(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 7: “What About Suffering?”)
The more I read William Lane Craig, the more respect I have for the sheer deviousness of his approach. We’ve already looked at how he pulls a philosophical bait-and-switch scam in order to substitute the problem of suffering for the far less tractable problem of evil. And now that we’re considering just the limited question of how suffering seems to contradict the Christian idea of a loving God, he pulls another trick on the unsuspecting believers in his audience.
The approach he’s going to take is to claim that suffering is merely an emotional reaction of people who reject God. Many Christians, however, feel the same way. Even though they don’t reject God, they feel that human suffering poses a problem for their Christian faith. So Craig does something psychologically very clever: he begins this part of his book with two long, highly-detailed stories of children suffering horrible, lingering deaths due to natural disasters. He takes great pains to induce a powerful emotional reaction in his readers, and then he begins his argument that the problem of suffering is an emotional problem rather than an intellectual one, while their thoughts are still being overpowered by their emotions.
I’ve got to admit, scruples aside, that is one ingenious approach.
Craig begins his attack on the argument from suffering by insisting that the burden of proof is on the atheist. He wants that clear from the outset: it’s not enough for the atheist to point out how suffering conflicts with Christian teachings on the love of God, he has to prove that God and suffering are mutually exclusive possibilities. This is important, because Christians don’t have a good explanation for suffering, and thus no apologetic good can come of allowing the skeptic to ask for one.
Too often believers allow unbelievers to shift the burden of proof to the believer’s shoulders. “Give me some good explanation for why God permits suffering,” the unbeliever will demand, and then he sits back and plays the skeptic about all the believer’s attempted explanations. The atheist winds up having to prove nothing. This may be clever debating strategy on the atheist’s part, but it’s philosophically illegitimate and intellectually dishonest.
This is William Lane Craig we’re dealing with here, so I trust you all brought your industrial-grade irony meters. But regardless, is he right about the burden of proof? Is it really up to the atheist to pro-actively disprove the existence of God? Remember, when we say “God,” we’re talking about something that does not show up in real life, and about which our only sources of information are the things men say about Him.
In the case of suffering (and to an even greater degree in the case of evil), the things Christians say about their God are rather blatantly inconsistent with conditions we find in the real world. That makes it highly unlikely that what Christians say is really true. We’re not talking about philosophers initiating a discussion about the possibility of God, we’re talking about whether believers have yet met their burden of proof with regards to the claims they make about Him. Based on this and other significant inconsistencies in their story, they have not.
Craig’s solution to this dilemma is to insist that believers do not need to find an answer for this inconsistency, and that it is up to the skeptics to prove, beyond all possible doubt, that there is no way Christians could ever rationalize away the inconsistencies.
Don’t allow the atheist to shirk his intellectual responsibilities. He’s the one who claims that the coexistence of God and suffering is impossible or improbable. So it’s up to him to give us his argument and to support his premises. It’s the Christian’s turn to play the skeptic and question whether the atheist has shown that God cannot have or does not have a good reason for permitting the suffering in the world.
Here’s where the bait and switch comes in. If the Christian were to ask for a good reason why God cannot and/or does not have a good reason for incorporating evil into His grand design for history, that’s a fairly easy task, given a reasonably consistent definition of good and evil and related moral concepts like responsibility and negligence. But Craig nipped that one in the bud before the chapter even started, by selecting the problem of suffering instead of the problem of evil.
Notice, too, how carefully Craig is stacking the deck against the atheist. Not only does the atheist have to meet an impossibly high burden of proof, but the proposition he must prove is that suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. Not that it’s incompatible with God’s alleged love, or compassion, or wisdom, or power, but with God’s very existence. Given the way the definition of God can shift to meet the needs of the moment, that’s a pretty tall order.
Not to put too much of a burden on the unbeliever though, Craig helpfully offers to build our argument for us. He offers two supposedly atheistic arguments against God’s existence: that suffering makes God’s existence impossible, and that it merely makes His existence improbable. We probably won’t have time to cover them both this week, but let’s get started on the first one.
According to the logical version of the problem it’s logically impossible for God and suffering to both exist…
The atheist is claiming that the following two statements are logically inconsistent:
1. An all-loving, all-powerful God exists.
2. Suffering exists.
Now the obvious question is, why think that these two statements are logically inconsistent? There’s no explicit contradiction between them…
Again, a carefully-stacked deck. Craig is leaving out one very important element. The problem is not that God and suffering both exist, the problem is that suffering exists and God does nothing about it. Or more comprehensively, suffering and evil exist without any overt opposition from an allegedly all-good, all-powerful, and all-loving God.
In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, whose actions are the most like God’s? It’s not the Samaritan, whose compassionate aid was praised by Jesus. It’s the priest and the Levite, who passed by on the other side of the road, leaving the wounded traveler lying in the ditch. God’s response to suffering is the opposite of what Christianity teaches as a “good” reaction. The classic Christian rationalization for this is that God knows more than we do, so “presumably” He is acting for the greater good. But that response falls short for two reasons: first, if we can never know that it’s not better to suffer, then why should we blindly assume that compassion is always the “good” thing to do? But secondly and more significantly, is it even remotely plausible to suppose that, by purest coincidence alone, the “good” thing for God to do would always turn out to be to fail to show up and help?
But this is getting away from what Craig wants to talk about (not surprisingly). Let’s get back to what he calls the atheist’s “logical” argument.
There seem to be two hidden assumptions made by the atheist. They are:
3. If God is all-powerful, He can create any world that He wants.
4. If God is all-loving, He prefers a world without suffering…
In order for this argument to show a logical inconsistency between statements 1 and 2, both of the hidden assumptions made by the atheist must be necessarily true. But are they?
Consider 3, that If God is all-powerful, He can create any world that He wants. Is that necessarily true? Well, not if it’s possible that people have free will! It’s logically impossible to make someone do something freely.
Again, Craig is building a straw-man by making the atheist’s assumption too specific. If you take #3 as being “An all-powerful God could create any world He wanted, within reason,” then clearly there’s no logical reason why He could not make a world in which people simply were not vulnerable to physical or emotional pain. The free will argument is a bit out of place here, since that’s a Christian rationalization for the problem of evil, which Craig is pointedly side-stepping. But suffering is even easier to avoid than evil. With or without free will, an omnipotent God would have the power to create people who were simply impervious to injury and suffering, physical or otherwise. Thus, the possibility of a world without suffering is necessarily valid, given the premise of an omnipotent Creator.
But what about assumption 4, that If God is all-loving, He prefers a world without suffering? Is that necessarily true? It doesn’t seem like it. For God could have some 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 (like taking our child to the dentist).
This is the core of Craig’s denial of the problem of suffering, and why he chose to address suffering alone instead of the larger and more significant problem of evil. We all know that sometimes a little suffering now prevents much greater suffering later on, and thus we go to the dentist, and/or take foul-tasting medicines, and/or do tedious, tiring chores, and so on. But hang on—that argument assumes that the lesser suffering is justified by the need to avoid the greater. In other words, it assumes some amount of suffering necessarily exists. But wouldn’t it be preferable not to have any suffering at all, lesser or greater?
Let’s take a moment to rephrase assumption 4 slightly. “If God is all-loving, He prefers a heaven without suffering.” Is that really true? Or should Christians expect to suffer in heaven for all eternity? If a loving God would prefer a heaven in which there is no suffering at all, then why not suppose that the same would be true in the rest of His creation as well? Sure, suffering is supposed to build character, but what does “character” mean? “Character” is your ability to stand up to adversity, i.e. to endure suffering and hardship. But if a loving God wanted to promote strength and courage and loyalty and so on, there are alternatives that don’t require suffering. Maybe He should just sign us all up for soccer instead? Could be a pretty cool game if none of the players ever suffered fatigue or injury…
Craig’s rejection of assumption 4 is merely denial based on his own assumption that suffering is necessary. But is that assumption justified? Let’s see him live up to his own standards of proof for that one. I’d like to hear his logical proof that it’s necessarily true that suffering must be preferable, given an all-loving God. And then it would be interesting to hear him explain why suffering should not be preferable in heaven as well.
It’s rather sad, in a way, to see Craig grasping at straws in his attempts to justify God’s manifest negligence with regards to suffering.
The atheist might insist that an all-powerful being…could bring about the greater good directly, without allowing any suffering. But clearly, given freedom of the will, that may not be possible. Some goods, for example, moral virtues, can be achieved only through the free cooperation of people. It may well be the case that a world with suffering is, on balance, better overall than a world with no suffering. In any case, it is at least possible, and that is sufficient to defeat the atheist’s claim that 4 is necessarily true.
Yeah, phew, eh? Notice the difference in standards of evidence here: the atheist has to prove his point beyond all possible doubt, but the Christian can establish his claims merely by suggesting the possibility that it might be better to have suffering. In other words, there might be some constraint that would prevent God from achieving the greater good without suffering, and therefore the atheist’s argument is refuted. Or so Craig would have us believe.
The question is, where would such a constraint come from? Craig was arguing before that God is the only self-existent, non-contingent being. If there is some constraint that requires suffering in order to achieve good, then it must either be inherent in God’s nature (in which case we should expect as much suffering in heaven as we find on earth), or else it exists by divine decree, in which case we have a new problem, because then the requirement itself is optional, and we have to assume that God just prefers to make suffering mandatory. Some “all-loving” God, eh?
Craig’s final conclusion seems to be this:
God could not have created another world with as much good as, but less suffering than, this world, and God has good reasons for permitting the suffering that exists.
As we’ve already see, though, this is rather a clumsy goof. By substituting the problem of suffering for the greater problem of evil, he’s sabotaged his own apologetic. This argument is based on a response to the problem of evil, as made allegedly necessary by free will. The problem of suffering, however, is trivially resolved by making people immune to pain and injury. To make this argument work, you have to make an additional assumption: either that suffering is a good and preferable thing in and of itself (masochism), or else that good, by itself, is somehow intrinsically flawed and incapable of producing greater good on its own. That would mean that God, being perfectly good, was also perfectly intrinsically flawed and incapable of producing greater good without directly or indirectly inflicting suffering on others. Either way, if suffering is indeed required to produce the minimum acceptable amount of good, then it is wrong to seek to relieve suffering.
Yeah, apologetics can be pretty heartless at times.