I was enjoying a spirited theological conversation at an uncle's apartment yesterday afternoon when he brought up the following argument he once heard from a Jewish atheist he had met here in Cluj. This person told him that it would have been better for the Jewish people if God had left them in slavery in Egypt. After giving them the Law, the Jewish people sinned and were thus punished again and again throughout their whole history as a nation. If they had remained in ignorance of God like all the nations, they would have led an easier existence. It would have been better for them if God had never bothered them, than to have been tied to God in this way and to suffer because of it.
In general, the nature of an argument reveals the character of the person who offers it. This argument, too, reveals the depraved thinking of the person who offers it. The presupposition of the argument is that pain and suffering are the worst things that a person could suffer, and happiness and subjective enjoyment are the best things that a person can experience -- a kind of crude hedonism. This is an utterly anti-Christian way of thinking, as I've tried to explain before. A person who argues like this cannot but live a morally unimpressive life. You cannot become virtuous and rise above the ranks of ordinary mortals if your primary concern is to enjoy yourself and to avoid stress or pain. You will never muster up the motivation and strength to do what is right when it is especially difficult.
The argument supposes that it would have been better for the Jewish people to live in ignorance of God and to enjoy themselves like the nations, than for them to come to know God and to suffer because of it. Better to live like animals in ignorance of the truth and their place in the world, than to know the truth and to come to suffer because of it. There is nothing surprising about the fact that such an argument comes from an atheist, because it is difficult to see how you can continue to believe in a God who orders the events of history in his providence when there is so much suffering in the world. That also shows how much this particular atheist really values the truth: better to live in ignorance but to enjoy yourself, than to know the truth and suffer.
The reality of the matter is that God did not create human beings to remain in darkness and ignorance, but to know him. This is what they were created for: to know God and to live in friendship with him, not necessarily to enjoy themselves apart from him. There can be no lasting enjoyment of life apart from God, as is evidenced by the fact that everywhere in the world, people recognize and lament the existence of evil which keeps a person from feeling permanently safe and at home in the world. When God brought the Hebrews out of slavery and gave them the Law, so that they might know how they are supposed to live and they might come to be friends of God who created them, he did them a favor. He brought them that much closer to the fulfillment of their true nature, to the fulfillment of the purpose for which they were created.
If they were punished by God because of their sins, that is their own doing, not God's fault. God does not force us to sin, neither does he want to punish us at all. But if we sin and we do not repent, then it is only right that we suffer: through the suffering, in fact, God wants to turn us from our evils and to draw us to him. Origen notes the redemptive purpose of punishments by appeal to Ps 78:34, where we read: Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. Because of the hardness of their hearts, they would only turn to God in times of punishment and anger, rather than when things were going well. But that is their own fault and not God's, and God's intentions are always good and salutary in what he does to us.
We are not better off alone, apart from God. That is a lie. And it is a certain spiritual laziness and deadness which might make us think that it would be better for us not to know God and to live and enjoy our lives, than to know God and to suffer for righteousness' sake, if not because of our sins. That is what we were created for -- to know God and to live in friendship with him. And if God enlightens us to realize our place in the world, may he forbid us from ever preferring the darkness of ignorance in which we could enjoy ourselves "in peace." Precisely because God is good and just, there must be a judgment of everyone who has ever lived, and it would make a mockery of God's justice if he were to leave us in ignorance our whole lives and to "reward" us with heaven when we did not know about it or care to make an effort to be there.
We ought to keep watch over ourselves. If we find ourselves sympathizing with a sophism such as I've considered in this post, we ought to repent and pray that God straighten our thinking.