Opening Statement by the Reverend Derek Walmsley

Thank you for the invitation to take part in this on-line debate. The offer came as a surprise and as I said in my letter to the local press, I commend you on your willingness to debate openly. I do hope you are a genuine seeker after truth and that this debate will be fruitful for both of us and also for the readers who visit this site. I don't claim any great intellectual powers, and looking at some of your previous debates I suspect I will probably be out of my depth - but that didn't seem to worry David when he met Goliath in the "away leg" so I'll try to follow his example.

Just to confirm the exact topic: "The level of suffering in the world is not compatible with an all-good God".

I hope we won't get bogged down with details and word definitions but it does strike me at the outset that there are key words in the topic which will become issues:

"Suffering" is a sticky area. For example, clearly some people "enjoy" suffering in a variety of settings. The masochist is a classic example, but the mountain-climber who endures hardship to reach a summit (rather than landing by helicopter!) takes pride in his achievement because he has come through the suffering he elected to face.

I use these rather light-weight examples to suggest that not all "suffering" is a bad thing. Some have even suggested that "pain" is one of God's greatest gifts because it frequently helps prevent us from suffering serious injury or death. (ie if the fire is hot it hurts briefly so we don't leave our hand in it.) See the book "Where is God when it hurts" by Philip Yancy for a simple but profound explanation of this. The book is dedicated to Dr. Paul Brand, whose work with lepers led him to the conclusion that pain is a good thing. Without it we would all be limbless or dead early in life. It can be argued that a material world cannot exist without the need for pain to protect us from greater pain.

Suffering that is followed by joy gives us a different perspective too. Manchester United fans (and I'm certainly not one of them!) would tell us that the "suffering" of the first 90 minutes of the Champions League Cup Final earlier this year meant that the final minutes of injury time were all the more thrilling and ecstatic. The many years they went without winning the English league or European Cup were "suffering" that made the final joy greater.

I repeat - I'm using light-weight examples to suggest that suffering may not be as simple as we would initially expect. It could be said , therefore, that the level of suffering is not what we perceive it to be.

However, I want to declare from the outset that I believe real suffering is a big issue, and that pain is very very real. It is a common mistake of those who "defend God" to argue that pain is not real or not too bad. It is. I understand that followers of Mary Baker Eddy's "Christian Science" cult are taught that since nothing is "real" except the spiritual, then pain is not real. (This is a caricature/simplification of second-hand knowledge of their teaching and used only as an illustration . I'm sorry if I have misunderstood but it's not the point of the debate here). Genuine Christian doctrine does not deny the reality of suffering and evil.

The other phrase in the topic that could cause us problems is the expression "all-good God". We are into really interesting territory here. Where does this definition of "good" come from? For the atheist there are real problems in defining good and evil, or at least in agreeing definitions. The existence of the concept of good and evil has been used as an argument to add weight to the proofs of God's existence. Without a God we have no "outside" source to define good and evil for us. Without that source, who's to say what is truly good? Yet it seems that most if not all people have an innate sense of good, rightness, justice etc... If (as I believe) the definitions of wrong and good and bad must come from outside - from God - only then can we argue about whether God is breaking his own standards. You could say that the problem for Christians is that God doesn't seem to practice what he preaches. But the problem for the unbeliever is that you can't blame God for suffering if you don't believe in him!

All this leads me to a rather more difficult issue. I suspect that one of the problems in this debate will be that we will see things from different perspectives and with different understandings. In the Bible, Paul writes: 'The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them for they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2 verse 14). In other words, without the "eye of faith" it may be difficult or impossible to perceive the true nature of things. It's also noteworthy that the classic Bible text about faith, Hebrews chapter eleven, is more or less a list of people who suffered in a whole variety of ways!

This is not a trick argument to suggest that the unbeliever will never understand. But its' true that we all analyse the world with preconceptions. If we'd never seen to heard about aircraft then one flew overhead we would have all sorts of strange ideas about what it was. Clearly there are many believers who have suffered terribly and yet still believer, just as there are those who regard their suffering as proof of God's lack of love or goodness to them personally. (It's strange to hear people with little or no faith ask "What have I done to deserve this?" as though if God isn't there then some mysterious hand of "Fate" should give them a fair deal!) It's actually the testimony of a number of Christians I've heard say that God has seemed closer to them or more real at the worst times in their lives.


Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Steven Carr's First Response

Mr. Walmsley's First Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Mr. Walmsley's Final Response


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