Tag Archives: Problem of Suffering

Everything I know about the problem of evil in one small essay

I see that Brian Auten posted some new audio from Bill Craig on the problem of evil, so I thought I would re-post my best post on the problem of evil, too.

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I just wanted to draw your attention to this 4 page essay by Joe Manzari, which is the best darn summary of the state of the art on the problems of evil and suffering I have seen. The problem of evil is an objection to the existence of God based on the presence of evil or suffering in the world. The arguments basically infer that if God is all-good and all-powerful, then there should not be any evil or suffering.

There are two kinds of problem of evil.

The Logical/Deductive Problem of Evil:

The first kind is called “the deductive problem of evil” or “the logical problem of evil”. An exampel of evil would be Saddam Hussein murdering some journalist who told the truth about him. This version of the problem of evil tries to introduce a logical contradiction between the attributes of God and the presence of evil, like this:

(1) God exists.
(2) God is omnipotent.
(3) God is omniscient.
(4) God is omni-benevolent.
(5) Evil exists.
(6) A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(7) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

In order to avoid a contradiction, we need to explain how there could still be evil, since the conclusion of this argument is that there should not be any evil!So how are we going to get out of this mess? The solution is to attack premises 6 and 7.

Premise 6 is false because in order to eliminate human evil, you would have to eliminate free will. But eliminating free will is worse than allowing it, because good things like love are impossible without free will.

It is in response to this proposition that the Free Will Theodicy of G. W. Leibniz applies. God, valuing man’s freedom, decided to provide him with a will that was free to choose good over evil, rather than constraining his will, allowing him to choose only good.

Premise 7 is false because there are limits on what an omniscient being can do. God cannot perform contradictory things, because contradictory things are impossible. God cannot make a married bachelor. Similarly, God cannot force free creatures to do his will.

In the same manner that God cannot create a square circle, he cannot make someone freely choose to do something. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom, then it is impossible for him to determine what they will do. All that God can do is create the circumstances in which a person can make free choices and then stand back and let them make the choices.

One last point. In order to solve the problem of natural evil for this argument, you can point out that free will requires predictable and regular natural laws in order to make free will meaningful. Natural laws mean that individuals can predict what will happen when they act, allowing for moral responsibility. More on that next time.

Inductive/Probabilistic Problem of Evil

There is a second version of the problem of evil, though, which is more dangerous than the first. This is the one you see being argued in debates, whereas the first version is not used because it has been defused as seen above. Here is the second one:

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

This argument tries to argue that while God may have some reason for allowing free will, there are other evils in the world that are not the result of human action that God has no reason for permitting. Theists usually like to argue that God has morally-sufficient reasons for allowing some evil in the world, in order to for the character of humans through suffering and endurance. But what about gratuitous evil, which doesn’t have any point?

Consider the case of a fawn running in the forest, who falls and breaks his leg. Ouch! Then a forest fire starts and the poor fawn suffocates to death in the smoke. Why would God allow this poor small animal suffer like that? And notice that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing it, because no human knows about this and so no human’s character or relationship with God is impacted by it.

The solution to this problem is to deny premise 2. (You can also deny 1 if you want). The problem with premise 2 is that the atheist is claiming to know that some instance of evil really is gratuitous. But since they are making the claim to know, they have to be able to show that God’s permission of that evil achieves nothing. But how do they know 2 is true?

The problem with 2 is that the atheist is not in a position to know that the permission of some evil X really doesn’t achieve anything. This is because the atheist cannot look forward into the future, or see into other places, in order to know for certain that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing God’s allowing evil X to occur. But since the atheist argues based on premise 2, he must be able to show that is more probable than not.

Manzari’s article also argues why apparently gratuitous evil is less problematic for Christians in particular, because of certain Christian doctrines. He lists four doctrines that make the apparently gratuitous evil we observer more compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God.

  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
    Some of the things that we experience may wreck our feelings of contentment, but we need to remember that God may be permitting those troubles in order to remind us not to get too comfortable with life on earth, and to think ahead to the after-life. And remember, even Jesus learned endurance through suffering. His suffering was not pointless and neither is ours.
  2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and God’s purposes.
    Given that we humans seem to be on a dead run away from God, trying to keep our autonomy by knowing as little about him as possible. We should not be surprised that people would also reject his moral demands on them, which results in some of the evil we see.
  3. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternity.
    Sometimes it seems as if our sufferings really are catastrophic, but when you realize that you are offered eternal life without any suffering after you die, the sufferings of this life are a lot less upsetting than they would be if this life was all we had.
  4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
    This one is the biggest for me. Knowing God and knowing his actual character by studying the historical Jesus is a wonderful counterbalance for all the problems and sufferings of this life. A little bit of historical study reveals that Jesus was not spared the worst kind of suffering in his life, making it is a lot easier for us to bear with whatever God allows us to face.

In section 3, Manzari shows how you can also argue against this version of the problem by supplying evidence for God, such as from the big bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the origin of free will, the origin of the first living organism, the origin of the mind, the sudden emergence of phyla in the fossil record, molecular machines, irreducible complexity, the resurrection miracle, and the objective morality argument.

The argument goes like this:

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

Just support 2 with some evidence, and you win, especially when they can’t support their claim to know that gratuitous evil exists.

The Argument for God from Evil

In the paper, Manzari actually makes an argument for God from evil. That’s right. Far from disproving God, the presence of evil (a departure from the way things out to be), actually affirms God’s existence. How?

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Evil exists.
(3) Therefore, objective moral values do exist.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

That’s right. If evil exists in any sense such that it is not a personal or cultural preference, then objective morality exists. If objective morality exists, then there is an objective moral lawgiver. Game over. If the atheist backtracks and says that the existence of evil is just his opinion or his cultural preference, then this standard does not apply to God, and you win again. Game over again. More on this argument for God’s existence from evil here.

So, although the problems of evil look pretty tough, they are actually easy. The toughest part of evil and suffering is the emotional problem. I could tell you stories about what I’ve been through… but then, that’s why the arguments matter. You can hold your position under tremendous fire when you have the arguments and evidence to ground you.

For more on the problem of evil, listen to this lecture by Douglas Geivett, professor of philosophy at Biola University. Then you must listen to this debate here between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Another debate transcript is here, with William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen. Here’s a book debate between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, published by Oxford University Press, 2004.

William Lane Craig explains why God permits evil and suffering

The first video is from his debate with Dr. Bruce Russell at West Point. Dr. Russell asks why an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God would allow his creatures to suffer. Dr. Craig responds to the argument in the two clips below.

Part 1:

This is one my favorite debates. You can buy it here.

And here’s a clip from the re-match with Austin Dacey.

Part 2:

Craig says something like this in the first clip: (paraphrase)

It is not God’s purpose to create a comfortable environment for His human pets.  On the Christian view, we are not God’s pets.  And the purpose of life is not happiness, as such, but rather the knowledge of God and His salvation––which will ultimately bring true happiness.  But many evils occur in life which are utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness.  But they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.

I have to confess that the argument from evil and suffering lost all force for me when I began to think of it as the argument from self-centered hedonism, or “the argument from whining”. We don’t have a right to happiness in this life. That’s not the point of life. I think that God expects us to rise above that sort of selfish pleasure-seeking and to look to his interests – defending his reputation, telling people the truth about him, and achieving his goals. And it doesn’t matter if it makes us unpopular or causes us to suffer. We have to do the right thing, and there are no promises. Sometimes you will do everything right that God wants you to do, and you may still face some kickback. And it happened to Jesus.

When I look at Jesus I do not see a man trying to make himself happy in his own way. I do not see a man who views his relationship with God as a means of achieving happiness in this life. I see a man who thinks that his service to God may cost him everything, including his own life. The normal Christian life is a life of self-denial and suffering. We ought to do what is necessary (study, charity, chastity, sobriety, fidelity, self-sacrificial love, etc.) regardless of whether we like it. We do what is best for God. I think that some of us twist Christianity into hedonism. We just add an imaginary old man with a white beard sort of standing back and wishing us to have a good time in our own way. That’s not Christianity.

Related posts

Can atheists make sense of good and evil?

Here is a post by Michael Egnor at Evolution News. He is responding to complaints by an atheistic evolutionary biologist named Jerry Coyne about the problems of evil and suffering.

Excerpt:

There are, of course, countless attempts to understand how an infinitely good God can allow evil. I believe that it is because he gives us freedom, and freedom entails the possibility of evil. My dilemma is with natural evil. Why did God not stop the Indian Ocean tsunami? Why does he allow innocent kids to die from accidents or disease? There are theories to account for natural evil. I still don’t know.

But there’s an issue with Coyne’s question. This is it: I believe in God, and as such the question, “Why is there evil?” is a natural question for me.

But what warrant has Coyne to ask that question? Coyne is an atheist, and therefore he believes that there is no transcendent purpose in the world. And Coyne is a Darwinist, so he believes that there is no purpose in the origin of man. And Coyne is a materialist, so he believes that the human mind is, in some way, merely the brain — evolved meat.

Does it make sense for an atheist to ask, “why is there evil?”

This might might be a fun question to ask your co-workers, family and friends who are atheists. What do they mean by good and evil? Is there a way humans ought to be that is independent of personal preferences and arbitrary cultural conventions? Is there a way that the universe ought to be? If there is no way the universe ought to be, then what are we to make about atheist complaints about evil and suffering?

Leave a comment with your story, but try not to get fired. Just ask questions, don’t fight. Unless you know what you are doing!

I’ll leave some hints in the tags for the post about what I would say to answer the problem of natural evil. Here is my full response to the problem of evil. Here is my full response to the problem of divine hiddenness. And my full response to the problem of those who have never heard of Jesus. And my full response to the problem of religious pluralism. These are all from the index of Christian arguments and rebuttals.

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Miss Marprelate reviews The Shack

If you are like me, then you are probably wondering where all the support for traditional Christian beliefs has gone, especially among Christian women.

Well, do I have a surprise for you! Meet Rebekah from the Miss Marprelate blog.

The Shack

Rebekah starts by talking about William P. Young’s book “The Shack”, which has proven immensely popular (Amazon rank: 7 in Books, 3527 reviews). It has been particularly popular in Christian circles, particularly with those seeking to re-imagine Jesus using their intuitions and emotions instead of performing a rigorous historical and theological analysis of the New Testament.

Here are some excerpts. (Quotes are from the book)

Part 1 of 6:

One of the first problems that people have with the book is it’s portrayal of the Trinity. God the Father is portrayed as a black woman, Jesus as a middle-eastern man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman.

…On the gender issue. We are not called to be creative and inventive when it comes to the worship and understanding of God. Our duty is to live out what He has revealed in the Bible which is our source for truth. God is not masculine or feminine to be sure, but God is not a goddess. He reveals himself in the masculine and I don’t think redefining God for shock value is a good idea.

Part 2 of 6:

“God’s voice, had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges…” pg. 65-66

I think that any orthodox Christian would have to say that even if God does communicate on some level with people today, He does not contridict the Bible. If you claim to have some new revelation that contradicts a proper interpretation of the Bible, we call that a cult, not God’s voice.

Part 3 of 6:

“The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” referring to things like “doing good things and avoiding evil, being kind to the poor, reading your Bible, praying, and going to church.” pg. 197

…Maybe I am too cynical but I think that if a man who was caught in adultery later writes a book in which he says that marriage is not an institution, there is no law, responsibilities and expectations ruin relationships, and no one is allowed to judge anyone else, well, I would just call it very convenient. I would not however want any prospective husband to think that way.

William P. Young cheated on his wife with one of her best friends. Do you think that had anything to do with his dismissal of the moral demands of Christianity? No one is perfect, but we ought not try to justify our sins by saying there are no moral standards. How is it possible that Christians just love this book? Is it because they don’t want moral standards to apply to their conduct? Why admire and patronize an unrepentant adulterer when you could be reading Lee Strobel or Bill Craig, instead? Where are our priorities?

Part 4 of 6:

“Are there any (People) who you are not especially fond of?” Mack asks Papa. “Nope”.

“I [God] am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

I’m no Biblical scholar but I am sure that there are bits of the Bible which reveal God’s wrath and judgment on people that He is not especially pleased with or fond of. Psalms 2, 5, and 58 to name a few from off the top of my head. Unless you want to say that abhor, destroy, cast out, derision, displeasure, vex, break them, dash them to pieces, perish, wrath, break their teeth, cut in pieces, vengeance, are terms of endearment.

Part 5 of 6:

There is nothing evil, there is nothing even close-minded about defaulting to a traditional way of understanding until you are obliged by overwhelming evidence to see that you need to change. To stand by what always has been is to acknowledge that you are not smarter than thousands of years of scholars and theologians. It is to acknowledge that seemingly small changes in doctrine or practice can have implications that we may not see for a hundred years.

Part 6 of 6 just contains links to podcasts and other resources.

My take on this (not endorsed by Rebekah!)

As Christians, we need to recognize that there are a lot of people who do not study apologetics. No matter what these people say, it will be harder for them to act like a Christian when they are tempted – because they do not know in the same way that they know other things for which they have evidence.

William P. Young has probably never even read the Narnia stories, far less for some of our top scholars. Therefore, to is going to be harder for him to avoid sinning because he simply doesn’t know whether Christianity is real. He’s never studied any evidence nor has he ever see the evidence debated, in my opinion.

This mistrust of evidence is standard operating procedure in the church. Christians spend years singing songs and then something bad happens and they dump their faith because no one ever told them how to defend against the problem of evil, (or any other commonplace objection to Christianity). Instead of becoming informed about the truth of Christianity, we emphasize emotional satisfaction. You can’t survive temptation and doubt like that.

The purpose of apologetics is not just to persuade non-Christians of the truth of Christianity, it’s also to persuade Christians of the truth of Christianity. How can Christians be expected to do the right thing when they spend no time at all deciding whether God is real, by studying and hearing both sides debate these issues. Our beliefs are not under the control of our wills – they change naturally when we spend time studying arguments, evidence and debates.

Christianity is a matter of trusting in what you know to be true, based on reason and evidence. Christianity is not squinting your eyes, clenching your fists and trying real hard to squeeze out some blind faith.

We need to get with the program. I recommend evidential, old-earth apologetics taught by Christian scholars from the pulpit in the main church service of every church, at least once a quarter. You may not listen to me now, but as more and more people leave the church, you’ll start to listen.

Everything I know about the problems of evil and suffering in a 4 page essay

I just wanted to draw your attention to this 4 page essay by Joe Manzari, which is the best darn summary of the state of the art on the problems of evil and suffering I have seen. The problem of evil is an objection to the existence of God based on the presence of evil or suffering in the world. The arguments basically infer that if God is all-good and all-powerful, then there should not be any evil or suffering.

There are two kinds of problem of evil.

The Logical/Deductive Problem of Evil:

The first kind is called “the deductive problem of evil” or “the logical problem of evil”. An exampel of evil would be Saddam Hussein murdering some journalist who told the truth about him. This version of the problem of evil tries to introduce a logical contradiction between the attributes of God and the presence of evil, like this:

(1) God exists.
(2) God is omnipotent.
(3) God is omniscient.
(4) God is omni-benevolent.
(5) Evil exists.
(6) A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(7) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

In order to avoid a contradiction, we need to explain how there could still be evil, since the conclusion of this argument is that there should not be any evil!So how are we going to get out of this mess? The solution is to attack premises 6 and 7.

Premise 6 is false because in order to eliminate human evil, you would have to eliminate free will. But eliminating free will is worse than allowing it, because good things like love are impossible without free will.

It is in response to this proposition that the Free Will Theodicy of G. W. Leibniz applies. God, valuing man’s freedom, decided to provide him with a will that was free to choose good over evil, rather than constraining his will, allowing him to choose only good.

Premise 7 is false because there are limits on what an omniscient being can do. God cannot perform contradictory things, because contradictory things are impossible. God cannot make a married bachelor. Similarly, God cannot force free creatures to do his will.

In the same manner that God cannot create a square circle, he cannot make someone freely choose to do something. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom, then it is impossible for him to determine what they will do. All that God can do is create the circumstances in which a person can make free choices and then stand back and let them make the choices.

One last point. In order to solve the problem of natural evil for this argument, you can point out that free will requires predictable and regular natural laws in order to make free will meaningful. Natural laws mean that individuals can predict what will happen when they act, allowing for moral responsibility. More on that next time.

Inductive/Probabilistic Problem of Evil

There is a second version of the problem of evil, though, which is more dangerous than the first. This is the one you see being argued in debates, whereas the first version is not used because it has been defused as seen above. Here is the second one:

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

This argument tries to argue that while God may have some reason for allowing free will, there are other evils in the world that are not the result of human action that God has no reason for permitting. Theists usually like to argue that God has morally-sufficient reasons for allowing some evil in the world, in order to for the character of humans through suffering and endurance. But what about gratuitous evil, which doesn’t have any point?

Consider the case of a fawn running in the forest, who falls and breaks his leg. Ouch! Then a forest fire starts and the poor fawn suffocates to death in the smoke. Why would God allow this poor small animal suffer like that? And notice that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing it, because no human knows about this and so no human’s character or relationship with God is impacted by it.

The solution to this problem is to deny premise 2. (You can also deny 1 if you want). The problem with premise 2 is that the atheist is claiming to know that some instance of evil really is gratuitous. But since they are making the claim to know, they have to be able to show that God’s permission of that evil achieves nothing. But how do they know 2 is true?

The problem with 2 is that the atheist is not in a position to know that the permission of some evil X really doesn’t achieve anything. This is because the atheist cannot look forward into the future, or see into other places, in order to know for certain that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing God’s allowing evil X to occur. But since the atheist argues based on premise 2, he must be able to show that is more probable than not.

Manzari’s article also argues why apparently gratuitous evil is less problematic for Christians in particular, because of certain Christian doctrines. He lists four doctrines that make the apparently gratuitous evil we observer more compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God.

  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
    Some of the things that we experience may wreck our feelings of contentment, but we need to remember that God may be permitting those troubles in order to remind us not to get too comfortable with life on earth, and to think ahead to the after-life. And remember, even Jesus learned endurance through suffering. His suffering was not pointless and neither is ours.
  2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and God’s purposes.
    Given that we humans seem to be on a dead run away from God, trying to keep our autonomy by knowing as little about him as possible. We should not be surprised that people would also reject his moral demands on them, which results in some of the evil we see.
  3. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternity.
    Sometimes it seems as if our sufferings really are catastrophic, but when you realize that you are offered eternal life without any suffering after you die, the sufferings of this life are a lot less upsetting than they would be if this life was all we had.
  4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
    This one is the biggest for me. Knowing God and knowing his actual character by studying the historical Jesus is a wonderful counterbalance for all the problems and sufferings of this life. A little bit of historical study reveals that Jesus was not spared the worst kind of suffering in his life, making it is a lot easier for us to bear with whatever God allows us to face.

In section 3, Manzari shows how you can also argue against this version of the problem by supplying evidence for God, such as from the big bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the origin of free will, the origin of the first living organism, the origin of the mind, the sudden emergence of phyla in the fossil record, molecular machines, irreducible complexity, the resurrection miracle, and the objective morality argument.

The argument goes like this:

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

Just support 2 with some evidence, and you win, especially when they can’t support their claim to know that gratuitous evil exists.

The Argument for God from Evil

In the paper, Manzari actually makes an argument for God from evil. That’s right. Far from disproving God, the presence of evil (a departure from the way things out to be), actually affirms God’s existence. How?

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Evil exists.
(3) Therefore, objective moral values do exist.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

That’s right. If evil exists in any sense such that it is not a personal or cultural preference, then objective morality exists. If objective morality exists, then there is an objective moral lawgiver. Game over. If the atheist backtracks and says that the existence of evil is just his opinion or his cultural preference, then this standard does not apply to God, and you win again. Game over again. More on this argument for God’s existence from evil here.

So, although the problems of evil look pretty tough, they are actually easy. The toughest part of evil and suffering is the emotional problem. I could tell you stories about what I’ve been through… but then, that’s why the arguments matter. You can hold your position under tremendous fire when you have the arguments and evidence to ground you.

For more on the problem of evil, listen to this lecture by Douglas Geivett, professor of philosophy at Biola University. Then you must listen to this debate here between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Another debate transcript is here, with William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen. Here’s a book debate between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, published by Oxford University Press, 2004.