Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 32): The Problem of Evil and Suffering (3)

June 29, 2016

The Probabilistic Version of the Problem of Evil

We’ve been talking about the logical version of the problem of evil. I explained last time that the burden of proof that it lays upon the atheist’s shoulders is simply too heavy to be sustained, and that this fact is now widely recognized by both atheist and theist philosophers alike. Therefore, this is not really an issue of hot debate anymore. Those people who say that philosophy never makes any progress can be refuted by simply pointing to this problem. For hundreds of years – from the time of Epicurus, hundreds of years before Christ, until the 1970s – the logical version of the problem of evil was the standard statement of this problem and objection. Now it has been widely recognized that this problem, in fact, is bankrupt. It has been resolved, and in fact no one is able to show that the co-existence of God and the suffering and evil in the world are logically incompatible with each other.

But that then throws us onto the probabilistic, or the evidential, problem of evil which does remain very much a matter of debate among philosophers today. This is a much more powerful version of the problem. Since its conclusion is more modest – namely, it is improbable that God exists – the burden of proof that it lays on the atheist is much lighter, and therefore can be said to be an easier argument to sustain. How might we respond to the atheist’s claim that the evil and the suffering in the world makes it improbable that God exists? I want to make three points by way of response to this argument.

1. We are not in a good position to say that it is improbable that God has good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world.

The key to the evidential problem is the atheist’s claim that God probably doesn’t have good reasons for permitting the evil and suffering in the world.

We all recognize that much of the suffering in the world looks unjustified. We see neither its point nor its necessity. So the success of the atheist’s argument is going to depend on whether or not we are warranted in inferring that because the suffering looks unjustified, it really is unjustified. The atheist’s argument depends upon that critical inference from appearance to reality. Because the suffering appears to be unjustified or pointless, it really is. The first point that I want to make in response is that we are just not in a good position to make that kind of a judgment with any sort of confidence.

As finite persons, we are limited in time and space, as well as intelligence and insight. But the sovereign God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially orders history so that his ends are achieved through people’s free decisions and actions. And in order to achieve his ultimate ends, God may well have to allow a good deal of suffering along the way. Suffering which appears to be pointless to us within our limited frame of reference may be seen to be justly permitted within God’s wider frame of reference.

Let me give two illustrations of this point. One from contemporary science and one from popular culture.[1]

The first illustration – in so-called chaos theory (a field of modern science), it has been shown that certain large-scale systems like the weather or insect populations are extraordinarily sensitive to the smallest disturbances. A butterfly fluttering his wings on a twig in the jungles of West Africa can set in motion forces that will eventually cause a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet no one watching that little butterfly fluttering on that branch could possibly – even in principle – predict such an outcome. We have no way of knowing how seemingly insignificant and trivial alterations can radically affect the course of world history.

The second illustration from popular culture – in the movie Sliding Doors (starring Gwyneth Paltrow), the movie tells the story of a young woman who is rushing down the stairs of a train station to catch a subway. As she nears the train, the movie splits into two paths that her life might take. In the one life, the doors to the train slide shut just before she can board. So she is prevented from catching her train. In the other pathway, she makes it through the sliding doors just before they close. Based upon this seemingly trivial event, the two paths of her life increasingly diverge as time goes on. In the one pathway of life, she is enormously successful, prosperous, and happy. In the other life, she encounters failure, misery, and unhappiness. It is all because of that split-second difference in getting through those sliding subway doors.

Moreover, that difference is due to whether or not a little girl playing with her dolly on the stair railing is snatched away by her father or momentarily blocks the young woman’s path as she is rushing down the stairs to catch the train. When you see this you just can’t help but wonder about what other seemingly enumerable trivialities led up to that event. For example, whether the father and the daughter were delayed in leaving the house that morning because the little girl didn’t like the cereal that her mother gave her for breakfast. Or whether the father was inattentive to his daughter because of something that he had read in that day’s newspaper that disturbed him, and so his thoughts were not on his daughter. And so on and so forth.

The most interesting part of this film, however, is the ending. In the happy, successful life, the young woman is suddenly killed in an accident, while in the other miserable life, her life turns around and the life of hardship and suffering turns out in the end to be the truly good life after all. My point is obviously not that everything will turn out for the best in this life! No, I am making a much more modest point. Simply that given the dizzying complexity of life, we are simply in no position to judge with any sort of confidence that God has no good reason for permitting some instance of suffering to afflict our lives. Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries from now, maybe in another country. Only an all-knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward his previsioned ends. Just think of the innumerable, incalculable events that would be involved in arriving at a single historical event.[2] For example, the Allied victory on D-Day. Think of the infinite complexity that would lie behind arriving at that single event. We have no idea of what suffering might be involved in order for God to achieve some intended purpose through the freely chosen actions of human persons, nor should we expect to discern God’s reasons for permitting suffering. It is hardly surprising that much of the suffering and evil in the world should appear pointless and unnecessary to us because we are simply overwhelmed by this kind of complexity.

I want to emphasize that this is not to appeal to mystery or to divine psychology, but rather it is to point to our inherent limitations which make it impossible for us to say when confronted with some example of suffering that God probably doesn't have a good reason for permitting that event to occur. Unbelievers themselves recognize these kinds of limitations in other contexts. For example, one of the decisive objections to utilitarianism (which is the ethical theory that says that we should do that action which is likely to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people) is that we have no idea of the ultimate outcome of our actions. Some short-term good might lead in the long run to untold misery while some action that looks disastrous in the short-term may turn out to bring about the greatest good for humanity. We don't have a clue given our cognitive limitations. This defective utilitarianism as you can see has absolutely nothing to do with divine mystery or divine psychology or something of that sort. It has to do with the inherent cognitive limitations that we as finite observers undergo.

Once we contemplate God's providence over the whole of human history, I hope you can see how hopeless it is for finite limited observers to speculate about the probability of whether God has a good reason for the suffering that we observe. We are simply not in a position to assess those kind of probabilities with any sort of confidence.

That is the first response to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil.


Student: What would you say to the argument that Hugh Ross puts forth that a lot of what is seen as natural evil in the world is the result of physical processes that are necessary to support life, like earthquakes being caused by plate tectonics which are required for life. A lot of times it is our own human choices, like the decision to build a home on a fault line, that puts us in trouble and not some unavoidable problem from decree from above.

Dr. Craig: I think those are helpful explanations. It is very true that the degree to which human moral choices are intertwined with natural evil and suffering is just inextricable. They are very much bound up. As you say, very often the reason people could suffer from natural disasters is because of free choices that folks make. What I want to say, however, is that these natural disasters that are due from things like a universe operating according to natural law which makes rational decision-making possible form the arena or the context in which the drama of God's plan of salvation is being played out. God's ultimate purposes for human beings are going to be achieved by placing them in an arena like this. So these natural evils that occur ultimately serve as the context in which these free moral choices are made. So you cannot say that they are irrelevant to free choices or could just be removed because we are not in a position to know what would happen, for example, if a tsunami had not occurred or that an earthquake had not occurred.[3] My point is the more general point that I think would encompass the insight that you mention.

Student: One of the ways that has helped me think about the issue of probability and the amount of evil and suffering in the world comes down to almost using a popular idea like Sliding Doors. But in many popular stories and ethics you have the character of the wise old sage who is teaching a mentor. What will happen often is he will do something that the one who is being trained is like, “What is this person doing?” And it seems pointless. Of course a cheesy example is The Karate Kid where he is telling him to wax on and wax off the car. He's like, I want you to teach me karate, but you are teaching me how to wax your car. But secretly he was doing that. Even though it looks pointless it actually turned out to turn around for something that he didn't realize it was happening. That is the way I kind of look at it.

Dr. Craig: That is helpful. That is another good popular illustration. I think you will find a lot of these in literature or movies if you begin to look for them. Again, it is all calling into question this inference from appearance to reality. That is a key inference in the evidential version of the problem of evil. Because it looks pointless, it is pointless. That is, I think, something that we're simply not in a position to say.

Student: You've covered a situation where chance happened and that caused certain evils. You gave an example of the sliding doors. But there seems to be areas where it is almost evil by design. An example being a wasp laying an egg inside a spider. That is not by chance. It seems to be a design behind the evil. What is your take on Satan influencing . . .?

Dr. Craig: Oh my goodness! Here there is so much more that could be said in terms of satanic or demonic influence, or this gets into evolutionary theory as well. An evolutionary biologist like Francisco Ayala appeals to these sorts of horrible designs in nature to appeal to evolution. He says evolution is the best explanation. These weren't designed. These evolved by chance among these insects. Therefore God can't be blamed. God had reasons for setting up this sort of evolutionary process, but he disagrees with the Creationist that every single instance like this is designed.

The other thing that could be raised is to what degree animals suffer. I think that the evidence would be that insects and these lower forms of life where most of these horrors are to be found are like little machines. They are not even sentient. When you get to the level of, say, mammals like cats and dogs, they are clearly sentient beings who experience pain and other sensations. But when you are talking about spiders and ants and wasps, I don't think there is any evidence whatsoever that these are sentient beings that have states of pain awareness. What they have are nervous systems that are complicated enough to react to noxious stimuli. For example if you poke an amoeba with a needle it will recoil as though it were in pain, but in fact it is not a sentient being. That would greatly diminish, I think, these difficulties because there really isn't any suffering with respect to such creatures. Even when you get to the sentient animals, as Michael Murray has emphasized in his book, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (an excellent book if you are troubled by animal suffering), even though many animals are sentient and they have states of pain awareness they don't have a sort of third-level awareness of a first-person perspective on their pain awareness so as to say “I am myself in pain.” Because animals are not persons, they can be in pain without being aware that they are in pain. They would be like a strange phenomenon that is exhibited among human beings called “blind sight” where people are to all intents and purposes blind – they have no visual experience, they can't see anything.[4] But in fact they really can see. If you toss a ball to one of these persons he'll catch the ball. If you say, “Come here,” he won't run into the table; he'll walk around it. They actually can see. But they are not aware that they can see. They don't have that third-level awareness of their second-level ability. Animals that don't have this third-level awareness would be like that. They can be in pain, but not be aware that they are in pain. That is a tremendous comfort, I think, to pet owners and animal lovers who are troubled by animal suffering and pain. I was talking to a biologist, Jeff Schloss, about this months ago, and he said for the most part animals lead very pleasant lives that end rather quickly through predation and really don't experience a great deal of suffering because they are not even aware that they are in pain.

Student: I think that would reduce the amount of suffering, and there is some arguments that perhaps more advanced apes (an example being CoCo) grieving over a kitten on YouTube.

Dr. Craig: Right, when you get to the higher primates.

Student: There does seem to be almost – the best I can describe it – is evil by design. You look at viruses and the complexity and elegance of viruses and the . . .

Dr. Craig: Why would you call that evil? That was the point of my first response. If these are really like little machines – viruses and things – there is nothing evil about that any more than a machine rusting in the rain.

Student: Except that they cause people distinct difficulties.

Dr. Craig: All right. There you are talking about human suffering, and this will then be my first point that I just made – we are not in a position to say that the suffering in the world is not justly permitted by God. God has placed us in an arena in which there are viruses and bacteria and people die of leukemia and other sorts of diseases. When that happens we are not in a position to say with any kind of confidence that God doesn't have a good reason for allowing this to happen. So I would subsume this under this general first point, though one could say a lot more about it as I just did.

Student: I regards to this issue that was just raised, I think we a lot of times underestimate the effect of the fall on creation and on living things and on the planet. Changes in living things are non-random. The environment unlocks a genetic package so you can have, because of the fall, different packages that effect themselves in different living things that were not intended to operate that way before the fall.

Dr. Craig: My difficulty with that response – which is one option, and Michael Murray in his book has a chapter devoted to that response – is that it seems to presuppose Young Earth Creationism. That hardly seems a persuasive response to the problem of natural evil because you are taking on the view there that there was no suffering and pain in the world prior to the fall of Adam – there was no animal suffering. In fact the world was created only a few thousand years ago in six literal 24-hour days. That hardly seems to be a very persuasive answer to this problem. You could still, though, perhaps appropriate what you want to say. William Dembski, who is not a Young Earth Creationist, has said that perhaps the garden of Eden (in which the original human pair was created) was a sort of oasis – a sort of pristine shelter – in a wider world of animal predation and suffering and earthquakes and things of that sort. But God had created it – had put them in such a world – knowing that they would fall. And it is within such a fallen world that the human drama of salvation is best played out, which fits right in to what I am talking about.[5] That is a very interesting solution that presupposes middle knowledge, namely God in creating humanity knew that they would fall and so had them created in a world that bears the fallenness – a kind of fallen creation – knowing that in such a world of pain and suffering the human plan of salvation would best be worked out. So I think you can appropriate that kind of insight without committing to Young Earth Creationism.

Student: I tend to be relatively Young Earth, but I don't see where it is tied to it – the timeline.

Dr. Craig: OK. Good. I think that is what Dembski wants to try of do – to appropriate the insight but without the timeline.

Student: I like this point a lot. I think it also goes along with the movie series Back to the Future. Taking the question another way, I am not the only person in this class . . .

Dr. Craig: Before you go on, could you explain to everyone what you were referring to in the Back to the Future film.

Student: Sure. Let's go back to 1980. It has already been as long as that movie was done as the time of the picture, which was 1950. But the idea was that they built a time machine out of a Delorean. They went back in time. Remember the amount of power was 1.21 gigawatts to be able to leap through time. It went through a series – I would call it a science fiction but also call it a comedy. A lot of funny things happened along the way. People made choices. When they went through time, different situations re-present themselves. When they come back things were slightly different than when they left based on what they did in the past.

Dr. Craig: Those things were very trivial at the time, right? Like socking Biff in the nose when he comes to the car, or managing to plug in the wire.

Student: I've been a Michael J. Fox fan, so I love the movies.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, these time travel scenarios really illustrate this point well, I think. OK, go ahead.

Student: I was going to say that I am not the only person in this class who has had periods of suffering as maybe other people have had some other things happen. Taking the opposite position, what should we say generally? Some Christians are very sure they can explain their suffering. They are very sure they could, for example, explain the ins-and-outs of the Orlando tragedy. What kind of cautions do you think we should have when going on the other side?

Dr. Craig: What I like about this point is that it doesn't offer any explanation for why these things occur. In fact, what it says is you are not in a good position to know why they occur. Someone who presumes to say, “This is why the Orlando shooting occurred” is being extremely presumptuous. My point is that we are not in a good position to make those kind of judgments. That is the wisdom of the book of Job. God never tells Job why he is suffering. He just says to Job, Who are you to answer back to me – the Almighty and Provident God? I am working things out. Your duty is not to figure out why this is happening, but to trust me as you go through it. I didn't used to like the book of Job as a young Christian because he never gets any answers. But I think I've come to see the wisdom of it that as we go through these things we should not try to figure out why they happen. We are not in a position to know that. Rather, what we do is pray for strength and stamina to get through them and for our faith not to fail as we do.

Student: On that point, I wanted to point out something in Luke 13 which is the only place in the Gospels where this appears. It is where Jesus is asked about a question about evil.

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5)

Doesn't that almost seem callous and almost even rude?[6] He doesn't give an answer. You got both evils here. You got moral evil and you got natural evil.

Dr. Craig: You do! OK, do you see his point? You've got the moral evil – Pilate had killed these Jews by the sword, right? - but then you also have this accident where the Tower of Siloam fell on these people and killed them. Here Jesus is being asked about moral evil and natural evil. OK, go ahead.

Student: That is the whole thing. One point is – first off, if you want to read this chapter in context he is also talking about need to repent also. He says, No, the people that were killed by Pilate weren't greater sinners than anybody else. He says the same thing also about those where the tower fell. The bottom line is we are all subjects of God and he can do what he wants. It is not that he is picking on somebody necessarily. It is just . . .

Dr. Craig: Right. I love this response of Jesus. This is where he is actually posed the philosophical question about evil. What is he refuting there? He is refuting the view that people suffer because they deserved to – that they committed some sin; that they are somehow outside of the will of God – and that is why these bad things are happening to them. That is a corrective that needs to be issued again and again because Christians will very often think that when somebody is suffering for some pointless reason that they think, well, there is some secret sin in his life or he is under God's judgment. Jesus repudiates that. He says they are no worse than you are, and you need to also repent so as not to be judged by God. This is a really good admonition, I think, not to be judgmental when innocent suffering takes place.

Student: I also like to bring a scripture verse from Matthew 13:33 saying, “the Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” It is almost like God created the world and set in motion to arrive at the Kingdom of heaven. But a lot of times we are “dysfunctional yeast” - we can't realize this wonderful purpose so we trump that with our self-will or our own agenda or we just kind of indifference about harrowing in this purpose. It is almost like if the yeast doesn't work the dough doesn't rise, the Kingdom of heaven doesn't arrive. It is more like all the breakthroughs in science are God's inspiration and God wanted to give us that kind of communication as long as we are connected with him. Due to lack of interest of connecting with God and wanting to realize his purpose and all that and that makes this dough doesn't rise to the Kingdom of heaven. It is more like sin of omission.

Dr. Craig: I think that you are making some good points. To draw that in contact with what I just said, the leaven here is described as very insignificant and tiny. She just introduces a little leaven, but then in time it leavens the whole lump. So the Kingdom of God is going to work itself out in human history. We will see next time how, in fact, that really has happened and emphasizes or underscores the point that what in our limited perspective and lifetime may appear trivial or inconsequential may, in the long run, turn out to be hugely significant. That underlines the point here that we are not cognitively situated in such a way as to make the kind of probability judgments that the atheist wants to make.


Let's go on to point 2.

2. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God's existence is probable.

The key to understanding this second point is that probabilities are always relative to some background information.[7] Probabilities are not absolute. It is always probable with respect to some background information. So, for example, suppose we are given the information that Joe is a college student and that 90% of college students drink beer. Relative to that information, it makes it highly probable that Joe is a beer drinker. But suppose now we are given the additional information that Joe is a Wheaton College student and that 90% of Wheaton College students do not drink beer. Relative to this new set of information, it now becomes highly improbable that Joe is a beer drinker. So probabilities – to repeat – are relative to background information.

So when the atheist says God's existence is improbable, your antenna should immediately go up, and you should say “Improbable relative to what?” What is the background information? Is it the suffering in the world? Well if that is all you take as your background information, it is no wonder that God's existence would look improbable relative to that alone, though as I've argued in point 1 appearances can be deceiving. But the probability of God's existence relative to the suffering in the world alone taken in isolation isn't really an interesting question, is it? The really interesting question is: how probable is God's existence relative to the full scope of the evidence. I'm persuaded that when you consider the full scope of the evidence then God's existence is quite probable even given any improbability that evil might be thought to throw upon God's existence. That is to say, any improbability of God's existence relative to evil alone is simply outbalanced by the evidence for the existence of God – evidence that we've discussed in this class.

Consider, in particular, the moral argument for God's existence. A lot of the suffering in the world is the result of human choices – moral choices. Much of the evil in the world is moral evil. But then you can present a moral argument that goes like this:

1. If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist.

2. Evil exists.

3. Therefore, objective moral values exist, namely some things are evil.

4. Therefore, God exists.

Paradoxically, at a superficial level, although evil would seem to call into question God's existence, at a deeper, more fundamental, level evil actually proves God's existence because apart from God the suffering in the world isn't really bad. So if the atheist thinks that suffering is bad or that suffering ought not to exist then he is making moral judgments that are possible only if God exists.

What you need to understand with respect to the evidential version of the problem of evil is that most of the people who write on the evidential version of the problem of evil are simply assuming tacitly that there is no evidence on the other side of the scale. For them, the only question is whether or not God's existence is improbable relative to the evil and suffering in the world, because they just assume there is nothing on the other side of the scale to outbalance it. But I think that there are very weighty arguments on the other side of the scale for God's existence, including the argument from evil itself. I could actually concede that God's existence is improbable relative to the evil in the world alone taken in isolation but maintain that this is just outweighed by the arguments for God's existence.[8]


Student: Your friend, Richard Dawkins, says that he does not know that God is absent, but he thinks it is very improbable that God exists. He bases his life on that conclusion. Here's my question. Even if one thought that the probabilistic argument reached the conclusion that proponents urge, let's say the chances are less than 40% that God exists even taking into account all the background evidence, would one still be justified in believing in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God based on Pascal's Wager?

Dr. Craig: OK. That is a big question to open up in the last minute! [laughter] What you are asking is about sort of gambling on God's existence. Given that the rewards of believing in God if God does exist are so great, and the disadvantages of believing in God if he does not exist are so minimal, the idea is that you ought to go ahead and believe in God's existence anyway because there is so much at stake. I think if you can whittle the alternatives down to just, say, Christianity versus atheism, I do think Pascal's argument does provide justification for belief in God. But usually it is thought that the alternatives are equally probable. Whether or not that would still be justified in gambling on God if the odds are against God, I am not sure what to say in that case because I don't think they are against God. I think they are at least even. In that case I think Pascal's argument is a good one.


What we will do next time is look at the third point where I am going to argue that the existence of the Christian God in particular is not really very improbable given the evil and suffering in the world. That is to say, if the Christian God exists, it is not really surprising that there would be a lot of moral and natural evil in the world. Therefore, that evil doesn't really render the existence of the Christian God that improbable.[9]



[1] 4:57

[2] 10:01

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:02

[6] 30:12

[7] 35:12

[8] 40:05

[9] Total Running Time: 43:01 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)