Existence of God (part 34)

June 12, 2011     Time: 00:36:40


The Problem of Suffering and Evil.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VII. Problem Of Suffering And Evil
Lecture 4

Last time we began to look at the probabilistic version of the problem of suffering, which says that although God and the suffering in the world are logically compatible, nevertheless, given the suffering in the world, it is highly improbable that God exists. We saw that that hinges upon the judgment that it is improbable that God could have a good reason for permitting the suffering that we observe in the world.

The first point in response that I wanted to make to this is that this is a claim which is so extreme that no atheist can discharge the burden of proof to show that it is improbable that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. We are just not in a good position to make those kind of probability judgments with any confidence because we operate in a very limited frame of reference in time and space, our cognitive abilities are limited, and God’s morally sufficient reasons for allowing the suffering that we observe to enter our lives might not emerge until centuries later or in a way that is so complicated we could never hope to discern it.

I promised to give two illustrations of this point, one from science and then one from popular culture. The first illustration comes from the field of science called “chaos theory.” Scientists have found that certain large scale systems exhibit chaotic behavior. That is to say, they are sensitive to the tiniest disturbances that will upset the entire system. For example, weather systems are this way. Insect populations are also chaotic in this way. A little butterfly fluttering its wings on a twig in South Africa can set up a chain of events that will eventually ensue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet no one looking at that little butterfly fluttering on the branch would ever, in principle, be able to predict such an outcome. We have no way of knowing how even a trivial alteration in the events of the world might have an impact that is utterly unexpected.

The second illustration comes from popular culture – the movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. This is a fascinating film which tells the story of a young woman who is rushing down the stairs to catch a subway train. As she approaches the train, the doors begin to slide shut. At that point, the movie splits into two separate tracks. In one track, it shows how her life would go if she manages to get through the sliding doors into the train. In the other track, it shows how her life would go if the doors slide shut before she manages to reach the train. What you discover is that, in these two lives, the trajectory of these lives take increasingly divergent paths. Based on this seemingly trivial incident of the sliding doors, the one life goes into a trajectory that is filled with happiness, success, material prosperity – everything she does succeeds! The other life is filled with disappointment, failure, suffering, and misery. All because of this seemingly insignificant incident of making it through the sliding doors or not! Moreover, whether or not she makes it through the sliding doors depends upon whether or not a little girl playing with her dolly on the stairwell railing is pulled back by her father as the young woman rushes down the stairs to catch the train. And you can’t help but wonder as you watch this film what other trivial, seemingly inconsequential, events went into preparing that event. Maybe the father and the daughter were delayed that morning because the little girl didn’t like the breakfast cereal that her mother poured for her that morning.1 Or maybe the father was distracted from watching his daughter because of something he read in the morning newspaper, and so on and so forth. Just utterly seemingly trivial events could have resulted in that momentary difference of the little girl’s playing with her dolly on the stairwell railing that resulted in the incredible impact on this young woman’s life!

The most interesting part of the movie, however, is the film’s ending. What happens is that in the life that is filled with happiness and success the young woman is suddenly killed in an accident. In the other life, the seemingly miserable life, she learns from her experiences, and that life turns around, and it turns out in the end that the life with the suffering and the misery was really the better life after all!

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My point here is not that everything is going to turn out for the best in this life and that we will see that it was all for a reason. No, no! The point I am trying to make here is much more modest. It is simply this: given the dizzying complexity of life, and the incomprehensible way in which events are intertwined with one another, it is simply beyond our capacity, when some incident of suffering enters our life, to say with any confidence that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing that to occur. Every event which occurs sends a ripple effect through history so that God’s morally sufficient reasons for permitting it might not emerge until hundreds of years from now or maybe in another country. Only an all-knowing God could comprehend the infinite complexities of directing a world of free people toward His ultimate ends for human history.

Take any single historical event that you want to – say, the Allied victory at D-Day – and think of the innumerable, incomprehensible complexity of the preparations that had to go into that event’s transpiring. It is not at all improbable that there would be all sorts of suffering and difficulty and trial that would be required in order to get all of the free agents in those circumstances on the scene at the same time to bring about that event. I think it is hardly surprising that many events that occur in history would appear to us to be pointless and unnecessary, that we wouldn’t see the reason for which they occur, because we are simply overwhelmed by this kind of complexity.

Notice that this is not an appeal to mystery. It is not saying, “God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform!” Rather, it is an appeal to our inherent cognitive limitations as time-bound and space-bound creatures, limitations which make it impossible for us to say, when we are confronted with some incident of suffering, that God probably doesn’t have a good reason for allowing this to occur. In other contexts, unbelievers recognize these limitations. For example, this is one of the very common criticisms of a theory of ethics called utilitarianism, which is the view that you should do that action which will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. That is what you should do in any moral situation in which you find yourself – do that action that will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, one of the common criticisms of utilitarianism is that we have absolutely no clue what will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Some action that looks like a great boon in the short term could turn out to be disastrous in the long term. Something that, in the short term, looks really terrible could turn out to be a great benefit to mankind. We just don’t have a clue as to what will ultimately bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Similarly, when we contemplate God’s providence over the whole of human history, directing a world of free creatures to His provisioned ends, then I think you can see that we are simply not in a position to say with any sort of confidence that God probably doesn’t have a morally sufficient reason for allowing the suffering that we observe in the world.2


Question: I had a student that used to consistently withdraw to chaos theory as an excuse to not have to learn a lot of things and not have to really think about things. “As far as I know, anything could mean something.” What would you say to somebody who takes refuge in this chaos theory?

Answer: It seems to me that is a misuse of the theory. The theory doesn’t say that the outcomes, say, of these events in the weather or insect populations or water flowing out of your faucet, is exempt from causal determinism. It does not mean “chaotic” in the sense that these are causally indeterminate. Rather, it is that these causes are so complex that a tiny disturbance or perturbation can upset the system so that you cannot predict the outcome. But it doesn’t mean that it is indeterminate. So this is still governed by the physical laws of nature. It is no excuse for thinking that just anything goes. That is not what it means.

Question: This is supported by the Anthropic Principle – if you make very small changes in physical features throughout the universe that you could have destruction.

Answer: Yeah, that is a good point! I hadn’t thought of that before. Remember when we did the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe for a cosmic designer we saw that if you were to alter, say, the subatomic weak force by even one part out of ten to the hundredth power, it would prove absolutely disastrous for the whole cosmos? That would be an example of where some seemingly inconsequential change could have consequences that would be just very, very far reaching.

Given the Full Scope of the Evidence, God’s Existence is Probable

Second point (this is the third point on the outline [Dr. Craig is referring to the original outline], but I am going to take it second) is: Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. The key point to understand here is that probabilities are relative to background information. When you say that some hypothesis is probable, say, hypothesis H, you mean it is probable relative to some background information. It is the probability of H on B – the probability of the hypothesis on the background information. To give an example, suppose we are given the background information that “Joe is a college student” and “90% of college students drink beer.” Relative to that background information, the probability of the hypothesis that “Joe is a beer drinker” is very high. That would be a very, very high probability that Joe drinks beer relative to that background information. But now suppose that our background information is filled out a little more and we find out that Joe is a college student at Biola University, where you are not supposed to drink alcohol, and that 90% of Biola University students keep their integrity and don’t drink alcohol, don’t drink beer. Now the probability of Joe being a beer drinker is completely reversed. It is highly unlikely that Joe is a beer drinker.

So, to repeat, probabilities are relative to what background information you consider. The atheist says that God’s existence is improbable. When he says this, you should immediately ask yourself, “Improbable relative to what?” What is the background information relative to which God’s existence is said to be improbable? Is it relative to the suffering in the world? If that’s all you consider for your background information, it is hardly surprising that God’s existence might look improbable relative to that alone (though I’ve argued that even in that respect we are not in a position to make that sort of judgment with any confidence).3

But this is not really the interesting question, is it? The really interesting question is, what is the probability of God’s existence relative to the full scope of the evidence? I am convinced, when you consider the full scope of the evidence, that God’s existence is quite probable, even given any improbability that suffering might be thought to throw upon the existence of God. In other words, people who claim that God’s existence is improbable because of the suffering in the world are almost always presupposing that there is nothing on the other side of the scale, that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, the evidence of suffering decisively tips the scale against God. There is nothing to outweigh it! But as I have argued in this class, I think there are very weighty arguments on the other side of the scale. So even if God’s existence is improbable relative to the suffering in the world alone, taken in isolation, I think it is simply outweighed by the arguments that we have discussed in this class in favor of theism. So, relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. That is the really interesting question!

Consider in particular the Moral Argument that we discussed before. Much of the suffering in the world is moral evil – the result of bad moral choices that people make. In that case, we can argue as follows in a way reminiscent of the Moral Argument:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. (If there is no God, then everything becomes socio-culturally relative.)

2. Evil exists. (This is what the atheist says – there is evil in the world that we observe around us.)

3. Therefore, objective moral values exist (namely, evil exists – some things are really evil and therefore objective moral values exist).

4. Therefore, God exists.

At a superficial level, the evil in the world might seem to call into question God’s existence; but at a deeper, philosophical level, I think evil actually demonstrates God’s existence because in the absence of God, good and evil as such would not exist. There would simply be, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, the bare valueless fact of existence.

So when the atheist says that the suffering in the world is bad or ought not to be or that it would be wrong for God to permit it, he is making moral judgments which themselves cannot be true unless God exists.

Theoretically, we could actually concede that, relative to the suffering and evil in the world alone, God’s existence looks improbable. But nevertheless, taken relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is very probable. And in particular, moral evil itself demonstrates God’s existence.


Question: If you were to talk to atheists about all the suffering, there is really not a good way to measure all the suffering in the world, but it could be counterbalanced if you can measure non-suffering. Those good things that are in the world. There are people in America who suffer, but there are people in America who do not suffer. There is a certain amount of goodness that would counterbalance that – there is probably a greater amount of non-suffering people in the world that are suffering.

Answer: I think you are right in one sense. The world, on balance, has a lot more good than bad in it. Otherwise, everybody would commit suicide and end it! But obviously, people think that life is, on balance, worth living. And when times are going bad, we typically hope for the future that things will improve and that we will get through it.4 So on balance I think you are quite right that there is a lot more good in the world than there is evil. But, I think, on behalf of the atheist, what he would say here is that he is not arguing that the world is more evil than good. He is saying that if there is a good God, then He would only allow evil in the world or suffering in the world that serves some sort of good purpose and that much of the evil in the world and the suffering in the world doesn’t serve any purpose. It is pointless and unnecessary and therefore it is improbable that there is a God. My argument in response to that is, first, that is a probability judgment that we are not in a position to make and, secondly, relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is very probable.

Followup: A lot of the suffering is brought about by not heeding God’s warnings. If you had a child and you say this stove is a great instrument if it is used correctly, but if it is used incorrectly you are going to burn yourself. The burn represents evil. But God is not the cause of the evil being put on us.

Answer: It certainly is true that much of the suffering in the world is due to our own moral choices. But on the other hand, there is a lot of natural evil, too: earthquakes and hurricanes and disease and mud slides and oil leaks and things of that sort. There is a lot of natural evil in the world about which one would also wonder, “Why does God allow that to occur?” I want to suggest that it also fits into this overall scheme for human history that God is building. The natural evils or sufferings that occur are a context in which the drama of God’s Kingdom is being played out. I will say something more about that when I get to my third point.

Question: In discussions with a friend who is a doubter, he addresses the question, “What are the attributes we associate with God?” We associate omnipotence and loving with God. He would make the argument that if He is loving, He wouldn’t allow the suffering to happen, and if He is omnipotent He could prevent a Hitler being born.

Answer: What that skeptic is proposing is the logical version of the problem of evil. This is where the atheist says God is all-powerful and all-loving but if He is all-powerful He can create any world that He wants; if He is all-loving He would create a world without evil – therefore, evil and suffering should not exist. We dealt with that earlier. What I argued there, and what virtually all philosophers – atheists and theists alike – agree today is that the two premises, those assumptions, are not necessarily true. Indeed, we can show that it is logically possible that God would create a world that has suffering. All you have to do is say that on balance the world has more good than evil and God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world; and that shows they are logically compatible. If the atheist is willing to admit they are logically compatible, then we are immediately into this probabilistic version.

Followup: They are not necessarily logical – they are motivated by emotion.

Answer: OK, again, if you look at the outline, I distinguished between the intellectual version of the problem of evil and the emotional version. And my contention, as mentioned in an earlier lecture on this subject, was for most people this really isn’t an intellectual problem; it is an emotional problem. But nevertheless we have to deal with the intellectual problem, lest we appear condescending and not treating them seriously. We want to treat the objection seriously, and then, having done so, we will look at the emotional problem, which is, I think, where the difficulty really lies. People just resent or hate a God who would permit them or others to suffer in these terrible ways.

Question: You are using evil and suffering interchangeably.

Answer: Well, not really! The problem here is that among philosophers this is called the problem of evil.5 But I am trying to get away from that because I am concerned also about suffering that isn’t evil but is just part of the natural world we live in. Philosophers often call that natural evil, but that is really a misnomer because there is nothing evil about a hurricane as such, or even about a hurricane’s killing people. It is just a natural event. I am not using them synonymously. When we use the word evil, we need to say there is a moral quality to it, it is something that ought not to be, and there is something wrong or bad about it. When you talk about suffering, you are just talking about pain and harm – the terrible harm and pain that comes to people because of things that happen in life. The question would be, how could an all-loving God permit so much pain and suffering in the world?

Christian Faith Includes Doctrines that Increase the Probability that God and Evil Co-Exist

Let’s go to the third point. What I want to argue on the third point is that Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the suffering in the world. In other words, if the Christian God exists, then it is not really so improbable that the suffering in the world would exist. I think that the problem of suffering is actually easier to deal with from a Christian point of view than from just some sort of bare-boned monotheism because Christianity entails certain doctrines which, if true, increase the probability of suffering in the world. What are these doctrines? Let me just mention four of them.

1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness but the knowledge of God. I think that one reason that the problem of evil and suffering seems so difficult for us is that we just tend to naturally assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this life. God’s role is to build a comfortable terrarium for His human pets. But on the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets. The goal of life is not human happiness as such, but rather it is the knowledge of God – a personal relationship with God – which will in the end bring ultimate human fulfillment. Much of the suffering in the world may be utterly pointless, utterly gratuitous, with respect to producing human happiness in this life; but it may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.

Innocent human suffering provides an occasion for deeper dependency upon God and for faith in Him, either on the part of the person who is suffering or those around him. Of course, whether or not God’s purpose is achieved is going to depend on your response – how do you respond to what you suffer? Do you respond with anger and bitterness toward God for allowing you to go through this? Or do you respond with faith and deeper dependency on God as you go through these trials? I think it may well be the case that God is less concerned with what we go through than with our attitude while going through it. It may well be the case that suffering in the world is part of God’s plan for drawing people freely into His Kingdom.

Because God’s ultimate purpose for human history is to bring people into relationship with Himself, human history cannot be seen in its proper perspective apart from the Kingdom of God. God is building a Kingdom on this planet, drawing men and women out of the world into a relationship with Himself. The purpose of human history is the Kingdom of God. God wants to draw as many people as He can freely into His everlasting Kingdom. And it may well be the case that doing that would require an enormous amount of suffering in the world.6

This isn’t just airy-fairy speculation on my part. A reading of a missions handbook like Patrick Johnstone’s book Operation World will reveal that it is precisely in those countries of the world that are experiencing terrible suffering that the Gospel – that Christianity – is growing at its most rapid rates. For example, he gives these reports – from Johnstone’s Operation World:7

China: It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977, the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30 to 75 million Christians by 1990. Today, it is estimated to be somewhere between 90 million and 100 million. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.

El Salvador: The 12-year civil war, earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee, the nation’s main export, impoverished the nation. Over 80% live in dire poverty. An astonishing spiritual harvest has been gathered from all strata of society in the midst of the hate and bitterness of war. In 1960 evangelicals were 2.3% of the population, but today, they are around 20%.

Ethiopia: Ethiopia is in a state of shock. Her population struggles with the trauma of millions of deaths through repression, famine and war. Two great waves of violent persecution refined and purified the Church, but there were many martyrs. There have been millions coming to Christ. Protestants were fewer than 0.8% of the population in 1960, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population.

Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again. When you look at the history of mankind, it has been a history of war and suffering; and yet it has also been a history of the advance of the Kingdom of God. This is illustrated in a very powerful way by some figures released in 1990 by the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena. These figures document the number of Christians in the world today compared to non-Christians. In the year AD 100, there were about 360 non-Christians for every believer in the world. By the Middle Ages, the year AD 1000, there were around 220 non-Christians for every Bible-believing Christian in the world. By the year 1900, that ratio had shrunk to 27 non-Christians for every evangelical believer in the world. And by 1989, that ratio was down to 7 non-Christians for every evangelical believer in the world!8 Even if you throw in all of the nominal Christians as legitimate targets for evangelism, that would still mean that there are only about 9 people to be reached for every evangelical believer in the world in order for the Great Commission to be completely fulfilled – for everyone to have heard the Gospel! According to Johnstone, “We are living in the time of the largest in-gathering of people into the Kingdom of God that the world has ever seen.” It is not at all improbable, I think, that this astonishing growth in the Kingdom of God is possible only because we live in a world that is suffused with natural and moral evil.9

What the atheist would have to show here is that there is some other world feasible for God which has greater knowledge of God and more people coming to eternal life than this world, but with less suffering. And remember, that includes not just past and present but the future as well! Obviously, there is no way the atheist could show that – it is pure conjecture what the future might hold or what ratios of saved to unsaved, which are available to God, are in other feasible worlds.

I think you can see that given God’s purpose for human history, there is no reason to think that it is improbable that there should be a great deal of suffering and pain in the world.

Next time we will look at those other three Christian doctrines that also increase the probability of suffering and evil in the world if God exists and show, on this basis, that Christian theism is not at all improbable given the suffering and evil in the world.10




1 5:03

2 10:17

3 15:08

4 20:04

5 25:05

6 29:58

7 Patrick Johnstone, Operation World, 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 164, 207-8, 214.

8 As per William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity, 2003) p. 546. These numbers were arrived at by the various contributors to the Lausanne Statistic Task Force, headed by David Barrett, Ph.D., who is the author of the World Christian Encyclopedia.

9 34:52

10 Total Running Time: 36:39