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#595 Is God Unfair?

September 09, 2018
Q

Dear dr. Craig,

First and foremost, I thank you for all of the work you have done throughout the world, for both Christians in showing them that their faith ought not be shameful, and for atheists like myself in showing us that our intellectual ground is not so secure as we'd like to think. However, an atheist I remain. Why? Certainly not because I think your arguments unsuccesful - I know of no plausible refutations of them. And even though there are equally qualified naturalistic philosophers, rarely do they caricature the force of Theism in the way the New Atheists do. But I believe to be in the position of a hardened atheist, a person who is closed to God, though I wish not to be.

The primary reason for such a reluctance is none other than the Problem of Evil, especially horrendous evil of the sort described by Marylin Adams. However the problem Im focusing on is greater, I think, than the "merely intellectual" problem of evil. Nor can in accurately be described by what you call the "emotional problem" of evil. It is not that I cannot deal with the suffering in my life, it is that I cannot feel like I can trust a Deity (though my heart badly wishes to) who seems to be ready to let his creatures suffer enormously. I cannot bring myself to pray to God for some sort of help in my life, for the question immediately arises within me: "Why should God listen to you, when He has left so many millions to suffer unimaginably? In other words, I cannot believe that the God who, for example, cured my friend's eczema or helped my aunt land that new job is the same God who "passively" watches thousands of children die every day from starvation and preventable diseases.

Dr. Craig, I know God, if he exists, cannot be cruel. It is not that i curse God, or hate him, it is rather that in wishing to relate to him, a problem of fairness arises in my heart. "Why should I have this infinite privilege?" I ask. I want to open my hear to him, but it just simply seems to be out of my control.

Respectfully,

Alexander

Unknown

Dr. craig’s response


A

Thank you for your heartfelt letter, Alexander! I understand that the problem you’re wrestling with is “greater . . . than the ‘merely intellectual’ problem of evil.” Still, it seems to me that some of the points that I have made with respect to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil are relevant to your question. So please bear with me as I review those points[1]

1.  We’re not in a good position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. 

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

3.  Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and suffering, viz.,

(a.) The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.

(b.)  Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose.

(c.)  God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life.

(d.)  The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. 

Now consider your confession that “I cannot feel like I can trust a Deity (though my heart badly wishes to) who seems to be ready to let his creatures suffer enormously.” What I say about point (1) above is relevant to this feeling:

Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history, such that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another country.  Only an all-knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward His envisioned goals.  Just think of the innumerable, incalculable events involved in arriving at a single historical event, say, the Allied victory at D-day!  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’s hardly surprising that much suffering seems pointless and unnecessary to us, for we are overwhelmed by such complexity.

Once we understand God’s providential direction of a world of free creatures toward His previsioned ends, then we can more easily trust Him when we observe horrendous, undeserved suffering, knowing that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing such suffering to occur. Trust in God in the midst of horrendous suffering is a function of our understanding of divine providence. A weak doctrine of providence will make it hard to trust Him; whereas a strong doctrine is conducive to trust in God. 

Moreover, point (3a) expands on this point by reminding us that God’s purpose is not just to achieve human happiness in this life but to bring people to a saving knowledge of Himself.

Because God’s ultimate goal for humanity is the knowledge of Himself--which alone can bring eternal happiness to people--, history cannot be seen in its true perspective apart from the Kingdom of God.  The purpose of human history is the Kingdom of God.  God’s desire is to draw freely as many people as He can into His everlasting Kingdom.  It may well be the case that suffering is part of the means God uses to draw people freely into His Kingdom. 

I give empirical support for this claim from around the globe. Indeed, I think it not at all improbable that only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would the optimal number of people freely come to embrace God and find eternal life. The Bible says that “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (II Peter 3.9). We can therefore trust Him to so order the suffering in the world that the optimal number of persons will be freely saved and find eternal life.

You add, “I cannot believe that the God who, for example, cured my friend's eczema or helped my aunt land that new job is the same God who ‘passively’ watches thousands of children die every day from starvation and preventable diseases.” The two points above shed light on this paradox.  A sovereign and loving God is not passive but knows when to intervene and when not to intervene.  Given our inherent cognitive limitations, such as our finitude in time and space, we are in no position to gainsay Him. When He does not intervene to prevent horrible suffering, it is only because He has morally justifying reasons for permitting it to occur.

You say, “I cannot bring myself to pray to God for some sort of help in my life, for the question immediately arises within me: ‘Why should God listen to you, when He has left so many millions to suffer unimaginably?’” God considers your prayer request because He is gracious and wants to bless you, as well as others. But God knows which prayers it is best to answer and which prayers are best declined. While we do not know if God will give us what we ask for, we should boldly ask and then accept whatever answer He gives. We trust in His providence.

You say, “It is not that i curse God, or hate him, it is rather that in wishing to relate to him, a problem of fairness arises in my heart. ‘Why should I have this infinite privilege?’ I ask.”  You’re quite right, Alexander, in thinking that it is an infinite privilege that God should give us sinful persons any heed. It is nothing in you that deserves or merits His grace. A sovereign God Himself determines how best to apportion His gifts, with the purpose of bringing as many people as possible freely into a saving relationship with Himself.

Moreover, what I said in relation to (3c) and (3d) above is relevant. God is not concerned primarily with how people fare in this earthly life alone but only in relation to eternal life. As I pointed out, “The longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life will shrink by comparison toward an infinitesimal moment.” The sufferings of this life will become a distant memory, attended by the consolation that they were part of the means by which God brought people to eternal life. Moreover, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. This resolves any perceived fairness problem. As Marilyn Adams, whom you mention, emphasizes, to know God, the locus of infinite goodness and love, is an incomparable good, the fulfillment of human existence.  The sufferings of this life cannot even be compared to it.  Thus, the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain, can still truly say, “God is good to me!”, simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good. 

Now you might think that all this intellectual machination is irrelevant to your real obstacle. “I want to open my hear[t] to him, but it just simply seems to be out of my control.” Here I want to say two things: First, having a firm grasp of the truths I have listed can help to remove any obstacle to trusting in God. There’s just no good reason not to trust Him. Once you grasp His providential guidance over human history with the goal of bringing as many people as possible freely to a saving knowledge of Himself, then any perceived unfairness on His part just evaporates.

Second, since you understand that God is by nature good, you should now engage in spiritual practices that foster a personal knowledge of God. You might contemplate God’s nature as the greatest conceivable being, a being who is by nature gracious and all-loving. Read the Gospels about the life of Jesus and think about his self-giving sacrifice for you, going so far as to bear the penalty for your sins on the cross. Begin to attend a church where you can experience corporate Christian worship of God and where the Bible is faithfully preached. Pray that God would open your heart to Him. Once the intellectual obstacle is removed, you can do the things that will help to melt your heart and bring you to repentant faith.

 

[1] These are all to be found in the chapter on the problem of suffering and evil in On Guard (Colorado Springs:  David C. Cook, 2010).

- William Lane Craig