William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!
Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates).

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it! Normally, Dr. Craig debates at major universities in front of students and faculty.

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes


WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

12 thoughts on “William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God”

  1. The problem of evil has plagued many theologians over the millennia… If we rule out man made suffering, such as violence, genocide, tyranny etc… and it’s effects on mankind, we are still left with uncontrollable things in nature. Disease, bad weather, natural disasters etc… But that beings up another point: These things are not inherently “evil” in themselves, it’s only “evil” because they inconvenience humans. Germs and parasites just want to survive like anything else, they have no moral obligation to care about their human (or other) hosts. Weather has no teleological intent to screw us over, it just happens. It’s flawed to project malevolence on a-moral, neutral natural processes that jut happen to affect us in ways we deem negative.

    My issue begins is when people like to say for example, if someone died an untimely undeserved death, or got really ill, it was “God’s plan”… As if God deliberately intended that misfortune to happen to someone undeserving. arbitrarily. Now THAT is what I call willful evil! I can’t understand the idea of a god inflicting suffering on someone, directly from god, “just because he can”, and people finding ways to call it moral aside from the excuse that God makes the rules, therefore, can break his own rules… and they’re completely arbitrary and have no moral value inherent in themselves other than god said humans have to follow them, but he’s exempt.


    1. You may have heard of Joni Eareckson Tada, LOR, I don’t know. She broke her neck in a diving accident at 17, and has been a quadriplegic for over 50 years. She was a Christian at the time, but has learned a LOT about suffering since then, and has written many great books on the subject. One of the things she has said that greatly resonates with me is this:
      “God has placed each of us on a scale of suffering in this life, and He reserves the right to move us up or down that scale as far as He wants, for as long as He wants.”
      I don’t know if that helps, but it touched me when I read it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. So he can make us suffer for a completely arbitrary reason? And that’s moral? Imagine if a person were endowed with such power… But it’s a-okay if God does what we would find reprehensible if another person could do it… I’d understand and lose no respect if god couldn’t stop forms of suffering, but to inflict it at will? Wow… Somehow I don’t quite grasp the sentimental or resonating nature with that attitude other than “God can abuse me as whenever he feels like it just because he can.” and his morality is completely dependent upon him, not any inherent moral worth in what he tells us is the right thing to do. What on Earth did that poor woman do to deserve this suffering? Did she commit some great sin? Or was she just the unlucky one God decided to punish that day?


          1. And as I said, I apologize for sounding so harsh. I’m usually not this strong worded on your blog about religious issues, but it is a bit of a hot button relating to religion…


      2. And I apologize for sounding harsh. It’s not directed at you. It’s directed at whatever being may actually have this attitude that it’s his entertainment to create a soap opera out of human lives on people the least deserving of it. Good, decent, faithful, devoted followers like that lady… I hope we’re wrong about God acting in such an appalling manner and suffering comes from elsewhere… Sorry for wording this so strongly, but the idea gets me very incensed…


  2. People thar make a claim God is making someone suffer are theologically wrong. Nothing in the claim of wlc there said God caused the suffering.

    Most of them at due to man’s rebellious nature and an aspect of free will.

    If we wanted to claim a flaw to God it is that he didn’t want to create programmed robots he wanted free thought beings that can choose to obey and love him.

    I would also say asd the view that we are only talking about a temporary realm that lasts people 80 years perhaps compared to eternity after. So a small suffering now vs possible removal of evil from a persons life for eternal existence after.


  3. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong taught a free course on critical thinking on Coursera that I took a few years ago. Good stuff. He taught logic and critical thinking the way I wish more people would. Instead of just teaching modus ponens, modus tollens, etc., he taught how to dissect a paragraph to figure out what a person’s argument was.


  4. Have you ever considered that you might have simply mischaracterised the nature of the Creator, and His Creation?

    Why should the staggering amount of evil be source of enormous confusion for believers on God? Is there any legitimate argument, plausible pretext, or historically compelling observation to rationally feed and sustain the confusion? Is there any credible reason to even suspect that the world has somehow gone drastically, hopelessly wrong, as opposed to it simply performing precisely as desired by its mistake-free Creator?


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