Existence of God (part 33)

June 05, 2011     Time: 00:19:45


The Problem of Suffering and Evil.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VII. Problem Of Suffering And Evil
Lecture 3

We have been talking in our lesson about the problem of evil, particularly the logical version of the problem of evil. You will remember that that version says that the existence of God and the existence of the suffering in the world are logically incompatible with each other. There is no possible world in which God exists and the world has suffering in it, or the suffering that we observe in it. These are logically incompatible with each other.

We saw that there is no explicit contradiction between the affirmations that God exists and suffering exists. So the atheist must be assuming some hidden premises that would bring out this contradiction and make it explicit. Those premises seem to be, first of all, that if God is all-powerful, then He can create just any world that He wants. Secondly, if God is all-loving or all-good, then He would choose to create a world without suffering. Since God is both all-powerful and all-loving, He both could and would choose to create a world without suffering. But since suffering exists, it therefore follows that God does not exist.

What I argued is that neither of those implicit assumptions is necessarily true. First of all, omnipotence doesn’t mean that God can create just any world that He wants. It is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. So if God chooses to create free creatures, that means that He cannot guarantee how they will freely choose. But then it immediately follows that there are all kinds of worlds that are possible in and of themselves but which are not feasible for God to create because the free creatures would not cooperate. They would go wrong and therefore would not bring about the world that God intended. So it may well be the case, and I think it is the case given that human freedom is possible, that there are possible worlds that God cannot create. So that first assumption is just false, and that alone invalidates the atheist argument.

But secondly, we also saw that it is not necessarily true that if God is all-loving, He would choose a world without suffering. Worlds without suffering might have overriding disadvantages that make them less preferable to worlds that involve great amounts of suffering but maybe other great goods as well. Therefore, we cannot say with any sort of confidence that if God existed He would choose to create a world that had no suffering in it.

Since neither of those hidden assumptions is true, it follows that the atheist’s argument is simply logically invalid. Therefore, no one has succeeded in showing the logical incompatibility between God and evil.

We Can Prove that God and Evil are Consistent

In fact, we can push the argument a notch forward by offering a proposition which, if possibly true, would prove that God and evil are logically compatible. Here is such a proposition:

God could not have created a world with as much good as this world but less evil, or less suffering, than the actual world. Moreover, God has good reasons for allowing the suffering in the world.

The idea here is that God’s options for creating worlds are limited by human freedom. It may be that a world that has as much good as the actual world but with less suffering in it is infeasible for God. But, nevertheless, He has got good reasons for allowing the suffering that He does allow.

If this statement is even possibly true then it shows that there is no logical inconsistency between God and the suffering in the world because:

1. God exists.

2. God could not have created a world with as much good but less suffering and,

3. He has good reasons for allowing it.

4. Therefore, suffering exists.1

If this is true, then it entails that suffering exists and yet it is compatible with God’s existence. I am not claiming that this is true, but as long as it is even possibly true, it shows that there is no inconsistency between God and the suffering in the world. It seems to me this is very plausibly possibly true. Therefore, this demonstrates positively that there is no logical problem of suffering.


Question: Is there an advantage to keeping this whole discussion relative to this world and time? As soon as you put “afterlife” and “eternal life” into the context, all of this becomes not only possible but beyond plausible.

Answer: I agree with you that you cannot just limit the question to this life because that would presuppose that Christianity is false – that there is no afterlife. This is supposed to be an argument that shows an internal contradiction within Christian theism. So you are absolutely right! One of the reasons that God might have for allowing suffering would be to reward with over-abundant blessing those who bear their suffering in patience and faith in God.

Followup: I’m saying the entire worlds of this one and the next one, net-net, doesn’t have suffering?

Answer: Let’s be careful lest we sound like a Hindu, who says suffering is illusory. What you want to say is that suffering is compensated, that there is a recompense, for suffering in heaven and the afterlife. Those who have experienced horrible suffering in this life and go to heaven will look back and say, “I would go through it a million million times over in order to know this blessing and this joy!” So you are absolutely right: the atheist cannot exclude the idea of the afterlife if he is trying to show a logical impossibility between God and the suffering and evil in the world.

Question: What comes to my mind concerning this point is that certain types of good may not be able to be expressed without evil also being present in the world. That is probably why you would say that you could not create a world with as much good as this without evil also existing because you wouldn’t be able to have acts like sacrifice and people saving each other, God saving other people, and that sort of thing without evil existing.

Answer: That is very true! I used to kind of discount that point when I would hear Christian theists say that. It didn’t sound to me as if those moral goods were all that great. But when you really think about it, I think you are absolutely right about that! Moral virtues are not something that can just be created out of nothing, ex nihilo. That is why Adam and Eve, for example, were not morally perfect. They were innocent. They were morally innocent; but they weren’t morally perfect. Even Jesus, we are told in the book of Hebrews, was perfected through what He suffered. He learned through what He suffered. So the development of moral virtues, of character, of the ability to make right and wrong decisions and to choose the right when temptation is strong to do the wrong, the whole notion of moral character presupposes the reality of evil and suffering. So this is not a point that is lightly dismissed. I think you are absolutely right that many great goods would not be possible, like having mature moral agents, unless there were suffering and difficulty in the world to overcome.

Question: You can also turn this around and in a presumed segment of the world where there is no suffering or evil, do you have happy people? For example, if everybody had enough money and no apparent illness, would that mean that they were happy and fulfilled? If you take a country like Sweden that has the highest standard of living and medical care and you take the young people there that have no apparent illnesses, the suicide rate in Sweden has been historically the highest in the world for decades.2 How does this play?

Answer: That is a really good point! And here is something to go with it: I recently heard on the news that a survey of different countries of the world had been done to determine which was the happiest.3 What was the country where people had the greatest sense of happiness and satisfaction and so forth? The answer was: Nigeria! That just blew me away when I heard that! It reinforces the point that you are making.

Question: John Piper makes several good points. One is similar to what you just said. If we didn’t have a world with evil and suffering, Christ would not have been able to identify with us and there would not be such a thing as the crucifixion.

Answer: Right, the great good of Christ’s atoning death and sacrifice needs to be factored in here, too. It may well be that a world containing that great good justifies permitting a world with creatures who choose evil and go astray.

Question: If evil is necessary for these second order goods like sacrifice and courage and so forth, doesn’t that introduce a problem because it would mean that the fall was necessary for virtue to exist or be perfected?

Answer: Let’s be careful here. I think that suffering may well be necessary in order for certain virtues to be developed – hardship, trial, pain, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean sin is necessary, I don’t think. So that is why I am differentiating between suffering and evil. Now it would be true that evil would be necessary for Christ’s atoning death to occur, and some medieval theologians said of the fall, “O Felix Culpa!” or “Oh, Blessed Sin!” that Adam committed because it was through that that Christ’s atoning sacrifice came to be a reality. So that would be a sort of paradox that it was through that that this great good came into the world. But that doesn’t mean that the sin itself wasn’t wrong and immoral and so forth. It would just mean that God had some overriding reason for allowing it to occur that justified Him in doing so.

Question: If God created living creatures, man is the only one who can actually have evil.

Answer: Right, other than angels, say.

Followup: Watch Animal Planet and you see a male lion killing the cubs of a cheetah. But that is not evil. They have no morality built into them. They do whatever it takes to feed themselves and to survive. We are the only ones that are given the capability to do evil. I think what the question for me is, what was God’s purpose in creating this particular world the way He did it. It very likely could have been that He wants creatures that “will worship My Son, and for them to worship My Son they have to have some cause. I can just make them all worship Him, but that is no good, I want them to freely worship My Son and to do that, then they have to be able to freely go the other way.”

Answer: Absolutely, I do not need to add to that. I think that is well said.

Probabilistic Version

Most philosophers today, by far the vast, vast majority, be they theist or atheist, recognize that the logical version of the problem of evil has failed. But that leads us, then, to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. And this is still very much a live issue.

Statement of the Problem

The atheistic claim here is that the suffering in the world renders God’s existence improbable, if not impossible. In particular, it seems improbable that God could have good reasons for permitting all of this suffering in the world. So much of the world’s suffering appears to be pointless and unnecessary. Surely, God could have reduced the suffering in the world without impinging upon the overall goodness of the world. So the suffering in the world would provide some evidence that God does not exist. It would render God’s existence improbable.

This is a much more powerful version of the argument. Because it has a more modest conclusion, it is easier to establish. It doesn’t require as heavy a burden of proof as the logical version. Therefore, the atheist’s responsibility here is lighter – simply to show that it is improbable that God exists. So what can we say in response to this argument?

Solution to the Problem

I want to make three points in response to this argument.4

Our Inability to Properly Assess the Probability that God and Evil Co-Exist

The first point is that we are simply not in a position to say with any confidence that it is improbable that God lacks sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. We are not in a good position to say that it is improbable that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering. The key to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is the atheist claim that it is improbable that God has good reasons for permitting the suffering that we see around us.

We all recognize that much of the suffering in the world looks unjustified – it looks unnecessary. The key move here for the atheist will be the move from appearance to reality. He needs to show that because the suffering in the world looks unjustified, therefore it really is unjustified. My first point that I want to make is that the atheist simply can’t bridge that gap. He can’t plausibly bridge the gap between the appearance of unjustified suffering to the fact that the suffering really is unjustified.

As finite persons we are limited in intelligence and insight, in space and time, and therefore have a limited frame of reference. But God sees the end of history from the beginning, and He providentially orders history so that His ultimate ends are achieved through the free decisions of human persons. In order to achieve His ultimate purposes, God may well have to put up with certain evils and suffering along the way which have been justly permitted by God in order to attain His ultimate purposes.

Let me just give a very brief illustration of this before we close, and then we will develop this point in more detail next time. I once saw a puzzle where there was a box like this [Dr. Craig draws the illustration on the whiteboard] and inside it were four dots. And the challenge was, how do you connect these four dots without lifting your pencil from the paper with only two lines? You have only two lines; how can you connect these four dots with two lines without lifting your pencil from the paper? And when you look at it, it seems as if it is impossible; there is no way you could connect the four dots using two lines without lifting your pencil – until you look at them within a wider frame of reference! And then you see, it is easy! The problem was you were looking at it within your limited frame of reference where it looked impossible but within a wider frame of reference you can see you can actually do it.

That is illustrative of the point I am trying to make. Within our limited frame of reference, bound in time and space, limited in intelligence and insight, we may not see or discern the reasons why God permits some instance of suffering to come into our lives. But when looked at within His wider framework of the whole of human history, from beginning to end, there may well be sufficient reasons why God permits that suffering to come into your life, which are simply not within your cognitive abilities to grasp. Therefore, to someone within the limited framework, he is in no position to say with any kind of confidence that “It is improbable that God has a good reason for allowing this instance of suffering to come into my life.” Given his limited frame of reference, he simply is not in a position to make those kinds of probability judgments with any sort of confidence.

Next time, I want to give two illustrations of this point: one from modern science and then another from popular culture.5


1 5:02

2 In fairness, a correction needs to be made here. While higher than most countries, Sweden’s suicide rate has not been the historically highest in the world as per the WHO suicide statistics found at http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide_rates/en/

3 10:04

4 15:05

5 Total Running Time: 19:45