(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 7: “What About Suffering?”)
If you want to know whether or not Christians are telling the truth about God, it’s theoretically very simple: all you need to do is look at the real world and see whether or not it’s consistent with what Christians are saying. Do we find conditions that match the consequences we should reasonably expect, given an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and all-loving God—or don’t we?
One of the primary goals of apologetics is to prevent us from finding out the answer to that question, and in today’s installment of On Guard, William Lane Craig gives us a good example of the technique. As we saw last week, he has already pulled a sneaky bait and switch, substituting the lesser problem of suffering for the far more difficult problem of evil. This week, he’s going to use a variety of techniques, including the Argument from Ignorance, to try and jam our BS detectors, and leave us incapable of distinguishing false claims about God from true ones.
Last week, Craig refuted the straw man argument that suffering must necessarily exclude the possibility of God’s existence. This week, he’s going after a somewhat better argument, which he calls the “evidential version” of the argument against God. This argument states that “It is improbable that God could have good reasons for permitting suffering.” Once again, he’s subtly twisting the argument, framing it in terms designed to maximize his chances for success. A better argument would be, “It’s improbable that God would employ evil means to achieve good ends, rather than achieving them by good means.” But that would be a much harder BS detector for Craig to successfully jam, so he sets up the easier straw man instead.
His first response is an appeal to ignorance.
First, we’re not in a position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks [sic] good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world.
…The success of the atheist’s argument will depend on whether we’re warranted in inferring that because the suffering looks unjustified it really is unjustified. My first point is that we’re just not in a position to make that kind of judgment with any confidence.
In other words, we look at the kind of God that Christians describe, and then we look at the real world and see that it looks nothing at all like the consequences that would result from such a God behaving according to the abilities, character, and motives that Christians ascribe to Him, and then Craig immediately starts trying to jam our BS detectors with Fear, Uncertainty and Doubts based on what he calls “human limitations.” Notice, these limitations don’t seem to have any adverse effect on Christians’ ability to make bold and confident positive assertions about God, they only prevent skeptics from using real-world evidence to distinguish false claims from true ones. Go figure.
Now, to prove his point, Craig appeals to a couple of popular images. The first is the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory, aka “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” The popular image is a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa, setting off a chain of events that lead eventually to a hurricane in the Atlantic. Men could never predict the drastic consequences of such a subtle chain of events, and therefore (Craig alleges) we can never know that God does not have good reasons for (to pick a random example) allowing thousands of orphaned Romanian babies to die of AIDs, etc.
The second image he uses is from the movie Sliding Doors, which uses a split-screen technique to tell the story of the way a woman’s life would be different depending on whether or not she missed a train. It’s the butterfly effect again, with radically different outcomes proceeding from such an apparently trivial incident, but with an added twist that [trying to avoid spoilers here] the “successful” branch ends badly, while the “disaster” branch eventually achieves a more satisfying outcome.
In both images, Craig is trying to establish the point that we cannot predict what ultimate outcome will result from any of our experiences, and therefore we cannot know whether God might not have some ultimate good outcome in mind for, say, wiping out hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in a single horrific tsunami. Ok, he didn’t use that specific example, and it is kind of hard to see how that story would end “and they lived happily ever after,” especially given Jesus’ teachings on the majority of people spending eternity in hell. But that’s the gist of Craig’s argument.
Oops, I mentioned hell. Hell is kind of a problem with Craig’s argument here, because he’s trying to say that the end justifies the means and that our present day suffering is outweighed by the greater good that will eventually result. Except that for the unsaved, according to Jesus, the ultimate state is suffering, not blessing. Thus, in the case of hell, God needs a “good reason” that does not depend on the possibility of a later, greater good. But I digress.
There’s two ways we can critique Craig’s argument without going beyond human limitations. The first is to consider the morality of using evil to do good. Craig’s assumption is that God might have a good reason for making bad things a part of His divine plan for bringing about goodness, which assumes in turn that evil might have more power to accomplish good than good itself has. If good, on its own, had the same power as evil to accomplish good results, then even if God had a “good” reason for resorting to evil, He would have an even better reason not to make evil part of His Grand Design. Thus, Craig’s assumptions involve some really strange ideas about evil being better than good.
The second critique would be to look at what Craig himself is saying. He’s saying that God can use the butterfly effect to achieve controlled results. That’s a terrible argument to use as a justification for suffering, because it greatly improves the chances that a less-evil alternative will be available to God. Even if we didn’t already assume (as Christians teach) that God is sovereign and guides the destinies of men, there are billions of butterflies, and an uncountable number of similar subtle influences that God could exploit to continually create a set of conditions in which good things resulted without all the evil. (And without violating free will any more than butterflies already do.)
But let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that there might be some set of circumstances, and some necessary outcome, where even an all-wise (etc) God would be forced to resort to evil in order to achieve a good result. Seems like that would be pretty rare, at best, but let’s agree that it’s at least conceivable. Does that get Craig off the hook? Not at all, because if it would be rare for an omniscient deity to get stuck like that once, it would be doubly rare for Him to make the same mistake twice. But Craig doesn’t have to account for God allowing only one or two rare instances of evil, he has to account for God resorting to evil every frickin’ time it happens.
Remember, the atheistic argument, as chosen by Craig himself, is that it is improbable that God would have good reasons for allowing suffering. He has to make it sound less likely that there could be a better way to achieve the same results. But his argument against the superior alternatives is to describe how God would have even more options than a naive understanding of omniscience and omnipotence would give Him credit for. That’s not helping Craig’s case in the slightest!
Craig’s second point in response to the evidential argument, is to essentially ignore it. Seriously! He argues that if we take the existence of suffering in context with the cosmological argument, the fine tuning argument, and the moral law argument, we can ignore the evidence-based “probability” of God’s non-existence, because the other arguments are Just That Good. He even has a picture of a set of scales, with his arguments on one side, and the evidence from suffering on the other, and the arguments outweigh the evidence. Case closed.
Normally, I wouldn’t spend much time on this, because it’s such an obvious case of rejecting the evidence in favor of a set of preconceived rationalizations. There is one line in here, though, that you have to see. Craig loves to turn the tables and use the atheist’s own arguments against him, and I think this time it really backfires on him.
Although at a superficial level suffering calls into question God’s existence, at a deeper level suffering actually proves God’s existence. For apart from God, suffering is not really bad. If the atheist believes that suffering is bad or ought not to be, then he’s making moral judgments that are possible only if God exists. [Emph. added—DD]
I had to push back from my desk and stare at that one for a while. So in other words, God’s existence makes the world a worse place than it would be without Him. Without God’s existence, nothing would be bad. “Whoa, Jim, that pit bull just chewed your foot off!” “Yeah, I know, I’m in extreme pain, but that’s ok because God doesn’t exist.” “Sally, is it true that your dad went insane and killed all your kids?” “Yeah, I’m suffering terribly, but it’s ok, because there’s no God.” WTF?
I can see where this is something Craig has no choice but to affirm. It’s the logical extension of his arguments about morality. But seriously, it shows both the flaw in his definition of “good” vs “bad,” and the downright silliness of the whole argument. Yes, it’s literally true that by Craig’s own arguments, the world is a worse place if God exists than it would be without God. God’s existence is what makes suffering bad. If it weren’t for God, suffering would be perfectly ok, at least according to a Christian worldview. And folks, that is one seriously screwed up worldview. I’m just saying.
We’re not going to have time to look at all of Craig’s third point regarding the evidential argument against God, but we can peek at the first couple paragraphs. The third point is that “Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and suffering.” Or to put it another way, Christians have figured out a few classic rationalizations for why their allegedly good God does not do more to oppose the evil in the world, especially as represented by pointless suffering. And here’s his first rationalization.
1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
If you want to really get to know someone, you need to know something about the things they’re passionate about. If you want to really get to know a pro football player, you need to know something about football. If you really want to understand a scientist, you should learn something about science. And to achieve a true knowledge of God, you need to suffer.
Says a lot about God, doesn’t it?
I could develop this idea in more detail, but we’ve covered this ground before. It’s the same old problem of claiming that God can’t do good without directly or indirectly resorting to evil. In this case, it’s particularly bad, because we’re assuming that God can’t even communicate knowledge of Himself without harming His allegedly beloved children and condemning most of them to eternal torment on the grounds that they’ve failed to know Him. Funny, isn’t it, how Almighty God can suddenly turn into such a clueless weakling whenever apologetics needs an out?
Craig has a lot of Christian doctrines intended to excuse God’s failure to oppose evil in the world, and we’ll try and cover them all next week. Stay tuned.