XFiles: Reasons and rationalizations

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 7: “What About Suffering?”)

Last week, Dr. Craig was just starting to give us four Christian doctrines which (he claims) increase the probability that suffering can coexist with the Christian God. It’s part of his attempt to appear as though he is addressing one of the most significant positive atheistic arguments—the problem of evil—without actually confronting any serious challenge to his conclusions. So far he has replaced the problem of evil with the less-potent problem of suffering, has lowered the standard that Christians have to meet (by declaring that all Christians need to do is suggest the possibility that God might coexist with suffering), and has raised the standard that atheists have to meet (by declaring that atheists have the burden of proving that there is no possibility of God coexisting with suffering). In this week’s installment, he’s going to give us a good demonstration of using rationalization to further evade the issues.

Here are the four traditional Christian doctrines which increase the probability of God co-existing with human suffering, according to Craig. They all have at least one thing in common. Can you spot it?

  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
  2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose.
  3. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life.
  4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.

We looked briefly at point #1 last week, and commenter Flyborg pointed out that this excuse doesn’t really solve the problem.

Imagine you walk into a pie shop, and immediately start choking on tear gas which is coming through the vents. Through shock and pain, you yell “Why the heck did you fill this place with tear gas?! What kind of pie shop does this? What’s going on?”, to which the owner replies “The chief purpose of this pie shop is not happiness, but to sell pies!” How does that answer why the shop owner thought that tear gas was superior to NOT-tear-gas?

Exactly. And if you look at Craig’s four arguments, you’ll notice that they all have this flaw. They all purport to increase the probability that a loving God could co-exist with the amount of human suffering we see in the world, and yet none of them really have anything to do with the probability of God and suffering co-existing. (Note: #2 might seem to be an exception, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

What’s really happening here is a textbook case of someone in denial appealing to simple rationalizations in order to evade the facts that are inconsistent with their beliefs. Suffering is a problem for Christians. They’ve wished for a God who was so nice, He would solve all their problems, “wipe away all their tears,” and end suffering forever. But suffering hasn’t gone away, even though God has had plenty of chances to do something about it. In fact, suffering hasn’t even diminished (other than what men have been able to do on their own through science). Does that mean their wished-for God isn’t real?

Historically, Christians and other believers have used rationalization, aka “backwards thinking,” to deal with the problem. How do you account for the existence of suffering? Well, maybe God has a good reason for it. Ok, what good reason? Well, think of something God might be trying to do. If you can think of something, then that’s a reason. But it might not be a good reason. So how can you be sure God’s reasons are good? Well, what’s He trying to do? If it’s a good thing, then that makes the reason a good reason (aka “the end justifies the means”). Right? So maybe suffering exists because God wants us to get to know Him, because knowledge of God is the greatest possible joy and satisfaction for mankind, even if it doesn’t happen until after we die. Since maximum happiness and satisfaction are good, that means God has a good reason for allowing suffering.

And that’s where the rationalization stops. If you want to find out the truth instead of just defending a predetermined conclusion, however, there are a few more questions you need to ask, like “could the same goals be achieved without sin and suffering?” and “do sin and suffering, in fact, actually accomplish those goals?” But Craig never mentions those problems. And he exaggerates his counter-arguments: his four doctrines can really be boiled down to only one: that God might be using suffering in order to bring us into a knowledge of and obedience to Himself, which is (allegedly) the greatest possible good for mankind. And even that rationalization dodges a few important facts.

As the sole self-existent Being, God can only be bound by necessities that are either inherent in His own nature, or else created by Him. In the former case, the need for human suffering is built into God Himself, so good luck in heaven guys! But in the latter case, God has the option of achieving his goals without sin and suffering, in which case “ultimate human happiness” ceases to be a good reason for God to resort to human sin and suffering (assuming it’s better to achieve good without sin than to do so through sin). And anyway, why would sin be better at creating Ultimate Good than righteousness alone would be? The Christian rationalization really falls apart if you just poke it a little.

So let’s look at each of these four doctrines individually. First, the idea that the chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. Craig spends four pages defending this point (the other 3 points get 2 pages, combined). The content of those four pages can be boiled down to one statement: committed Christians are a greater percentage of the world’s population today than they were in 100AD, therefore God must know what He’s doing. It’s a classic post hoc fallacy: since Christianity is expanding in the presence of human suffering, human suffering must be contributing to the expansion of the Christianity. Apparently, if you want to help God save all the souls, the best way to do that is to make sure there’s lots of suffering: famines, civil wars, disease, and so on. (It also doesn’t hurt to have a reeeeeeally  flexible definition of what a “committed Christian” is.)

Point #2, the “man is in rebellion against God” argument, strangely only gets a single paragraph of defense from Craig. That’s odd, because blaming the victim is the oldest trick in the book. Theism/animism itself may have arisen as a superstitious “explanation” for why some people suffer when others don’t: the victims must have offended some kind of invisible spirit or god or something, and that’s why they’re suffering.

But blaming the sinner only begs the question. Man is not in control of whether sin, suffering, and evil exist in God’s creation—God is. The problem is not that suffering is more likely if men rebel against God, the problem is that an all-cool God would not be likely to create the conditions and situations that would end up with His beloved creatures rebelling. Craig is simply passing the buck.

Point #3, that God’s purpose extends beyond mortal life, is simply irrelevant, a transparent gloss over the fact that so many lives end without God ever having blessed them with enough blessings to justify what He has put them through. What’s more, if you consider Jesus’ remarks in Matthew 7 about how few people are really saved, and realize that most of God’s “beloved” children are promised lives that go from a brief period of suffering to an eternity of suffering, it really doesn’t help to say God’s purposes extend beyond mortal life. Wouldn’t it be better to bring us to a knowledge of Himself without any sin and evil and suffering at all?

Which brings us to Craig’s last point, which is that knowledge of God is an “incommensurable” good (i.e. so good that it’s worth it whatever it costs). This is the underlying assumption for Craig’s first point. After all, if knowing God were a bad thing, then God’s pursuit of this goal could hardly be called a good reason for resorting to sin and suffering. But even if we assume that knowing God were a good thing, there’s nothing about this assumption that makes God any more likely to co-exist with suffering, and here’s why.

God does not show up in real life. Nobody has any photographs of His face, or any audio recordings of His voice. You can’t overhear God speaking to someone else, or catch Him on a security camera as He walks down the street. God, in short, does absolutely nothing to show up for that intimate, personal, one-on-one relationship that He allegedly wanted so bad He was willing to literally die for it. But Christians don’t like to admit that He is absent. They claim to have a direct experience of God, spiritually; that God comes into their hearts in some mystical way and works in them and through them to inspire their hearts with love and their minds with a deeper understanding of Himself.

What that means is that even if the knowledge of God were the ultimate good, God would not be restricted to imparting that knowledge through suffering alone. He would have other channels available to Him—better channels, in fact, since people are prone to misinterpret the significance of worldly and materialistic happenstances. Consequently, if Christians are not lying to us about God coming into their hearts and communing with them, the goodness of the knowledge of God only decreases the probability that He would resort to sin and suffering to cruelly and imperfectly communicate it.

Craig has tried to lower the standard Christians have to meet, and to raise the standard skeptics have to meet, and he has still failed. His “four doctrines that increase the odds of God co-existing with suffering” all fail to do so. They’re obvious rationalizations that try to distract us with irrelevancies while failing to address the real problems. But it gets worse. Craig follows up this denialist tour de force by going back to his earlier example of tragic and pointless suffering: the little boy who died in an earthquake-collapsed building before rescuers could reach him.

Why did God permit [him] to suffer so? We’re in no position to know. Perhaps through the tragic death of this boy, God knew Mexican authorities would be shocked into requiring new construction standards for earthquake-proof buildings, thereby saving many future lives. Maybe He let it happen because the authorities should be so shocked. Maybe He permitted it so that some other person, facing death or illness in a hospital and seeing the reports on television would be inspired by the boy’s courage to face his own challenge with faith and bravery.

That is a pretty sad shambles of a rationalization. Craig can’t seem to decide if suffering is a good thing or a bad thing. The boy’s suffering is supposed to be good because it might reduce suffering later on? Doesn’t God need human suffering to bring about His Ultimate Good for mankind? That would make it wrong to reduce suffering. So which is it? Is it better to reduce suffering, or not to reduce it? Doesn’t reducing the suffering mean making it harder for God to achieve His goals? (And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t God be doing more to reduce suffering?)

Oh, and that remark about the boy’s inspiring “courage?” Yeah, complete and utter bullshit. Let’s go back a few pages so that Dr. Craig can tell us how inspired he was by the boy’s courage after the quake.

During the next several days, the whole world watched in agony as the teams tried to remove the rubble to get to the boy. They could communicate with him, but could not reach him. His grandfather, who had been trapped with him, was already dead. “I’m scared!” he cried. After about eleven days, there was silence. Alone in the darkness, trapped without food and water, afraid, the little boy died before the rescue teams could free him.

Yeah, inspiring story, Bill. It should be a Christmas special, like the Little Drummer Boy. Give Christian kids something to look forward to.

But that’s what Christians do with facts that contradict their faith: they just re-write the story to make it more compatible with their beliefs. Craig accomplished a complete reversal of this horrific tragedy, transforming a pitiable, scared, and helpless victim into an inspiringly courageous hero whose noble sacrifice would ease the sufferings and doubts of the terminally ill, in only 17 pages. Imagine what hard-core believers could do with the Crucifixion during the many years between Jesus’ burial and the earliest gospels.

We’ll wrap up next week with what Craig calls “the emotional problem of suffering.” Stay tuned.

6 Responses to “XFiles: Reasons and rationalizations”

  1. Wanderin' Weeta Says:

    So maybe it’s the people in hell who know God best? After all, many of them have had centuries of suffering to help them get to know HIm better.

    Or is it that they’re in hell because they know Him and realize what a bully He is?

  2. MrRoivas Says:

    Remind me of another apologetic book I read were the author ends up defending slavery. Cause if its in the bible, then its good. Even if its slavery.

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    The four doctrines melded into one are:-

    Our individual purpose is to know and submit to God’s purpose, which is, presumably, to reveal to us what our purpose is.

    I suppose this explains political Christians who know God’s purpose and are willing to create a theocracy with the intention of punishing us all for being in defiance of God’s purpose.

    So, God is a cranky old Teabagger then?

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    “The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. ”

    I think that this changes the meaning of the word ‘good’.

    If spirituality, or even just ‘goodness’, includes love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others, W.L.Craig is opening the door for the opposite of these to be included as ‘spirituality’, or even ‘goodness’ now, too, if that causes knowledge of God.

    Seems to close to the ‘torture isn’t torture of the neocons to me.

  5. Paradox O'Clock Says:

    “Perhaps through the tragic death of this boy, God knew Mexican authorities would be shocked into requiring new construction standards for earthquake-proof buildings, thereby saving many future lives.”

    If that’s true, then Craig’s God is a strict (albeit infallible) utilitarian; yet I seriously doubt that Craig himself believes that utilitarianism is an acceptable basis for making moral judgements.

  6. chaos-engineer Says:

    God does not show up in real life. Nobody has any photographs of His face, or any audio recordings of His voice. You can’t overhear God speaking to someone else, or catch Him on a security camera as He walks down the street

    We wouldn’t expect God to manifest in that kind of way. It’s inefficient…if someone already had enough knowledge of God, then God would just be wasting that person’s time by providing more information. At worst, people would start getting annoyed at the constant repetition. An omnipotent and omniscient God would be able to figure out the appropriate marketing campaign for each individual and deliver it directly.

    If this hypothesis is correct, then we’d expect the irreligious to be the sort of people who are doing OK on their own and don’t need a lot of help from God. And we’d expect the deeply devout to be the sort of people who would walk around with hats on their feet and a shoe on their head if God didn’t stop by and tell them how to get dressed every single morning. This would be easy enough to test if I could get funding.

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