Ben Goren on a major problem of Christian theology

Reader Ben Goren often makes comments on this website about a major flaw of Christian belief: the failure of God (or Jesus, who’s the same thing if you accept the Trinity) to intervene in dire situations involving endangered lives. This is, of course, the insoluble “problem of evil.” Ben sent me a longer piece on it, which I reproduce it below:


The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer

by Ben Goren

Imagine you find yourself in one of any number of calamitous situations — somebody you’re with clutches her chest in pain and falls to the floor; you hear, coming from the far end of a dark alley, the voice of a frightened old man crying for help; a tree falls as you’re driving down a lonely road, missing you but smashing the car following you.

In all such cases, the very first thing you — or anybody else — would do is call 9-1-1. By now, it’s practically an instinct, even to the point of being unthinkable that you wouldn’t make that call. You might not know CPR; you might not be a big and burly cop; you might not have a MEDEVAC helicopter … but the 9-1-1 dispatcher has people standing by who meet all those qualifications and more, and will make sure they get where they’re needed the most as fast as humanly possible.

Though far from perfect, our first responders are amazingly effective. Sure, they might not be able to save everybody they’re sent out to help, and, of course, they can only help when they’re aware they’re needed. . . but hold that thought for the moment. Nonetheless, they do help, and help hugely, in ways that are regularly mind-blowing and humbling to those of us who aren’t in their line of work.

Which, of course, is why we all call 9-1-1 whenever their help is needed — and why we have such a low opinion of those who, when the need arises, fail to make the call. We’d be sympathetic if they tried but failed because of an equipment malfunction, of course, and we’d join them in expressing sadness at the missed opportunity to save the day. . . but, if the reason was anything other than that, the questions start to get probing, if not outright damning.

The claim, “I was afraid to get involved” might again garner some sympathy, but only in cases where the person with the phone was being at least implicitly threatened — the proverbial “gun to the head” or some other realistic concern of retribution. Even so, we would still hope that the person would find the courage and ingenuity to place the call anyway, despite the risk.

But an excuse like “I had too many other important things to do” isn’t going to win any sympathy at all. Even if you’re the world’s most important brain surgeon hurrying to the operating room to save the life of the world’s most important scientist, you’d still be expected to make the phone call—even as you’re rushing to save someone else.

And imagine the questions that would ensue if your reason was something along the lines of, “I had planned for this to happen since forever and did not see fit to interfere in the course of events as they unfolded according to my expectations.” No matter what, you’re gonna get grilled by a detective. . . and, if that statement turns out to be true, you can expect to spend some quality time in prison for some pretty serious crimes — conspiracy, at the very least.

Now, imagine that it’s not just a single incident you observed and yet stood silently by, but every such case everywhere. Never mind the fact that you’d be a pervert for looking in everybody’s bedroom windows, but to look in a bedroom window, see a lit cigarette fall from sleepy fingers and catch the curtains on fire and then not call 9-1-1 to get the firefighters on the scene before the baby in the crib burns to death in uncomprehending screaming agony, well, that would go unimaginably far beyond mere perversion and move solidly into the worst brand of criminal psychopathy. There are those who get their kicks from so-called “snuff” films, in which victims are murdered on camera for entertainment purposes, but you’d be hard pressed to imagine a more horrific type of criminal mind than the one who would seek out or produce such.

Yet that is exactly how every god of every religion is described. Most modern religions claim an all-knowing ever-present all-powerful deity, but even the ancient gods were far-seeing, far- and fast-roaming, and very strong.

Theologians offer all sorts of obfuscatory excuses on this subject, with an entire field of “study” devoted to it: “theodicy.” In common language, it’s the “problem of evil,” or, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But the official discussion leads far astray from the reality of everyday life, getting tangled up in obscure questions of “freedom of the will” or placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.

Even more unsatisfying, theologians often reassure us that their gods do dispense justice, but they do so only after death— as if post-mortem divine retribution is of any help to the person bleeding out by the side of the road after running into a falling tree, or of any comfort to the umpteenth victim of a serial criminal who enjoys continued success despite the desperate efforts of investigators hoping for a lead or even the slightest hint of a clue.

A certain class of divine taciturnity can illustrate the point most graphically and also show the irrelevance of theological attempts to divert attention from this issue.

In recent history, a number of religious orders have been discovered to harbor vicious sexual child predators. The Catholic Church has been the most notorious in this regards, but the predation has spanned many denominations of many religions — and, indeed, to be fair, is far from an exclusively, or even predominately, a religious problem.

But the religious case is especially relevant to this discussion.

Whatever the religion, whatever the denomination, there are trusted official authorities who have committed some of the most horrific and repulsive crimes known to humanity. These people will, in the morning, convey to the congregation the commandments and desires of the corresponding deities and even actually manifest them in any number of ceremonies (such as transubstantiation); and, in the afternoon, they might rape children placed in their care.

And these monsters even use their positions of divine authority to compel the cooperation and silence of their victims. Children have been told by their priestly rapists that they’ll burn in Hell for all eternity if they tell anybody about the crime — and, again, these are the same priests who, along with their non-rapist colleagues, publicly preach similar messages of divine retribution for moral transgression in sermons and in classrooms. The exact same divine retribution, it must be noted, that (or so theologians say) excuses the lack of divine intervention in the first place.

Most corporations that discover an employee committing violent sexual assault would practically instinctively — once again — call the police. The perpetrator would be immediately fired, and the company may well issue a press statement condemning the crime and the criminal and putting as much distance as possible between itself and the horrors. And, of course, the company would bend over backwards to help in the investigation and prosecution. Many companies would also have the decency to voluntarily provide or make available all sorts of assistance, financial as well as medical and emotional, directly to the victim.

Yet not once in all of history has any deity ever alerted any civil authority to the misdeeds of one of its official representatives. For that matter, there hasn’t even been a single case of some minor insignificant demigod showing up at a press conference to read a “notapology” expressing vague regret over possible unspecified mistakes that might or might not have been made by an unnamed individual.

Even — indeed, especially — if you’re a non-Catholic Christian, this is a problem, even if all the members of your denomination are and have always been as pure and innocent as the driven snow. You may well think that the Pope is the antichrist and all Catholics are devil worshippers … which just gives Jesus as you understand him all that more incentive to call 9-1-1 on every last devil-worshipping Catholic priest every time he spots one of them sacrificing a child’s sexual innocence to Satan — exactly as you yourself would do should you be the one to stumble upon the priest raping a child behind the altar or in the confessional.

And that, at last, brings us to the question that nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer — at least, not if at least one of its gods (however many there are) has enough awareness and ability to answer the simplest of prayers—or, for that matter, merely has a cellphone and the compassionate instincts of even a young child.

Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?


  1. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Good one, Ben. Permalinked.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:18 am | Permalink


    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes, excellent.

  2. TJR
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    In common language, it’s the “problem of evil,” or, “Why do good things happen to bad people?”

    – I assume you meant the last bit the other way round?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Or both ways.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      “Good things happening to bad people” might in some ways be more frustrating than “bad things happening to good people.” As I recall they’ve done studies with chimps showing that subjects will often give up personal benefits if taking them also rewards a “cheater.”

      We are animals who instinctively like the idea of punishment. Some people instinctively like it — or learn to like it — more than others.

    • Geoff Benson
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I assumed it was deliberately worded that way.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Yes. I thought the inversion would help reinforce the point and prompt further questioning while still remaining valid.


  3. Jonathan Smith
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Perfect logic +2

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Prayer is the 911 of religion. Unfortunately, there is no dispatcher, no first, second, or last responder, no medical personnel, no equipment, no hospital, and no police.

    At least Santa Claus has some real live human helpers to grant children’s wishes.

    • steve oberski
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Prayer: How to do nothing and still think you’re helping

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      But they have thousands of impressive-looking service centers, and are constantly collecting money to build more.

  5. mb
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry dude, but this is a softball for most evangelicals. They have ready answers for why bad things happen and nothing in your article boxes them in. The atheist argument that god is a meany just doesn’t hold water with evangelicals, or most other Christians. Read the Book of Job. They actually believe this shit — that god tests their love with adversity. No matter how bad it gets, it’s for their own good. That is proof of the “goodness” of god. Not that he fixes all your boo-boos but that he lets you have boo-boos to teach you to be better.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Those arguments from the book of Job hold no water whatsoever. How would they explain the same things happening to animals or insects or newborn children? Are they being tested also?

      • Scientifik
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. Is god testing a 2-month infant with incurable cancer or fatal heart malformation?

        • Posted September 4, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          Not the infant.

          The parents.

          Let that sink in for a moment — but not before preparing your barf bags.

          If, after that, you’ve anything left in your stomach, go read up what William Lane Craig wrote about the rape of Cana.


          • Posted September 5, 2015 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

            I read elsewhere that the reason the Catholic church has not contacted civil authorities about rapists, or punished them itself, is that the church is all about ‘redemption’. So their concern is redeeming the rapist’s soul, not punishing him, or worrying about his victims. The victims will get rewarded in heaven, so their suffering is unimportant.

            • rickflick
              Posted September 5, 2015 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

              Which defeats the idea of behavior modification. I have to say, I am not the least impressed by the Church’s rationalizations.

        • Marella
          Posted September 4, 2015 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

          I had a friend many years ago, who thought her baby daughter’s brain tumour was a result of her own failure to attend church. I wish I’d been enlightened enough to point out the horror she was supporting.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      But their god frequently “tests their love” by visiting adversity on people other than those that are being “tested”. Ben mentioned the baby trapped in its crib while the house burns down.

      Theists of the kind you’re describing are forced to concede that god tortures and kills infants in order to test other people. Even if some theists might shrug and say “who are we to judge god’s mysterious ways”, I think there are *many* more people who would recognize that such a deity is definitely not worth worshipping and maybe, since it doesn’t live up to its proponent’s claims, is just made up and doesn’t exist.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Well, until historically recently, women and children have been property, with which the testicularly-endowed have felt themselves privileged to do as they please.

      • Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Yes but as long as the baby was baptized (which requirement might be waved) then the baby gets an eternity of heaven. That makes it all worth it supposedly (from a churchy point of view).

        Crazy I know but that’s the rejoinder.

        • Posted September 5, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          I have an idea.

          Let’s dump a pot of boiling water over a child, but only after signing a contract guaranteeing the child a long lifetime of unlimited free hookers and blow. Totally makes the whole boiling water thing not matter, right?

          Bill Gates has donated lots of money and other resources to ending the malaria epidemic. Imagine if he was caught on film in a village ignoring a mother’s plea for some quinine to save her dying son. Looked her straight in the eye, heard what she said, and kept right on walking. Damned hard to even imagine in the first place…but would it even occur to anybody to give him a pass for something like that because of all the other charity work he’s done?


      • winewithcats
        Posted September 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        In some sense, Ben’s example baby is an even worse test than what you suggest: it is implied that the house burns up killing everyone inside, including the drowsy smoker, who we might presume to be one of the parents. Who, then, is being tested by the suffering of the innocent baby? Not the parents, who are already dead from suffocation. Surely not friends of the parents, who should already have been quite sufficiently tested by the death of their friends, and for whom a still-living baby could have constituted an ongoing test both of faith and character.

    • Bender
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      “They actually believe this shit — that god tests their love with adversity.”

      Did they ever explain why their omniscient god would need to run tests?

      • Kevin
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Because they are not faithful enough? They will think of anything and recommend that all is a mystery, including the love of their god…the purest, deepest mystery of all.

        “We are just peons compared to that wise fellow in the sky…so shut the f**k up.” This is arbitrarily equivalent the best argument against Ben’s essay.

        • Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:36 am | Permalink

          Heaven is god’s get out of jail free card.

          • Posted September 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

            Heaven is the ultimate impeachment of the gods.

            Everything is perfect in Heaven, right? So it demonstrates that perfection is attainable.

            And the gods can do anything they want, right?

            So why would it even occur to the gods to make anything less than perfect?

            Or, imagine you’re living in the most fantastic mansion imaginable, right smack in the middle of downtown. And you can snap your fingers and have an entire new wing magically appear, completely furnished, at no expense or even effort. Another finger snap and the beds are all made and bowls of fresh fruit appear on the desks.

            What’s your excuse for not inviting the guy down on his luck to sleep in one of your elebenty brazilian spare bedrooms tonight rather than in a cardboard box under the bridge?


      • Filippo
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink


    • Scott Draper
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Job is “an” answer, but not the only one found in the Bible. Adversity is also seen as punishment for sin, which is a conflicting interpretation from Job.

      And Solomon at least seemed aware of just plain bad luck.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      They actually believe this shit — that god tests their love with adversity.

      Also known as “battered spouse syndrome.” I doubt very many who truly believe that doing evil demonstrates love will ever be reached…but all those not emotionally trapped in such an abusive relationship will see it for what it is.


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        Or Stockholm Syndrome.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Yes, Christians have ready answers for this, the “problem of evil” — they have to, since it is such a glaring issue for anyone who posits an all-powerful, all-loving deity.

      What they don’t have is a good answer. And certainly not a good, consistent answer, since many of them also engage in intercessory prayer beseeching their deity to send some benevolence their way. (Hell, some believe in the “prosperity gospel” whereby the faithful seek a worldly reward.)

      When it comes to justifying such contradictions, about the best they can do is allow how the ways of the Lord are mysterious — which is fine, until they turn around and authoritatively state who is going to hell for breaking some arcane sexual or dietary rule that their deity has un-mysteriously insisted be obeyed upon pain of eternal damnation.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        And they like to quote God’s answer to Job, to the effect, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of Creation?”

        Did Job’s children and spouse(s?) have any say in their demise? No, since they were apparently “property.”

        We only know what someone said Job said. I wonder if he asked, “Why should I have children if you are going to kill them without at least giving me a head’s-up on the matter?”

        Yea, verily, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. In my opinion the One Question a Christian Can’t Answer (at least evangelicals, anyway) is “what about people who die without having heard the gospel” (see my comment in the recent Sola Fide thread). In my experience, the answers you get to this question are far more varied and far less self-assured, as it exposes an inescapable contradiction in the most important doctrine of their religion (that only faith in Jesus saves). If you really want to see evangelicals squirm a little bit and grasp at straws, that’s the question to press them on. “Why do bad things happen to good people,” on the other hand, is totally in their comfort zone.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        “Why do bad things happen to good people,” on the other hand, is totally in their comfort zone.

        That’s why I didn’t ask that question.

        Instead, I’m asking them why Jesus never calls 9-1-1. Even as he’s got his bowl of popcorn handy, watching a priest rape his umpteenth victim, just after he helped a college football player catch the winning touchdown pass and just before he told Kim Davis that gays are too icky for marriage.

        Is it really too much to ask? Even just once in a while, pick up the goddamned phone and punch all of three little buttons? When even the least amongst us humans would do as much?


        • Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink


          If they’re going to claim their deity does intervene in the world, it should have been in the form of preventing the suffering of innocents. The self-absorption of someone who credits god for, say, the resolution of a financial matter, or worse, your football example, while infants are born with epidermolysis bullosa, is breathtaking.

        • Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:46 am | Permalink

          The ultimate confidence trick:

          There is a prayer along the lines of “God has no hands, so we must build things; god has no legs so we must walk the mile; god has no etc so we must do etc.” The prayer is supposed to spur people on to do god’s work. But as Ben has said why can’t god do his/her own work?

          With apparent no self awareness, the prayer admits that secular humanism is as good as or better than religious goddy belief.

    • Marella
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Some of them are sufficiently honest to admit they don’t have an answer to this question. They expect to get an answer when they die.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        The degree of credulity that demonstrates they themselves would find simply intolerable in any other context.


        • Posted September 14, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          That’s exactly correct; and the big hole in any rejoinder.

          God is mysterious (the blanket generic response) is simply meaningless. It’s a refusal to come to grips with the question.

          If they want to say “I don’t know” about this issue; then there’s no reason to believe anything else they say about their “god”.

    • Cindy
      Posted September 6, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Where is the *justification* for torturing a newborn?

  6. Sastra
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Excellent essay.

    Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

    We know very well what the reply is — that “Jesus IS the 9-1-1 and WE have to make the call.”

    The huge problem with all theodicies is that they take such a lofty view of human existence that all problems are now little problems. No theist would accept Ben’s analogies. They’re too grounded in common experience. Instead, believers make their own analogies using familiar situations regarding children and adults. Grownups often allow the little ones to make mistakes because that is how they learn. They either learn to not make mistakes or they learn that the Grownups were right. And sometimes they learn they deserve what’s coming to them.

    But what about allowing children to wander unaware into traffic? Doesn’t that sort of analogy break down?

    Ah. As one of my New Age friends patiently explained to me, you simply won’t be able to understand the system here if you “still believe in death.” Or, for that matter, still believe in the value of life. This life, on earth, in comparison to Something Higher.

    From a supernaturalists standpoint, the divine Cosmic Significance is so far above anything we can imagine that there is no amount of suffering, pain, or injustice that can take place here which matters in the long run. Instead, we will one day look back and view the most horrendous atrocity the same way we now view a tired toddler screaming over having to take a nap. It’s all small stuff compared to the REAL reality.

    Because God is big. Because there are higher things. Because over and over again, every religion and version of spirituality tends to emphasize one main precept. In the words of the hotel keeper at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:

    “Everything will be all right in the end; if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”

    The burden therefore isn’t on Perfection to make sense to you. The burden is on you to try to take this on faith. Become as a small child. Ask Jesus to fix your minor little boo boo and have confidence it will happen.

    And above all, don’t let snarky atheists frame the Problem of Evil in worldly terms — because hey, that won’t “work.”

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      And theists have the gall/obliviousness/both to claim atheism entails not valuing or respecting life as much as theism does.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        Oh, they ‘respect life’ more because they know there is a purpose to it, that it’s a tool used for attaining something else. Something better. Something worthy of respect.

        Atheism is just so arrogant.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      No theist would accept Ben’s analogies. They’re too grounded in common experience.

      That’s why I didn’t word them as analogies, but as actual things that really happen in everyday life.

      Something bad happens, just as something bad is always happening somewhere.

      If a person stumbles on the scene, the phone comes out and the call gets made.

      If no person is there…well, Jesus is still watching every sparrow, right? So why doesn’t Jesus whip out his phone and make the call? In the actual real-world case where he’s the only witness to the tragedy? Is he really that much more callous and / or powerless than all the people who do make the call? In all the cases where something bad happens but Jesus is the only witness?

      Why do mere mortals have such an astoundingly good record when it comes to calling 9-1-1 but no god has ever seen fit to do so?


      • Sastra
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        No, you’re making an analogy between things which happen in real life between person and person — and what happens or ought to happen between person and Jesus. Just as a human being is morally obligated to call for emergency care when someone is in trouble, Jesus is morally obligated to ‘call for emergency care’ (ie perform a miracle) when someone is in trouble. Your analogy is grounded in the common experience of adult equals (we’d give a pass to someone with what we’d consider a diminished capacity.)

        The Christian or other theist however would reject the analogy because in their mind Jesus/God is NOT like another adult equal. He/It is instead more like an all-knowing parent … and we are more like immature, ignorant, selfish and short-seeing children.

        They then feel justified in shifting from the accident-where-bystander-stumbles-upon-the-scene scenario to the also familiar situation of a parent allowing a child to learn by trial-and-error, making their own mistakes and suffering consequences. After all, isn’t that a better way to educate youngsters than just coming in and doing all their homework for them? Do you want God to be like a helicopter parent? God’s relationship to our suffering, they argue, is more like THAT real-world case than like the real-world 911 case.

        Why do mere mortals have such an astoundingly good record when it comes to calling 9-1-1 but no god has ever seen fit to do so?

        I don’t have to tell you that believers of all stripes have a nauseating tendency to cite stories and anecdotes where by golly God DID step in and perform a miracle, saving someone from instant death or curing a disease or what have you. If you don’t believe all the “well documented” personal accounts then they assume it must be because you don’t want to.

        That’s why God doesn’t bother to do it all the time. It’s only done on occasion, to increase faith and demonstrate the depravity of stubborn skeptics. Otherwise, pain and suffering is God allowing us to learn for ourselves in a narrative structure where no amount of worldly pain and suffering can possibly make a dent in the super-duper awesomeness of everything coming all right in the end. We even appreciate that more now.

        I’m not saying this works. I’m hypothesizing about their likely countermove to your argument by analogy. They won’t agree to the analogy — although they should.

        • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          He/It is instead more like an all-knowing parent … and we are more like immature, ignorant, selfish and short-seeing children.


          So, what parent would sit idly by while watching a priest serially rape child after child after child — even if priest only raped the immature, ignorant, selfish, and short-seeing children?


          • Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:53 am | Permalink

            Again I say it is the heaven at the end of it all. Maybe the abused child gets extra special stuff in heaven, reserved for those raped by priests. You don’t know because you are not god, but god is god and s/he knows!! — so there take that you atheist!! That is the actual meaning behind a lot of theoidiocy — (sic on purpose).

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        And he doesn’t even have to do it very often – but it *never* happens. Not even when a 4 year old just taught how to use emergency calls (like I was) would. Standards are *very* low, so there *is no such minimally moral (and aware, and powerful) creature*. This is also the answer to the “testing” and what not.

        (Incidentally, Leibniz’ answer is the only one possible (:)) but it is also the most morally awkward – it should prompt – “We could have done with less variety!!”)

      • Robert Bray
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        the gods always notice

        but don’t do anything about it
        any/every sparrow’s fall registers
        as a tic in the universe’s ledger

        but the bird lying on the ground
        is still dying/dead from falling
        and will have no story told about it

        the neighbor’s cat disdains this bird
        since she didn’t catch it alive
        not hard up enough for that yet

        this is winter so something else’s
        food it will be dragged away to be
        though mostly feathers and bone

        and that once high fibrillating heart
        that pumped blood to muscle
        as it wings beat against the wind

        or balanced its perch on a swaying
        tree branch in someone’s backyard
        well the very tree from which it fell

        has fallen too one fewer sparrow
        hearts among the many many any
        that will fall have fallen are falling

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        If no person is there…well, Jesus is still watching every sparrow, right?

        But the sparrow still falls. Theodicy for other species.

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      This, from my experience, is *exactly* it.

      In order to take the Problem of Evil seriously, you have to take the lives and suffering of humans seriously. But if you do that, well, you must be a humanist and so almost an atheist already!

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 6, 2015 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        Nicely said! 🙂

    • Tulse
      Posted September 6, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      there is no amount of suffering, pain, or injustice that can take place here which matters in the long run

      However, what actions people take during this infinitesimally short span of their existence determines the nature of their “long run”. If a child experiencing being burned alive doesn’t really matter for the child in the long run, why would it matter to my long run if I go around to day care centers with a can of gasoline and a lighter? If our own suffering is infinitely outweighed by the afterlife, why do our actions that cause suffering matter?

  7. Gasper Sciacca
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    The fear of death is so strong in believers that nothing will ever convince them that the simple answer to the question of evil is that there is no god.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      That’s not true. If it was, there would be no former theist who became atheist by beginning to think hard about the Problem of Evil.

  8. JJH
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I’ve read so many of Ben’s comments. I’ve always found them enlightening, even when he was disagreeing with me. But, I think this post tops them all. In addition to laying out in clear, human experience based terms, both the problem of evil and the problem of “divine hiddenness,” he also provided a great quote:

    “…placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.”

    That is some world class word-smithing! Well done!

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks…I did spend a few extra minutes on that one.


      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        But, of course, in professional documents, one should always avoid alliteration.

        • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          I still don’t get why professional writing is supposed to be unreadable. If it’s your profession, shouldn’t you be displaying the best of the craft, and pulling out all the tricks of the trade?

          Imagine a professional musician who performed everything perfectly mechanically, like a straight-up MIDI file. Or a professional artist whose every portrait looked like a smartphone snapshot of the subject typing up an email at a desk.

          Yet that’s exactly what professional writing has developed into!

          …it’s also one of the reasons why I appreciate Jerry’s science posts so much…he writes well, and isn’t afraid to write well when writing about science.


          • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            Absolutely agree. Was just joking. I myself abstain from always avoiding alliteration.

            • Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

              As well you should, because betraying boring boundaries bothers bloviators.


              • Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

                Pesky, persnickety prescriptivists!

              • Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

                …constantly crushing creativity….


  9. Randy Schenck
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    It is a fine question that Ben asks and unfortunately, he will not get a satisfactory answer because there is none. How does any institution answer for the criminal mistreatment and abuse of children?

    The Catholic church cannot even come clean on the fact of the Crusades and lie about their complicity. I doubt that I’ll ever be inside a church but if I am, I hope to have a cell phone with me.

  10. Lurker111
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Too long. Any argument that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker won’t even be considered by a god-worshiper.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      The bumper sticker is the last sentence.


      • Brendan Reid
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Indeed …

        “Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?”

        … a great bumper sticker, T shirt slogan or one of these meme graphics thingy’s.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        That is a good bumper sticker. I’d buy it.

        • Posted September 5, 2015 at 6:04 am | Permalink

          I would buy “TL;DR”

    • ChrisB
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      How about:

      childhood leukemia = no god

      • Lurker111
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        _That_ might come close.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Most corporations that discover an employee committing violent sexual assault would practically instinctively — once again — call the police.

    An okay analogy, but not the best, as corporations rarely put their employees in unchaperoned authority positions over children.

    A better analogy may be with elementary and secondary school teachers. And you know what the government does in those situations? It typically goes one step further than just “calling the police is a good idea” – it makes them mandatory reporters. Teachers are not given a choice about whether to call the police in cases where they suspect abuse; they are required by employment contract to do so. You don’t call, its grounds for firing.

    If the RCC and other similar organizations that put adults in unchaperoned power positions over kids (I’m looking at you, Penn State and other public institutions of higher education) were really serious about child abuse, this is the position they’d take. They’d make their priests and administrators (and football coaches) mandatory reporters, meaning that failure to report observed or suspected incidents of abuse to the authorities would be grounds for immediate firing/expulsion from the organization.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Good point. I’ll remember it for next time.

      I do think there still might be some merit for using a corporation as an example of an heartless, soulless greedy money-grubbing syndicate that nevertheless handles the situation far better than any god ever has.


      • darrelle
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        The Penn State football program fits both bills pretty nicely. Heartless, soulless greedy money-grubbing syndicate and adults in unchaperoned power positions over kids.

        Good essay Ben. Have heard it from you many times, but nicely polished and expanded.

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Great post, Ben!

    Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

    I think the one time he tried, it didn’t work:

    And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt. 27:46)

    I think the one thing that you could have gone into as well is the question of “Why bad things don’t happen to bad people?” A god could be very efficient in his work if he were to just stop a Hitler or Stalin. Of course, theists would probably reply that that would interfere with their free-will, and chance for personal redemption.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      From my files:

      Yea and God said to Abraham, “You will kill your son Issac.” And Abraham said, “I can’t hear you, you’ll have to speak into the microphone.” And God said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Is this better? Check, check, check… Jerry, pull the high end out, I’m still getting some hiss back here.”

  13. chris moffatt
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?”

    Hate to break it to you Ben but Yeshue bar Yussef (aka Jesus) is dead.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Since when has being dead stopped the omnipotent?

      • chris moffatt
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        stopped being omnipotent when he started being dead! End of story. There is no “Jesus” and maybe never was.

        • Posted September 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          Well, first, of course, Jesus is an ancient fiction, much older than Christianity — but that’s a topic for another day.

          Death and related matters do, however, pose insurmountable problems for the allegedly omnipotent. An omnipotent entity couldn’t die, couldn’t commit suicide, couldn’t resign the throne to a child — couldn’t even take a vacation. The entity would be powerless during such times…and, if you’re powerless, you’re not all-powerful. But that also means that you’re unable to do some very mundane and trivial things that mere mortals do all the time.

          The end result is that “omnipotence” is its own self-contained contradiction. It’s the largest counting number, the quotient of zero, a married bachelor.


  14. thh1859
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I suggest an option for theologians to help them explain the problem of evil. It has logical consistency; and evidence abounds:

    In the great battle in Heaven between God and Satan (the one described by John Milton) Satan won, and therefore became God.

    Somehow I doubt they’ll take up this option.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      This runs into the reverse problem, namely the problem of good. (!)

      • thh1859
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Actually Keith, a calculated amount of good is part of God’s plan. [I say God, since it is important to understand that God is a title, similar to Pope or President, and Satan assumed the title when he defeated Kevin, the previous God]. So the God we know now IS Satan. He has a sadistic sense of humor, and being far more subtle than the benign Kevin ever was, knows full well that some good is essential to make distress, suffering, despair and pain even more intense.

  15. rickflick
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I like the way this essay is structured. You slowly build the case that any ordinary person would call 9-1-1 when confronted by evil. Any reader would have to be nodding agreement through all of that.
    With the ball thus positioned atop the tee, then you take a powerful swing against the obvious contradiction in the theory of Gods. Well done.

  16. Delphin
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Even the phrase “the problem of evil” is loaded. There is no problem. There is only a contradiction between the fact of suffering and the claims made about god. It’s like saying there is “the problem of yellow” because my holy book insists everything is red.

  17. Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Standing ovation!

  18. SA Gould
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I loved it. Have posted it on facebook. It is what I would like to be able to say, instead of what usually comes out as “That’s just stupid!”

  19. Brujo Feo
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Mirabile dictu, Ben.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Nicely done!

    But this has to be nitpicked among us skeptics:

    so-called “snuff” films, in which victims are murdered on camera for entertainment purposes,

    This is a purported genre with a purported content, where the weight of evidence is that portrayed killings is just that. (Which makes sense because it is often the simplest way to make chocking scenes.)

    “A snuff film is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a movie in a purported genre of movies in which an actor is actually murdered or commits suicide”.[1] It may include a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of financial exploitation, but that detail is extraneous, so long as it is “circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment”.[2] Some filmed records of executions and murders exist but have not been released for commercial purposes.[3]”

    [ ]

    I think this is the second time, at least, that Ben has mentioned the subject in a few years. Not a pervasive obsession perhaps, but a pervasive mistake.

    Reality has enough horrors that we don’t need to add imaginary ones!

    • SA Gould
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      In America, there have been serial killers who record/film their victims. That they may be of the quality to publish/sell for money,that they are “private,” does not make them any less vile, no matter what you care to call them.

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Yes, exactly.

        A close analogy can be made with child pornography. The overwhelming majority of pornography depicts adults (including, as I understand, a booming business in not only “MILF” but even “granny” porn). Of the subset devoted to youngsters, within rounding, everybody onscreen has official government ID on file somewhere with an age of 18 or more — with the rare exception treated most seriously.

        But there also exists a small underground of illegally-produced, illegally-distributed, no-budget pornography with subjects younger than 18 — even pre-pubescent. Especially in this day and age you would have to go to some unusual lengths to seek it out, and you’d have to be especially idiotic to do so for all sorts of reasons; however, in times long past, it wasn’t all that far off the beaten path.

        In those same times past, the same sorts of seedy places that would harbor child pornography would also harbor snuff films. I’m sure that wherever the child porn has gone, the snuff films have followed. Completely amateur production, same as with the child pornography. But that makes the authenticity very hard to doubt…it takes skills and a budget and a team to fake that sort of thing, and that’s not going to be put to waste for something that gets surreptitiously passed around without means to monetize.


  21. JohnH
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    But god does intervene in the evil that exists in the world. The best example is the Flood. In this case evil was so rampant that it drove god to kill everyone, except for Noah and his immediate family…or so they say. To quote Popeye: “That’s all I can stands ’cause I can’t stands no more!” How’s that for addressing “the failure of God (or Jesus, who’s the same thing if you accept the Trinity) to intervene in dire situations.”

  22. Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    The evidential problem of evil seems to me insurmountable for the believer in a tri-omni deity. I’m not all that convinced that the logical problem doesn’t still pose a problem; consider the problem of non-God objects (

    Some nitpicks:

    Yet that is exactly how every god of every religion is described. Most modern religions claim an all-knowing ever-present all-powerful deity, but even the ancient gods were far-seeing, far- and fast-roaming, and very strong.

    Those polytheistic religions don’t have the same issue, imo, because each individual deity’s power is significantly compromised by the existence of other powerful deities, and there’s no reason why some of them cannot be maleficent. For the same reason, the problem of evil isn’t so much a problem for Christian Marcionism. I’ve also had theists tell me that God is not all that good, and that does get them out of this bind – God’s a bit of a shit! Actually, I agree with them; if he did exist he would be a shit.

    Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

    The title of the piece is correct but the text says ‘nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer” that question, when non-Christians could hardly be expected to address it.

    Of course, too, as Ben hints, Christians do *attempt* to answer the question; the free-will defence (which is unlikely to get any traction at this website!) and skeptical theism, for example. The parent-child analogy is one argument skeptical Christians might offer, which is discussed here:

    Skeptical theism seems close to going nuclear in my book, since it renders the theist morally skeptical about any appearance of evil; a pretty indefensible worldview, I would say, and one which we see in practice leads them to defend genocide.


    I thought the word was ‘notpology’? (, but I’m no expert on internet lingo, so I stand to be corrected.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      There’s also the fairly recent theodicy expressed in books like Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? by Rabbi Kushner: God is not all-powerful. There’s nothing He can do except suffer and grieve along with you.

      That too contains problems, even on its own terms.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Er, that’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I double-checked the author and ignored the title. Duh.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Those polytheistic religions don’t have the same issue, imo, because each individual deity’s power is significantly compromised by the existence of other powerful deities, and there’s no reason why some of them cannot be maleficent.

      Epicurus’s gods were less than all-omni, yet he was the first to observe that not a single one of them ever even said, “Boo!”


  23. Gamall
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer”

    There’s just one ?

    Also, the title — regardless of the contents — matches the cheap click-bait pattern which was, I think, excoriated on this very not-a-blog not long ago, of very many extremely lame arguments and laughable videos.

    Unless this was deliberate — and if it was… why ? — this essay deserves a better title. That one is “negatively eye-catching”, to me at the very least.

    • Brendan Reid
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Well, I was thinking that a good alternate title for the piece would have been …

      “Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?”

      Ben – maybe submit and suggest that to Salon or Alternet or whoever?

      • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t want to give away the punch line until the end….


        • Marella
          Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          I think you should reconsider that. An essay isn’t a joke, people understand what you’re saying better if they know up front what the basic argument is. Though I understand the urge, keeping the punchline till last is actually counterproductive. People have a notoriously difficult time remembering jokes.

          Excellent work as usual Ben.

          • Posted September 5, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            But, don’t you see?

            The point of the essay isn’t to ask why Jesus never calls 9-1-1. And if I put that up front, people would jadedly think this is just another variation on the old standbys of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Why doesn’t Jesus magically solve all my problems for me?” and not even bother reading.

            The point of the essay is to show what good people look like and how they act, and, in so doing, to make painfully clear that the religious are infinitely better people than their gods.

            The question is just the hook that strings them along through the whole thing and keeps them going through the repeated sucker punches. In the search for the easy question they’re sure they’ve already got a ready answer for, they’re confronted with repeated examples of their own easy, unthinking actions doing more good than their own gods.

            It’s not, “Can Jesus make a rock so heavy even he can’t lift it?”

            Rather, it’s “Here’s a rock. You can lift it with ease. People often have a moral obligation to lift the rock, and most of us do without hesitation. That same moral obligation applies to Jesus…yet he doesn’t even pretend to touch it. So who made the rock so heavy that even Jesus can’t lift it?”

            In the end, the question doesn’t even matter; the point’s already been made by then, if I’ve made it at all.


            • Marella
              Posted September 5, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

              Certainly, if you feel people wouldn’t read the essay with that title then it would be a poor choice! I stand corrected.

      • SA Gould
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        You can make up your *own* Tshirt, bumper sticker, mug on CafePress. Very easy. (And you don’t have to buy a certain amount.)

  24. Gordon Hill
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Well written assessment of one area of Christianity; however, the main problem with Christian theology is that it exists as a potpourri. One popular view is that the Trinity began at the Council of Nicea. Still, Unitarianism, which dismisses the Trinity, can be traced to the 11th to 13th Centuries.

    Also, many Christians believe that God created and it’s up to us to choose as best we can.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      All questions of trinitarianism and what-not are utterly irrelevant, so long as the Jesus in question is aware of current events and retains enough of his super-powers to figure out how to call 9-1-1.


  25. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Oh, you.

    BTW, I recommend learning the direct lines to fire, police, etc. because I think 9-1-1 is one step that can be cut out of the chain. They have to then make a call.

    But of course, if in doubt, call 9-1-1…

    Speaking of doubt – I am not a theologian, but maybe Jesus knows the closest lines. You know, omniscience and all that…

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t recommend second-guessing the situation. You don’t know what else is going on around you, and whether or not you’ll get a faster response from a neighboring city’s fire truck returning from some minor call near you as opposed to an ambulance dispatched from the local hospital.

      Of course, if it’s not an emergency, take the time to look up whoever it is you want to talk to. But if time is of the essence…nothing in today’s system beats 9-1-1 as the first (and almost always only) call to make.


      • Paul S.
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Yup, as a first responder, you call 9-1-1 then check the situation, gather information and provide emergency care if needed.

  26. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Ben Goren — “Theodicy’s Benghazi”…?

    • Posted September 14, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      No, Baihu’s staff. 🙂

  27. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    The problem has hardly a remotely satisfactory answer.

    Spinoza’s nature-embedded God seems to have no genuine free will, but Spinoza was regarded as either an atheist or a heretic by all his contemporaries.

    The few theologians that I respect (and I respect them as !*philosophers*! rather than as theologians!!) state outright there is no answer. Indeed the vicious ugliness that results from attempting an answer has been discussed by Terrence Tilley in his book “The Evils of Theodicy”.

    Perhaps one of the best answers is these lines spoken by Woody Allen’s character Isaac Davis to his girlfriend in the movie “Manhattan”

    ” You’re God’s answer to Job, y’know? You would have ended all argument between them. I mean, He would have pointed to you and said, y’know, “I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.” You know? And then Job would have said, “Eh. Yeah, well, you win.” “

    • Ralph
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      So, when he’s not burning babies or waterboarding the innocent Job, god has a fine aesthetic sense.

      I guess when Hannibal Lecter said “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”, the most important point was that he is a gastronome and oenophile.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        I guess so. I’m hoping you are aware that the author of that dialogue (Woody Allen) is an atheist.

        • Derek Freyberg
          Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

          Among other things, depending on whose story you believe.
          Not that that affects the point of the post.

  28. Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    On e rather obvious answer that follows from the concept of an immortal soul, is that earthly life just doesn’t really matter.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Never mind that basically nobody is going to agree that pain and suffering don’t matter; if the gods don’t care about what happens in this world, what sort of moral authority can they even hypothetically claim?

      But even that misses the point. When confronted with those who claim this life doesn’t matter, ask if they themselves would call 9-1-1. If so, the hypocrisy is laid bare; if not, they make themselves instant pariahs.


      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 4:57 am | Permalink

        That’s it.
        Pretty much the only reasonable response to your example, and other problems of evil and suffering are claims of the grand majestic hereafter, where the supposed true nature of god and consciousness and stuff, on a ‘higher’ plane, becomes apparent and renders those things mundane and insignificant.

        But, why then do they claim authority to interfere relentlessly in the goings on in the actual world. Why and how present notions of good and evil and suffering if it is really insignificant?

        As you say, if they want to claim some moral authority in this world (and they most certainly do), then they are totally blown away by your simple, perfectly reasonable question,

        Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

    • Marella
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      This is true, in fact relative to eternity, earthly life is so brief that it’s impossible to understand why it happens at all!

  29. John Crisp
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Ben, quite a lot of countries go further than the “calling 911” option. France, for example, has a law on “non-assistance à une personne en danger”, literally non-assistance to a person in danger, usually translated in English as “Duty to Rescue”. Roughly, it means what it says: if you can save somebody, you are legally obliged to do so, though not at the cost of your own life. So it has interesting gradations: on the one hand, if you can’t swim you would not be expected to rescue a drowning person; on the other hand, if you had some special skill, for example martial arts, you could potentially be prosecuted for failing to intervene on behalf of an assault victim.

    There is more on this question here:

    • Marella
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      So the three heroes who saved the day recently on a French train, could have found themselves on the wrong side of the law had the not done what they did?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        No. The law requires them to help others if they can do so without risking their own lives.


        • Posted September 14, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          Yes, i think it means you can’t sit idly by as something terrible happens that you can help without significant risk to yourself.

  30. Matt
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s even worse than Jesus never calling 911. He does call 911. But just for some people. You know, those 8 people who survived the plane crash that killed 174.

    If he never called 911 at least that would be fair. But every religious person who has ever survived near death was saved by Jesus making that 911 call. You can’t say that Jesus doesn’t call 911. He does. But just for his favorites.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      … and you can easily tell which are his favourites because he called 911 for them.



  31. Posted September 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I also find it perplexing that humans are held to a higher moral standard than a supposedly omni-benevolent deity.

    Ignoring the cries of a drowning child would likely earn a human an afterlife of eternal torture under Christian doctrine.

    Yet a deity that does the same, not once but every time, is considered the embodiment of all that is good?

  32. colnago80
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    With the disappearance of outdoor phone booths, someone like myself who doesn’t have a cell phone would be hard put to summon assistance, unless there happened to be someone with a cell phone (called mobile in Great Britain)in the vicinity.

  33. Vaal
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Nicely put Ben!

    One standard reply is the “slippery slope.”

    Sure God could intervene when someone
    was suffering or committing a crime, but the
    ….WHERE WOULD HE STOP? If God just
    intervened all the time we’d have no real, morally
    relevant freedom. It sounds like you just want a
    totally safe world were nothing ever happens!

    Have at it 😊

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      So, what’s the claim? That the great and mighty all-powerful Jesus gets tired after calling 9-1-1 a few times, and it’s just waaaay too much work to do the right thing all the time?

      You know, I think it’s a lot of work to always have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom whenever I need to void something. And then to clean up afterwards? I think I’ll just stop bothering — and, if you object, it must be because you’re trying to impose your own notion of sterility on me.

      It really gets to me how, on the one hand, Christians (and others) are eager to claim ultimate perfection for their pantheon…and then, the instant you point out even the most trivial flaw, they leap to an instant defense that claims that the gods actually can’t do fuck-all, when it comes right down to it — and are powerfully stupid to boot.

      I mean, really? Dude creates the whole freaking’ Universe, resurrects himself from the dead just to prove to us that he’s super important…and yet a simple three-digit phone call is too much for him?


  34. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    One of my FB friends, who is a very religious Christian, posts pictures of his baby, who was born with a lot of issues. I think her brain development will be forever stifled and she can’t breath properly so has a tracheotomy. Every time someone says what a glory to God this child is in that he saved her, I want to shout, YOUR DEITY IS A PSYCHOPATH!

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      The only redeeming characteristic of basically any god is the god’s failure to exist.


      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:04 am | Permalink

        That’s a real godly power, better than making a square circle, existing by not existing.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 6, 2015 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        More T-shirt material.

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Theist 1: “God is so great. I could’ve died in that accident but I only broke my femur.”

      Theist 2: “God is so great. I could e died in that accident but I’m only paralyzed from the waist down.”

      Theist 3: “God is so great. I could’ve died in that accident but I’m only a quadraplegic.”

      Theist 4: “God is so great. My daughter died in that accident but at least the drunk driver who caused it is ok.”

  35. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I understand your point Ben, but …

    Most corporations that discover an employee committing violent sexual assault would practically instinctively — once again — call the police do what they can to cover up the acts of their employees if at all possible, up to and including harassing the injured parties to make them go away and stop being a problem to the company. The more senior the offender, the greater the reputational and fiscal damage the company is exposed to and so the greater the efforts to undermine and destroy the complainer.

    Remember, a problem moved off this year’s balance sheet to a future after your “Golden Goodbye” is a problem that doesn’t matter.
    I’m pretty shockingly cynical, and I still find some of the behaviours of corporations manage to shock me from time to time.
    In this respect the Catholic Church (and political parties ad nauseam, and multinational corporations ad nauseam volante are all singing from the same dehumanising hymnsheet.
    I’m not defending it. But it is an accurate description of the world.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      Cynic that I am, that was my immediate reaction too.

      Not just in cases of misconduct, but also in cases of accidents. ‘Blame the dead’ works quite well, and the more elaborate the company’s procedures, the easier it is to find some trivial rule that the victims omitted to follow.


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 3:55 am | Permalink

        Didn’t you realise – that is the major purpose of those myriads of trivial rules. Each one is defensible on it’s own terms (as I say to the Site Safety Officer with whom I share an office, they’re “rules written in someone’s blood”), but the main purpose of them is to insulate the company from responsibility for something going wrong and someone, for example, being crushed between a 12 ton top-heavy load and a 20-ton protection cage, when the whole emphasis of the job has been to do it quickly quickly quickly. “That lay-down procedure hadn’t been JSA’d according to the Work Instruction Management System!”
        (Dislocated shoulder and some severe bruising. Couple of months off work. American, so he dare not challenge the events for fear of losing his job and his children’s health insurance.)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:48 am | Permalink

          Oh yes. This is why the Health & Safety Manager in our company has an average turnover of 15 months. It’s not that we’re a very high-risk company, just that the top brass want to carry NO risk themselves, and under NZ’s scapegoating safety climate whereby somebody WILL be found to be ‘held accountable’ if an accident occurs, the H&S manager comes to realise after a short while that it’s going to be him. 😦

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted September 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            Hello, Mr Lamb, here are the instruments of barbecue …. where’d that one go?

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      Oh, to be sure — there’re lots of psychopathic corporations that’d try to cover up a Catholic-style sex scandal the same way the Catholics themselves have.

      But…look at the way these things play out in the public eye, with the case of Jared Fogel being typical:

      > On July 7, 2015, the FBI and Indiana State Police investigators conducted a search at Fogle’s Zionsville, Indiana, home. Computers and other electronic equipment were removed from the home.[29][30] The same day, Subway announced that they and Fogle mutually agreed to suspend their relationship.[31] Subsequently, Subway removed all references to Fogle from its website[32] and on August 18, 2015, announced via Twitter that Fogle no longer had a relationship with the company.[33]

      The Catholic Church has yet to rise even to that standard. And Jesus himself? Where’re his tweets on the subject?

      I’m not asking for perfection from the gods — not in the least. But is it too much to ask that they even manage to rise the the level of rank incompetence?


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 4:01 am | Permalink

        look at the way these things play out in the public eye

        THAT is what PR flacks are for. To keep things out of the public eye.
        Sounds to me like Subway are looking for a new PR flack.

  36. keith cook + or -
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Nice one Ben Goran.
    I find myself thinking.. hmm just as the ‘word of god’ has never been updated, neither has ‘he’ bothered to familiarise himself with the current technologies.. So, with that, I figured he is still trying to get that stone tablet to talk digital and bashing it against the table in sheer rage. Not to get help mind you, but to tell you what you did wrong, It is all about him and what he wants. Needy bastard that he is.
    My other thought was, if he started getting selective and bragging about it when he called, it might set a dangerous precedence. As in, he saved that good for nothing and let my dad die.. f##k you god I’m going out dancing, joining WEIT. Makes more sense to a non-sense that does not exist and is why no call will ever be made and why I’ve changed theology to theidocy.
    No one has ever asked a drowned victim of a shipwreck how they feel about it,
    only the survivors get to.. praise the lord!

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      So…calling 9-1-1 is too much work for Jesus, and he’s too stupid to figure out how to handle the call volume, or perhaps to delegate to some of those archangels?

      My, how the omnipotent omniscient have fallen….


    • Marella
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      So you still can’t pray by email then? The Jewish god can read at least, they poke written prayers into the Wailing Wall, but Jesus apparently isn’t even that modern.

  37. keith cook + or -
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    My apoligies Ben.. slip of the ‘e’

  38. Derek Freyberg
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I find it hard to disagree with most of what has been said above, but … let me take a shot:
    It seems to me that a non-trivial number of religions (and Ben had focused on Christianity, but seemed to indict modern – not sure how that is defined, maybe extant monotheistic – religions in general) that are not monotheistic, are not in the mode that Ben condemns, such as Shinto and other animistic religions,
    are not in the mode of saying “Well, it’s God’s will … “.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Which is not to say that I agree with any of them, merely that they don’t insult my intelligence in quite the same way.

    • Posted September 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is just a recapitulation of the famous Epicurean Riddle. And the Greek Pantheon of Epicurus’s culture was most emphatically polytheistic and its gods decidedly less than omni-anything.


  39. Mark R.
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ben…this was a great and important piece of work. A very solid treatise on the bullshit that theodicy wants to pervade. Fuck! Religion doesn’t even have the power of a virus. I guess human dupidity allows that. But then again, viruses rule us all. Those damn algorithms.

  40. Mark Joseph
    Posted September 4, 2015 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Excellent development of the idea, Ben. This one’s a keeper. Thank you.

    There were a few comments near the beginning that the christians would not be impressed by your argument. Of course not; no one is accusing them (the christians) of being overly thoughtful. The nice thing about the progressive secularization of society is that it is getting harder and harder for the average person to see the apologetic arguments and answers of the religious to seem like anything other than the nonsense that they are.

  41. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted September 5, 2015 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Very nice story.
    I have been saved at least twice by an ambulance arriving in time.
    Once my life and another, further pain and suffering.
    I remember regaining consciousness and seeing friendly concerned faces. One was a bit surreal with the weird intense variety of flashing police and ambulance lights. (Motor bikes are fun)

    It felt good and I was very grateful.

    I had a chance to thank one of them and they responded “no worries” (or something simply similar) and off they went to the next emergency.
    Without that civilized reality, had I been waiting for jebus, I would not be typing this.

    • Posted September 5, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I, too, would be dead or disfigured at least a couple times over were it not for those dispatched by a 9-1-1 call made after I had been rendered unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. And I’ve not even the slightest clue who all that was, though I do have a very great appreciation for the magnitude of the effort they put into making the world not quite so dangerous.


      • rickflick
        Posted September 5, 2015 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        As a side note, I have a rather conservative Catholic friend who served as a volunteer with an ambulance crew. She basically just rode along to provide an extra hand when needed. Her heart was in the right place, and she probably attributed this charitable stance to religiosity. I kind of suspect that if she were an atheist she might well have done equally as well given the right opportunity.

  42. Hempenstein
    Posted September 5, 2015 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Well, it’s the damn scientists who are to blame for this problem. It was all a lot easier before antibiotics, when G*d was a vengeful SOB. You never knew when you might keel over and if you did, it was surely in retribution for some past transgression. G*d was the last one you’d expect to call 911.

    But then along came Selman Waksman and streptomycin, showing the way to discovery of more antibiotics. Suddenly G*d needed to get reformulated into this loving entity if they weren’t going to lose market share. Something good happened to you, well, it’s because you’re been praising G*d – he likes praise.

    If theodicy wasn’t even a word before mid-20th century (Ben?), that would support the above.

  43. Posted September 5, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    i would even argue that an omniscient god is a profoundly more repulsive creature than ben has portrayed for us. for such a god cannot be merely a passive voyeur but must be instead a sado-masochistic participant.

    basically omniscience means the answer to every question “does god know …”, for every meaning of the word “know”, is “of course!”

    so what if we ask: “does god know how a rapist feels?”

    if god is truly omniscient then god would indeed know, in perfect detail, not just a rapist’s acts but also, in intimate detail unavailable to human beings, all the rapist’s thoughts and feelings, sights, sounds and smells during his brutalities, from beginning to end. perversely, god would simultaneously know the same about the victim, their cries and their terror and every ounce their pain.

    an omniscient god would know, in advance, every single depravity committed in all of human history — you name it — and choose to be a willing participant in it. if jack the ripper’s letter is to be believed, god knows what fried human liver smells and tastes like, and that “it was very nise”

    • Posted September 5, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Spot on. I didn’t think it would be productive to take the essay in that direction, but I’m glad for others to riff on it like that.


  44. Posted September 5, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. I’d add one thing to underscore the whole thesis even more clearly. Most Christians, including the largest group, the Catholic Church, do claim divine intervention in human affairs. There are thousands of saints, all of which have miracles here on earth attributed to them! So, sometimes, God indeed does intervene, but never by calling 9-1-1.

    Then there’s this thought experiment for them to entertain: Imagine you are a 9-1-1 operator and you receive a phone call that a house is on fire and a baby is trapped inside. The caller also mentions that he is none other than the Creator of the Universe. Would you entertain even for a moment that this claim is true? Of course not, you’d think the caller is either pulling a prank or is delusional. Yet in other contexts, Christians are perfectly happy to accept that God guided their flight safely through a thunderstorm from point A to point B or helped find their lost keys so they can get to the airport on time.

  45. Diane G.
    Posted September 6, 2015 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Ben! Very nice to have this classic trope of Ben Brilliance delightfully spelled out and polished to a sheen in a keeper article! I agree with those who suggest you seek to publish this somewhere (else).

    • rickflick
      Posted September 6, 2015 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      I’ll second the motion.

      • Posted September 6, 2015 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, guys. I’ve never sought to publish anything anywhere real…I suppose I’ll have to look into that, though I’ve no clue where to begin….

        (But NOT at PuffHo!)


        • rickflick
          Posted September 7, 2015 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          There is a lot of writing done for news outlets on the web. Maybe that would be a place you could get a foot in the door. Maybe summarizing science stories for a mass audience.
          Once you have a reputation, you could go into more serious work and join the speaking circuit as a pundit? Travel for National Geographic, etc.
          Here’s an idea – rent a cruise ship and invite scientist/skeptic/humanist speakers(like PCC). Paying customers should flock to an adventure cruise that would shadow that other ship of quackery and alternative bunk to kind of balance out the woo.

  46. Jeffery
    Posted September 7, 2015 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    A, “born-again” friend of mine had it all figured out, years ago, as to why bad things happen to good people: his answer? “There ARE no, ‘good’ people; it says, right in the Bible, ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.” Problem solved!

  47. Posted September 7, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I discuss the problem of evil using a little thought experiment akin to the popular “would you divert the train and kill one to save five” scenario here.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] commenter on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website Ben Goren, wrote a guest piece: The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer. It was about the big problem with Christian belief: why God doesn’t intervene to help […]

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