Existence of God (part 31)

May 22, 2011     Time: 00:18:35


The Problem of Suffering and Evil.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VII. Problem Of Suffering And Evil
Lecture 1

We have been talking about natural theology, and we have looked at arguments for God’s existence. Then we looked at belief in God as properly basic – warranted belief in God without arguments. I argued that on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit, one can have a warranted belief in God as a properly basic belief grounded in the self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit.

Of course, on the other side of the ledger are the arguments for atheism that might be offered. In fact, there really aren’t very many arguments for atheism. What you discover when you talk to the vast majority of atheists is that they will simply say, “There’s no evidence that God exists!” In fact, this becomes almost a sort of mantra with many atheists. They have been taught to utter this slogan, and if the Christian has no evidence, then that just excuses them in their atheism. They just repeat that there is no evidence that God exists.

Sometimes this can be almost funny. I had one blogger characterize my debate with Lewis Wolpert in Central Hall, London, a couple of years ago as follows: Wolpert gets up and says, “There’s no evidence that God exists!” Craig gets up and says, “There is evidence that God exists, and here it is: A, B, C, D” and lays out the evidence. Wolpert gets up and says, “There’s no evidence that God exists!” Craig gets up and says, “There is evidence that God exists, and here it is: A, B, C, D.” And back and forth.

In fact, it seems many times that that is not an exaggeration of the case. The atheist has just been taught to say that “There is no evidence for God’s existence!” and to repeat this as a sort of slogan. But if you have mastered the arguments for God’s existence that we’ve just completed in this class, then that mantra won’t apply to you. If the atheist says, “There’s no evidence for God’s existence!” then what you can say is, “Really? Gosh, I can think of at least five arguments for God’s existence!” At that point, he has got to ask you, “Like what?” Then you are off and running! And you share with him the teleological argument or the ontological argument or the cosmological argument. Then you can discuss whether or not these are good arguments. But you have gotten the debate off of this dime of saying there is no evidence for God’s existence. For the vast majority of atheists, they are able to get away with this because the Christian doesn’t have any arguments for God’s existence. But with you, that won’t apply.


What positive argument could be offered for atheism? I think the principal argument in favor of atheism today is the argument from the suffering in the world. When you look at the suffering in the world, so much of it appears to be utterly pointless and unnecessary that it is hard to believe that there could be an all-loving and all-powerful God. So the suffering in the world would provide some reason for thinking that God does not exist.

In dealing with this very emotionally loaded topic, I think it is helpful to make a number of distinctions (these are on the outline) that will keep our thinking clear. First of all, we need to distinguish between the intellectual problem of suffering and the emotional problem of suffering.

The intellectual problem of suffering concerns whether or not it is plausible to think that God and the suffering in the world can coexist. The intellectual problem concerns whether or not, given the suffering in the world, it is impossible or improbable that there is a God. How plausible is it to think these two can coexist? On the other hand, the emotional problem of suffering is very different. This concerns how to dissolve people’s dislike or repudiation of a God who would permit the suffering in the world.

I think it is very important to keep these problems distinct because the answer to the intellectual problem of suffering is apt to appear dry and uncaring to someone who is actually going through terrible suffering. I remember reading that when Joni Eareckson suffered her paralyzing diving accident there was a parade of well-meaning Christians through her hospital room, offering reasons as to why God may have permitted this to occur in her life.1 As I read them, I said, “Wow! Some of these are pretty good! These are pretty good, philosophically sound reasons and defenses.” But to her, they came across as utterly arid and empty and meaningless because they didn’t speak to her emotional need. Someone who, like Joni Eareckson, is really suffering emotionally – that person is going to need some sort of emotional comfort or salve to help them, not an intellectual answer.

But somebody who is contemplating the problem as a purely intellectual or philosophical objection isn’t going to be satisfied with having some kind of emotional salve to put on his wounds. He wants a rigorous answer. The answer to the emotional problem of evil is apt to appear superficial and inadequate and sentimental because he is considering it as an abstract philosophical problem.

So the responses that are appropriate to the intellectual problem and to the emotional problem are very different. I am convinced that for most people the problem of suffering is not really an intellectual problem. I think for most people it is really an emotional problem. Their unbelief is not borne out of refutation of God’s existence, but out of repudiation of God’s existence. They just want nothing to do with a God who would allow them or other people to suffer so terribly, and so they want nothing to do with Him.

But in order to support my claim that the problem of suffering really is an emotional rather than an intellectual problem, we need to first look into the intellectual problem posed by suffering to show why it fails as a proof of atheism.


Question: Do you find this in Q&As a lot? The emotional objection?

Answer: I was thinking more in personal conversation. When I talk to folks who are wrestling with this problem, I very quickly get the impression that for them it is really more of a kind of anger – they are angry at God – because of all the terrible suffering that they see. “How could there be someone who would permit this sort of thing?” I would really encourage you to read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – it is very much like Ivan, who just says, “I don’t care if there is a good reason! I don’t want anything to do with a God like that. I just reject Him.” I think that is the way most people who reject God because of atheism think. It is not so much intellectual as it is anger and hurt.

The Intellectual Problem of Evil

Let me say something about the intellectual problem. Here we need to keep in mind exactly who has the burden of proof with respect to this problem. We are considering now arguments for atheism. Previously, we have been talking about arguments for God. So it was the believer who had the burden of proof to support his premises in his arguments for God’s existence. But now, you see, it is the atheist’s turn. Now we want to hear from the atheist some good argument against God’s existence. So it is the atheist who has to shoulder the burden of proof here. It is up to him to give us an argument for the conclusion “Therefore, God does not exist.”

I think too often believers, in dealing with this intellectual problem, allow the atheist to shift the burden of proof onto their shoulders. The atheist says, “Give me some good reason why God would permit all the suffering in the world!” And suddenly the burden is thrust back on the believer to explain all the suffering in the world, and the atheist is able to just sit back and fold his arms and play the skeptic and take pot shots at the various reasons that the theist offers and say they are all inadequate. The atheist ends up having to prove nothing. He just gets to play the skeptic. This might be a clever debating strategy on the part of the atheist, but it is completely illegitimate philosophically. It is intellectually dishonest. The atheist should not be allowed to shirk his intellectual responsibilities. It is the atheist who is claiming that the coexistence of God and the suffering in the world are in some way incompatible with each other:2 they are either impossible or they are improbable with respect to one another. So it is up to him to give us an argument – it is up to him to provide support for its premises. It is now the Christian’s turn to sit back and play the skeptic and to take pot shots at the arguments or the evidence that the atheist will provide. The Christian doesn’t have to show that there is some good reason for the suffering in the world; the atheist has to show that there is no good reason that God might have for permitting the suffering in the world. So when you are talking to an atheist about the problem of suffering, do not allow him to shift the burden of proof to your shoulders. It is up to him to show that somehow the suffering in the world disproves God’s existence.

The problem of suffering, intellectually speaking, comes in two versions: the logical version and the probabilistic version. The logical version of the problem says that the existence of God and suffering in the world are logically impossible. They are like the irresistible force and the immovable object – if one exists, the other one does not exist. So, given the existence of the suffering, it is logically impossible for God to exist. On the other hand, the probabilistic version, which is sometimes called the evidential version of the problem of suffering, says, “All right, it’s possible that God and the suffering in the world coexist, but nevertheless it is highly improbable that God and the suffering in the world coexist.” Given the terrible suffering in the world, it is improbable that God exists.

So before you begin to talk about the problem of suffering with a non-believer, you need to determine which version of the problem he is pressing. Which version is bothering him? If he is like the typical unbeliever, he has got no clue as to which version of the problem he is pressing. So you need to help him out. You need to say to your friend, “Now, let me understand what you are saying. Are you saying that it is logically impossible that God and the suffering in the world coexist? Is that what you mean? Or are you saying that it is just improbable that God and the suffering in the world coexist? What are you saying?” You may need to help him clarify his thinking in order to determine which version of the problem to respond to. And what he says will determine how you respond because there are different responses to the logical version and the probabilistic version.


Question: I think it goes without saying that the God you are defending is a kind and loving God.

Answer: Yes, that is right. When, as we will see when we get to the statement of the problem, we are talking about a God, it is a God who is all-loving and all-powerful. Obviously, if God is limited in power, then maybe He can’t stop all the suffering in the world because He is finite. Or if He is not all-good, if He is kind of malevolent, in that case He wouldn’t necessarily want to stop all the suffering. So we are talking about the classical concept of God as an all-good, or all-loving, and all-powerful being. The question is, can that sort of God exist and the suffering of the world exist? That is a good point you raised.

Question: Couldn’t you move back a step further and say if you are really a materialist and atheist, then there really is no problem?

Answer: That is what the atheist will say! The atheist will say for him the problem of suffering is not a problem on his worldview because, of course, in a world in which there is no God superintending things, it is just blind nature that is at work, and so we would naturally expect to see the world filled with suffering as a result of the blind evolutionary process. Nature is red in tooth and claw, as they say. So many statements of the probabilistic version of the problem of suffering will be of this nature. They will say that the suffering in the world is more probable on naturalism than it is on theism because if naturalism is true, this is exactly the sort of world you would expect to see, but it is not what you would expect to see if theism is true.

Followup: Even further back, in definition, there is no such thing as suffering and evil.3

Answer: All right, I see your point; but I have tried to avoid this problem for the atheist by how I formulated the problem. Usually, among philosophers, this problem is not called the “problem of suffering.” It is usually called the “problem of evil.” As you have pointed out, that would make it easier for the theist to defeat the atheist by just saying that, on naturalism, there is no such thing as objective good and evil. In nature, whatever is, is right. So the atheist cannot really consistently complain about all the evil in the world, because on his view there really isn’t any evil. You need God in order to have evil. But that is why I framed the problem in terms of suffering rather than evil. As I have framed it, I am not assuming that there is evil in the world, just that there is suffering. C. S. Lewis wrote a book that had a nice title; he called it The Problem of Pain. Same thing! So I think the atheist can avoid the problem that you rightly raise – and we will return to that later on – , but you can avoid that problem by focusing, not on moral evil in the world, but just focusing on pain and suffering and asking how could an all-loving, all-powerful God permit so much unnecessary and pointless suffering.

Question: If you hold to a personal creator theology, as opposed to a perfect being theology, this isn’t even an issue. I believe in a personal creator. So, I would ask, how is suffering even evidence against a personal creator? Even if it is proof against a perfect being, that doesn’t justify atheistic evolution. It doesn’t justify arguments against miracles, it doesn’t justify a lot of things.

Answer: By personal creator, are you saying what was inferred from an earlier question – a creator that is finite in power and limited in his goodness? Is that what you mean?

Followup: Maybe our moral intuitions are messed up. We don’t technically know that our moral intuitions are perfect. I am saying if there is a personal creator out there, how is suffering evidence against it?

Answer: As I say, in response to the earlier question, we are assuming an orthodox concept of God. They may be willing to admit that the problem of suffering is quite compatible with, say, Zeus. No problem! In fact, that is why Intelligent Design theorists will often say their argument is not an argument for God’s existence – because there could be an intelligent designer who might be an absolute stinker, morally speaking. Or He might be limited in power. So this isn’t an argument against a personal creator; it is not an argument against a designer. It would be an argument against the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God in the classical sense of the word “God.” But you are quite right: it wouldn’t justify naturalism in the sense that there is no personal creator or designer. That is quite right.4


1 5:05

2 10:05

3 15:03

4 Total Running Time: 18:34