05 / 06
birds birds birds

A Severe Diagnosis

November 18, 2018
A Severe Diagnosis


Dr. Craig relates to an atheist blogger's unfortunate medical diagnosis

“A Severe Diagnosis”

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, last podcast we discussed an article by an atheist blogger. I see his blog everywhere – Jonathan MS Pearce. I’ve come to find out this week that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So we want to, as we’ve done in the past . . . in fact, we’ve interacted with some of the things that Jonathan has written in the past. Now he has had this unfortunate diagnosis, I know that he wouldn’t mind us saying that our thoughts and prayers are with him.

DR. CRAIG: I want to say to Jonathan that when I read this my heart just goes out to you. I also have a congenital neuromuscular disorder – Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. Everyday I struggle with the atrophy in my hands and in my legs that is progressing. As I grow older I see these muscles wasting away. Despite exercise and a real regimen to try to hone myself, it is ultimately a losing battle. So my heart really goes out to you, Jonathan, for this. I just want to let you know that, despite this sort of impairment and affliction, you can prosper and flourish even in the midst of this. Something good can come out of it in some way if you respond to it in the proper way – not with bitterness and anger but in a proper sort of way. God has used my neuromuscular disease in my life to shape me very much into the kind of person that I am today. It has affected me emotionally, intellectually, physically, and so there can be something in this that God can use in your life, too, if you’ll let him.

KEVIN HARRIS: I’ll have to mention that my sister-in-law was diagnosed with MS right around 1990. So I, too, know what it is like to have it in the family. So I wanted to add that to what you just said there.

Now, what is a philosopher and theologian going to do when he gets this diagnosis? He says[1],

As many of you know, I’ve recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As is my wont, I would like to see how this works within the light of some theology and philosophy of religion, especially in the context of the problem of evil. The problem of evil it is, of course, how we understand the nature of suffering in terms of an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God. Here are the options as I see them:

1. God does not exist.

DR. CRAIG: Right, and that certainly is one option – the atheistic option. That is not the one that we would prefer. This is an option that, I think, confronts the problem of good – that is to say, it may make it easy to understand how there can be pointless suffering in the world, but it doesn’t explain how there can be actual moral good and evil in the world because on atheism there is no absolute standard of moral good and evil. Moreover, this first option is not one that would be readily embraced because it’s hopeless. It offers no hope for the person who is suffering from an illness or terminal condition. This is basically an option of despair. So let’s hope that that first option is not the correct one.


2. God exists but is the philosopher’s God, the God of the deist. This means that he does not get involved in the goings-on in the earthly dimensions. That I have multiple sclerosis or people die of cancer or people die of malaria or in wars is seemingly irrelevant to him.

DR. CRAIG: Now, this one I think is also not an option that one would readily embrace. If God exists, God is all-good. He is the paradigm of moral value. Therefore, it is very difficult to see how a deist god could be real because a god to whom the suffering of his creatures is irrelevant, a god who is indifferent to the suffering of people, would not be all-good. So I think there is a real question mark behind deism – this uninvolved, indifferent god. Moreover, the evidence doesn’t support deism. The evidence concerning the person and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth says that God has intervened in human history to make himself known. By raising Jesus from the dead, he has given us a foundation for hope that death is not the end, and that there is hope for the future despite the infirmities of this life. So I think deism also confronts problems which make it a less preferable option.

KEVIN HARRIS: Jonathan says,

3. God exists, but it appears that he doesn’t like me very much. This might be because I am a bad person or because I don’t believe in him, and am thus a bad person (or both). Either way, he has knowingly allowed me to develop this condition. The condition developed naturally but he didn’t see it as necessary or good to stop it in any way.

DR. CRAIG: This is the truly despicable view that people suffer because they deserve it. You are bad, and that is why this suffering has come upon you. This is, in fact, the view of Hinduism and other religions that believe in reincarnation. The reason that the apparently innocent suffer is because they have done evil in the previous life and now in this reincarnated life karma is dictating that they get their just deserts for what they did in their prior existence. The Bible clearly repudiates this sort of view. When the disciples came to Jesus asking about a man whom they confronted who was blind from birth, they said to Jesus, Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind? There they thought either the blame was on the man because he was a bad person (as Jonathan says) or his parents sinned (that somehow it was handed down to him from a previous generation), and so he was getting his just deserts. Jesus said it was neither that this man nor his parents sinned, but he had this affliction so that the works of God might be made manifest in him. Then Jesus healed the man of his blindness. So the biblical view repudiates this third option that people suffer because they deserve it.

KEVIN HARRIS: How would you apply God as being the greatest conceivable being (the God of classical theism, the God of Christian theism) to liking or not liking someone.

DR. CRAIG: I’m glad you asked that because Jonathan earlier identified the philosopher’s God as the God of the deist. And I would repudiate that identification immediately. The God of St. Anselm is the greatest conceivable being and therefore an all-good being, an all-loving being. Therefore, it is simply conceptually impossible that God would exist and yet he doesn’t like Jonathan very much. The greatest conceivable being has a love which is universal, impartial, and unconditional. That is the God that Christians and Christian philosophers affirm.

KEVIN HARRIS: There’s a difference between God liking us and not liking some of the things we do.

DR. CRAIG: Of course.

KEVIN HARRIS: I know he doesn’t like some of the things I do.

DR. CRAIG: This isn’t to say that sometimes our suffering is due to the consequences of our foolish and evil activities. Someone who starts mainlining heroin, for example, is going to suffer terribly as a result of that. So it is true that actions have consequences, but it is not true that everyone who suffers does so because he is a bad person or he deserves it.


4. This is very similar to the last one but he has knowingly planned for me to develop this condition. This differs in that it is not omission but explicitly willed action. Take that, Pearce!

DR. CRAIG: He is still thinking in terms of the God who doesn’t like him very much and therefore has explicitly willed or decreed that this happen. I do agree that God is sovereign and that everything that happens in the world happens either by his direct will or permission. So in that sense God has willed to create a world in which he knew that Jonathan would contract multiple sclerosis at this point in his life just as he knew that I would be born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. So these are within the will of God. But he doesn’t do it out of some sort of vindictive motive (“Take that, Craig!”). On the contrary, I would say that God allows afflictions into our lives in order to achieve some greater purpose that may be actually for our own good.


In both option 3. and option 4., it appears that the development of the condition can be seen in one of three ways:

a) I deserved it and, therefore, it is some form of retribution or punishment.

DR. CRAIG: And we’ve rejected that view.


b) I deserved it inasmuch as the conditions serve to bring about a greater good.

DR. CRAIG: I would agree that in many cases it can bring about a greater good. God can permit suffering because of a greater good that he knows will be achieved. But that is not to say that therefore he deserved it. In fact, these two things seem incompatible with each other. It would be you didn’t deserve it (you are innocent), but God allowed it to happen because a greater good would be thereby achieved.

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he says,

c) I didn’t necessarily deserve it, per se, but the existence of MS in the world offers a benefit in some capacity. There is a greater good that comes about as a result of having MS in the universe as opposed to not having it. I’m just one of the unlucky ones who happens to have developed the condition. It’s nothing personal, it’s just a case that I am being used instrumentally for the greater good of the universe. In some way. Over some time period.

DR. CRAIG: I think this is close to correct. But I would resist the idea that he is being used in this way. In many cases, the greater good can be in Jonathan’s own life, or in one’s own life (in the life of the person suffering himself), as well as for the sake of God’s greater goods within history. But it may well be the case that God permits things to enter our lives because of greater goods that he wants to achieve or evils that he wants to prevent that are in the future. Our role in this suffering is to then turn to him for courage and strength to persevere during these times of testing.

KEVIN HARRIS: He wraps it up in the last couple of paragraphs by saying,

Of course, the confusion comes in with much of this if we see God as being omniscient such that he has full divine foreknowledge of all future events, irrespective of free will. If I deserved this, as in option a) above, and he designed the world with the full foreknowledge that I would be who I would be for whatever reason there might be for this, then there is little sense to be made of the whole scenario. It appears to be a case of setting a test for humanity, but has full knowledge of the results of that test. So what, I wonder, would be the point of setting such a test?

DR. CRAIG: Again, I think Jonathan just needs to let go of this idea that he deserved this. The assumption here is that he deserved this suffering somehow. That just isn’t the Christian view. As he points out later on, he is no worse a sinner than many others in this world, and there is no reason to think that God has singled him out for special punishment. But as I shared earlier, I would rather not have this neuromuscular syndrome that I have. But it is incredible the way that God has used it in my life. Because of it, I had no proclivity for athletics as a boy, and therefore in order to find some measure of self-esteem and success I threw myself into academics. This is where I could succeed and where I could feel good about myself. This was when I was still a non-Christian. God has used this to channel and guide my life into the sort of ministry and career path that I have today. So great, great good has come out of this, not only in my life, but in the millions of lives that have been impacted through the ministry of Reasonable Faith in turn. So don’t despair when these things happen. God in his foreknowledge can know how great goods can come out of this affliction for both you and for others.

KEVIN HARRIS: Do you mind if I ask if you’ve ever been through periods in your life where you spent time asking God to remove this from you?

DR. CRAIG: Oh, yeah. I did. I prayed for healing. Sometimes well-meaning Christians on speaking trips will come up to me and say, May we pray for healing for you, and then lay hands on me and pray that God would miraculously heal me. But he doesn’t and hasn’t. I identify very much with the apostle Paul when he talked about this thorn in the flesh that afflicted him. He said, I asked God three times to remove this from me. And God’s response to Paul was so interesting. He said, My power is made perfect in weakness and therefore my grace is sufficient for you. Paul said, I will therefore all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses that the power of Christ might rest upon me. That is my attitude and affirmation as well. I can rejoice in my weakness because in Christ the power of God then rests upon me and works through me.

KEVIN HARRIS: How Jonathan ends . . . I think the crux of it here is that, he says, Don’t throw heaven at me. He says,

As I have mentioned many times before, you cannot use heaven to balance the books. At least, it cannot be used as moral justification unless the theist wants to adhere to moral consequentialism. That’s fine by me, it’s just not what almost any theologian would espouse because there is no need for a god in this moral value system.

Are there any other options that I am missing . . .?

DR. CRAIG: I am confused by his rejection of “using heaven to balance the books.” We are talking about allowing an evil or suffering to occur because one has a greater good in mind that permits this suffering to occur. This happens all the time when we take our children to the dentist and allow him to inflict pain upon them because of some greater good that will come out of it. Or when a medical first responder arrives on the scene of a mass shooting such as in the Las Vegas shootings. They will pass by people bleeding and dying on the ground because in performing triage, they know that by attending to those who have a better chance of survival more lives will be saved than if they undertake to save every suffering person that is shot and dying in front of them. They allow someone to die a horrible death because of the greater good of saving even more lives. That doesn’t make them a moral consequentialist. Consequentialism is the view that an action becomes good if it has good consequences. Here one isn’t claiming that. One isn’t saying that the action is good because it has good consequences. You are simply saying an act which is evil and is not good can be allowed to happen because of a greater good that might be in view. So I think that is unobjectionable. He doesn’t have really any objection to it. He just says theologians don’t espouse it. Well, I do espouse the view that God permits suffering and evil in the world because of his overriding purposes which he aims to achieve, and one of these will be eternal life and a home in heaven. And when we go to be with God, the suffering of this life will shrink by comparison to the eternal life we will enjoy with him to literally an infinitesimal moment. And we will look back and say I’ll go through it a million, million, million times over to know this joy and happiness.[2]


[2]            Total Running Time: 20:28 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)