Friday, July 20, 2007

John Oakes — The Problem of Pain and Suffering

John Oakes is a member of the San Diego Church of Christ, which I used to attend. I remember him speaking a number of times to my part of the congregation. He has a Ph.D in chemical physics and has authored a number of books.

I recall hearing him for the first time many years ago. I remember being a bit surprised at one of his answers during the Q & A session, mostly because it seemed to depart subtly from the doctrine of inerrancy in which we had been trained. Basically I had asked what his take was regarding the fact that Chinese history books go back so many more generations than the bible accounts for. His response was something to the effect of, anyone trying to make that assertion is trying to nail down specific genealogies to a certain time in history, which simply is not the intent of the bible. At any rate, I respected his knowledge quite a bit, and he continues to be well respected within the church to this day.

John has a website dedicated to Christian apology, http://www.evidenceforchristianity.org. I have been reading some of the notes he posts, which are presumably from speaking engagements in which he has participated. One in particular,
"The Problem of Pain and Suffering, Part I," caught my attention. The gist of John's essay is to offer explanations to the classic apparent contradiction among the collective assertions that: 1) God is omnipotent, 2) God is loving, and yet 3) suffering exists. First John deals with suffering at the hands of other people, and offers the familiar explanation of free will. Then he tries to tackle the issue of suffering due to natural causes. Here is an excerpt:

The fortunate facts about the earth we live on include the production of heat inside the earth from radioactive uranium and the action of plate tectonics caused by the release of that heat. Without plate tectonics, the earth would have lost its atmosphere and the soil would have lost its ability to support an abundance of life a long time ago. Plate tectonics, a necessity for life, also produces earthquakes. Humans suffer because of earthquakes. Before we fault God for causing earthquakes, we better propose a universe and an environment in that universe which does not include plate tectonics. Are earthquakes evil? No, they are necessary to life.

Now, this strikes me as ridiculously inconsistent.

First of all, it is not up to "us" — whether unbelievers, or doubters, or objects of God's creation — to propose a universe which does not include plate tectonics, before we can rightfully criticize the concept of an omnipotent God who created a world where suffering comes at the hand of that same world. It is the bible that makes the claim that such a God exists; thus the burden of proof lies with the bible — or at least the theist who claims to believe it — to sufficiently explain this assertion.

Second, John would have us believe that God spoke this world into existence, can change the nature of physics at will to enable a man to walk on water, and yet cannot save people from earthquakes caused by the plates of the earth shifting because they are necessary for life? This God decided to miraculously circumvent the natural order of child-birth to bring his one and only son to this earth — an event about which all of history supposedly revolves. The very basis of Christianity is based on Christ's ability to nullify the natural order of life and death! The resurrection is the very event proclaimed so loudly as evidence that Jesus is above the natural physical laws, and therefore from God! And yet, this same God must now submit to the very same laws of physics he so remarkably violated before?

Which is it? God is not subject to the physical laws that we observe, or he is?

John's notes continue on to include other phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and even bacteria. Essentially he has made God subservient to exactly the circumstances of the natural world in which we find ourselves. Pardon me, then, if I do not seem very much in awe at the power of such an "omnipotent" God. And if this is the case, then isn't it easier to assume that God does not exist, or at least does not care? At least this would relieve us of the aching burden of searching to find some purpose for senseless suffering.

I start to wonder what kind of heaven John believes in. Are there plate tectonics in John's version of heaven as well? I'm sure he will say something to the effect of, no, in heaven there will be a different kind of existence. But then, why not just start with that existence? There; the problem of envisioning an environment that does not include plate tectonics has just been solved! God could still accomplish his goal of "soul-making," or whatever other justification one might have for suffering at the hand of other humans with free will, without adding the additional burden of suffering from natural causes.

And yet he apparently did not choose that route, because such suffering does exist. Thus I find John's explanation sorely lacking.

I just ordered the CD containing the lectures of the 2007 International Apologetics Conference, where presumably John spoke from these notes. If no further insight into John's argument can be gleaned, I will likely send him an email of my criticisms.

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