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A Study in Evil, Pain, and Suffering

Updated: Mar 17, 2022


“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Introduction:

The problem of evil, pain, and suffering is a grave matter for everyone: children who lose their parents to cancer, parents who lose their children to drug overdose, those who lose their loved ones in earthquakes or tornadoes, or simply those who observe that suffering occurs without experiencing the problem firsthand. Many people turn to God in the midst of suffering. Others deny the existence of God when it occurs or even call God evil for allowing murder and natural calamities (cancer, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc.) to happen. The old Epicurean argument gives God deficient qualities. Since this problem is the strongest argument for atheism, it is crucial to refute certain claims. Therefore, the issue must be addressed with empathy, truth, and logic.

The thesis is this: the fact that evil, pain, and suffering occurs does not disprove God’s existence, but their occurrence is necessary for man’s existence. Within the thesis will be two sections: the negative and affirmative. The negative (against the Epicurean argument) contains two propositions: First, atheism has no moral law from which to judge God as “evil”; and second, atheism only makes the problem at hand more problematic. The affirmative (God exists even though evil, pain, and suffering occur) will contain three propositions: First, the existence of evil, pain, and suffering is in perfect harmony with God’s perfect nature; second, evil, pain, and suffering are needed for the purpose that God had in creating the world; and third, God has not removed Himself from the problem of evil, pain, and suffering, but rather He became a part of the problem and brought a solution.

For the Christian, Biblical references will be given for faith-building purposes. For the skeptic, Biblical references will be given to show what the Bible claims and how it makes sense contextually. It is also necessary to define evil, pain, and suffering to avoid confusion. Evil is, and only is, that which violates the will of God. Pain and suffering are those occurrences such as were mentioned in the first paragraph.

Proposition 1 of the Negative - Atheism Has No Moral Law from Which to Judge God as “Evil:

Atheists conclude that God must be malevolent since He allows evil, pain, and suffering to happen[1]. However, “evil” is subjective from the atheist’s viewpoint.[2] Since they claim that morals did not exist prior to man, and that morality is a function of the human mind[3], they have no basis to state that anything is objectively good or evil. If the atheistic scholar begins with this accusation, everything else that follows is useless. C.S. Lewis was correct when he said, “…if the first step in an argument is wrong, everything else that follows will be wrong.”[4] Argumentation must not contain opinions or faulty propositions. Therefore, the skeptic should take another angle at the problem.

Proposition 2 of the Negative - Atheism Only Makes the Problem at Hand More Problematic:

Instead of challenging theists with the issue, atheists ought to offer their own solutions. For example: What solution might the atheist offer to someone who is suffering? Remember that the atheistic philosophy centers around the “fact” that there is no God, no afterlife where suffering is made better, and no choice but to embrace what is here and survive. What would they offer to a child who at two years old suffered tremendous brain damage in a car accident? For nearly thirty years, he has been in a “vegetable” state. To make it worse, his parents died that very night. What answers can atheism give to this unfortunate soul? All they can say is, “There is no God, and there is no afterlife where suffering is made better. This is all there is, and you ought to just embrace it”, or “the strong eliminate the weak”. It is clear that atheism does not have the solution. It has not removed the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. It has only made the issue more problematic.[5] Since atheism offers no answers, it is the Christian’s responsibility to give answers that make sense and contain no contradictions.

Proposition 1 of the Affirmative - The Existence of Evil, Pain, and Suffering Is in Perfect Harmony with God’s Perfect Nature:

It shall now be proven that the existence of evil, pain, and suffering is in perfect harmony with God’s perfect nature. Skeptics such as J.L. Mackie alleged that God cannot logically be omnipotent and omnibenevolent if evil exists.[6] Similarly, Epicurus said,

“God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of god; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with god; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore, not god; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to god, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?”[7]

If these allegations are true, then God is lacking perfection in at least one of His attributes, and therefore He cannot be called “God”.[8] The skeptic may wonder, “Why does God have to be perfect?”. The answer is related to what the Bible claims about God. It claims that He is perfect in every attribute. Furthermore, God’s perfection provides the only adequate answer to the problem of evil. The harmony of all of His perfect attributes provide the best and only solution. While God is perfect in all of His nature, power, love, and knowledge will be the attributes to consider here with a brief statement about justice.

The Bible claims God is omnipotent.[9] Again, the question is, “If God is omnipotent, then is He not powerful enough to stop evil?” Since evil is that which violates God’s will, the concept of human free will must be explained. God created humans with the ability to choose good or bad. With this freedom, at times humans choose to do evil. This evil choice does not diminish God’s omnipotence, because God can only do that which is possible to achieve. For example, God cannot create a four-sided triangle, because such a thing cannot exist. God cannot create a being with free will and no free will, because it does not and cannot exist. C.S. Lewis said,

“His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”[10]

If God created human beings with the freedom to choose, then that choice implies the existence of things to choose between.[11] “But why do they choose evil?”, the skeptic may ask, “and from where did the impulse to sin come except from God?”[12] This accusation misconstrues the very nature of God and the fact that He created lesser beings with free moral agency. Certainly, God did not give Eve the impulse to sin. God gave Eve the freedom to sin. There is a sharp line between “impulse” and “freedom”. Finally, if God were to create beings equal to Him, there would be no free will. There would only robots or puppets.

John Lennox argued that parents know that when they procreate, the child has the potential of committing heinous crimes.[13] Does that make the parents evil? Certainly not. The atheist would have to agree, especially if they have children. For the choice to love and obey to be meaningful, there has to be the choice to hate and disobey. Imagine a world where evil does not exist. Imagine a world in which God created human beings that can never do evil. If God would have created humans who always did right (and He could have), they would be robotic, which would make God some sort of manipulative creep. Imagine having a pre-programmed wife or child who loved you because you made them love you. God has never and will never make anyone love Him, and that is because He is omnibenevolent. He loves humans so much that He does not want to force them to love Him. He has blessed humans with the freedom to choose,[14] and while this freedom is abused, God knew the risk of humans choosing evil was worth taking in order for some to choose eternal life.[15]

“But”, the atheist may say, “since humans have the freedom to choose, is God not powerful enough to stop them from choosing evil?” Since this world was created to prepare man for eternity (this requires explanation in proposition 2), and since God has given man the freedom to choose good or evil, therefore God must give man a balanced distance in order for man to make those choices.[16] Imagine parents desiring that their children choose to do good. If they were to overwhelm the child with too much punishment and supervision, the child could not properly exercise their freedom to do good. If the same parent were to leave the child with no supervision and punishment, that child would be ignorant of how to do good. One will see God exhibit this perfect parental behavior throughout Biblical history.[17] In order for humans to learn to do good, they must be given freedom, and at the same time, be given correction without feeling “forced”.

Another point to consider along with God’s omnipotence is His infinite justice. Evil does occur, but evil will get justice at some point. God is powerful enough to stop evil, but because of His love, he prolongs judgement.[18] It is true that everyone desires that evil people (Hitler, Stalin, etc.) should be punished. But what if they get away with it in this life? In reference to this, C.S. Lewis said that all humans crave justice like they crave food. There is food in this life, but sometimes there is no justice in this life. He deduced that the best explanation is that humans were made for another world, and that earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy our desires, but only to arouse them, which suggests that there is another world where all ultimate desires, and in this case justice, will be fulfilled.[19]

Again, the skeptic may ask, “You believe that God miraculously intervened at one time. Why does He not do so now?” There were times when God did miraculously intervene for His creation, but those acts have ceased.[20] If God were to consistently override the fixed laws of nature, free will would be hard to maintain. For example, in a game of chess there are fixed rules. If one player were to arbitrarily change the rules, while the other player had to play by the rules, then the game itself would be useless and unfair. So does it work with the fixed laws of nature. Since God has given humans the ability to choose right from wrong, then these laws of nature help mankind with “playing the game fairly”.[21] Warren says that if God were to totally prevent evil, man would no longer be a free moral agent, and that God would have to instantly destroy someone after their evil deed is done.[22] God gives humans a chance to do better and He is willing to “overlook” (in a loose sense) their evil deeds if He knows repentance is in their future.[23] It is here that God’s omniscience is brought as a witness to the trial.

The Bible claims that God knows everything. Omniscience is the ability to know everything about what has been, what will be, and what could be.[24] For instance, God is powerful enough to stop a child from dying of cancer. He could exercise His omnipotence and save the child, but there is more to this hypothetical story. The parents are devout Christians. For thirty years, they have had a comfortable life with limited trials. God, because He knows what could be, sees that if He keeps giving them what they want, they will soon forget about God and rebel against Him, while also raising the child to be a sinner for life. God in His infinite knowledge sees all of the possible outcomes of certain trials that could keep the parents and the child out of Hell. He sees that the only thing that will keep the parents and the child from an eternal Hell is to allow the child to die and let that pain eventually bring the parents to a closer relationship with God. The fact that God withheld His omnipotence, in this case, was not just a display of His omniscience. It was also a display of His love. This is the final witness.

The Bible claims that God is love.[25] God’s omnibenevolence means that He seeks the highest good for others.[26] This divine love surpasses human love in that God has everything to give and nothing to receive.[27] When God created the world, He wanted humans to ultimately go to Heaven by correctly using their free will. It was God’s omniscience that knew this free will would lead to mistakes and imperfection, and it was God’s omnibenevolence that put grace into the plan.[28] Since God wanted human love to be meaningful, evil, pain, and suffering were necessary elements. A parent seeks their child’s highest good when they allow them to face difficulties or punish them in order for them to grow. So also does God love humans to the merciful extent of allowing punishments, natural calamities, and persecutions to help them see that this world is not their home.[29] Many would desire that God abstain from this kind of love. However, God’s love is not a senile grandfather’s love, but a love combined with the same love a father has for a child, a man has for his dog, a husband has for his wife, and an artist has for his art.[30] It is a perfect love. Nonetheless, this love is still challenged.

“All right,” the atheist says, “if God is all-loving, then why would he command for certain nations to be destroyed along with their innocent children?”[31] It has already been noted that atheists have no moral code from which to judge God. However, skeptics claim that God is malevolent for commanding these things.[32] Richard Dawkins said, “Even a cursory look at the bible should be enough to convince a reasonable person that it’s the very last document you should thrust in front of someone if you want to convince them of the love of God.[33] The problem with this reasoning is that “cursory” looks can never produce a full report of the facts. A complete look will show that not only was God showing His perfect justice, but also His perfect love.

God had ample reasons to have these people killed, although Barker ignorantly argues from silence that these nations have no records of their evil acts besides the Bible.[34] First, attempting to prove a proposition from silence is one of the weakest forms of argumentation. Just because there is silence does not mean there is no evidence. Second, even Barker implicitly admits that if there was evidence for the evil acts of the nations, God would be justified for destroying them, as Kyle Butt noted in a personal interview. Third, the skeptics must first prove the Bible is unreliable in order to say it inaccurately records the moral issues of the Canaanites. That task is yet to be accomplished. Since the Bible has overwhelming evidence of its validity, such as roughly six thousand manuscripts and archeological evidence for the historicity of the Old Testament account, then it can be trusted as a reliable source. The Canaanites were as evil as the Scripture declares. The Canaanites’ immorality included sexual perversion and child sacrifice.[35] Although God’s love is perfect, his justice is also perfect. God’s perfect justice cannot allow evil to continue. God’s perfect knowledge knew that the Canaanites’ immorality had come to the point of no return.[36] If God were to avoid judging un-repented evil, God would indeed be unconcerned about evil. To ask for a God who is unconcerned about evil is to ask for a monster.

The next question the skeptic may ask is, “Why kill the innocent children? Why not take them away like Elijah was taken away?”.[37] Barker was right when he said,

“The God of the Old Testament not only condoned, but commanded and committed the killing of innocents. Those who disagree with this fact because they are squeamish or in denial must first confront the plain meaning of the text before invoking personal theology to try to whitewash what the words actually say.[38]

It’s possible that God wanted the surrounding nations and Israel to learn the consequences of committing the heinous acts of sexual perversion, idol worship, etc.[39] Witnessing the heavy consequences of crime is, in reality, witnessing the love of God. Love seeks the highest good for others, especially for those who will respond to God in fear and love by witnessing the weight of sin.

One divine attribute that skeptics ignore is God’s ability to know what could be. When God had the innocent children killed in I Samuel 15, God could have foreseen that they would grow up to be just like their parents and end up in Hell. It may also be possible that these children would have caused Israel to sin.[40] Surely an early departure to the peaceful and eternal realm of Paradise is far better than the alternative.[41] This answer would be in perfect harmony with God’s omnibenevolence and omniscience. Even Dan Barker admitted that harm must sometimes be done for the greater good.[42] Barker also claimed that the killing of innocent children can be a blessing.[43] Since it can be proven that God was responsible for the death of innocent children for the greater good, He is justified for his actions.

It has been shown that all of God’s actions are perfect and there are no contradictions within His nature. When God does anything, all of his attributes work together without any dissimulation.

Proposition 2 of the Affirmative - Evil, Pain, and Suffering Are Needed for the Purpose That God Had in Creating the World:

Earlier, it was said that God created the world with a purpose. That purpose was that humans would freely love and obey God, love their fellow humans, and find their place in Heaven.[44] In order for humans to properly learn this purpose, God foresaw that evil, pain, and suffering were necessary elements. If one were to imagine a world created by God that lacked these elements, they would imagine a God who does not love His creation. C.S. Lewis said,

“The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”[45]

Elements such as pain can help make love and faithfulness meaningful. Elements such as good health could actually become a stumbling block.[46] This world was not created as an Epicurean paradise, but as a preparation for a better world.

First, evil, pain, and suffering can be used for corrective purposes. Since humans can easily become self-absorbed, they can contract the deadliest of desires and sins (murder, rape, lying, stealing, etc.). When these evils are ignored, they only get worse. God, the great physician, has prescribed mortification as the medicine.[47] Mortification can be painful because of self-denial, but it can be accomplished better with pain and suffering. As long as life is “fine and dandy”, the human spirit will not even begin to surrender its evil desires and actions. The deeper that sin becomes, the less the human spirit detects it. Evil can become masked. Pain is unmasked and unmistakable, and one knows that something is wrong when they are hurting.[48]God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[49] This disciplinary pain comes in many forms, such as persecution. Nations such as Babylon played a major and productive role in the deliverance of Israel.[50] God never forces anyone against their free will, but allows their evil actions to bring forth righteous ones. Truly, pain and suffering can be instrumentally good in order for the mortification process to be easier.[51]

Second, evil, pain, and suffering can occur for preventive reasons. This can be seen in the matter of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite. God allowed David and Bathsheba’s first child to die in order for David to be spared from ridicule.[52] A skeptic may ask, “Doesn’t that seem harsh to allow the child to die?”, but it has already been shown that God’s omniscience allows Him to know the best possible solutions. It is possible that the death of the child prevented David from a future rebellion. An impact from this tragedy was certainly made upon David when He said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”. This is just one example to show that evil, pain, and suffering can be used for the purpose of preventing something worse.

Third, evil, pain, and suffering can bring forth growth in many areas. Skeptics will even admit that good can come from pain and suffering. Dr. Bart Ehrman said that he contracted hepatitis while he was in school, and because of that event, he was able to study and be more productive academically.[53] Situations like Dr. Ehrman’s are imperative to the matter of pain and suffering. The death of a parent could restore a severed relationship between siblings. A tornado could bring missionaries to third world countries that have never heard the Gospel. A series of stressful events can cause one to learn how to handle anxiety. Empathy can even be gained by suffering, as Don Blackwell showed after his tragic four-wheeler accident.[54] The Bible makes it clear that difficulties are needed and wisdom can be found through prayer.[55]

There are a few objections that skeptics may have about these good outcomes. “If the purpose of evil, pain, and suffering is necessary, then what purpose do acts such as the abuse and raping of women and children serve?”, they may ask. First, the reader must be reminded that in order for humans to be truly free, the total prevention of evil would mean that the rapist would not be a free will being. Second, could abuse and rape serve an instrumentally good purpose? Although they are intrinsically evil, if they were to cause the victim and/or the criminal to turn to God for salvation and comfort, then they would become instruments to bring forth something good. The Bible plainly teaches that every evil act performed against one who will be saved works for their own good, and it also teaches that the eternal bliss one will experience in Heaven will make the time of suffering in this life seem as nothing.[56]

A second question could be, “What about animal pain? What can they learn from suffering?”. Admittedly, it is easier to answer the questions pertaining to human suffering because of the afterlife, but animal suffering is more complicated. However, since humans were created to become children of God, and are given moments of pleasure and good health, then animals are necessary for survival. When a disease needs to be eradicated, animals can serve a great purpose. Warren said,

“One of man’s greatest physical needs is to accumulate knowledge of the ills of his own body: what causes them, and what will cure them. The fact that animals share a great commonality, in various physical attributes (including that of being able to experience pain) with man, means that animals can be a great instrument in the advancement of medical science…Is that evil that God has provided man with such an instrument?”[57]

Other purposes for animals are to provide sustenance, which is a necessary element for survival. The skeptic may object and say, “We must avoid destroying the lives of animals and eat only vegetables.”, but the question might be raised as to whether the destruction of plant life is evil.[58] Finally, the pain that animals experience can be just as useful for them as pain for humans can be useful. Pain can alert an animal that it has an internal health issue. Certainly, pet owners are grateful when their cherished dog or cat vocalizes their pain.

Proposition 3 of the Affirmative - God Has Not Removed Himself from the Problem of Evil, Pain, and Suffering, but Rather He Became a Part of the Problem and Brought a Solution:

If there was ever a good thing that happened because of man’s sin towards another, it was the horrific death of Jesus Christ. His crucifixion not only brought salvation and the hope of eternal life to mankind, but also Divine empathy.[59] Because “the Word became flesh”, God became a part of evil, pain, and suffering. He experienced temptations, betrayal, ridicule, beatings, and murder. To say that God is unconcerned about human suffering is to deny the cross. To deny the cross is to deny historical facts about a man named Jesus who claimed equality with God and brought words to which every individual should listen. Jesus claimed that He brought the solution to evil, pain, and suffering.[60] However, this solution is put under the microscope of skepticism.

The question is,

“If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation in the world, why is the world is such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again?”[61]

First, what Jesus Christ came to do was rid the world of the eternal consequences of sin.[62] What He did not come to do was eradicate evil, pain, and suffering in the physical world.[63] As Warren well said, these things “result from some condition(s) which was necessary to God’s providing man with the ideal environment for “soul-making”.[64] Since one must obey Christ to obtain eternal life, then the elements discussed in the second affirmative are instrumentally good for the Christian era. Second, Jesus Christ does step into the darkness at times, but as discussed in proposition two of the affirmative, intervention could be instrumentally evil.[65] All of God’s attributes are still working simultaneously to achieve the best possible outcomes for each person.

Conclusion:

A few things have been established: first, it has been shown that the problem of evil, pain, and suffering cannot be solved by atheism; second, the existence of the problem harmonizes with the nature of God; third, God’s purpose for creating the world demands that evil, pain, and suffering occurs; and fourth, God has brought the solution to the problem through the person of Jesus Christ and it is imperative that humans accept Him.



Works Cited [1] Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, pg. 108-109, Penguin. London. 1991. Print. [2] As Thomas Warren showed in his debate with Antony Flew – Warren-Flew Debate, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbWVpky7t9Y. WVBS Accessed 17 Jan. 2022. [3] Ibid. [4] Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, pg. 17, Harper One. New York, NY. 1940. Print. [5] As John Lennox rightfully said – Good God? Faith and Reason in the Face of Suffering | John Lennox at Rice, The Veritas Forum, 1 Apr. 2013, https://youtu.be/9scK_xKfWM8. Accessed 17 Jan. 2022. [6] Mackie, J.L., Evil and Omnipotence, pg. 47, Prentice-Hall. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1964. Print. [7] Lactantius, A Treatise on the Anger of God: The Ante-Nicene Fathers, VII, pg. 271, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI. 1951. Print. [8] Warren, Thomas B., Have the Atheists Proved There Is No God? pg. 6 (Intro.), Warren Christian Apologetics Center. Parkersburg, WV. 2018. Print. [9] Genesis 17:1 [10] Lewis, pg. 18. [11] Ibid, pg. 20. [12] Butt, Kyle, A Christians Guide to Refuting Modern Atheism, Pg. 33, Apologetics Press, Inc. Montgomery, AL. 2010. Print. [13] Ibid. [14] Deuteronomy 30:19 [15] Matthew 7:13-14; John 1:10-12 [16] Warren, pg. 44-48. [17] Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-24; II Samuel 11-12:23; Hebrews 12:5-11 [18] II Pet. 3:9 [19] Lewis. C.S., Mere Christianity, pg. 67-68, Geoffrey Bless. London. 1952. Print. [20] 1 Corinthians 13 [21] Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, pg. 24-25. [22] Warren, pg. 42. [23] Luke 22:31-34; II Peter 3:9 [24] Exodus 13:17; Isaiah 46:9-10 [25] I John 4:8 [26] 1 Corinthians 13; John 3:16 [27] Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, pg. 43. [28] 1 John 1:7 [29] Hebrews 12:3-11; James 1:2-4 [30] Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, pg. 39. [31] I Samuel 15 [32] Barker, Dan, God, The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, pg. 13-14, Sterling. 2016. Print. [33] Ibid, pg. 8. [34] Ibid, pg. 13. [35] Leviticus 18 [36] Genesis 15:16; 2 Pet. 3:9 [37] II Kings 2 [38] Barker, pg. 13. [39] Joshua 2:10-11 [40] Exodus 23:33 [41] Philippians 1:23 [42] Butt, Pg. 33-34. [43] Barker, Dan, Losing Faith in Faith, Pg. 135, 213, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. 2006. Print. [44] Matthew 22:37-40 [45] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pg. 116. [46] Warren, pg. 89. [47] Colossians 3:5-17 [48] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pg. 90. [49] Ibid, pg. 46. [50] Romans 9:22-23 [51] Hebrews 12:3-11 [52] II Samuel 11-12:23 [53] Debate: Pain, Suffering, and God's Existence, WVBS, 22 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36pR2KRMxDU. Accessed 17 Jan. 2022. [54] “The Frailty of Life.” The Frailty of Life, Polishing the Pulpit, 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qq4OYJXSM14. Accessed 17 Jan. 2022. [55] James 1:2-5 [56] Romans 8:18, 28; 2 Cor. 4:17-18 [57] Warren, pg. 64. [58] Ibid, pg. 65. [59] John 3:16; Hebrews 4:15 [60] Matthew 11:28-30 [61] Ehrman, Bart, God’s Problem, pg. 5, Harper One. New York, NY. 2008. Print. [62] John 3:16; Rev. 2:10 [63] Mark 10:30 [64] Warren, pg. 57. [65] II Corinthians 12:7-9

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