea of God”.