"In a world where religion seems increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, where is god in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answer Mac gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him."
"I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance, I could have chosen to save her from the murderer. But that was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now."-God comforting Mac regarding his daughter's gruesome murderAs immensely disappointing as that response is, it is common: God must have morally sufficient reasons to permit even heinous evil - reasons that we simply cannot understand. But as philosopher Stephen Maitzen argues (here and here), theists fail to follow this response to its logical and untenable conclusion: we have no moral obligations.
Let me explain. If God has morally sufficient reasons to permit the apparently gratuitous suffering of innocent children, then the suffering isn't really gratuitous, though it may seem that way to us. God's mysterious reasons make the suffering necessary. If it wasn’t necessary, a perfect and omnipotent being would avail himself of the other options rather than permit it. Moreover, the suffering must be necessary for the net benefit of the child because no morally perfect being would exploit a child. Well, if the suffering is necessary for the child's ultimate benefit, then we have no obligation to stop it. (The argument stops there, though I think that an even stronger case could be made, which is that we must let the suffering occur.)
If you’re having a hard time accepting that, imagine that you are an anthropologist studying a primitive tribe on a remote South Pacific Island when your young daughter becomes gravely ill with appendicitis. The surgeon among your crew points out that strapping her down for a life saving appendectomy is necessary even if few or no anesthetics are available. To the locals listening to the girl's screams, this appears to be an act of wild depravity, but you and the surgeon have a morally sufficient reason to permit the brutal operation: there is no other way to save her life. Like God in ‘The Shack’, you know of purposes that the locals cannot possibly understand.
An uninformed witness to such events would have a moral obligation to try to prevent your daughter’s abdomen from being sliced open, but if such a witness had reasons to believe that the surgeon was sane, upstanding, and extremely capable, that obligation would disappear since the operation and its attendant suffering are required to secure her survival; they're necessary for her net benefit. (An even stronger case could be made: an informed witness who prevents the surgery could only be a murderer trying to secure your daughter's certain death. And so it seems to me that if there exists a moral obligation in this situation at all, it is to ensure that the savage operation proceeds.)
Well, if God exists, then we have no moral obligation to prevent the apparently gratuitous, but actually necessary, suffering of children, and if we don't even have that moral obligation, then we have no moral obligations at all. Morality itself is destroyed.
A common response to this argument is that God has given us libertarian free will with which he must not interfere, even if doing so would prevent the intense, gratuitous suffering of children. But there are several reasons why we should reject this line of reasoning.
Firstly, Maitzen points out that, at least from a Christian perspective, on numerous occasions in the Bible, God does interfere with human free will. For example, he hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 14:8), and, as Paul tells us in the New Testament, he also hardens the hearts of others as a matter of policy (Romans 9:18). Apparently, libertarian free will isn't so important that God cannot interfere with it, and if God can harden hearts as needed, surely he can soften the hearts of those who rape and murder innocent children.
Secondly, the very idea itself that free will is more important than preventing the intense suffering of innocent children is simply outrageous; nobody really believes it. For instance, imagine that you have the opportunity, at virtually no risk to yourself, to prevent the rape of your child. Would it ever be acceptable to pass because of too much concern with preserving the free will of the rapist? Of course it wouldn’t, and it would be especially unacceptable for an omnipotent Father. God could only sacrifice his moral perfection in doing so, and if God is not morally perfect, then he does not exist.
The tension between the coexistence of God and morality as we know it cannot survive any ad hoc supremacy of the importance of libertarian free will. The only acceptable reason to permit the suffering of a child, even for God, is if it’s necessary for the net benefit of that child, and if it is, then we have no obligation to prevent it. (In fact, it seems to me that we may have a duty to permit it.)
Contrary to popular belief, Dostoyevsky had it all wrong; it’s only if God does exist, that everything is permitted. So while many theists claim that it’s our moral obligation to make this world better, ironically, it's only if God does not exist, that such moral obligations do. Morality implies atheism.