The Problem of Evil (part 2)

December 09, 2007     Time: 00:41:35

Another interesting thing that I wanted to comment about was how many people saw that there was an important philosopher in the news this week? Did anybody hear the story about an important philosopher in the news? Yes! This was big news released on ABC – Antony Flew has become a theist. He no longer thinks that atheism is true. In case you don’t recall, Antony Flew was the man that we studied in this class when we looked at epistemological objections to the existence of God. It was Flew who was in that conference in 1948 at Oxford University, “Theology and Falsification,” who gave the parable of the invisible gardener and compared God to the invisible gardener and said, “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, undetectable gardener and no gardener at all?” That was an expression of Flew’s falsification principle and of his presumption of atheism that we talked about at length just a few weeks ago. It is exciting to see that Flew has now abandoned his atheism and, under the force of the evidence, has felt compelled to believe that there is a Creator and Designer of the universe.

What particularly tipped him over the edge, so to speak, he said was the evidence for intelligent design in the genetic code – in the DNA. He said, My views are now very similar to those in the so-called intelligent design movement. That was extremely interesting. Now, he is not a Christian. He has moved from atheism to what one might call deism, but has not yet arrived at Christian theism.

The free thought movement, or the Internet infidel crowd, is doing the best they can to put a good face on what has happened to Flew to diminish its significance. They say, Well, he is only a deist now. He is not a Christian yet. Traditionally people like Thomas Jefferson and others were also deists. So this isn’t all that big of a movement. But I think what they don’t understand is that the chasm that separates atheism from deism is far, far greater than the distance that separates deism from Christianity. Because to get across this chasm, you’ve got to move from no God at all to believing that there is a Designer and Creator of the universe, but you aren’t yet convinced that he has revealed himself in the person of Christ. Moreover, the classical deists were moving backwards from Christianity to deism. So it was rather easy to kind of fall back as they lost their faith in Christ and the Bible to just believing in a God who is the Creator and Designer of the world. But Flew has moved forward from atheism to belief in God. That is a much more significant and gigantic step forward. So this, I think, is very important and very encouraging to see happen.

One of the church fathers, Simeon Stylites, actually retired to a pillar in the desert. He sat on top of this pillar for thirty years. That was this odd spirituality that he had. He actually stayed up there and never came down for thirty years.[1]

[side discussions and opening prayer]

One thing I forgot to tell you about that wasn’t in my notes what that I didn’t mention in the class what happened in Salt Lake City two weeks ago when Ravi Zacharias spoke in the Mormon Tabernacle. The first time an evangelical has spoken there since D. L. Moody one hundred years ago. Apparently, Craig Hazen told me it went just fantastic. He said there were 7,000 people there – evangelicals and Mormons together. Ravi gave a Christ-centered message that exalted Christ and lifted up his deity. When he finished, he said the crowd gave him a standing ovation. So it was just a sensational time. Craig suggested to them that perhaps they could make this an annual event, and maybe even have it in the big building across the street, that is to say, in the Mormon temple itself. So there is tremendous movement going on within Mormonism today. One can only pray that this huge body would gradually, like a great ship, move from its errant way back into the path of truth and orthodoxy. There are many people that are working toward that end.

We’ve been talking about the problem of evil in this class. We’ve been looking at arguments against the existence of God. We saw with respect to the problem of evil that there are two forms that this can take. There is an intellectual problem and there is an emotional problem. It is important to distinguish these because the solutions to these respective problems will be quite different.

We then saw that the intellectual problem takes two forms: the logical version of the problem of evil and the probabilistic form of the problem of evil. We argued that the logical version of the problem of evil has now been solved. It is widely recognized by atheists and by theists alike that there is no logical incompatibility between God and the evil and suffering that is in the world.

But where the debate today is focused is on the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. That is to say, given the evil and suffering in the world, is it improbable that God exists?[2] Is the suffering and evil in the world so great, so terrible, that it is improbable that God could have morally adequate reasons for allowing it to happen.

We saw in response to this version of problem of evil last week first of all, that probabilities are relative to background information. Whenever you say something is improbable, you are saying it is improbable with respect to some body of information that you take as your background data. When the atheist says that God’s existence is improbable, we need to immediately ask ourselves, improbable relative to what? If he means relative to all the evil and suffering in the world, well, that wouldn’t really be too surprising if that is all you take as your background information. The real question is: is God’s existence improbable relative to the full range of the relevant data? That will include not only the evil and suffering in the world, but things like the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, biological complexity that has so impressed Antony Flew that this world-famous atheist, despite the problem of evil, has come to believe in God. It will include things like objective moral values in the world, the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, religious experience, aesthetic experience, experience of the meaning of life, and so forth. All of these will be relevant background information. My persuasion is that even if God’s existence is improbable relative to the evil in the world, that when you take into account the full range of the data that the scales of the evidence tip in favor of the existence of God – even given any improbability that evil might be thought to throw upon God’s existence. That was the first point – that probabilities are relative to background information, and when you consider the full range of the data, God’s existence becomes quite probable. You will remember in response to a question, I even suggested that if the evidence were even equal it would still be prudential, it would be pragmatically justified, to believe in God in view of the great benefits that accrue to you through having belief in God.

But my second point that I want to make about the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is that we are not in a good position to assess with any sort of confidence the probability of God’s existence relative to the evil in the world. In other words, the first response – admitted maybe evil does make God’s existence improbable – but it is just outbalanced by all the positive evidence for God’s existence. What I want to suggest now in my second point is that it isn’t even improbable relative to the evil in the world that God exists! Even when you consider just the evil in the world as your background information, we are not in a good position to make with any kind of confidence the probability judgment that God doesn’t have a morally sufficient reason for permitting this or that evil to occur.

Why do I say that? It simply is because as finite persons we are not in a position to make these kind of probability judgments. You see, as finite persons we are limited in time and in space, in intelligence and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end of history from its beginning, so there may be reasons that he has for permitting evil in our lives which do not appear within our limited frame of reference, but within God’s wider frame of reference may be seen to have been justly permitted. God providentially orders history so that his ultimate ends are achieved through the free decisions that human beings make along the way. It may well be the case that in order to achieve his ends in a world of free creatures that God will have to put up with certain natural and moral evils along the way which are justly permitted within God’s wider framework.

Let me give an illustration first from contemporary science and then from popular culture.

One of the most recently developing fields of contemporary science is called “chaos theory.” There are certain macroscopic systems like weather systems or insect populations which are radically unstable.[3] They are susceptible to the tiniest perturbation; the tiniest fluctuation will upset the system so that it will go off in an entirely unpredictable direction. These systems are said, therefore, to be chaotic in that sense. For example, a butterfly fluttering its wings on a twig in the jungle in West Africa can set in motion forces that will eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet nobody looking at that little butterfly palpitating on that twig could even in principle predict such an outcome because weather systems are chaotic in that sense. In exactly the same way, the occurrence of a certain evil in our lives – say, the brutal murder and rape of an innocent girl, or your child’s dying of leukemia, or even your falling down the stairs and breaking your leg – could send a kind of ripple effect through history so that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting that may not emerge until centuries later and maybe in another country so that you would have no idea of what God’s morally sufficient reason would be for permitting it.

Remember when we talked about divine middle knowledge, when we talked about the attributes of God, and we talked about how God knows what any free person would freely do in any set of circumstances he might place him in. We suggested that only an omniscience, only an infinite mind, would be able to calculate all of the complexities that would be involved in arriving at one single free human event in history. For example, say the U. S. Congress’ adopting the lend-lease policy prior to America’s entry into the Second World War. Think of the incalculable contingencies that would all have to be in place in order for the U. S. Congress to freely adopt the lend-lease policy prior to America’s entry into World War II. It may well be that in order to arrive at a single contingent event like that that there would be myriads of natural evils and moral evils that God would have to permit along the way in order to arrive at a single event.

When you think about that, I think you can see how utterly hopeless it is for us finite limited observers to speculate when some event of suffering enters our lives whether or not God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting it. We are simply not in a position to make those kinds of probability judgments with any kind of confidence. Certainly that event may appear pointless to us – we may not see any earthly reason why that event should occur. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a morally sufficient reason for permitting that to occur in your life. We are just not in a position to make those kind of probability judgments.

I want to emphasize that in saying this I am not appealing to mystery. I am not just saying, “Oh, well, God works in mysterious ways; his wonders to perform.” And just punting to mystery. No. I am appealing to the inherent cognitive limitations that we are under as finite creatures confined in time and space and intelligence and insight. Given our cognitive limitations it is enormously presumptuous for us to say that some instance of evil that we experience or see cannot be one that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting.

In fact, in other contexts atheists recognize this themselves. For example, in one of the most powerful objections to utilitarian ethical theory. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that says you should always do what amounts to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That is what utilitarianism says. You should always act in such a way as to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. One of the fatal objections to utilitarianism that is widely recognized is that we are not in a position to perform such a calculus! We have no idea when we perform some action whether or not that will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.[4] Something that in the short term looks really great could in the long run have disastrous consequences. Something in the short term looks really bad in the end could have tremendous beneficial ramifications. So the utilitarian ethical theory is just impossible. Nobody is in a position to perform this kind of calculus when it comes to assessing how we should act and what should be our moral right and wrong. This applies to the problem of evil as well. We are not in a position to say when some event occurs that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting it. If we could see it from God’s perspective we might say, “Oh! Yeah! Now I see how it all fits in. God was justified in permitting this.”

Let me give an illustration from popular culture. Have any of you seen the movie called Sliding Doors? Gwyneth Paltrow was in this. This is a very, very interesting film about a young woman who is rushing down the stairs of a subway station to jump on the subway train. As she hurries down the stairs, for a split second a little girl blocks her path by playing with your dolly on the railing of the stairs. The movie at this point splits into two halves. One shows what would have happened if the father had snatched the little girl out of the young woman’s way and she managed to get through those sliding doors before the doors slammed shut. The other half of the movie shows what would have happened if her path had been momentarily blocked by the little girl so that she didn't get to the train on time and the doors slid shut just before she arrived. What you discover is that this seemingly trivial insignificant event sends her life on two different trajectories which over time diverge more and more and more widely from each other. The one life is filled with happiness, success, everything goes her way. It is a wonderful life. Whereas the other life is filled with suffering, misery, failure, defeat. It is just awful. It illustrates how this seemingly trivial event has consequences that are in principle unpredictable. Nobody could say the consequences of that event occurring in her life. But here is the really interesting part. What happens is, when you get to the end of the movie, you discover that in the happy, successful life she is suddenly killed unexpectedly in an automobile accident and her life comes to an end. Whereas in the unhappy, disastrous life filled with suffering, she learns from her suffering, her life turns around, and that turns out to be the truly happy and good life after all.

I think it is such a wonderful illustration of the point I am making here. We are simply not in a position when something bad happens to you to say it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing this to occur in my life. What that means is that there just isn’t any probabilistic problem of evil because the atheist is making probability judgments which are enormously presumptuous, and which we are simply not in a position to make with any kind of confidence.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I would just repeat what I said. What I am talking about here is evils that appear to be gratuitous. To say an evil is gratuitous means that it has no justifying reason for it. It is unnecessary and it is pointless. That is what we mean by gratuitous evil. I would make exactly the same point – we are just not in a position to say it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing this to occur. Because even the most trivial insignificant events can have ramifications far beyond what we imagine. It may look gratuitous to you but you are just not in a position to say that with any confidence.

Think of this little girl on the subway stairs. Whether or not that little girl delayed the young woman’s path with her dolly is itself contingent upon innumerable factors.[5] Maybe that morning the man argued with his wife over breakfast so he left early for the subway train in a huff and that is why the little girl was there just at that time. Or maybe he had an accident or something on the way there and that delayed him so that that is why the little girl was there at that time. Or maybe they were getting a divorce and that is why the little girl was with him instead of with the mother. Just think of the innumerable contingencies that would have to be in place for that little girl to be there to momentarily block this young woman’s path to the train. I think you can see there is just no way that you can say, “This instance of evil is truly gratuitous – that God has no morally adequate reasons for allowing it to occur.”

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Isn’t that true? Who could have predicted that this obscure Palestinian preacher being crucified as a nobody in Rome would turn out to be the greatest, most influential person in the history of the human race?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think you are right in saying that. The hardest problems to deal with would be ones where you have some isolated evil that doesn’t seem to be connected to anything. But then I want you to think about the butterfly effect – of the butterfly in Africa. Even somebody’s moving about affects the air molecules, and that affects things like weather. I don’t think anything occurs in isolation from the rest of the universe because it is all causally interconnected by the laws of nature. We simply have no idea that even breathing or moving about or things of that sort could have an impact that would reverberate through the course of history. So I really don’t think that one is in a position to say even in cases of isolated suffering that God couldn’t have had a good reason for permitting that. It could be it was permitted for something in the life of the sufferer or through some kind of ripple effect that that would eventually have.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What I meant was, he was an obscure person who was a nobody in that sense. But you are right he was crucified as King.

Even the death of the person leaves an absence in world history that makes a difference. It means that person will never beget children, will never have interactions with anybody else. So even the removal of the person from the scene tremendously impacts history. Say you were Simon Stiletes – even living in the desert – and you died, that is going to make a difference in history. Like John Dunn said, no man is an island. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And what happens to one affects the others.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: You are right. Don’t mistake this word “chaos” to mean chaos in the sense of unordered. Not at all. When they say “chaotic” what scientists mean is it is susceptible to tiny perturbations or fluctuations that will upset the system and make it go in a different way. So, for example, water streaming out of a facet. The way it kind of circles down. Water is chaotic. Just a little deviation will set that water differently. It is ordered. You are absolutely right. There is a causal order here, but it is highly sensitive.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It is incalculable. Therefore, as I think about the problem of evil, contrary to popular impression, the really difficult instances are not things like the Holocaust or the World Trade Center. The really difficult ones are more like my stubbing my toe in the basement when I am all by myself and there is nobody else around. That is the one that is really hard to justify. But these big ones that most people are concerned about, as you say, the ripple effect is incalculable. It would be enormous what that would do to world history. It will never be the same based on what would have happened had those people lived versus had they not lived and so on and so forth, as well as our knowing about it and everything else.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: You are getting now into the emotional problem of evil. I am glad you are seeing the practical application. This isn’t just philosophical hair-splitting. This has some important pastoral and spiritual implications because it means that when you go through terrible suffering and you see no point in it. Like a man – it is just inconceivable that this has happened – somebody backs out of the driveway and runs over his own child who was playing behind the car and he didn’t see him and kills his own child by backing his car over it.[6] How can God permit such a thing? How can something so pointless and horrible happen? Some Christians will say there is no reason for it. It is just, as you say, random. But I am persuaded that when you think of God’s middle knowledge and his providence over the whole of the human race and his goodness that God does have a morally sufficient reason for the things that happen and that the fact that I don’t see it isn’t any grounds for me to infer that therefore God doesn’t love me or that he doesn’t have a good reason. I can trust him when I go through those dark valleys and I don’t see the reason for why these things are happening. So I do think this can have real practical consequences for the emotional problem of evil in dealing with bitterness and anger. We need to understand that these kind of probability judgments are beyond our ability to make.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is a very good question, and I don’t know how to answer that. You are right – and someone else reminded us – that we are in a spiritual warfare. So it may well be the case that many of the evils in the world result from demonic forces that are at war with the Kingdom of God and seeking to impede its progress. I don’t see how, again, we can make any estimate of that. We are just not in a position to know that. That also will induce a sense of humility and modesty before we say God couldn’t have a good reason for this. Because it may well be that just as he allows us freedom to do evil, he allows these demonic creatures freedom to wreak their evil as well. God will so providentially order history that ultimately his purposes will be achieved even allowing these demonic beings to run rampant upon the face of the Earth and do as much damage and hurt as they can.

Our goal in suffering is not to discern the reason why God is allowing us to suffer. That is not our spiritual responsibility. We should not ask ourselves the question: Why is God allowing this to happen in my life? That will lead to nothing but futility and frustration because you are not in a position to make those kind of judgments (in many cases at least). Rather, the question should be: What can I learn from this experience of suffering as I go through it? There there may be lessons of humility. Maybe you have been proud and this knocks you down; compassion for others, make you a more sensitive person when others suffer. There will be all kinds of spiritual lessons that you can learn even if you don’t discern the reason why it happens. To learn those lessons you don’t need to discern the reason why it happens. You can leave that to God, but you can still learn from the experience as you go through it and are chastened by it.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Good question. My answer would be the former – I think that God, being omniscient, knows exactly what every free creature would do in any situation he puts him in so God isn’t surprised by what happens to you by some criminal’s acts that hurts you. He knows that if you were to walk out of the hotel at around the block there would be someone who is going to mug you or something. He allows that to happen perhaps for a greater purpose or reason. So I see it all within the providence of God. I think this is what Scripture teaches. What did Joseph say to his brothers when they committed the horrible act against him of faking his murder, selling him into slavery in Egypt, and abandoning him. When Joseph finally meets his brothers again he says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good and has brought this to pass.” So Joseph saw this as under the ultimate sovereignty of God that he could use even the evil acts of his brothers to bring about a greater purpose in God’s sovereignty. So I think that this understanding magnifies the sovereignty of God in a way that the other way does not, which sees God as just sort of the omnipotent reactionary to situations that we find ourselves in.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It is troubling. This isn’t a popular message. The message that we so often hear preached from America’s pulpits is, Believe in Christ and you will have a great life. Come to Christ and he will fill your life with happiness and success and good things.[7] I remember when we lived in Europe and we would have Eastern Europeans come to Brussels and visit our church, they said that kind of Gospel doesn’t preach in Romania. Under Ceausescu, if you became a Christian, what you could face would be unemployment, poverty, no education would be permitted you. He said if you start to preach the Gospel, you will be assaulted. There will be “accidents” that will happen to you from the state – broken arms. This is what you can expect in Romania. We can say the same thing in China. That kind of Gospel doesn’t preach in China or Iraq. I think we need to remember that God is sovereign and he is going to permit for his greater purposes and ultimately, as I’ll explain later, the Kingdom of God, he is going to permit suffering in our lives that we need to humbly receive as from his hand.

C. S. Lewis, in his Narnia Chronicles, has a very nice line that those of you who read it may have noticed. He says, “Aslan is not a tame lion.” The Christ-figure in the Narnia Chronicles – Aslan – is not a tame lion. We are dealing with a wild animal there, and you can’t domesticate God by saying he is going to make everything a bowl of cherries for me. That is not the God of the Bible.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I feel certain that that is very much the case, and I think it is much the case for us as well. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. As emotional creatures, we do tend to be driven by those. Then we seek justifying reasons for what we want to believe. It is just sort of part of the human condition. But I think that the arguments are important in and of themselves, and answering them can also help to deal with emotions as I mentioned before.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes, there are cases where one is faced with moral choices where neither option seems good and one may be forced to simply choose the one that seems the better of the two.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What you are suggesting is that some evil could be retributive justice on God’s part. Think of how God judged the people of Israel by allowing them to be taken into exile by a pagan nation. I think what you are saying there is that this can be just one of the multitude of morally sufficient reasons God would have for permitting or inflicting suffering in the world. I think it is important for us to help the non-believer to understand that there isn’t just one reason why God permits the suffering in the world. There isn’t a single reason. There will be as many reasons as there are situations. So the reasons that God has for allowing this or that suffering to take place will be various and multitudinous. So just one of them might be retributive judgment on a nation. But another might be in view of consequences in the future, or freedom of the will. So what you want to do is avoid trying to pin yourself down or letting the unbeliever pin you down to saying there is one single reason, or there must be one single reason, why God permits the suffering and evil in the world. I think that is just false. There will be multitudinous reasons as to why God permits suffering and evil in the world, and this would be just one example of them. What the atheist would have to show is that, given some instance of suffering in your life or someone’s life, it is improbable that God could have any kind of morally adequate reason for permitting that. I think that that is, as I say, just enormously presumptuous – it is a burden he can’t bear.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think you are right to do that. It would be important to detect what are called red herrings. A red herring is a consideration that will lead you off the track. I am told the expression originated when bloodhounds were used to track someone, and they would take a fish and drag it across the path and throw it away. The bloodhounds would be distracted and go off following the scent of the fish rather than the person they are trying to track.[8] So you have to constantly be aware as you are talking to an unbeliever that there will arise red herrings that will try to divert you from the issue. It is important to identify those when the unbeliever raises them by saying, “Now we are no longer talking about the intellectual problem of evil. Now we are talking about the emotional problem. We can talk about that if you want, but are you satisfied that we’ve dealt with the intellectual problem first?” Then they may say “no, no, no” because they still think it is intellectual and they will come back to the intellectual problem. You keep working on that. If they start to get into the emotional again, you point that out and say, “I am ready to go there but are you satisfied now that we’ve answered it intellectually first?” If they are not, go back to the issue. I do think that is very important in talking with an unbeliever to graciously and kindly guide the discussion for him so that he won’t be led down a thousand rabbit trails and never really get the central issue resolved.


I think we will bring it to a close there. Next time I am going to suggest a third response to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. I am going to push it one notch further – as Emeril would say, we’re going to kick it up a notch – and I am going to argue that given the existence of the Christian God it is actually probable that evil and suffering should exist in the world. Not only is it not improbable, but given the existence of Christian theism this increases the probability of suffering and evil in the world. We will look at that next time.[9]



[1] 4:07

[2] 9:58

[3] 15:08

[4] 20:05

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:10

[7] 35:07

[8] 40:02

[9] Total Running Time: 41:54 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)