One of the standard replies to the problem of evil is that evil and pain serve a greater purpose, such as when a mother allows her child to be painfully jabbed with a polio shot. It may suck to have your house robbed, but if God intervened by taking away free will (including the robber), that would be even worse.
I’m not buying it, and here’s why.
I have a cat with an infection, so I’m giving her antibiotics twice a day. For those without pets, this involves laying her on her back, putting an eyedropper between her teeth, and squirting in a bit of liquid (that smells and tastes like medicine, natch) in her mouth. She doesn’t want to swallow, but since she’s on her back, with the liquid pooling in her throat, eventually she has no choice but to swallow. I could have gone with pills, but those are even harder to administer.
In short, to my cat, I’m like the aforementioned god, doing bad things to her for no purpose that she can discern. But we humans, with our superior intelligence, recognize that the pain and suffering I inflict serve a greater purpose.
And that’s where the similarities between me and God end. Among the differences: when I inflict pain on my cat, at least I have the balls to show myself. My cat can see me, smell me, hear me, touch (and scratch) me. I don’t resort to manipulating natural forces to do the dirty work for me. And when I do use an intermediate (such as the vet), I at least try to let her know that I’m there, and that it’s okay.
There’s also a limit to how much pain I will inflict on my cat. If she needed an operation, I would make damn sure she was anesthetized for it. And if she were in constant pain from an incurable disease, I would prefer that she be put to sleep rather than have to suffer.
But it doesn’t work that way in the greater world. Even setting aside the mind-boggling amount of pain in the animal world (e.g., when an Ichneumon wasp larva eats its host from the inside, or when lions eat a still-living gazelle) and concentrating just on God’s favorite species, humans, why are there lingering diseases? Why do people bleed to death after being hit by a rock slide? Why do people’s limbs rot away from gangrene?
For that matter, why does torture work? I don’t mean in the sense of extracting useful intelligence. I mean in the sense of inflicting unbearable pain and suffering without even the release of death? You’d think that an all-powerful and merciful god could set things up so that when the pain gets too bad, a built-in anesthetic could kick in and make us oblivious. In extreme cases, sufferers could quickly and quietly slip away into death. But if there’s any such mechanism, it hasn’t been brought to my attention. Yes, there’s the way people freezing to death are said to die peacefully, feeling warm. Why doesn’t that work for drowning or or poison or stabbing?
In the Christian religion, in particular, there’s a strong emphasis on Jesus’ suffering, both before his crucifixion and on the cross. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ hammered this point home repeatedly, and was quite popular at the box office.
But I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Jesus suffered more than normal, given the things that were done to him. Why did he die after a day on the cross, like crucifixion victim ever? Why not a week, a month, a year? Compare that to Prometheus, who gave humans fire; his punishment was to be chained to a mountain where every day vultures rip out his liver, and every night it grows back to be torn out again the next day. As far as I know, Prometheus is still tied to his rock, while Jesus got to be king of the universe after three days. Now that’s suffering. As has been pointed out, Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins.
So the sheer amount of suffering is far beyond any reasonable measure, with no relief mechanisms other than the ones we humans have come up with, like morphine and appendectomies. The world looks exactly the way it would if there were no guiding intelligence taking an interest in our well-being.
And even if suffering were necessary for some master plan, you’d think God would be able to at least show up in person and say so, even if our minds are too puny to understand the plan itself. But no. God, if he/she/it exists, can’t even be bothered to show up and say it’s okay. So why worship a being like that?