(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 7: “What About Suffering?”)
William Lane Craig deals with the problem of suffering by assuming that it’s not really an intellectual problem, since he can imagine the possibility that God might be working under some set of unknown constraints. He may not have any grounds (other than wishful thinking) for supposing this to be true, but as long as he can claim that atheists are unable to prove the contrary, he considers the intellectual argument a non-problem for God.
That leaves what he calls “the emotional problem of suffering.” It’s a bit misnamed, because the problem isn’t our response to suffering. Suffering is evil, and people should have a negative reaction to it. When you see one person suffering, and you know that someone else can help them and simply refuses to do so, without any justification for their refusal, then moral outrage is an entirely appropriate. When Craig tells us that God has the power to relieve suffering, and deliberately chooses not to help, and when he defends this behavior by the excuse that we can’t know for certain that God does not have some secret justification, then that’s Craig’s problem, not ours.
Craig doesn’t really offer a good response to that. Instead, he presents us with a choice selection of emotional rationalizations for suffering. And to be fair, these are not uniquely Christian rationalizations, except to the extent that they apply Christian labels to the higher power or powers that are supposed to be punishing us and/or preparing us for some higher calling. What’s interesting is that Craig declares that “the emotional problem” of suffering is more significant than “the intellectual problem,” and needs a correspondingly more significant answer. But if that’s the case, why does he give it such poor ones?
Craig’s first answer to the emotional problem of suffering is that Jesus knows what suffering feels like.
On the cross Christ endured a suffering beyond all understanding. He bore the punishment for the sins of the whole world. None of us can comprehend that suffering. Though He was innocent, He voluntarily underwent incomprehensible suffering for us. And why?—because He loves us so much. How can we reject Him who gave up everything for us?
Notice, this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with why suffering needs to exist in the first place. Craig is not addressing the inconsistency between God’s alleged love and His failure to relieve suffering. The “problem” he’s addressing is that we don’t like to suffer. That’s what he thinks is the real problem here, and his answer is that we should feel better about our own sufferings if we know that Jesus has been through worse.
But don’t think about it too much. Just feel. Never mind that it sounds seriously psychotic for a man to “prove” his love by arranging for his own grisly, gory murder—especially coupled with the threat that he will inflict endless torture on those who fail to love him in return. Never mind the fact that, as the sole, sovereign, self-existent Being, God could have arranged it so nobody ever had to suffer at all. Don’t even think about it. Just feel.
Ok, we can think about it a little, if we like. And while you’re thinking about it, did you notice how Craig embellished the Gospel a little bit there? If you read the Gospel stories, you might notice that Jesus’ sufferings, while extreme, are sadly not all that rare. Yes, he was brutally beaten, flogged, and nailed to a cross. For a little less than a day, he experienced horrific suffering, followed by an unexpectedly quick death. That is bad, but it’s not going to be in the top ten lists of the worst suffering ever experienced by mortal man. I doubt it would make the top million. It was horrible, excruciating and inexcusable, but it hardly qualifies him as the one who understands all sufferings because he has experienced the ultimate.
To make up for that, Craig does what a lot of other Christians do: he “improves” the Gospel by imagining that Jesus suffered more than just physical pain. Instead of taking “he bore our sins” as a metaphor, they imagine that God literally transferred all sins, past, present, and future, onto or into Jesus. And apparently that’s supposed to hurt. It’s completely extrabiblical, and it doesn’t really make much sense—a sin is a behavior, not a tangible object that you can pick up and move from one person to another. But then again, it doesn’t have to make any sense, because this is the emotional rationalization for suffering, not the intellectual one. Just imagine Jesus experiencing unimaginable suffering from having imaginary sin-thingies dropped on him, and feel how much he must love you. And then shut up and suffer yourself.
When God asks us to undergo suffering that seems unmerited, pointless, and unnecessary, meditation on the cross of Christ can help to give us the strength and courage needed to bear the cross we are asked to carry.
Ironically, Craig is encouraging believers to console themselves during unmerited, pointless, and unnecessary suffering by meditating on the death of Christ, which, by implication, was also unmerited, pointless, and unnecessary. Because if it wasn’t, then why would his suffering have anything to do with our own?
But of course the weasel word here is “seems.” Suffering may seem pointless and unnecessary, and in fact it’s true that Christians don’t actually have any justification for suffering (they just have hope in the possibility that some unknown justification might exist somewhere), and it’s also true that God Himself (as reported by men in the Bible) does not even pretend to offer any justification for suffering. But don’t think about it. Trust that your ignorance is hiding an answer somewhere you can’t find it, and then just feel.
At this point, Craig introduces an interesting apologetic. He wants to try and convince us that “knowing God is an incommensurable good to which suffering cannot even be compared.” As an example, he tells us about an elderly shut-in named Mabel, whom he heard about via a friend named Tom. Tom describes her thusly.
As I neared the end of [the] hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly… I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years.
Tom was surprised to find that despite her condition, she was still alert enough to carry on a conversation, and he went back to visit her often. When he asked her what she thought about all day, she replied, “I think about my Jesus.” This made Tom feel guilty because he had trouble thinking about Jesus for five minutes, let alone all day. So he asked her what she thought about Jesus.
I think how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know … I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied… Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.
I’m glad that Mabel found something within her grasp that gives her comfort. After all, what else does she have? But honestly, it’s hard to say, from this account, whether she’s just in denial or is experiencing one of the not-uncommon symptoms of mild dementia. I know Craig’s story is part of an emotional rationalization and we’re not supposed to think too hard about what’s being said here, but let’s do a bit anyway. Look at where she is and what she is saying. She’s saying that Jesus has been good to her. Go back and read Tom’s description of exactly how Jesus was treating her. Blindness, deafness, cancer, loneliness—if that’s what Jesus is like when he’s being good to you, I hate to imagine what he’d be like pissed!
Granted, that’s probably not what Mabel really meant. She probably meant just that she was using rigged scorekeeping—giving Jesus credit for whatever she liked, and excusing him from blame for whatever she didn’t like. She describes herself as “one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied,” so it seems likely that her positive outlook was just natural to her, and not due to any overt action on Jesus’ part at all. Mabel may be unique, but that’s because of who Mabel is, not because of who Jesus is.
That’s not really the point Craig is trying to prove here. He’s trying to prove that suffering can turn you into the kind of person who praises Jesus even while you’re suffering. But there’s no evidence that Mabel’s story proves anything more than that she’s just a really patient and tolerant person, like her kindred spirits in nursing homes in Egypt, who smile and tell you Allah has been good to them, and Hindus who have been blessed by their gods, and Asians whose ancestors have been kind, and so on. There is some comfort in the idea that nursing homes can be made less miserable by the delusions and dementia of the residents, but it’s a pretty poor blessing relative to what a real God ought to be able to do.
Think about it (there’s that pesky word “think” again). Suppose that this story were everything Craig wants it to be. Suppose that poor Mabel experiences a lifetime of Jesus being “good” to her by afflicting her with malnutrition, childhood disease and sexual abuse, followed by unwed pregnancy caused by rape, marriage to an abusive and alcoholic bully, lifelong poverty, and the premature deaths of her children. Suppose she ends up in a nursing home, blind and deaf and riddled with cancer, but having learned, through it all, to love Jesus and know him in a way few Christians can even imagine. If that’s “good,” and if it leads to a knowledge of God that is “an incommensurable good that cannot compare to our sufferings,” then why should heaven be any different for Christians than Mabel’s life has been? Assuming that God is a good God, and that Craig’s emotional appeal is a good justification for suffering, why should Heaven be any different?
Craig’s problem is that this is not a rational answer to the problem of suffering (let alone the problem of evil). He isn’t really even trying to give us a sound justification for suffering. He’s encouraging us to stop thinking and just feel. Even though Mabel’s case may not be distinguishable from a mild-to-moderate case of senile dementia, he wants us to feel like we can all be Mabels, even in the worst of circumstances—despite the very large number of Christians in nursing homes who are not Mabels, even though they have the same Jesus she does.
Craig closes with one last emotional appeal.
[E]ven though the problem of suffering is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day God is the only solution to the problem of suffering. If God does not exist, then we are locked without hope in a world filled with pointless and unredeemed suffering.
Aka “the appeal to wishful thinking.” This is perhaps the ultimate emotional rationalization of suffering: the idea that if you let the existence of sin and suffering convince you that the Gospel is not true, then you’ll find yourself stuck in a world where there’s no good reason for suffering. If you wish it weren’t true, then it must not be true. But if you think about it, it’s actually better to understand that there’s no good reason for suffering. That means it’s ok to work on ending it. And that’s a good thing.
So we’re done with Craig’s attempt to rationalize away the problem of evil via his rationalizations for the lesser problem of suffering. It’s a hopeless cause for Craig, because his position is inherently self-contradictory: if sin and suffering are the only way to achieve incommensurable good, then Christians must do everything they can to promote sin and suffering, while on the other hand if there IS a way to ultimate goodness without the need for sin and suffering, then God has no excuse for not pursuing the less-evil road to goodness. Either way, you can’t reconcile Christian teachings about God with the evidence we find in the real world. The most you can do is blind yourself with emotional rationalizations, and pretend the problem does not exist.