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05 / 06

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

William Lane Craig speaks at Gracepoint Church

Time : 01:09:17

William Lane Craig speaks at Gracepoint Berkeley Church on The Problem of Evil.

Transcript

DR. CRAIG: In our last session together we talked about Bart Ehrman’s objections to Christianity. At the end of the day those objections were not really the reason that Ehrman abandoned faith in God and became an agnostic or atheist. He is quite candid about saying that ultimately what led to his unbelief was the problem of evil and suffering in the world. And so it was really a philosophical problem, rather than a biblical or historical problem, that eventually led to his unbelief and atheism. And certainly the problem of suffering is, I think, the most powerful objection to the existence of God. Whether the suffering in the world is due to natural disasters or to man’s own inhumanity to man, I think you have to admit that, given the depth and extent of human suffering in the world, it’s hard to believe in God. The suffering in the world certainly seems to be evidence against God’s existence.

Well in this session I want to deal with this question with you. And in handling a topic that is emotionally as loaded as this one is I think it’s really important that we make a number of distinctions to keep our thinking about it clear. So first of all I think we need to differentiate between the intellectual problem of suffering and the emotional problem of suffering.

Now do we have a diagram of that? Yes. Here we go:

The intellectual problem of suffering concerns whether it is plausible to think that God and the suffering in the world can coexist. What is the rational account of the compatibility of God and suffering? The emotional problem of suffering concerns people’s dislike of a God who would permit terrible suffering. And I think it’s very important that we keep these two versions of the problem distinct because the answer to the intellectual problem is apt to appear dry and uncaring to the person who is really suffering emotionally as a result of the suffering in the world. On the other hand the answer to the emotional problem is apt to appear superficial and unsatisfactory to someone who is contemplating it as a purely philosophical question.

Now I’m convinced that for most people the terrible suffering in the world is not really an intellectual problem, but an emotional problem. I think that their unbelief is born not out of refutation but rather simply out of rejection; they just don’t like a God who would permit them or others to suffer terribly, and so they just want nothing to do with him. But in order to support this claim – that the problem of suffering is really an emotional problem – we need to examine in some detail the intellectual problem of suffering in order to show that it fails as a disproof of the existence of God.

Now in discussing the intellectual problem of suffering it’s important that we keep in mind who has the burden of proof here. What we are considering here is an argument for atheism. Previously in our seminar we have been talking about arguments for the existence of God, and so it was we who had to bear the burden of proof. But now it’s the atheist’s turn. We want to hear from the atheist reasons to think God does not exist. So it’s the atheist who has to shoulder the burden of proof here. It’s up to him to give us an argument leading to the conclusion, “therefore God does not exist.” This is important because all too often believers allow unbelievers to shift the burden of proof onto the believer’s shoulders. They’ll say something like this: “Give me some good explanation for why God permits all the suffering in the world.” And then he’ll just sit back and play the skeptic at any possible explanations you might offer, and the atheist then winds up having to prove nothing. Now this might be a clever debating strategy, but it’s philosophically illegitimate; it’s intellectually dishonest. [1] The atheist is claiming that the suffering in the world somehow disproves God’s existence. And so it is up to him to bear the burden of proof. Don’t allow the atheist to shirk his intellectual responsibilities by shifting the burden onto you. He’s the one who claims that the coexistence of God and the evil in world is somehow problematic, either impossible or improbable. So it’s up to him to give the argument and to support its premises. It’s the Christian’s turn now to play the skeptic, and to question whether the atheist has given us good arguments to show that God can’t have a good reason for permitting the suffering in the world. You need to insist that the atheist bear his share of the burden of proof when it’s his turn to present arguments against God’s existence.

Now the intellectual problem of suffering comes in two versions. The logical version tries to show that the coexistence of God and suffering is logically impossible. The evidential version tries to show that the coexistence of God and suffering is highly improbable. So before you start to talk to an unbeliever about the problem of suffering you need to find out which version of the problem he is supporting. So just ask him, “Are you saying that it’s impossible that God and the suffering in the world coexist, or are you saying that it’s just improbable that God and the suffering in the world both exist?” Now if he’s like most atheists he has probably never even thought about the problem, and so he doesn’t have a clue as to which one of these he’s saying. You may need to help him clarify his view by explaining these two versions of the problem, and then asking him which one he believes. And what he believes will then determine how you respond to it.

So let’s talk first about the logical version of the problem of suffering. According to the logical version of the problem of suffering it’s impossible for God and the suffering in the world to both exist. They are like the irresistible force and the immovable object. If one exists then the other one does not exist, and since suffering obviously exists, it follows that God does not exist. Now the key to this argument is the atheist's claim that it’s impossible that both God and suffering exist. The atheist is claiming that the following two statements are logically incompatible with each other:

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

B. Suffering exists.

He is saying these two are logically incompatible with each other. Now the obvious question is, why think that these two statements are logically inconsistent? After all there’s no explicit contradiction between them; one is not the negation of the other. So if the atheist thinks that there is some hidden implicit contradiction between them he has to be making some hidden assumptions that would bring out this contradiction and make it explicit. So the question is, what are those hidden assumptions?

Well, there seem to be two hidden assumptions made by the atheist, and they are:

1. If God is all-powerful then he can create any world that he wants.

2. If God is all-loving then he prefers a world without suffering.

So the argument here is that God is all-loving and all-powerful, therefore he both can and wants to create a world without suffering. And therefore it follows that the world has no suffering. But that contradicts premise B above, that suffering exists; and therefore God must not exist. So this does seem to identify the hidden assumptions that the atheist is making. Now the question is, are these hidden assumptions necessarily true? In order for the argument to be valid both of these assumptions have to be necessarily true; but are they?

Consider the first one, that if God is all-powerful then he can create any world that he wants. Is that necessarily true? [2] Well, not if it’s possible that people have free will. It’s logically impossible to make someone freely do something. That’s as logically impossible as a married bachelor or a round triangle. God’s being all-powerful doesn’t mean that he can bring about the logically impossible. Indeed there is no such thing as the logically impossible. It’s just an inconsistent combination of words. So the fact that God is omnipotent doesn’t imply that he can make people freely do something.

Now notice if the unbeliever insists that an omnipotent being can do the logically impossible then the problem of evil just evaporates immediately because then God can bring it about that both he and the suffering in the world coexist, even though that’s logically impossible. So if the atheist says God, because he is omnipotent, can do the logically impossible, then there just is no problem of evil, God can bring about the coexistence of himself and evil even though that’s logically impossible.

Now since it is possible that people have free will it turns out that this first assumption is not necessarily true. If people have freedom of the will then they may refuse to do what God desires for them to do. So there may be any number of possible worlds which God cannot create because the people in them wouldn’t cooperate with God’s desires. In fact for all we know it’s possible that any world of free persons with as much good as the actual world would also involve as much suffering as the actual world. Now that conjecture doesn’t need to be true, or even probable, but as long as it’s even logically possible it shows that it’s not necessarily true that God can create just any world that he wants. So this first assumption is just not necessarily true, and on that basis alone the atheist’s argument is logically invalid; it’s fallacious.

But what about the second assumption: if God is all-loving he prefers a world without suffering. Is that necessarily true? Well, it doesn’t seem like it. For God could have overriding reasons for allowing the suffering in the world. We all know cases in which we permit suffering in order to bring about a greater good. We all know cases in which we allow suffering to enter a person’s life because of greater goods that we have in mind. Now the atheist might insist that an all-powerful being would not be so limited, he could just bring about the greater good directly without allowing any suffering. But clearly, given freedom of the will, that may not be possible for God. Some goods, for example moral virtues, can be achieved only through the free cooperation of people. And it may be the case that a world with suffering is on balance better overall than a world with no suffering. In any case it’s at least possible that it is, and that’s enough to defeat the atheist’s claim that this second assumption is necessarily true.

So the point is that the atheist, in asserting these two assumptions, is taking on a burden of proof which is so heavy that it’s really unsustainable. He would have to show that free will is impossible and that it’s impossible that a world with suffering is better overall than a world with no suffering.

Now we can actually push the argument a notch further. I think we can make it plausible that God and suffering are logically consistent. In other words, what I’ve argued so far is that the atheist has failed to show that they are inconsistent. He has failed to show that they are inconsistent. Now I want to go on the offense. I think that we can show plausibly that they are consistent. In order to do this all we need to do is come up with another statement which is consistent with God’s existence and which entails that suffering exists. And here is such a statement:

God could not have created another world with as much good but less suffering than this world, and God has good reasons for permitting the suffering that exists.

The idea here is that given human freedom God’s options are restricted. [3] And it may be that a world with as much good as the actual world but with less suffering wasn’t an option for God. Nevertheless God has good reasons for permitting the suffering that he allows. Now if this statement is even possibly true – it doesn’t need to be true or plausible, if it’s even possibly true – then it shows that it’s possible that God and suffering coexist. And surely it is plausible that this statement is possibly true.

Therefore, I am very pleased to be able to report to you this afternoon that after centuries of discussion the books on the logical version of the problem of evil have been closed. It is widely admitted by both atheist and theist philosophers alike that the logical version of the problem of suffering has failed. The burden of proof that it lays on the atheist’s shoulders is simply too heavy, namely, trying to show that the coexistence of God and suffering is impossible. That’s just too heavy a burden of proof for the atheist to shoulder.

But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods because now we come to the evidential problem of suffering which is still very much a live issue today. The atheistic claim here is that the suffering in the world renders it improbable that God exists. In particular it seems highly improbable that God could have reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. So much of the suffering in the world seems to be pointless and unnecessary. Surely God could have reduced the suffering in the world without reducing the world’s overall goodness. So the suffering in the world provides evidence that there is no God.

Now this is a much more powerful version of the problem of evil. Since the conclusion is more modest, namely it’s improbable that God exists, the atheist’s burden of proof is much lighter. He doesn’t shoulder so heavy a burden of proof in regard to the evidential problem. So what can we say in response to this version of the problem of evil? Well, I want to make three points.

1. We’re not in a position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. The key to the evidential argument is the atheist’s claim that God doesn’t have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. Now I think we all recognize that much of the suffering in the world looks unjustified. We see neither its point nor its necessity. The success of the atheist’s argument will depend on whether we are warranted in inferring that because the suffering looks unjustified, therefore it really is unjustified. That’s the key move in the atheist’s argument. And my first point is that we are just not in a good position to assess that kind of probability with any confidence.

You see, as finite persons we are limited in intelligence, in insight, in space, and time. But God sees the end of history from the beginning. And he providentially orders history to arrive at his ends through people’s free decisions and actions. And in order to arrive at his ultimate ends God may well have to put up with a great deal of suffering along the way. Suffering which appears pointless within our limited framework might be seen to be justly permitted within God’s wider framework. Let me give two illustrations of this point; first, one from contemporary science and then one from popular culture.

First illustration: In so-called chaos theory, scientists have discovered that certain large scale systems, like weather systems or insect populations, are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest disturbances. [4] A butterfly fluttering its wings on a twig in the jungles in West Africa can set in motion forces that eventuate in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that little butterfly palpitating on that branch to be able to predict such an outcome. We simply have no way of knowing how the alteration of some seemingly insignificant little event can radically alter the world.

Second illustration: The movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow tells the story of a young woman who is rushing down the stairs to catch the subway train. And 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 the subway. In the other life she manages to just get through the doors before they close. And based on this seemingly trivial event, the two paths of her lives increasingly diverge over time. In the one life she is enormously successful, prosperous, and happy. In the other life she encounters failure, misery, and unhappiness, and all because of a split second difference in getting through the sliding doors of the subway train. Moreover that difference depends upon whether a little girl playing with her dolly on the railing of the stairway is snatched away by her father or whether she momentarily blocks the young woman’s path as she is rushing down to catch the train. And as you watch the movie you can’t help but wonder about what innumerable other trivialities led up to that event. Whether the father and his daughter were delayed perhaps leaving the house that morning because the little girl didn’t like the breakfast cereal that her mother poured for her that day; or whether the man had been inattentive to his daughter that morning because his thoughts were preoccupied by something he read in the newspaper or because he had quarreled with his wife that morning. The trivialities just begin to multiply until you can see that the ramifications of these become incalculable. But the most interesting part of the film is its ending. In the happy, successful life the young woman is suddenly killed in an automobile accident. While in the other life, filled with misery and unhappiness, her life turns around, and it turns out in the end that the life of hardship and suffering was the truly good life after all.

Now my point isn’t that things always turn out for the best. No, what I am saying is much more modest. What I am saying is that given the dizzying complexity of life we are simply in no position to judge that God has no sufficient reason for permitting some instance of suffering that enters our lives. Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it to happen might not emerge until centuries later, maybe in another country. Only an all-knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward his provisioned goals. Just think for example of the innumerable, incalculable events involved in arriving at a single historical event, say the allied victory at D-Day. We just have no idea of the suffering that 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. And therefore it’s hardly surprising that much of the suffering in the world would appear pointless and unnecessary to us because we are simply overwhelmed by such complexity. [5]

Now this is not to appeal to mystery. I am not just saying, “Oh, God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.” Rather it is an appeal to our inherent cognitive limitations as finite persons which make it impossible for us to say, when confronted with some instance of suffering, that God probably has no good reason for permitting this to occur.

Now unbelievers recognize these limitations in other contexts. For example, one of the decisive objections to the ethical theory called utilitarianism – which says that you should seek the action (or the end) which involves the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – one of the most important objections to utilitarianism is that we have no idea whatsoever of the ultimate outcome of our actions. Some short term good might in the long run lead to untold misery. While some action that looks disastrous in the short run might turn out to be a great boon to humanity. We just don’t have a clue as to what would bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. And therefore this principle is useless in determining moral choices.

So once you contemplate God’s providence over the whole of human history I think you can see how hopeless it is for finite, limited observers to calculate or speculate about the probability of God’s having a good reason for permitting the suffering that we observe. We are simply not in a position to assess that kind of probability with any sort of confidence.

2. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. That’s point three here on the PowerPoint but I’m going to deal with it second. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. What’s important to recall here is that probabilities are always relative to background information. For example, suppose that we are told that Joe is a college student, and we’re given the background information that 90% of college students drink beer. Now relative to that background information that makes it highly probable that Joe is a beer drinker. But then suppose we’re given the additional information that Joe is a student at Wheaton College, and that 90% of the students at Wheaton College do not drink beer. Well now suddenly, relative to this new information, the probability is highly unlikely that Joe is a beer drinker. It’s highly improbable he’s a beer drinker. So, to repeat, probabilities are relative to the background information you consider.

Now the atheist says, God’s existence is improbable. When you hear this you should immediately ask yourself, improbable relative to what? What is the background information? The suffering in the world? Well if that’s all the background information you consider then it’s hardly unlikely or surprising that God’s existence would appear improbable relative to that alone. But that’s not really the interesting question, is it? The really interesting question is whether God’s existence is probable relative to the full scope of the evidence. And I am persuaded that whatever improbability suffering may throw upon God’s existence, it’s simply outweighed by the arguments for the existence of God which we talked about in our first session this morning.

Consider, in particular, the moral argument. Much of the suffering in the world consists of moral evil, evil acts that people freely perpetrate upon one another. But then we can argue as follows:

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

2. Evil exists

3. Therefore objective moral values exist (that is, some things are really evil).

4. Therefore, God exists.

So there is actually an argument for God from the existence of evil. So at one level evil calls into question God’s existence, but at a deeper level it actually proves God’s existence because in the absence of God suffering is not really bad. [6]The atheist believes that suffering is bad, or ought not to be, and if he thinks that then he is making moral judgments that he can only make if God exists.

So what you need to understand is that most people who press the problem of suffering in the world are just assuming, tacitly, that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. So the question for them is whether suffering makes atheism probable, given that there is no good reason to think that God exists. But I think there are very weighty arguments for God’s existence, and so I think there are good reasons on the other side of the scale that weigh in favor of God. And so I could concede, yes, God’s existence is improbable relative to the evil and suffering in the world alone. But that doesn’t then imply that God’s existence is improbable since it is outweighed by all of the positive arguments for God’s existence, and in particular the moral argument which shows that evil itself proves that God exists.

3. The Christian faith entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and suffering. That is to say, if the Christian God exists then it’s not so improbable that suffering should also exist. It actually turns out that the problem of suffering is easier to deal with given the Christian concept of God then some other bare-boned concept of God. For Christianity entails certain doctrines which increase the probability of suffering. Well, what are these doctrines? Let me mention four of them.

i. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but rather the knowledge of God. One of the reasons that the problem of suffering seems so difficult to us is that people just naturally tend to assume that if God exists then his goal for human life is happiness in this life. God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for his human pets. But on the Christian view this is false. We are not God’s pets. And the purpose of life is not happiness as such but rather the knowledge of God which in the end will produce ultimate human happiness and fulfillment. But much of the suffering in the world may be utterly pointless with respect to the end of 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 a deeper dependency and trust in God, either on the part of the person who suffers or those around him. And of course whether God’s purpose is achieved through what we suffer all depends on how we respond to it. Do we respond with anger and bitterness toward God, or do we turn to him in faith for strength and power to endure? Because God’s ultimate goal for humanity is the knowledge of himself, which ultimately can alone bring happiness to people, history cannot be seen in its true perspective apart from the Kingdom of God. The purpose of human life is the Kingdom of God. God’s desire is to draw as many people as possible freely into his Kingdom. And it may well be the case that suffering is part of the means by which God draws people freely into his Kingdom.

A reading of a missions handbook like Operation World by Patrick Johnstone reveals that it is precisely in countries that have endured severe hardship that Christianity is growing at its greatest rates, while the growth curves in the indulgent West are nearly flat. For example, consider the following reports from Operation World[7]

China: It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives in Mao’s cultural revolution. [8]  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 between 30 to 75 million Christians by 1990. Now the estimates are between 90 and 100 million Christians in China. Mao Tse-Tung unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.

El Salvador: The twelve 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 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 8/10s of 1% of the population in 1960, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population.

Examples like these could be multiplied. I recently received an email from Haiti, where in the aftermath of that terrible earthquake, revival has broken out in Haiti such as missionaries have never seen in that country. Pastors there have been praying that God would shake that nation and bring it to its knees. And as a result of that earthquake there are prayer meetings, revival meetings, going on all over Haiti. This missionary reported that sometimes their automobiles could not even get through the crowds because as many as 60,000 people were gathered praising and worshipping Christ. It is remarkable what has happened in the nation of Haiti. Voodoo priests by scores have been turning to Christ and placing their faith in him as savior.

So the fact that a world involving suffering is not at all improbable that this is a world in which God will optimally bring the most people into a knowledge of himself. When you look at the history of mankind it has been a history of suffering and war, and yet it has also been a history of the advance of the Kingdom of God.

In 1990 the U.S. Center for World Mission released a chart documenting the number of committed Christians per non-Christian over the centuries. And what they have shown is that the ratio between committed evangelical Christians and non-Christians, which originally was thousands to one, has now shrunk by 1990 to about seven non-Christians for every evangelical believer in the world. [9] In other words there are only seven other persons beside yourself to be won for Christ for the entire world to be evangelized for Christ. According to Johnstone we are living at a time of the largest ingathering of people into the Kingdom of God that the world has ever seen. I think it’s not at all improbable that this astonishing growth in God’s Kingdom is due at least in part to the presence of suffering in the world.

ii. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and his purpose. Rather than submit to and worship God, people rebel against God and go their own way and so find themselves spiritually alienated from God, morally guilty before him, and groping in spiritual darkness, pursuing false gods of their own making. The terrible human evils in the world are simply testimony to man’s depravity in this state of spiritual alienation from God. And thus the Christian isn’t surprised at the terrible human evils in the world. [10]On the contrary, he expects it. The Bible says that God doesn’t intervene to stop human depravity. He has given the world up to the sin it has chosen, he lets human depravity run its course. And this only serves to heighten mankind’s moral responsibly before God as well as our wickedness and our need of moral cleansing and forgiveness.

iii. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over into eternal life. According to the Christian faith this life is not all there is. This life is but the cramped and narrow foyer that opens up into the great banquet hall of God’s eternity. And God promises eternal life to all of those who place their faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. So when God asks his children to bear terrible suffering in this life it is only with the prospect of a heavenly reward and a recompense that is literally beyond comprehension.

The apostle Paul, when you think about it, lived a life of incredible suffering and hardship. His life as an apostle was punctuated by what he called afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labor, watching, and hunger. And yet he wrote these words:

We do not lose heart, for this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. For we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Paul lived this life in the perspective of eternity. He understood that the length of this life, being finite, is literally infinitesimal compared to the span of eternal life that we shall enjoy with God in heaven. The more time we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life shrink by comparison to literally an infinitesimal moment. And that’s why Paul could call them a brief momentary affliction. They were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine joy and eternal life which God bestows upon his children in heaven. It may well be the case, I think, that there is suffering in the world which serves no earthly purpose whatsoever, that is entirely pointless from a human point of view, but which God permits simply that he might overwhelmingly reward in the afterlife those who have undergone such suffering in confidence and faith in God.

iv. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. The passage that I just cited from Paul also makes this point. Paul imagines, as it were, a scale, on which on one side are placed all of the sufferings of this life, while on the other side is placed the glory that God will bestow on his children in heaven. And Paul says, the weight of glory is so great that the sufferings of this life aren’t even worth comparing to it. To know God, the source of infinite goodness and love, is an incomparable good. It is the fulfillment of human existence. It’s what we were made for. And thus the sufferings in this life cannot even be compared to it. So the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain, can still say “God is good to me” simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incomparable good.

These four Christian doctrines greatly increase the probability of the coexistence of God and suffering. And they thereby in turn decrease any improbability that suffering might be thought to throw upon the existence of God.

Now the atheist might respond at this point, “Well, but we don’t have any reason to think that these four Christian doctrines are true.” [11] Wait a minute, he’s trying to shift the burden of proof again. It’s the atheist who claims that the suffering in the world makes God’s existence improbable. It’s entirely legitimate for you to say at this point, not the Christian God. The atheist needs to show that the Christian God is improbable relative to the suffering in the world. So he needs to show either that these doctrines are improbable, or else to show that God’s existence is improbable even given these doctrines. He’s got the burden of proof in either case. Don’t let him shift the burden of proof and foist it upon you.

So it seems to me that, in summary, the evidential problem of suffering is no more successful than the defunct logical version of the problem of suffering. It requires probability judgments which are simply beyond our ability to make. It fails to take into account the full scope of the evidence. And finally it is diminished in force when it comes to the Christian God. So it seems to me that since neither the logical nor the evidential version of the problem goes through the intellectual problem of suffering fails as a disproof of God’s existence.

Now when I say “fails” I mean fails intellectually. The anguish of the problem of suffering and the gnawing doubts may still remain. And that brings us back to the emotional problem of suffering. And I have already said I think that most people who are suffering are not really experiencing an intellectual problem but rather an emotional problem. Now you might think to yourself at this point, well then why go through all of this intellectual material if it’s really not the problem. Well, two reasons, I think. First of all people think that their problem is intellectual, so by working through the responses to the logical and evidential problems of evil we can help them to see what the real problem is and treat their opinion with respect. But secondly I think that what I’ve shared with you this afternoon can be of tremendous help and encouragement when you yourself are called upon to endure terrible suffering. The health and wealth gospel and the gospel of positive thinking that are being proclaimed in various megachurches and denominations in this country are false gospels that are setting people up for a fall. That kind of health and wealth gospel won’t preach in Darfur, or North Korea, or Iraq, or a thousand other places. And if it won’t preach there it’s not the true Gospel. We need to understand that God’s plan for humanity may involve terrible suffering for us, whose point or reason we can’t expect to see. Our hope lies not in worldly happiness but rather in that day when God will wipe away every tear.

So what can be said to those who are struggling with the emotional problem of suffering? Well in one sense the most important thing may not be what you say at all. The most important thing may be to just be there as a loving friend and a sympathetic listener. To just be there to lend emotional support. But some people may want counsel, and we ourselves might have to deal with this emotional problem when we suffer. So does the Christian faith have the resources to deal with this emotional problem, as well? Well I think it certainly does.

Because the Christian faith tell us that God is not some distant creator, or impersonal ground of being, but he is a loving heavenly father who shares our sufferings, and who hurts with us. On the cross Christ endured a suffering beyond all understanding. He bore the punishment for the sins of the whole world. None of us can comprehend that suffering. Even though he was innocent he voluntarily took upon himself the death penalty of sin that we deserved. If anyone could complain of innocent suffering it would have been Jesus of Nazareth. [12]  And why did he do this? He did it because he loves us so much. How can we reject him who was willing to sacrifice everything for us? When God asks us to go through suffering that seems unmerited, pointless, and unnecessary, meditation upon the cross of Christ can help to give us the moral strength and courage needed to bear the cross that we are asked to carry.

I mentioned earlier that knowing God is an incommensurable good to which our suffering cannot even be compared. I think few of us truly understand this truth. But a former colleague of mine got to know a women who did.

Tom used to make it his habit to visit shut-ins in a nursing home in attempt to bring a bit of cheer and happiness into their lives. And one day he met a women in the nursing home that he would never forget. And this is Tom’s account, if I might read it to you.

On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.

As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to the side, dropped one eye and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I also learned later that this woman was 89 years old and that she had been bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone for 25 years. This was Mabel.

I don't know why I spoke to her. She looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you, Happy Mother's Day!” She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke, and much to my surprise her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you, it's lovely, but can I give it to someone else? I can't see it you know, I'm blind.”

I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one and stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus.”

It was then that it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. . . . Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. . . . It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder. And I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say. . . .

During one hectic week of final exams, I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to think about. The question occurred to me, what does Mabel have to think about? Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night. So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”

And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”

I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes. And I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote, and this is what she said,

I think how good he has been to me. He has been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . . . I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . . Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don't care. I'd rather have Jesus, he is all the world to me. [13]

And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:

Jesus is all the world to me,

My life, my joy, my all.

He is my strength from day to day,

Without him, I would fall.

When I am sad, to him I go.

No other one can cheer me so.

When I am sad, he makes me glad.

He’s my friend.

This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know, I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she laid there and sang hymns. How could she do it?

The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don't have much of. She had power. Lying there, in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk. . . , she had incredible power. [14]

Paradoxically then, even though the problem of suffering is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of suffering. If God does not exist then we are locked in a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering. God is the final answer to the problem of suffering. For he takes us into the incommensurable good and redeems us from evil and brings us eternally into fellowship with himself.

Well that completes what I wanted to say about the problem of suffering. Who has a question that you would like to pose at this point?

MODERATOR: Okay, we are going to have a question time. But I’d like to ask you to also keep your questions pertaining to the lecture that Dr. Craig presented to us.

QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Craig, so much for coming. About questioning God’s goodness, what would you say in response to someone who says, “How can God be good if he allows people to die without ever hearing about him?” So it’s a slightly different aspect.

DR. CRAIG: This is the old problem of the unevangelized, or as we used to say, what about the heathen in Africa? Were you there last night? Okay, you weren’t, because I addressed that question briefly last night, and I will repeat what I said there. I think there are a couple of levels on which we can answer that question. One would be to say that God judges people only on the basis of the information they have. So that those who are unevangelized and have never heard of Christ will not be judged on the basis of whether they have believed in Christ. Rather Romans chapters 1 and 2 say that God will judge the unevangelized on the basis of their response to God’s general revelation in nature and in conscience. And if they will respond in an appropriate way to his general revelation in nature and conscience then I think the benefits of Christ’s atoning death will be applied to them even though they don’t have a conscious knowledge of Christ. So they would be like certain people in the Old Testament who had never heard of Christ and obviously knew God even though they had no conscious knowledge of Christ. And I am thinking of someone like Job, for example, or Melchizedek, who weren’t even Israelites. They were not even part of the Abrahamic covenant or family and yet clearly had a relationship with God. So that would be one level at which we can answer the question: God is fair and he will judge people only on the basis of the information they have. Therefore salvation is universally accessible to every person. [15]

Now we could push the problem a little further, however. We could push a notch further by saying, well wait a minute, what about someone who doesn’t respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience, but who would have responded if only he had heard the Gospel? It seems that that person then is damned as a result of the accidents of history and geography. He just had the bad luck to be born at a time and place in history where he didn’t get to hear the Gospel; is that really consistent with God’s love? And what I want to suggest there is the following: how do we know that there really are any people like this? It’s possible that God has so providentially ordered the world that anyone who would respond to the Gospel if he heard it, is born at a time and place in history where he does hear it. And therefore no one is lost through the accidents of geography and history, indeed there are no accidents of geography and history. God has determined the exact times and places at which people will be born. And he does so with a view toward maximizing the number of people who freely come into the Kingdom of God. So no one will be lost because of the accidents of geography and history. Anybody who wants or even would want to be saved, will be saved. Now if that solution is even possible, which it seems to me it is, that shows that there is no incompatibility between God’s being all-loving and all-powerful and some people not hearing the Gospel and being lost.

QUESTION: Hi. This question just came up because of the previous question. Can you kind of spell out what it would look like if someone did respond just to God’s natural revelation?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, think of someone like Job in the Old Testament. Job wasn’t even an Israelite. He didn’t know anything about even God’s revelation to these Old Testament figures like Abraham or Moses. And yet in some way God was communicating with Job. So we could imagine somebody living, say, on the Great Plains of North America during the Middle Ages, a Native American Indian, before missionaries arrived. And it is very interesting when you read some of Native American spirituality. Black Elk, for example, was a Native American Indian who wrote on spiritual things. And when you read it it’s like reading Romans 1 and 2, it’s quite remarkable. He believed, on the basis of creation around us, that there is a Great Spirit, he called it the Great Spirit, who has created all of the world. And moreover, he thought that the Great Spirit made all men as brothers, so that we are members of one human family and should live in love toward one another. So that this Native American, say, living in the Great Plains in the Middle Ages, we could imagine him looking at the world around him and sensing all this has been made by the Great Spirit, a creator of some sort, and sensing that he should love his fellow man, live in love for one another, and so forth.

But suppose he senses in his heart that he doesn’t live up to the demands of the Great Spirit. He senses that he’s often selfish, he’s lost his temper, he’s acted cruelly or selfishly in various ways, and he senses that in himself he just can’t live up to the demands of the moral law that’s implanted on his heart. And so in desperation he flings himself upon the mercy of the Great Spirit and says, Great Spirit, I can’t do this on my own, I can’t live up to the demands of your moral law, I beg for your mercy, please forgive me. And in that case a person like this isn’t saved by works, he would be saved by grace. It is the same faith principle of simply faith in God, faith in the revelation of God that you have, and in his case, God’s general revelation in nature and conscience. And Paul says in Romans 2:7, to those who by patience in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality he will give eternal life. And I take that to be a bona fide offer of salvation to those who are unevangelized.

Now having said that, the testimony of Romans 1, unfortunately, is this doesn't happen very often. [16] Paul says that rather than worship God and obey his moral law men create images of birds and animals and reptiles and other created things and worship and serve them. And rather than obey the moral law written on their hearts they flout the moral law and they plunge themselves into immorality and degeneracy. So that when judged by the standards of general revelation, the mass of humanity finds itself justly condemned before God.

But maybe there are some like Job, Melchizedek, maybe some others, that do respond to God’s general revelation in an appropriate way, crying out for God’s mercy and relying upon no merit or work of their own, to whom God applies the benefits of Christ’s atoning death so that they will be saved. I really hope, for example, that Aristotle will be in heaven. It would be just great, you know, if Aristotle makes it. When you read his writings it sounds just like Romans 1 and 2, and yet Aristotle wrote 300 years prior to the advent of Christ and never had any connection with the Old Testament either.

So I think it holds out hope that there may be some like that but there is no grounds for some sort of unrealistic optimism; Romans 1 excludes that, it makes it very clear that the mass of humanity is simply condemned by their failure to respond to general revelation which makes it all the more urgent that we proclaim the Gospel to the whole world and fulfill the great commission.

QUESTION: This actually comes from Austin. How would you argue against the rebuttal that it would be better not to evangelize if people would be judged by the general revelation anyway?

DR. CRAIG: Well the assumption, I guess, there is that a person who, if you bring the Gospel to these persons, it would increase their condemnation, I suppose, because they would reject not only his general revelation but also his special revelation which makes them even more culpable. I guess what I would say to that is: God, knowing that you would bring the Gospel to these people, could place then in those people groups persons who he knew would respond to the Gospel if they were to hear it rather than those persons who wouldn’t. So you have to remember that God, knowing that you will share the Gospel with someone, has divine appointments there for you, waiting for you to come. So I think that as the Gospel spreads out from first century Palestine God places in various people groups persons who he knew would respond to it if they hear it. So that there are literally divine appointments out there waiting for us which gives tremendous incentive for the task of world evangelization because we can increase the number of people that will come into the Kingdom of God freely by fulfilling the great commission.

So while hearing the Gospel would be, I suppose, bad news for those who reject it, nevertheless it’s going to be very, very good news for those who receive it. And those who reject it can hardly complain of being given additional chances, additional opportunities, to be saved because, remember, special revelation is far more powerful, far more clear, then general revelation. So they could hardly complain that God has given them the additional benefit of having a clear revelation of himself and a better chance to be saved then they would have had had he not brought it. And of course then against that has to be measured the fact of all of those who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it whom God would place there because he knows we would go and share with them. And that’s why, I think, the Scripture says that, in heaven, there will be people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation worshipping before the throne of the lamb. Because God has his people from every people group and tribe in the world that he knows would respond to the Gospel when the Gospel comes to them and they hear it. And so people representative of all humanity will stand before the throne someday worshipping him.

Thank you. [17]

  • [1]

    5:07

  • [2]

    10:06

  • [3]

    15:21

  • [4]

     20:05

  • [5]

    24:58

  • [6]

    30:02

  • [7]

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

  • [8]

    34:58

  • [9]

    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.

  • [10]

    40:03

  • [11]

    45:05

  • [12]

    50:00

  • [13]

    55:12

  • [14]

    Thomas E. Schmidt, Trying to Be Good: A Book of Doing for Thinking People (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 180-183.

  • [15]

    1:00:02

  • [16]

    1:04:56

  • [17]

    Total Running Time: 1:10:00 (Copyright © 2010 William Lane Craig)