March 17, 2012

The Problem of Evil Once More

Hello Dr. Craig

I'm a former die- hard Christian that has spent countless hours debating agnostics and atheist using many of your arguments, as well as many of my own. Recently my faith has been strained to say the least.

But I wanted to follow up on your answer to this weeks question concerning evil and pain and suffering.

1st You often say that there is no good reason to believe that God doesn't have a significant reason for allowing pain and suffering in this world. But the burden of proof is on you to show or give a significant reason why an all loving and all powerful God would allow certain unnecessary pain and suffering? To say God "may" have a significant reason is somewhat of a cop out don't you think? For instance if God did have a significant good reason to allow Hitler and his henchmen to build ovens for human disposal, then we should what; rejoice that they were built with Gods stamp of approval? Why should we view that act as being inhumane or necessarily evil if God had a significant reason to allow it to happen? It seems to me if God had a significant reason to allow it to happen, then we should rejoice that Gods will was done.

Another example: my own mother recently passed away after a long bought with dementia, to the point that toward the end her mind could no longer receive signals from her body to tell her that she was starving to death. The Doctors all said a feeding tube would only extend her prolonged suffering. As a recent convert to agnosticism its hard to find a significant reason why an all powerful all loving God would allow such an extended drawn out death. Please offer a hypothetical significant good reason? After all the burden of proof is on you to give a good example of a significant good reason why such things would happen if such an all powerful and all loving God does exist. Again we should rejoice that God allows such pain and suffering if in fact he has a significant good reason for its occurrence.

To me, it also makes the whole concept of prayer seem borderline ridiculous; because its hard to imagine that such an all powerful and all knowing God would look upon such pain and suffering but choose to only intervene if someone prays the right prayer. Can you really imagine that such a God could look down and say: "I see Mary is in a tremendous amount of pain, but I'm not going to intervene unless someone prays, or prays the right prayer?" Even from our perspective the answer has at least a 50 % chance of being no, and God in his foreknowledge would already have known the answer; so, there would be no possibility of a different outcome of any given event regardless if the entire world prayed in unity. So it seems to me that the whole concept of prayer is a ridiculous concept, seeing that an all powerful or all loving God would have intervened rather than allow such pain and suffering to go on for months unnecessarily, and if there is a significant reason for God to allow such pain and suffering then rather than feel empathy or be sorrowful we should what, rejoice knowing that God allowed her to suffer for so long because he without a doubt had a good and significant reason to prolong her suffering? Sorry but that just doesn't meld!

That brings me to my last point: Why would a Christian lose there mental faculties only to have them revived in a world hereafter? If our spirit and conscience goes on to this great beyond certainly it would be the very mind we entertain now, otherwise if there is no conscience memory of this world in the hereafter, then we have no real good reason to look forward to a heavenly bliss anymore than an atheistic view of nothingness, at least from our current perspective of reality; this is! Why should I prefer heaven, if the mind I will have then is not the same mind I have in this world? And if that mind can be deluded or damaged beyond rational and conscience thought in this world, what hope is there that there is a rejuvenation that awaits us in the hereafter? I believe the fact that the circuitry of ones brain "conscience" can be scrambled or deluded and damaged beyond repair despite ones faith or lack thereof is evidence enough that the mind or conscience is not eternal.


United States

My condolences, David, on your mother’s recent death. My own father similarly passed away after being reduced to a mere shadow of himself by Parkinson’s disease, and it was painful for me to watch.

But in my work on the problem of evil, I’ve found it very helpful to distinguish between what I call the emotional problem of evil and the intellectual problem of evil (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, chapter 27). I can’t help but wonder if you are not struggling with the emotional problem of evil, David, since your objections, considered purely intellectually, are not very substantive but seem to be predicated on some basic misunderstandings.

First, and most fundamentally, you have a misconception of the dialectical role of the problem of evil in the dialogue between theism and atheism and, hence, of the burden of proof. The problem of evil or suffering is an argument on behalf of atheism. It is offered as a defeater of the theistic claim that “God exists.” The atheist wants to prove that statement false on the basis of the evil in the world. So it’s up to him to present an argument that the evil in the world is in some way incompatible with the truth of “God exists.”

Philosophical atheists have understood this and so have traditionally offered arguments to the effect that the evil in the world makes it either logically impossible or improbable that God exists and that therefore God does not exist. As the person offering the argument, the atheist is under obligation to support the premisses of his argument. He cannot just assert them and then demand that the theist refute them, anymore than the theist, when he offers arguments for God’s existence, can just assert them and demand that the atheist refute them. Now it is the atheist’s turn, and so it is he who has to bear the burden of proof. The theist may respond to the atheist’s argument either by trying to show that the atheist’s premisses are false (a rebutting defeater-defeater) or else by trying to show that the atheist’s premisses have not been shown to be true (an undercutting defeater-defeater). In the latter case, the theist doesn’t need to explain why God actually permits evil (why would he know that?); he will simply show that the atheist has not been able to exclude that God does have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil to occur.

Now part of my response to the argument from evil, defended in my published work, is that the atheist makes probability judgements which are simply beyond our capacity to make with any sort of confidence. So, for example, if God had prevented Hitler from coming to power, we have no idea how the course of subsequent world history might have run. Perhaps an empowered and emboldened Josef Stalin would have wrought worse atrocities (he starved 11 million Ukrainians to death to finance his Marxist state) and eventually plunged the world into war anyway. Perhaps there would have been a nuclear war by now. Who knows? Similarly, no one is in a position to know how your mother or my father’s agonizing deaths may affect the course of world history. Perhaps God wants man to find cures for the diseases and infirmities that afflict us rather than constantly tinker with the world with miraculous interventions to cure people, just as He wants us to develop plumbers and electricians and computer scientists rather than magically solve our problems by constant miraculous interventions in the world, which would leave us like immature children rather than mature moral agents. More specifically, God could have some providential reason for your mother’s slow decline. Perhaps He knew that it would cause you to wrestle with your faith and to emerge from this crucible a strengthened and more mature Christian. You have no idea of what God might accomplish through your mother’s death. It would be presumptuous of you to think that it was in vain.

Now your response to this is not to deny the point—you tacitly admit that God may well have providential reasons for permitting the terrible evils in the world—, but your rejoinder, then, is to say that we should rejoice that these things have happened, which in light of your pain over your mother’s death seems, of course, absurd. But your conclusion doesn’t follow, David. As you know, the Scriptures teach that we are to give thanks in all circumstances, but not necessarily for all circumstances. In particular, we don’t thank God for and rejoice at sin. We’re glad that in His providence God can bring some good out of Hitler’s sinful acts, but neither we nor God is glad at Hitler’s evil. In the case of natural evil, like our parents’ diseases, we can be relieved that God can bring some good out of what they suffered, but it doesn’t follow that we are glad that they suffered.

David, your view of prayer and providence are naïve and based upon fallacious reasoning. If God has middle knowledge, then His providence over a world already takes into account what prayers would be offered in various circumstances. Your anthropomorphic deity looking down and making last minute decisions is a caricature. In asserting that “God in his foreknowledge would already have known the answer; so, there would be no possibility of a different outcome of any given event regardless if the entire world prayed in unity,” you have fallen into the fallacious reasoning of fatalism! It is logically fallacious to infer that because God foreknows that some event will occur, there is therefore no possibility that the event will not occur. All that follows is that the event will occur, not that it must occur, and were it to fail to occur, then God would have foreknown differently. (See my The Only Wise God for more on fatalism and foreknowledge.) This is one of those cases where one sees the real cash value of philosophy for the Christian life. Because of your philosophical mistakes you are lead to inveigh against prayer as “ridiculous,” thereby cutting yourself off from the very source of hope and comfort that you so badly need. Of course you should feel empathy and sorrow for those who suffer, and what you rejoice in is that this suffering is not the unredeemed product of blind chance but allowed by a loving and provident God who can bring some good out of it.

Your final point, David, strikes me as very confused. Certainly there is personal identity of the person who lives on in the afterlife and the person in this life. But why should their mental condition be the same? The late Nobel-Prize winning neurologist Sir John Eckles once explained the relationship of the mind to the brain like this: the mind uses the brain as an instrument for thought. Just as a pianist cannot produce beautiful music if his piano is broken down and out of tune, even though he himself has the innate ability to produce such music, so the mind cannot think properly when the brain is impaired through disease or drugs. But in the afterlife, and especially in the resurrection, we are freed from such infirmities. The wonderful hope of eternal life can give us courage to endure the brief suffering of this earthly life. You ask, “What hope is there that there is a rejuvenation that awaits us in the hereafter?” Why, the resurrection of Jesus, of course! His resurrection in advance of ours is the basis of our hope for not only our, but also for your mother and my father’s, healing and restoration.

David, reading your letter, I don’t get the impression that you are very familiar with either natural theology or the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, despite your characterization of yourself as a “die-hard Christian.” For the above defensive move I make against the argument from evil is only the reverse side of the coin of the powerful offensive case for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. Even if we had no response to the atheistic argument from evil, I think that these positive arguments and evidence simply outweigh the argument from evil. Yet you seem to be unaware of the positive case for Christian theism.

So these arguments you give for rejecting faith in God aren’t really very good, David. I’d encourage you to work through the pain and in time begin to study more seriously, not only the problem of evil, but also the positive evidence in support of our hope.