Existence of God (part 32)

May 29, 2011     Time: 00:34:53


The Problem of Suffering and Evil.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VII. Problem Of Suffering And Evil
Lecture 2

We have been talking about the problem of suffering in the world, and I suggested that this is the most potent of the atheistic arguments that is on offer today. I distinguished two versions of this problem: an intellectual version and an emotional version. In looking at the intellectual problem of evil, we saw that this also comes in two versions: a logical version and a probabilistic version.

According to the logical version of the intellectual problem of suffering, it is logically impossible that God and evil (or suffering) coexist. According to the probabilistic version, it is possible that God and suffering coexist, but, nevertheless, it is highly improbable, and thus, given the suffering in the world, it is improbable that God exists.

Logical Version

Statement of the Problem

What we want to do is begin to examine the logical version of the intellectual problem of evil. The key to this argument is the atheist claim that it is impossible that God and the suffering in the world coexist. The atheist is basically saying that the following two statements are logically inconsistent with each other:

1. God is all-powerful and all-good.

2. Suffering exists.

The proponent of the logical version of the problem of evil is saying that these two propositions cannot both be true. The obvious question that arises when we put the problem in this way is, why think that these two propositions are logically inconsistent with each other? After all, one is not the negation of the other. So there is no explicit contradiction between these two statements. The atheist must think that these are somehow implicitly contradictory. But in that case, he must have some hidden assumptions which would bring out this implicit contradiction and make it explicit. The question is: what are those hidden assumptions?

They seem to be two in number:

3. If God is all-powerful, then He can create any world that He wants.

4. If God is all-loving, then He would prefer a world without suffering.

The idea here is that God is all-powerful, and therefore He can create any world that He wants. He is all-good, and therefore He prefers a world without suffering. Thus, God is capable of creating, and He prefers, a world without suffering. Therefore, suffering does not exist. But that contradicts #2 – that suffering exists – so it shows that there is a contradiction between God and suffering. Given that suffering exists, it follows that God does not exist. Given the presence of suffering, we know that there is no God.


Question: In statement #1, you say He is all-powerful and all-good, but statement #4 you say He is all-loving. Is there a difference?

Answer: No, you could have “all-loving” in there if you want. I think all-good would comprise being all-loving because loving is part of being good.

Question: In order to use the first argument [i.e., the first premise] would you not have to define “all-powerful” and “all-good”? You would only be able to define him in terms that we understand. So, you don’t really know what he is saying.1

Answer: No, you would just ask, “What do you mean by ‘all-powerful’ and ‘all-good’?” We will see that, at least with regard to being all-powerful, that does require some finessing here in assessing the truth of #3. But by being all-good, I think the atheist would just say what we normally mean by a good person or a loving person. If you say that a good person makes people suffer unnecessarily and without any reason for it at all, then you are just using the word “good” in a idiosyncratic way that isn’t what we mean normally by goodness. So the words here are not intended to be peculiar; they are intended to be used in the normal way that Christians would affirm when we say that an all-powerful and all-good and all-loving God exists.

Question: It seems that the element that is missing in the logical sequence is that there is the assumption that man has no free will outside of God. It assumes God is in control of every aspect of reality.

Answer: I think what you are doing now is raising a critical issue rather than a comprehension issue, and I think you are right.

Followup: There doesn’t seem to be a logical conclusion presented here.

Answer: No, I think the logic here is fine. I think that the conclusion does follow correctly that if God is all-powerful and all-good and these two assumptions are necessarily true, then it is impossible that suffering exists. So the question will be, are these two assumptions true?

Followup: Is seems to me that all of these could be true.

Answer: Well, that is going to be the question. If they are all true, then we have a problem.

Followup: Think about the Garden of Eden and heaven. God prefers there is no suffering in both. So, all premises are true (including #3 and #4).

Answer: Well, we will see! Hang on, and we will see whether or not they are all true. I am more skeptical than you are that #3 and #4 are necessarily true.

Question: The critical verb to me is “prefers” in #4. If God prefers a world without suffering, then this is OK. In other words, you would have to substitute “demands” instead of “prefers.” If He just prefers one, that would infer He would allow one temporarily at least for a greater good.

Answer: Let’s substitute a different word then – say, God would “choose.” If God is all- loving, He would choose a world without suffering.

Followup: I would think you would have to substitute a word “demand” or “not allow.”

Answer: OK, “would not allow” suffering! We can use that instead for premise #4. “If God is all-loving, He would not allow suffering to exist in the world.” I am not trying to load these terms with lots of special meanings. Then you will do what I am going to do – you will challenge the truth of #4. But the basic argument is the same, an all-loving God, if He exists, would not allow this suffering in the world.

Question: Doesn’t this argument violate the atheistic moral realism you went through? They are using “good” which, in a prior argument you presented, they don’t believe in “good.”

Answer: Let’s understand this about the logical version of the problem of evil: What the logical version of the problem of evil does is try to expose an internal contradiction in the Christian worldview. The atheist is not affirming that it is true that God is all-good. He is just saying, “You Christians believe #1, and you believe #2. You don’t think suffering is illusory as Hindus do. Yet, #1 and #2 are contradictory with each other.” So he has exposed an internal contradiction within the Christian worldview. That is why there is no problem with moral realism.2

Solution of the Problem

What might be said in response to this logical version of the problem of suffering? In order for this argument to be logically valid, both of the hidden assumptions need to be necessarily true. The question is, are they each necessarily true? Let’s think about them.

There is No Proven Inconsistency Between God and Evil

Think about #3, that if God is all-powerful, then He can create any world that He wants. Is that necessarily true? I think that, as the earlier question has suggested, it is not necessarily true, if it is possible that people have freedom of the will. It is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. That is as logically impossible as making a married bachelor or a round square. So God’s being all-powerful does not mean that He can do the logically impossible. Indeed, there really aren’t any such things as the logically impossible. Those are just self-contradictory combination of words, like “square circle” or “married bachelor.” So God does not necessarily have the ability to create just any world that He wants, if it is possible that human beings have genuine freedom of the will.

If the unbeliever insists at this point that an omnipotent God, an all-powerful God, most certainly does have the power to do the logically impossible, then the problem of evil just evaporates automatically. Because then He can bring it about that both #1 and #2 are true, even though they are logically contradictory to each other! So the atheist shoots himself in the foot, if he says God can do the logically impossible because He is omnipotent. Then there is no problem posed by suffering, since God can bring it about that these two logically incompatible propositions are both true.

If it is possible that people have free will, it turns out that #3 is not necessarily true because there may be possible worlds in which the people don’t freely do the things that God would prefer for them to do. They can refuse to do what God desires. So there might be any number of possible worlds that are not feasible for God to create because the people in them would not do the right thing. In fact, when you reflect on it, it is possible that in any world of free persons which has as much good as the actual world does, there would also be this much suffering. There is no guarantee whatsoever that in some other world of free persons with this much good, there would be less suffering.

Notice that this conjecture doesn’t need to be true. It doesn’t need to be probable. It just needs to be possible. As long as that is possible, it shows that it is not necessarily true that if God is all-powerful, He can create just any world that He wants. So assumption #3 is not necessarily true, and therefore the atheist argument is logically invalid.


Question: It seems like God would be able to create any world He wants; He could create a world without free will. So He could choose not to create free will. So you need to have the best of all possible worlds.

Answer: I don’t think so. Certainly God could create a world without any free creatures in it at all. He could create a world that has no higher life forms than rabbits, for example. That is certainly within God’s power. But there may be worlds – for example, worlds of free persons that involve as much moral good as this world does, but He doesn’t have the ability to create them – and then, say, in these possible worlds these persons would never sin, and there would be no evil and no suffering. God may not have the ability to create those worlds because if He tried to create those people in those circumstances, they would not cooperate, and they wouldn’t do the right thing. So there is any number of possible worlds that are logically possible for God to create, but they are not actually feasible for Him to create because the people in them would not cooperate; they would freely go wrong.

Followup: He can choose to create any world He wants, but what you are saying is He can’t choose one that is logically inconsistent, correct?3

Answer: No, I am not saying that. Let’s imagine a world without sin, in which there are lots of free people, and in every moral situation they find themselves in they always make the right choice. That is a logically possible world. There is nothing illogical or self-contradictory about a world like that. But what I am saying is that that kind of a world may not be feasible for God to create because if He created those people, in those circumstances, they might freely go wrong. And so that world wouldn’t come about. It is not within God’s control to make them always do the right thing. If He did that, that removes their freedom. This leads to this rather paradoxical conclusion that I think is quite correct that there are worlds that are, in and of themselves, logically possible – there is no inconsistency in a world in which people always freely do the right thing – , but those things might not be feasible for God to create because, in order to do that, He would have to override their free will, and in these worlds we are imagining people do have free will.

Question: How do you reconcile the doctrine of heaven? Is it possible for people in heaven to sin? Given an infinite future, wouldn’t it seem possible that every free agent in heaven would sin?

Answer: I think there are a couple of ways to deal with this. This comes up in my debate with the philosopher Ray Bradley on the question of hell.4 What I point out in that debate is that heaven is not itself a possible world. Heaven is the result of a state that leads up to heaven where people have freely chosen to obey and worship God, and so they are rewarded and go to heaven. It is not as though God could just sort of scale away or take off this pre-mortem state and just create heaven by itself because heaven is the state which is the result of all these prior choices. If He did try to create such an isolated world, then you have got a new world on your hands, and it might very well be the case that then the people would go wrong and do the wrong thing. The deeper question posed by your question is, in heaven will people have the freedom to sin or not? I think there are a couple of ways that one might respond to this. There isn’t any sort of orthodox doctrine on this. I think a couple of sorts of responses are possible. One would be that people in heaven do have the freedom to sin but God has chosen the elect to be only those who, if they were in heaven, would always freely choose to do the right thing. So even though they have the ability to sin, they just won’t exercise it. The other thing you could say – and this I find very plausible – is that the freedom to sin is effectively removed in heaven by coming to see Christ in all of His beauty and glory and purity. I think that the human will to evil will simply be overcome by the powerful and immediate presence of Christ. So, just as iron filings stick to a gigantic magnet, there would not be the ability to fall away because Christ, being seen in all of His magnificence, would be so attractive and irresistible that the freedom to sin would be removed. But again, that is only the result of a pre-mortem condition in which people are created at a sort of “arm’s length” from God and all His glory and thus have the freedom to respond or refuse to believe in Him during this vale of decision-making until we get to heaven.

Question: On this #3, it is a resurrection of the old chestnut, “Can God make a stone so big He can’t move it?” So if we are saying God can make a world where there is moral choice, then it would violate one of His attributes to say He should make it where there are no moral choices.

Answer: It is similar to that in that the idea of making a stone too heavy for God to lift is a logically incoherent task, and therefore it doesn’t affect divine omnipotence. An almighty being doesn’t need to have the ability to make a stone too heavy for Him to lift. Similarly, a being who is almighty doesn’t need to have the ability to make people freely do something because that is also logically incoherent.5 If that is right, then that means there may be worlds that God isn’t capable of creating because if the people in them are free, He has got to stand back and let them make their choices, and it may be that in all of those worlds, somebody at least goes wrong. Therefore, there are no worlds that are completely free of evil and suffering.

Question: Evil began in heaven.

Answer: Right. . . . when I say “people” I would expand that to mean creatures of any sort that have free will, whether you think of this as angels or persons or extraterrestrials.

Question: The sin question negates time. There has been experience with sin and with Satan and with sin in heaven, so that is something that in the original creation you wouldn’t have this example. So believers, whether they are going to sin in heaven, they know the consequences of sin and having seen an angel sin in heaven and being cast out and so forth. So those portions of the argument would negate those experiences in that time.

Answer: You are responding to the point of sin in heaven?

Question: The thing about sin and sin in heaven – the Bible says that Jesus was slain before the foundation of the Earth. God, in His knowledge, knew that when He built us, however He built us, that we were going to fail right off the bat. I am sure that while He was sitting around in eternity past with Jesus, and He says, “Let’s create a few billion angels, one of which is going to sin and take a third of them away, and there is going to be a conflict; you, my Son, I am going to call on later on to be the focal point of all eternity, as what would separate the sin from the saved.”

Answer: We are not talking here about God’s knowledge of the future or what will happen in the actual world. What we are talking about here is God, so to speak, “prior” to creation and contemplating the different worlds that He might make. And one of these worlds would be a world in which there are all these free persons, and in every situation they always do the right thing, so that there is no sin and no evil in that world. What I am suggesting is that God’s being omnipotent doesn’t mean that He has the power to create that world. The reason is because He doesn’t have the ability to make the creatures freely do what is logically possible for them to do. So they might go wrong, and if they did, then that world wouldn’t come about.

Question: I am not sure if it’s logically possible for there to be a world in which all people freely choose to do good – in every choice they have they always choose good. I am not sure how God creating that world, would mean that He is making them freely choose good.

Answer: First of all, you said you weren’t sure that there is such a possible world, where people always freely do the right thing, is that right?

Followup: No, I do not see any reason why there wouldn’t be such a possible world.

Answer: Then if you say this is logically necessary – that free creatures sin –, that would seem to negate human freedom. If you say that sin is logically necessary, that seems to be just completely contrary to free will. In any moral situation in which a person is free, he has the ability either to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing. And if you say that sin is logically necessary, then I don’t see how you can say that that person is free. So it seems to me that there is no inconsistency in imagining a world of free people in which, in every moral situation they find themselves, they always freely do the right thing. So it seems to me that such a world is logically possible. So now the question is, is it feasible for God to make that world? That would depend upon whether or not, if those people were in those circumstances, they would freely choose to do the right thing. It is possible that they do the right thing. That is all that proves – that there is a possible world like that, that it is possible that they would do the right thing.6 But would they, if they were in those situations? It may well be the case that they would not and that, if God is going to allow them to be free, He has to allow them to sin and go against Him. So, even though that world is possible, it would not be actual if God were to try to create those people in those circumstances because they would go wrong.

Question: Talking about suffering as something that is caused by man and free will – but how about natural disasters?

Answer: Right, we are not here talking about natural disasters because we are dealing simply with this question – if God is all-powerful, does that mean He can create any world that He wants? And I am suggesting that that isn’t necessarily true. God’s options may well be limited. Therefore, this argument fails. So we are not trying to give an account of natural suffering. We are just examining the truth of this third assumption, and I am suggesting it is not necessarily true. The atheist would have to show us that there is a world feasible for God – well, he would have to even show us more than that really. I don’t know how the atheist could show us this – that any possible world is within God’s ability to make. It seems to me the atheist would have to show that freedom of the will is impossible in order to carry this third point. He would have to show that freedom of the will is impossible. Otherwise there are going to be worlds where God may well find Himself unable to actualize those worlds because the people would not freely cooperate.

Question: Are you saying that it is possible for God to create a world in which creatures always choose to do the right thing? That is possible but not feasible?

Answer: This is a very technical use of terms. What I am saying is a world like that is possible. A world like that is a possible world. But it may not be feasible for God to do it because it is logically impossible to make people do the right thing. So He finds Himself incapable of bringing about that sort of a world.

Followup: So does that mean that we assume that, given free will, people will not always do the right thing unless they are made to?

Answer: No, we are not assuming that. That was a point I could have made here earlier as well. What we are just saying is that it might be the case. Remember the atheist is making a very strong claim here – that it is impossible for God and the suffering in the world to coexist. So we do not need to show that it is, in fact, the case that in order to bring about a world in which people always freely do the right thing that God would have to make them always do the right thing. As long as it is possible that people have free will, it may be the case that God finds Himself confronted with a situation in which any world that involves, say, this much good would also have this much moral evil in it.

Let me move on to the forth assumption and address that: If God is all-loving, He prefers a world without suffering – or would choose a world without suffering. Is that necessarily true?

Again, as I think about it, it just doesn’t seem that this is necessarily true. God could have overriding reasons for allowing the suffering in the world. We all know cases where we permit suffering in order to bring about a greater good. C.S. Lewis once remarked, “What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?”7 That illustration shows that many times we permit suffering for some greater good.

The atheist might say, but God wouldn’t be limited in that way – He could just bring about the greater good directly! But clearly, given freedom of the will again, that may not be possible. Some goods, for example moral virtues, require freedom of the will. They cannot just be created in a puppet. They need to have free creatures in order to have moral virtues brought about.

So, it may well be the case that God finds that a world in which there is suffering may be, on balance, better than a world with no suffering at all.8 At least that is possibly the case, and if that is possibly the case, then #4 is just not necessarily true. It is not necessarily true that God would prefer a world without any suffering in it.

It seems that both of the key assumptions made by the atheist are not necessarily true, and therefore the argument is doubly invalid.


Question: Getting back to the emphasis on the world “prefers.” I maintain that that #4 is absolutely and completely true. He does prefer a world with no suffering. He allows one with suffering, which presumably comes from sin, because of a greater good. A biblical example of this would be His decision of divorce. In Malachi, he says flat out, “God hates divorce.” Yet, the Pharisees came to Christ and asked Him about this, “Why did Moses allow a certificate of divorce?” and Christ says he did it because men’s hearts were hard. So He has two wills which we know – He has His overriding will, which is an agreement with His overall attributes, but then He has a permissible will, which He will allow something that goes against what He really likes. He will allow it temporarily for a greater good, as you said. Even though I maintain that #4 is absolutely true, I see nothing wrong with that statement. The problem is that even though He prefers not to have it, He will allow it.

Answer: If you say that, then you will simply say that #3 is not necessarily true even though #4 isn’t; therefore the argument still fails. But I am not even convinced that #4 is true. For example, take the great good that is the result of the crucifixion of Christ and His death. I can well imagine that it is true that God would prefer a world in which that great good comes about, which necessitates sin, than a world in which nobody ever does anything wrong, so there is no moral evil in the world, but nevertheless it lacks this great good of Christ’s crucifixion and death. Maybe, say, a world in which He only creates three people, and they all do the right thing and then they die, and that is it. I can well believe that God would prefer a world filled with suffering and some great good, like, say, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, over that world with three people in it and the limited good that would be brought about by that. I do not think even #4 is necessarily true.

Followup: One other example is – why did God allow sin and suffering? He could have stopped it – why did He allow it? I maintain He did it so at some point in the future He can demonstrate to all intelligent creatures anywhere by saying He gave these creatures total free will, and I can confirm that – “They chose not to obey me and they caused myself and my Son and the Holy Spirit pain. And look at what I did to get them back” – and then demonstrates His grace. If we tried to do something like that, that would be horrible, but God is all-good, so this points to His good...

Answer: See, I think that is saying what I am saying: that #4 is not true! A world in which that happens is preferable over a world in which, say, three people exist and never sin. Or that there is a world without any suffering. I could well see a world such as you have described would be preferred by God over a world that has no suffering at all.

I think you can see, in summary, that in assuming the truth of #3 and #4, the atheist has made incredibly strong assumptions for which there is really no good reason. We have every reason to be skeptical of #3 and #4, and, therefore, no sort of contradiction or inconsistency has been shown between God’s being all-powerful and all-good and the existence of suffering in the world.9


1 5:04

2 9:50

3 15:05

4 For a transcript of this debate, see Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

5 20:00

6 25:05

7 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Chapter 3

8 30:08

9 Total Running Time: 34:53