Some horrible things happen in the world. They hardly need listing they are so familiar. Just to give the flavour I’ll mention a few: Auschwitz, Pol Pot, earthquakes, leukaemia, necklacing,  child labour, war, torture.

Suffering is also an inescapable and essential part of animal life. The survival of one animal most often entails the grisly death of another. Hawks and owls squeeze and pierce rodents to death with their talons; African wild dogs tear apart living warthogs. The predators suffer too. Old or sick lions starve to death or are killed by the more ambitious members of the next generation (hence the metaphor 'the young lions'). But the prize for gruesomeness probably goes to a group of predatory insects: Ichneumon wasps, who lay their eggs in caterpillars. The wasp grubs then eat their living host, carefully avoiding the caterpillar’s vital organs. When they are ready for their next stage, pupation, they eat the lot and gnaw through the caterpillar's skin.

Back to humans. Even in the most civilised, law-abiding societies hatred, rancour, jealousy and back-biting are endemic. The gaining of pleasure from someone else’s unhappiness starts early. Teasing and bullying is common in schools, the perpetrators delighting in their victims' distress.

All this is difficult to square with the idea of a loving God — and impossible to square with an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God. 

 All-knowing: Janet is the ring-leader of a groups of girls mercilessly teasing Sharon. God knows every detail of Janet’s tormenting of Sharon and He knows Sharon is near to suicide.

All-loving: He loves Sharon and suffers with her.

All-powerful:  God immediately puts a stop to Sharon’s torture and makes Janet realise how cruel she is.

Does He, hell. He does bugger-all about it. We know Janet and the gang continue to tease the Sharons of this world for as long as they want to—years maybe.

God cannot be all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful and still allow Janet’s cruelty to Sharon (never mind war, torture, Pol Pot and Ichneumon wasps). He must fail on one of those "all-" counts.

There are many attempts at explaining (away) God’s puzzling behaviour. The explanations are not simple. They are, in fact, difficult to grasp and can only be believed by suspending one’s common sense and logical powers. Belief in these explanations is also helped if one is willing to give weight to skimpy evidence and unbacked assertion. And one must always be willing to give God the benefit of any doubt.

I don’t, personally, remember the theologians' tortuous explanations well, but if I am right they are mainly concerned with God’s allowing mankind free will. With free will you have moral choice, they say.

Consider: Soldiers forcing families at gun point into a house, which they then set alight have the “free will” not to do so. But what sort of “free will” do their victims, including perhaps two or three toddlers and a newborn baby, have? Can they make the moral choice not to be burnt to death? And what sort of liberating “free will” do the victims of landslides, floods, lightning or other random accidents have? But anyway, there is no difference between  God’s allowing free will and His not being there. So we’re back to square one.

Any relative of someone who died from cancer or famine, or in the Nazi-generated Holocaust, or in the Dresden firestorm and who still has faith in an all-loving/powerful/knowing God lives in a world beyond reason.  If God exists, we should not be praying to Him to forgive us our sins; on the contrary, God should be begging us to forgive Him for the unspeakable horrors He unleashes on the world.

The priestly explanations for premature death, suffering and misery vary historically and culturally, vary between the hundreds of different Christian sects, vary from priest to individual priest and are often tailored to the sophistication or credulity of their listeners. “Testing One’s Faith” is the final recourse when a priest cannot persuade you to accept his explanations.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

A parable:

Fred bought a 1984 Vauxhall saloon. The salesman, Arthur Daley-Service, was nice to Fred and made him feel good. He said the car was in perfect condition: new radiator, gear box, etc. and did 35 miles to the gallon.

Fred put two gallons in the tank, but after forty miles the car ran out of petrol. Over a period of five weeks the clutch slipped, the brakes failed, the engine overheated and two of the windows wouldn’t open. There were times when Fred was left stranded in the broken-down car; when it wouldn’t start at all; when he couldn’t reverse the car.

Fred returned to the garage to have each fault fixed. But new faults recurred after a few days. Arthur always made him feel good and gave an explanation for every fault. Fred thought he understood the explanation at the time. Whenever Fred complained, Arthur was friendly and understanding — and persuasive. He convinced Fred how lucky he was. “You don’t have a boring, reliable car, Fred; this car tests your faith. If you truly believed , in your heart of hearts, the car to be perfect, then it would be.” So every time the car developed a fault, Fred knew it was because his faith had wavered, and he blamed himself.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

The prevalence of suffering in the world is incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God. Then what is the explanation? As a devout fundamentalist Christian of the Tongue-Firmly-In-Cheek sect  (sect no. 1443), it is my solemn duty to God to reveal to all mankind the true explanation of suffering, of the 'Problem of Pain'. Here it is:

God is all-knowing and all-loving; but powerless.

In the period when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, God and Satan fought.

And Satan won.

Satan banished God to the depths and assumed His mantle. In a masterstroke Satan changed his name to God, and called God, Satan. So Adam and Eve and  their descendants believed that Satan was God and God, Satan.

Now, as we know, Satan loves inflicting suffering, misery and distress. But because He (Satan also took on personal pronouns starting in upper case) also wants to be praised and worshipped, He must capture human hearts. To do that He must often appear to be good. For if He flooded the world in continuous misery then no one would praise Him. He must rein back the outright expression of His misery-inducing nature and balance it by contriving occasional pleasure and satisfaction for living things.

To help conceal His intentions and, in particular, to provide plausible explanations for natural disasters and human-inflicted misery, Satan subverts some people's minds and makes those people His spokesmen. These spokesmen believe they can interpret or, in extreme cases, believe they know, His will (which, naturally and mistakenly, they call "the will of God").

Of all the explanations for the world’s misery , the one that  Satan-God most relishes is that proffered by the most fundamental of his faithful servants: "Satan is the cause of all the misery, pain and suffering in the world."

The real God is in an agony of distress. He cares for the sufferings of every creature. He knows of their sufferings. But he (demoted to lower case) suffers their curses since he is now called "Satan" and is unable to lift a once-celestial finger in protest.

Graham Lyons.

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