Questions on the Moral Argument and Animal Suffering

Questions on the Moral Argument and Animal Suffering

Some listeners are stumped by internet questions on the Moral Argument, animal suffering, and what is feasible for God. Dr. Craig helps out.


Transcript Questions on the Moral Argument and Animal Suffering

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we are continuing to look at a variety of questions that we get. One of them you choose each week for the question of the week. We try to get you some other questions as well. This is about the moral argument.

Hi, Dr. Craig. Your work has been very influential to me. I'm a fan of your moral argument. But recently a friend of mine stumped me. I understand that our justification for premise (2) is in our moral experience. But wouldn't we be fallaciously conflating moral epistemology and moral ontology if we claim that our moral experience can tell us something about moral ontology? I thought that our beliefs (epistemology) about morality were irrelevant to their ontological status. If that is true then how can our moral experience tell us that there exists objective moral values?

DR. CRAIG: I think that the writer here misunderstands the task of moral epistemology. When we speak of moral epistemology we are asking for a theory of knowledge about how we come to know our moral duties, how we come to know moral values, what they are. The moral argument doesn't offer such an account. It could come through intuition, through some sort of moral sense like conscience, divine revelation, through rational reflection. We are open – or I'm open – to all sorts of moral epistemologies in terms of how we come to know our values and duties. But it is certainly not irrelevant to the objectivity of moral values and duties to say that I come to know moral truths like “it is wrong to kill innocent people for fun.” That will disclose to you an objective moral truth. Moral experience can help us to discern moral truths that will tell us about what moral values and duties exist. The task of moral epistemology is to tell us how we come to know that. It certainly is relevant.

What is the situation here is that I've often found that people don't understand that the moral argument is about the existence of objective moral values and duties. They say things like this: you don't need to believe in God in order to know that we should love our children. You don't need to believe in God in order to know that it is wrong to kill innocent people. They think that somehow refutes the moral argument. What I point out is, no, no, that is a question of moral epistemology – how it is that you know those things. That is not relevant to the argument. But it certainly is relevant to the argument that you know those things – that you know these moral truths. That is what this fellow did not understand. He thought that the irrelevance of moral epistemology to the argument means that somehow moral experience doesn't apprehend objective truths about right and wrong, good and evil. It does! Therefore moral experience is vitally important to knowing that certain moral truths are true.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Next question:

I have a question regarding what it means to refer to the same object. Dr. Craig, you pointed this out in your open Q&A that recently got posted to YouTube. For example, I just graduated from college. During my fraternity's Bible studies on Galatians we focused on how God's gift of salvation is entirely by grace and not by works. This got me thinking. If an individual believes in God and they were saved by grace, but attributed this grace to the wrong person (that is, they believe they are saved by God's Son Michael of Galilee who died by stoning) then would they truly be saved? Even take a less extreme example. What if someone believes that they are saved by Jesus of Nazareth who was executed by order of Pontius Pilate of Bel Air? They almost have the details right, but isn't this technically referring to the wrong person and thus misdirecting one's place of worship? In short, how much knowledge is required about Jesus for salvation? That he is God's Son? Or that his name is Jesus? All the best. God bless.

DR. CRAIG: I think he is correct in saying the question here is: how much knowledge is required about Christ for salvation? It is not really about referring to different things under false descriptions, which is a very difficult philosophical question to solve. But let's take his examples.[1] It seems to me that if a person believes that he is saved by this supposed Michael of Galilee who died by stoning he would not be saved because he is placing his faith in a different person than Jesus of Nazareth. This is quite clearly not faith in Christ. What about the person who believes that he is saved by Jesus of Nazareth who was executed by the order of Pontius Pilate of Bel Air? That depends. Are we saying that this person does believe in the historical Jesus of Nazareth but he just got Pontius Pilate's name wrong? In that case it is clear he does believe in Christ. He just got the name of his Roman sentencer incorrect. But if he means that this is somebody else named Jesus of Nazareth who is a modern individual condemned by some Pontius of Bel Air in the 20th century then, again, clearly he is not referring to the same person and therefore would not have salvation. The question is: does he believe in the historical person Jesus Christ? Does he believe that he is divine? That he died for our sins? That he rose from the dead? Those seem to me to be the essential truths that one would need to believe in order to be a recipient of salvation through Christ. There are certain essential things that you have to believe like the deity and humanity of Christ, his death for our sins, and his resurrection. Those would be essential truths. But the name of his persecutor, other details, those aren't essential to salvation. Paul says if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. That is laying out the central truths about Christ.

KEVIN HARRIS: This next question:

Dr. Craig, my faith has its highs and lows. But to be frank, I've never really felt secure in it. I pray often and am grateful for what Jesus did, but I still often question if it is the Holy Spirit in my life or something else. As much as people love to say, “You just know,” I really don't know.

DR. CRAIG: This question, which I have before me here, has so many parts to it that we better break it up and take it a paragraph at a time or it will be unmanageable. I don't think what he has expressed here in the first paragraph should be a matter of terrible concern to him. As we've said before, 100% certainty isn't required for genuine saving faith in Christ. The very fact that he would be struggling and working through this shows, I think, that he does have faith. If he didn't, he wouldn't care. That is the person who is really in danger – the person whose heart is cold and doesn't really care. But the person who agonizes over his doubts and struggles, I think that person is probably in a pretty good place spiritually. What we might also say to this fellow is that 1) he needs to engage in spiritual disciplines that will foster the witness of the Holy Spirit in his life. Here we don't know much about this questioner Brian, but we would want to ask Brian, “Are you having a time of daily devotions with God where you get alone with God and spend some time reading the Bible and thinking about it and praying to God? Are you engaged in using your spiritual gift in the context of a local church to serve others?” Those kinds of things, I think, can help to foster the spiritual life and to abet the witness of the Spirit.

The other thing that he can do is to look at arguments and evidence that support the truth of the Christian faith. These supply a sort of confirmatory witness to the witness of the Spirit in his life that can strengthen it. Having this double warrant – the witness of the Spirit plus the arguments and evidence – can help to bolster his faith and deal with doubts.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

I have some related questions. Why does God allow us to be so deceived? I know Satan is the ruler of this world, but why does God allow him to deceive us? After all, isn't granting Satan the free will to mess with humanity at the same time impeding the free will of humans?

DR. CRAIG: I would say that Satan and the demons also have freedom of the will, and that God allows them to do the evil things that they do.[2] They do not take away our free will apart from, say, demonic possession. When evil people try to tempt us to do wrong things, they are not robbing you of your free will. They are not turning you into a puppet or an automaton. Similarly, Satan doesn't rob us of our free will apart from, as I say, maybe extreme cases of demonic possession where a person might lose control. But in general God allows this to happen, I think, because of creaturely freedom which is a great good. Creatures, both angels and humans, have misused that freedom to bring terrible evil into the world. But fortunately God has a plan through Christ, a plan from before the foundations of the world, to redeem us from evil and to bring his church into fellowship with himself forever, and to finally punish Satan and evil forever so that God's justice will ultimately triumph.

KEVIN HARRIS: A lot of personality is coming from this person who wrote this. I get the impression that they are probably a younger person. He continues,

For example, there seems to be so much senseless suffering, much of which is on animals. Physical pain of any degree isn't deserved if it isn't acting as a consequence. I'm not a vegan or anything, but couldn't God have made the nutrients we need come from non-living things that can't feel pain?

DR. CRAIG: I've written quite a bit on the problem of animal pain. As an animal lover, I have felt very badly about the amount of pain that exists in the animal kingdom. But I'd refer Brian to some of the questions of the week that have dealt with this. What I've come to see through the work of people like Michael Murray is that in the animal kingdom there are different levels of pain consciousness or awareness. At the most basic ground level there is simply a kind of automatic response, a nervous response, to noxious stimuli. If you poke an amoeba with a needle it recoils. This sort of reaction to noxious stimuli doesn't seem to involve any awareness of pain. So on the level of insects and lower forms of life there is no reason to think that these sorts of animals have any awareness of pain. On the second higher level, there would be a pain awareness. We would see this in animals like zebras and deer and dogs and cats. They have complex nervous systems and are able to have a pain awareness. But, to all evidence, they don't seem to have the third level of awareness which is the awareness that one is oneself in pain – that one is oneself in that second stage awareness. That kind of awareness is at most associated with the higher primates. So when a zebra or a deer is in pain, it is not aware that it is in pain. It cannot say “I am in pain” because it doesn't have a first-person self-consciousness. That puts the problem of animal suffering in an entirely different light. It means that animals don't really suffer in the same way we do.

There is an interesting phenomenon that is analogous to this called “blind sight.” In certain people they are visually impaired in such a way that they cannot visually see anything. They are, to all effects and purposes, blind, and yet they actually can see. If you throw a ball at them, they will catch it. If you tell them to come across the room, they will walk around the table or the chair rather than run into it. They actually can see the objects, but they are not aware that they can see the objects. They can see but they are not aware that they can see. This bizarre phenomenon called blind sight is rather like this pain awareness in animals. They are in pain but they are not aware that they are in pain because they don't have this first-person consciousness. You can see how pointless it would be to take a person who is blind-sighted to an afternoon at the art gallery. Even though he could see the paintings he would have no appreciation of them because he wasn't aware that he could see the paintings. In the same way these animals may be in pain but they are not aware of it. That, I think, is a tremendous comfort to those of us who are animal lovers or who have pets and realize that they don't suffer as we do. In fact most animals live quite happy and contented lives until they end pretty suddenly through predation.[3]

Now, that doesn't answer the question why did God create a system like this rather than supplying nutrients from some non-sentient sorts of beings – like make everything a vegetarian so there are no carnivores, for example? I think what we can simply say is we don't have any idea whether a world of that sort would be better served for God's purposes than a world that involves carnivores as well as herbivores. It is not clear that in a world consisting entirely of herbivores (plant-eaters) that there wouldn't be pain and suffering. In fact, without any carnivores, the herbivores would pretty soon deplete all the vegetation and they would have to fight to compete for the food supply so that it still might lead to teeth and claws and other adaptations to inflict pain on the competitors for the dwindling supply of vegetation. We just don't know what a world like that would be like, nor do we know that a world like that would actually be better than a world in which there are carnivores as well as herbivores. It may be that this fallen world, so to speak, of pain and deprivation serves as a better arena in which the drama of human salvation can be played out. We are a fallen humanity – a fallen race. Perhaps a universe that exhibits a sort of natural evil is the best sort of place in which a fallen humanity can come to redemption and find God than in a world like Brian envisions.

Indeed, I think you can actually show that in countries of the world that have suffered horrible natural evils (natural disasters like tsunamis, famines, and so forth) that the rate of growth in Christianity and people coming to Christ is far greater than in countries that live in indulgence like Western Europe and where natural evils do not afflict. I don't have any problem at all with the notion that God's purposes for redeeming humanity may be far better served by a world suffused with natural evil and suffering than in a world without it.

KEVIN HARRIS: His next question says:

Also with the strong evidence in favor of evolution we are left to reinterpret the Bible and say, Oh, well, it is allegorical here. . . . Why did God transmit his message to Moses knowing that people would believe in special creation until Darwin (which I'm sure made people feel pretty special in the eyes of God)?

DR. CRAIG: This is a good question. I would say that the answer may have to be, or lie in the fact, that these kinds of things are not of great concern to God. If it were a big deal to God that we know whether the world was created in six literal days or over a long period of time, he would have made that clear to us. But these kinds of things just aren’t that important frankly to salvation, to coming to know him. God knows the best sort of revelation to make to us to bring the maximum number of people freely into relationship with himself.

I don’t really have a problem with the idea that people can misinterpret the Scripture, and with better teaching and with better understanding they can come to see that a narrative, say, is meant figuratively or metaphorically rather than literally. I think in the case of the Genesis narrative, there are indications in the text itself wholly apart from modern science that suggests this isn’t supposed to be taken as a literal 24-hour day creation week. We don’t know that the ancient Hebrews did understand it literally. It may well be the case that they understood this figuratively. The interpretation of ancient creation stories is a matter of considerable controversy. Let me give you an example. Did the Egyptians really believe literally, as their creation story says, that each night the world reverted to the primordial ocean and then re-emerged in the morning?[4] I find that hard to believe. Surely some Egyptian must have stayed up all night at some point – some soldier on guard duty or something – and noticed that didn’t happen.

KEVIN HARRIS: He stayed up all night to see what happens in the morning, and then it dawned on him.

DR. CRAIG: It wasn’t literal. This was a symbolic story. It is not clear that a lot of these ancient creation myths that you have in Egypt and elsewhere were understood by the ancients as literal rather than figurative or symbolic. I don’t think we can have any confidence that the way ancient Jews understood Genesis 1 was in this kind of literalistic way. That could be a modern imposition on the text that really is at odds, as I say, with a lot of the text itself, wholly apart from what science might say.

KEVIN HARRIS: Have you ever thought that perhaps Genesis kind of just shouts that it was written in such a way that it can teach pre-scientific man and post-scientific man – the same kind of a thing?

DR. CRAIG: That is such a good point. We shouldn’t expect that God is going to put modern science into the Bible because this narrative has been ministering to people, speaking to people, for thousands of years!

KEVIN HARRIS: But Brian is saying, Everything was fine until Darwin.

DR. CRAIG: I think you are right. That is a kind of, again, an example of what we’ve talked about elsewhere – chronological snobbery (thinking that this narrative had to be cast in forms that would be understandable by modern science). Who knows in another thousand years what sort of things modern science might be saying. It is just wrong to try to think that these ancient narratives ought to be cast in the form of modern scientific theories. The important point that Genesis 1 is trying to make is that things like the moon and the stars and the animals are not deities as Israel’s neighbors thought. They are creatures. God made ‘em and they are not therefore to be worshiped. God – the transcendent God – is the creator of all these things, and it is to him alone that worship is properly due. That central truth, as you say, has been apprehendable for thousands of years to readers of this narrative wholly apart from scientific understanding.

KEVIN HARRIS: Brian has been reading your book On Guard. We will continue to hear his question. He says,

You see where I'm coming from? My fellow Christians always like to say, “Who is to say God had to do it like that? That doesn't disprove God.” OK, then what would disprove it in your eyes? In your book On Guard you say the atheist has to prove that it is impossible or improbable for evil to exist in a world where God exists, but I still feel quite concerned, Dr. Craig. It just seems too good to be true at times, to be candid.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, it does seem too good to be true! It is a wonderful story, that God would love you and would send Christ to redeem you from your sin and evil so that you can know him forever. But there is good evidence for it. If he has read On Guard then he's read the positive arguments that I give for God's existence which I think are persuasive. He has seen my answer to, for example, the problem of evil. The logical version of the problem of evil is widely recognized by theist and atheist alike as bankrupt. There is no way the atheist can prove that it is logically impossible that God and evil coexist. As for the probabilistic version – that given God's existence, the suffering and evil in the world is improbable – I answer that in On Guard as well. To recur to the question of natural evil and animal suffering we just mentioned ago, I don't think that it is at all improbable that only in a world suffused with suffering and evil that the optimal number of people would freely come to know God and his salvation, which is God's overriding purpose for the universe. That would do it for the atheist – if he could prove either a contradiction in the concept of God (which I've worked on – to have a coherent view of theism), or if he could show that the evil in the world made it impossible or improbable that God exists, that would falsify theism. But you are not going to falsify theism by pointing to Bible difficulties or the theory of evolution, and things of that sort. That just goes no distance to showing God does not exist.

KEVIN HARRIS: I get the feeling that Brian would like to ask about fifteen more questions, but he asks one more:

If God can create a world where the maximum number of free creatures come to him by choice by having evil in the world why couldn't he create a world where that same maximum number came to him freely without evil?[5] You may say he can't force us to freely do something, but if he knows ahead of time and creates the circumstances for which we will come to him, in what way is he not responsible?

DR. CRAIG: The answer to the question is that it may not be feasible for God to create such a world. What people often don't understand is that you can’t just sort of pluck out of this possible world those who freely come to Christ and put them in a world of their own and leave out all those who reject Christ because once you do that you've got a new possible world, and in that world that same group of people might not come freely to know Christ. It may be that some of them only come to know Christ freely in the actual world because of certain things that happen in the actual world related to evil or others rejecting Christ or something of that sort. The point is that it is impossible to just pluck these saved people out of this world, stick them in a world of their own, and expect everything to remain the same. That is not the way it works. So there simply may not be the circumstances available to God in order to create a world of universal salvation that doesn't have other overriding demerits. For example, maybe God could create a world of universal salvation that has only two people in it that only exists for two minutes and then they die. Well, right, maybe in that world God achieves universal salvation, but he couldn't achieve a world involving this much good – as much good as in the actual world – but without also this many people freely rejecting him and his every effort to save them. That just might not be feasible for God given the nature of creaturely freedom.

KEVIN HARRIS: Brian wraps up by saying,

Please continue to do what you do. I would love the chance to meet you and ask you a question in person one day. The young former atheist Peter shares a similar story to my own. I hope to start serving your ministry after I start getting paid at my job.

DR. CRAIG: [laughter] I think he is talking about Peter Byrom probably whose testimony is just wonderful.[6] A former follower of Richard Dawkins, ardent atheist, who just came to see through that charade and now is a Christian and helping with Reasonable Faith doing work for us. We certainly will continue to do what we are doing. If he wants to meet me, look at our speaking calendar on the website and see if there is a speaking engagement in your area. Or drop by Defenders class one day and we'll talk afterwards.[7]



[1] 5:01

[2] 10:01

[3] 15:12

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:13

[6] See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/confessions-of-a-former-atheist (accessed September 15, 2016).

[7] Total Running Time: 28:09 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)