Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 30): The Problem of Evil and Suffering (1)

June 15, 2016

The Problem of Evil

We have now come to the most important argument in support of atheism that needs to be examined, and this is the argument from the suffering and the evil in the world. This goes by different names. Sometimes it is called “the problem of pain” or “the problem of innocent suffering.” Among philosophers, however, the problem usually goes under the name “the problem of evil.” So I will often refer to it under that title. But it needs to be understood that it is not technically just about moral evil but natural evil as well; that is to say, the suffering that results from disease, accident, natural disasters, and so forth.

Undoubtedly, the problem of evil (or suffering) is the most important argument in support of atheism. When you consider the extent and the depth of human suffering in the world, whether it is due to natural disasters or to man's own inhumanity to man, then I think we have to admit that it is hard to believe in God. The horrible suffering in the world certainly seems to be evidence of God's absence.

To illustrate, in 1985 when Jan and I were living just outside of Paris, the problem of evil came home to me in a new and powerful way through two incidents that were shown on French television. In the first of these, a terrible earthquake occurred in Mexico City which devastated blocks of high-rise apartment buildings. As the rescue teams in the aftermath of the quake searched through the rubble for survivors, they came across a ten-year old boy who was trapped alive somewhere in the recesses of a collapsed building. During the next several days the whole world watched as the rescuers attempted to clear away the rubble to try to get to the boy. They could communicate with him. They could hear him, but they couldn't reach him. His grandfather, who had been trapped with him in the building, had already died. The little boy cried, “I'm scared!” The rescuers were desperate to try to get to him. But after several days had passed, there was silence. He was heard no more. Alone in the darkness, without food or water, afraid, this little boy died before the rescue teams could get to him and free him.

That same year, a mud slide swept over a village in Colombia. As the rescuers came to help survivors, they came across a little girl who was pinned up to her chin in muddy flood waters. For some reason or another that I can't understand, they were unable to free her from the water or stop the water that was flowing around her. Every night on the evening news we would watch this little girl's decline. It was the most pathetic sight that I've ever seen. She stood there unable to move with this muddy water constantly flowing into her mouth, spitting this water out. As the days went by she became more and more exhausted, and deep dark circles formed under her eyes. She was dying before our very eyes as we watched on television. Finally, the evening newscaster reported that she was gone.

These two incidents rent my heart. “Oh, God,” I thought, “why did you permit these children to suffer so terribly?” If they had to die, so be it. Let the little boy be killed instantaneously in the collapse of the apartment building. Let the little girl drown suddenly. But why these lingering, pointless, agonizing deaths? I think we've got to be honest – when you see things like this going on, it is hard to believe in God.

But as one colleague rightly remarked to me, as a philosopher I am called upon to say what I think about an issue, not how I feel about it.[1] As difficult as the problem of evil may be emotionally, that is no reason in and of itself to think that God does not exist. So in dealing with the problem of evil, I think it is absolutely vital that we make a distinction between what is called the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil.

The intellectual problem of evil concerns whether it is plausible that God and the suffering in the world can co-exist. By contrast, the emotional problem of evil deals with people's dislike of a God who would permit suffering. I think it is vital that we keep these problems distinct because the answer to the intellectual problem is apt to appear very dry and uncaring to the person who is suffering emotionally from some terrible evil in his life. For example, I remember that when Joni Eareckson suffered her paralyzing diving accident, a parade of people came to her hospital room trying to explain how it is that God could have permitted this tragedy in her life. As I read her account of these, I thought some of these were actually pretty good explanations! But to her, who was suffering emotionally, they came across like Job's comforters – uncaring, irrelevant, arid. She needed someone to comfort her and to encourage her. She was suffering emotionally. It wasn't intellectual answers that she needed.

By contrast, someone who is contemplating the problem of evil as a purely abstract philosophical problem but isn't going through emotional suffering is very apt to find the answer to the emotional problem of evil to be superficial and just based on emotions and feelings and not really providing good answers to the philosophical questions that are raised.

So it is important that we keep these problems distinct. The intellectual problem of evil lies in the province of the philosopher. The emotional problem of evil lies in the province of the pastoral counselor.

I am convinced on the basis of my experience that for the majority of people the problem of evil is not really an intellectual problem. It is an emotional problem. Most of them have not thought deeply about this issue at all, much less read the literature on it. Rather, their unbelief is born out of rejection of God, not refutation of God. It is not that they have a refutation of God's existence, it is just that they reject him. They want nothing to do with a God who would allow them or others to suffer terribly. Nevertheless I think it is important to talk about the intellectual problem of evil because many people think that their objection is intellectual even though it is, in fact, emotional. By defusing the intellectual problem of evil, we can help to get to the real problem and to help them emotionally.

In discussing the intellectual problem of evil, it is again important that we draw some distinctions here. We need to distinguish between the logical version of the intellectual problem of evil and what can be called the evidential or probabilistic version of the problem of evil.

The logical version of the problem of evil says that there is a logical inconsistency between God and the evil or suffering in the world. If God exists then evil cannot exist. It is impossible. By contrast, if evil and suffering do exist, it is impossible that God exist. Since evil obviously exists, it follows that God does not exist.[2] God and evil are like the irresistible force and the immovable object – if one exists, the other one cannot exist. And since obviously suffering and evil do exist it follows that God does not exist.

By contrast, the evidential or probabilistic version doesn't claim that God and the suffering in the world are logically incompatible. It is logically possible that God and the suffering in the world might co-exist, but nevertheless, the objector says, it is highly improbable. Given the evil and the suffering that we see in the world, it is improbable that God exists.

Before we discuss these two versions of the problem, I think it is important to keep in mind just who has the burden of proof in this discussion. We are considering arguments for atheism. In the previous section of this course we were looking at arguments for God, and so it was the believer who had to bear the burden of proof. But now it is the atheist's turn. We want to hear from him some good arguments against God. So it is the atheist who has to bear the burden of proof here. It is up to him to give us an argument exhibiting premises leading to the conclusion, “Therefore God does not exist.”

All too often I find believers allow unbelievers to shift the burden of proof onto the believer's shoulders. The unbeliever says, “Give me some good explanation for why God permits suffering.” Then he just sits back and plays the skeptic at whatever explanation the believer might offer. The atheist winds up having to prove nothing. This might be a clever debating strategy on the atheist's part, but it is philosophically illegitimate and intellectually dishonest. So in conversation, don't allow the unbeliever to shirk his intellectual responsibilities. He is the one who is claiming that the co-existence of God and evil are either logically impossible or improbable. So it is up to him to give us an argument and to support the premises of his argument. Now it is the Christian's turn to play the skeptic and to question whether the atheist has really proven that God cannot or does not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. Insist that the atheist bear his share of the burden of proof when it is his turn to present his case against God.

Because the problem of evil intellectually comes in different versions, when you are talking to the unbeliever it is also important to find out which version it is that he is supporting. Just ask him straightforwardly, “Are you saying that it is impossible that God and the suffering in the world co-exist? Or are you saying merely that it is improbable that God and the suffering in the world co-exist?” If he is like most atheists, he has probably never thought about the question, and so he doesn't have a clue which version he is supporting. Here you may need to help him to clarify what he, himself, believes by explaining the two versions to him. Ask him questions to help him to understand what exactly is it that he believes, and then how he responds will determine your reply – whether you need to reply to the evidential version or to the logical version. But in either case, keep in mind that it is the unbeliever who has the burden of proof here, not you.


Student: I’d back it up one more step and ask the meaning of the problem. If God doesn't exist then evil and suffering don't exist. This is just what happens.

Dr. Craig: OK, you are making a good point, and that is why I said that this philosophical name here can be misleading because it is not just about moral evil.[3] What you are saying – and I think you are making a good point – is that on atheism there are no objective moral values and duties. What happens is just what happens and there is no moral dimension to it. But you see, the problem of evil doesn't really concern evil. What it really concerns is suffering. Even if there is nothing morally evil about getting killed in an earthquake or drowning in a flood or getting childhood leukemia, nevertheless the idea is that this kind of suffering is incompatible with the existence of a loving and all-powerful God. I will come back to your point. I think you are making a very good point about moral evil. But with regard to so-called natural evil, that could exist in an atheistic world, and indeed one would think it very likely to exist given the laws of nature that govern our universe. There would be, you would expect, a lot of natural suffering of a non-moral nature.

Student: How are you defining evil?

Dr. Craig: I think for purposes of this problem, what we would just use is the word “suffering.” People feel pain and are harmed. They go through terrible suffering.

Student: So you are removing the moral aspect when you say “evil?”

Dr. Craig: Yes I am. Perhaps I should have done more to make that clear at the beginning when I said this is called the problem of evil by philosophers. But it is really what C. S. Lewis called it – the problem of pain, or the problem of suffering. Some of the suffering is going to be due to sin and moral evil – murder, theft, selfishness, greed, and so forth. A lot of the suffering in the world is due to human wrongdoing, isn't it? But we are talking about just suffering, whatever its sources might be.

Student: So isn't it good that when we are having these discussions that you at least come to an agreement on a definition of terms, because they may have in their head something far different from yours.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that may well be the case. Yes, I think that is a good point.

Student: I just wanted to say that I appreciate you directing it this way because my trouble with this discussion, when you are having this discussion with other people, is how clouded it gets. So I really appreciate you breaking it down like that and saying, “Let's go to this step.” I even appreciate the point of defining terms. I think in this discussion you really do have to differentiate what is intellectual and what is emotional. I never even thought of evidential and logical. Even that helps because when you are talking intellectual you can't really understand what side they are on unless, like you said, you kind of walk them through what they think they believe.

Dr. Craig: Very good. Thank you.

Student: It seems if suffering was a problem, then you also have a problem with some people being happy and other people being very happy. There would be no difference. It would have to be nothing. Everything would have to be the same.

Dr. Craig: I think that the atheist would plausibly claim that, given the laws of nature and human intelligence, we can often do things that will bring pleasure into our lives – eating, sex, meaningful work. There are lots of things that we can do to make our lives pleasurable and happy. But then there is so much that results in suffering and pain. It is the claim that this suffering is incompatible or improbable with the existence of a loving and all-powerful God.

Student: To me that is just a matter of degree, plus you are also assuming there is not compensating in the other realms, other areas.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I don't think that the atheist is not saying that people live lives that are on balance unhappy. On balance, I would say people generally live happy lives. When we are going through hard times we generally look to the future and hope that things will improve. If people's lives were, on balance, worse than good everyone would commit suicide. It is worth keeping this in perspective. On balance, most people live happy lives despite the suffering that punctuates our lives.[4]

Student: Maybe suffering is necessary in a world – if you don't play sports, you can't get injured.

Dr. Craig: Now you are getting into solutions to the question. That is good, but let's hold off on those. We just want to understand first the different distinctions to be made, and especially this issue of the burden of proof. Because I can almost guarantee you, when you are talking to an unbeliever, what he will say is, “Why does God permit the suffering and evil in the world?” He'll look to you to give an answer to that question. Anything you say then he doesn't have to prove anything. He just has to be a skeptic. He just has to fold his arms and take pot shots at whatever you say, and he thinks that therefore he has justified his unbelief or his atheism when in fact he hasn't. He needs to give an argument as to why God and the suffering in the world are either inconsistent or improbable with respect to each other.

Student: I don't know how to pronounce his name, but the gentleman that was in the Nazi prison that wrote the book Night. He became an atheist through his experience in the concentration camp when he felt God abandoned him.

Dr. Craig: Was that Elie Wiesel?

Student: Yeah, I don't know how to say his name. Where would he fall on this? Have you read any of his stuff? I would be curious as to where you think he lies. Did he do it from an emotional standpoint?

Dr. Craig: I haven't read Wiesel's book myself, so I can't answer that question. I don't know where you would put him on this continuum. Sorry.

Student: Since you mentioned that, Wiesel said the question was not “Where was God?” but “Where was man?” That is how he famously responded to the problem.

Dr. Craig: What did he mean by that?

Student: He blamed evil on humanity.

Dr. Craig: Oh, really?

Student: Or the lack thereof among the Nazis.

Dr. Craig: OK.


Let's turn now to a discussion of the logical version of the problem of evil.

As I say, according to the logical version of the problem, the co-existence of God and the suffering in the world are logically impossible. The atheist is claiming that the following two statements are logically inconsistent with each other:

1. An all-loving, all-powerful God exists.

2. Suffering in the world exists.

The atheist who propounds the logical version of the problem of evil is saying that these two propositions are logically inconsistent with each other.

The first question that needs to be asked is: why think that these two statements are logically inconsistent? After all, there is no explicit contradiction between them. One is not the negation of the other. So if the atheist thinks that these two statements are logically inconsistent with each other he must be assuming some hidden premises or hidden assumptions that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit. And the question is: what are those hidden assumptions? They seem to be two in number.

3. Necessarily, an all-powerful God can create any world that he wants. (That is thought to follow from God's omnipotence.)

The second hidden assumption seems to be:

4. Necessarily, an all-loving God prefers a world without suffering.

An all-loving and all-powerful God exists, therefore he both can and would create a world without suffering, which contradicts (2) – suffering exists. These do seem to be the two hidden assumptions made by the atheist.

In order for this argument to be a good one, both of these hidden premises (3) and (4) need to be necessarily true. But is that the case? Are these statements necessarily true? Let's think about them.[5]

First let's think about (3) – if God is all-powerful he can create any world that he wants. Is that necessarily true? Well, no, not 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 square circle or a married bachelor. God's being all-powerful doesn't mean that he can do the logically impossible. In fact, there isn't any such “thing” as the logically impossible. It is just an inconsistent combination of words. So God's being all-powerful doesn't mean that he can do logical impossibilities.

Notice that if the atheist denies this and says, “Yes, a God who is all powerful can do logical impossibilities” then the problem of evil just evaporates immediately! Because then God can bring it about that both he and evil exist even though that is logically impossible! So if you say that God's being all-powerful means that he can do the logically impossible then there just is no logical problem of evil because God can bring it about that this inconsistency is true or obtains.

If it is possible that people have free will then it means that (3) is not necessarily true because if people have free will they may refuse to do what God desires. So there will be any number of possible worlds which God cannot create because the people in them wouldn't freely cooperate with God's desires. In fact, for all we know, it is possible that in any world of free persons with as much good as the actual world, there would also be just as much suffering. That conjecture doesn't need to be true. It doesn't even need to be probable, because remember we are talking about the logical version of the problem of evil. As long as it is even logically possible then it shows that it is not necessarily true that God can create just any world that he wants. So assumption (3) is just not necessarily true. On this basis alone the atheist's argument fails.


Student: What if they insist that free will doesn't exist if God exists, and use the same arguments as the Reformed?

Dr. Craig: What I think one would say then is that this refutation of the argument only requires that it is possible that free will exists. So as long as it is even possible that there be creatures that have freedom of the will then it shows it is not necessarily true that an all-powerful God can bring about any world that he wants.

Student: How does free will interact with natural disaster?

Dr. Craig: It wouldn't necessarily address that question. But remember we are talking here about a logical version which says that it is impossible that there be God and the suffering in the world. That is based on the assumption that God can just bring about any world that he wants. Yet if there are worlds involving suffering because they have free will in them then that means that it is not true that God can bring about any world that he wants. And that is crucial for the atheist's case that this is logically impossible. This isn't meant to address specifically that question, though you could adapt it to do that. Alvin Plantinga, for example, has said it is logically possible that all of the natural evil in the world is caused by demons and that they have freedom of the will. Now, you might say that is ridiculous; that is absurd![6] But then you would be confusing the logical version of the problem of evil with the probabilistic version. Granted it would be fantastically improbable to think that all the earthquakes and tsunamis in the world are caused by demons. But that only goes to underline how heavy a burden of proof the atheist has here. He has to show it is logically impossible for God and suffering to exist.

Student: Like you say, your position depends upon libertarian free will. But I know there are people out there who think libertarian free will is incoherent. So what if the atheist does try to argue that? Libertarian free will is incoherent. Because if it is incoherent then it can't be a possible answer to this.

Dr. Craig: That is right. This assumes that it is possible that there be libertarian freedom. If you disagree on that then you are going to have to defend the coherence of that idea if you are going to use this free will defense against the problem of evil.

Student: I am not sure I entirely agree with where you are going with (3) because God actually did create a perfect world as far as we know. If you look at the account in Genesis, sin ruined it.

Dr. Craig: Remember when we talk about a world here, we mean past, present, and future. So even if God created a universe that is innocent and free of suffering at the first, but then it goes bad, the possible world includes everything – the past, present, and the future. This world obviously is a fallen world that isn't free of suffering and evil.

Student: I do have some issues with (3) because the term of omniscience, omnipresence – all the omni-predicates – indicate that contradictions are possible for God in his realm. Can he make a round square? Yes. Can he lift a rock too heavy for him to lift? Yes. Because, just like in physics physics breaks down in the presence of a black hole, logic seems to break down in the presence of God. We know that paradoxes exist. We live right through them – Zenith paradox, we are able to travel though we have an infinite amount of points between point A and point B. Looking at a logical argument, once you flip it and put the conclusion first, on the other side of that “therefore” (just like a math question) everything extends from that versus his input into it. I don't know if I said that in a coherent way.

Dr. Craig: I understand where you are coming from, and I would disagree with you that we have examples of paradoxes like the ones you mentioned. I don't think that anybody has been able to demonstrate that there is some incoherence in the ideas of omnipotence or omniscience or these other things. But if you do think, as I say, that God has the ability to bring about logical contradictions then the problem of evil just dissolves because he can bring about that (1) and (2) are true even if they are logically contradictory. That seems to me to just completely short circuit the whole discussion.

Student: It does in that sense, and I agree with the conclusion of what that type of thinking does. I am very loathe to put limits on God, even logical ones. I don't think that God is necessarily contained by logic.

Dr. Craig: Let me make one more attempt and then we will close. If you are going to be giving a good apologetic to the atheist, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to appeal to something that he would think is logically incoherent. For him, that would just prove that Christianity and theism is logically incoherent, and that really gives him a good argument to reject it. So I think this would be an unwise way to respond to the problem.

Student: You are right in terms of tactic. It is just thinking in terms of God himself.

Dr. Craig: OK. If we do think in just purely philosophical terms and not tactics, I would just dispute the idea that theism involves a kind of incoherence that you suggest.

Student: I am not suggesting it does. I am only suggesting the person of God and his omni-predicates allow for things that boggle the mind.

Dr. Craig: Boggle the mind – that is fine. But that is very different.[7]

Student: Contradiction is a part of something . . . there are things that we can't understand.

Dr. Craig: Again, that's different to say there are things we can't understand and say that these things are logically contradictory. That is what I would dispute.


We can continue this discussion next week. Then we will look at the evidential version of the problem of evil.[8]



[1] 5:13

[2] 10:05

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:04

[6] 30:02

[7] 35:00

[8] Total Running Time: 36:04 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)