Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Why does God let people suffer? Why is there so much evil in the world?

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 omnipotent 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 for the character of humans to develop 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 premise 2 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 that we observe 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.
    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. Part of knowing God is knowing what he designed us to do – to love him and to love others. And so, the less we know about God, the more we stray from his design for our lives.
  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.

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.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Christianity expanding rapidly in communist China

Jay Richards tweeted this story from Breitbart News.


Though the Chinese Communist Party is the largest explicitly atheist organization in the world, with 85 million official members, it is now overshadowed by an estimated 100 millionChristians in China. It is no wonder Beijing is nervous and authorities are cracking down on Christian groups.

Christianity is growing so fast in China that some predict that it will be the most Christian nation in the world in only another 15 years. By far, the greatest growth is coming outside the official state-sanctioned churches, which are rightly considered subservient to the Communist Party. Numbers are increasing, rather, in unofficial Protestant “house churches” and in the underground Catholic church.

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.

[…]According to the annual report of the human rights group China Aid, persecution of Christians worsened dramatically in 2013, in line with a constant trend of deteriorating religious freedom over the past eight years. Most recently, the oppression of Christians has especially targeted Protestant groups, leaving most Catholics alone, which many feel reflects Beijing’s strategic goal of reestablishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican. According to reports, hundreds of Protestant churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang have been targeted for demolition in the past year.

Unrecognized Christian groups have been subject to crackdowns for years, but observers say the atmosphere is getting worse as their numbers increase and the governing Communist Party takes a more nationalist tone under President Xi Jinping.

Particularly hard hit has been a Beijing Christian group called Shouwang. “Things have got worse this year because the police started to detain us. I was detained for a week,” said Zhao Sheng, 54, musical organizer for the group’s Christmas service.

“But Christmas is still a happy time. No matter what happens, God is with us,” he added with a smile.

I think this story is a nice reminder for us that it can be the case that God’s permitting of evil can be be justified if it helps more people to know him. Now, of course this seems unfair to narcissistic atheists who think that God, if he existed, ought to be their cosmic butler. But for people who take God as they find him, it’s not a surprise that God can permit evil things to happen in order accomplish purposes of leading more people into a free love relationship with him. After all, look what happened to Jesus! Christians aren’t surprised by evil and suffering – on the contrary, we expect it. We know that the purpose of life is not for God to make his human pets happy, but for God to draw us toward him and allow us to freely respond to his saving initiative.

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Blake Giunta and Justin Schieber debate Christian theism vs naturalism

Here is the video of the debate:

And Blake’s summary of the debate from his web site.

In Justin’s opening statement, he made four arguments:

  1. The existence of rational unbelief is more consistent with naturalism
  2. Darwinian evolution is more consistent with naturalism
  3. The hostility to life in most of the universe is is more consistent with naturalism
  4. The existence of suffering among sentient beings is more consistent with naturalism

These are all good arguments for naturalism. That’s what atheists argue if they are willing to bear the burden of proof – those are quality arguments.

In Blake’s opening statement, he made three arguments:

  1. The existence of “the moral arena” is more consistent with theism
  2. The intelligibility and discoverability of the universe is more consistent with theism
  3. The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is more consistent with theism

These arguments are also good arguments for theism and the last one is good for Christian theism. Again, quality arguments.

Here’s part of his summary of his first argument, which I think is different from anyone else:

The Moral Arena is very unexpected if Naturalism is true

By contrast, on naturalism, a Moral Arena could not be more unexpected.

Getting brains

(a) A Universe is entirely unexpected,
(b) and even if there were one, the naturalist has no reason to expect that the Universe would be life-permitting (because of our “fine-tuning of physics for life” discoveries),
(c) and even if it were life-permitting, the naturalist has no reason to expected that there would be an origin of life event in it.
(d) and even if one (or more happened), the naturalist has no reason to expect that it would culminate in the existence of brains or anything that functions like a brain.

The alleged problem with this is that, it means that the likelihood of brains existing, on naturalism, are unfathomably low. Blake noted that the improbabilities of (a)-(d) could be multiplied together, and the likelihood of this chain of events assuming the truth of naturalism was well below .0000000001, just for the fine-tuning problem alone.

From there, getting consciousness

But getting such brains is not enough to get a Moral Arena. The next improbability was the brains being conscious. Once again, this could not be more unexpected on naturalism. Blake argued that consciousness is not adaptive on naturalism, because the brain is basically the machine, and consciousness was like smoke–the machine would evolve and operate the same with or without the smoke. Moreover, as a naturalist looks at the object of a brain, nothing “in it” would lead him to expect it has conscious experience, any more than looking at a star or electron would. Finally, Blake noted that many of the most prestigious naturalists argue that consciousness is not only entirely unexpected, but actually incompatible with naturalism–it has to be an illusion.

From there, getting beliefs

Blake then said, “Ok, but lets say you do get conscious brains. What is the likelihood, on naturalism, that they would also have these very particular things called beliefs?” He made the same moves: it could not be more unexpected on naturalism, and moreover some of the most prominent naturalists argue that beliefs are incompatible with naturalism. The reason is because beliefs are “about” things, but material objects (like rocks and brains) can’t be “about” anything. So beliefs are non-physical, which naturalism cannot accommodate.

From there, getting moral beliefs (for a Moral Arena)

Finally, Blake noted one more requirement: “Ok, so lets say you evolve conscious brains with beliefs, what is the likelihood that they would have moral beliefs in particular.” There is no reason to think moral beliefs, beliefs about good and evil, or right and wrong, would ever evolve twice in the entire Universe. But then why anticipate that they would have evolved even once? Again, Naturalism has no such reason. In each of these cases, all I can do is helplessly look at what has occurred, and say “oh, interesting.”

All together now

Calculating the final improbability involves multiplying the unlikelihood of brains evolving (.0000000001) with the unlikelihood of evolved brains being conscious (e.g. .01), with the unlikelihood of evolved conscious brains having beliefs (e.g. 01) with the unlikelihood of such brains having moral beliefs in particular (e.g. .5). The final probability is extraordinarily low, and insofar as moral beliefs are required for a moral arena, the likelihood of a moral arena existing on naturalism is unfathomably low (e.g. it seems like on naturalism, the likelihood of a moral arena would be far less than  .000001%), while on theism it is not nearly so low (e.g. well over a 1% likelihood, and certainly no less). By definition then, the Moral Arena is evidence for theism, and it turns out to be phenomenally strong evidence given the difference in expectations. Originally, the plan was to give Justin a sheet of paper to fill these in, so we could talk specifically about any particularly unreasonable values he assigned to these probabilities.

If you are looking for a classy, civil debate, this is the debate you are looking for. Justin is a great speaker and presented four real arguments, but I think Blake had him beat on on substance, because Justin did not respond adequately to Blake’s arguments.

One point that came up in the debate was the distinction between coarse-tuning and fine-tuning, and whether the range of possible values for the numbers in question could be infinite. Allen Hainline saw the debate live, and he wrote this blog post on that topic. is a web site for training Christians on how to map the flow of debates. If you haven’t already done so, check it out. Use the tree menu on the left to navigate the site by expanding topics that interest you.

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Greg Ganssle explains the problems of evil and suffering

I found these three videos on Apologetics 315. They are each about 5 minutes long.

Here’s the first one:


Part 1 of a trilogy. Greg lays out a classic argument that God does not exist, called ‘The Problem of Evil’. He distinguishes two versions of that argument, which are sometimes called ‘the deductive’ and ‘the evidential’ version. He goes into some details on the deductive version.

And the second one:


Part 2 of a trilogy. Here, Greg gives a response to the deductive version of the Problem of Evil on behalf of someone who believes that God exists. In thinking about this response, we need to think about whether God can make contradictions true, and whether God can have good reasons for allowing bad things to happen.

And the third one:


Part 3 of a trilogy. Greg considers the evidential version of the Problem of Evil, and gives a response on behalf of someone who believes that God exists. This involves considering whether God might have a good reason to allow bad things to happen.

This is very practical and you won’t find a shorter introduction to the problem of evil than these videos. When things go wrong as they sometimes will in your life it’s very important to understand that we shouldn’t be surprised by suffering and evil.

Probably the most important thing to understand about evil and suffering is that God is not our cosmic butler. It’s not his job to provide happiness for his human pets. You would never get the idea from the Bible that God is interested in making people feel happy, especially if they ignore him and his moral laws. Everything God does with people is meant to make them know him better and serve him better, and many things that happen to us that don’t make us happy, but they do give us the opportunity to either grow towards God or away from him.

If the story of Jesus tells us anything, it tells us that you can be morally perfect and still get whammed while you learn how to be obedient to God. Being good is no guarantee of happiness. Doing God’s will is no guarantee of happiness. There just is no guarantee of happiness, no matter how righteous you are. But what there is for us is a promise that God works through evil and suffering in order to make those who respond to his leading as much like his Son Jesus as they can be. And that has to be enough for us. We have to learn how to trust God through suffering. Knowing the logic of the problems of evil and suffering can help us to develop that trust.

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If God has a reason for allowing evil and suffering, should we know what it is?

This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um

This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um

Have you heard about the terrible noseeums? Then read on, for Steven Cowan will tell you about them.


The problem of evil is no doubt the most serious challenge to belief in God. Even religious believers find it troubling that evil exists in the world—and so much evil! It is puzzling, to say the least, that an all-powerful, absolutely good being would allow evil to exist in his creation. And yet it does. Evil and suffering exist and they are often overwhelming in their magnitude. Consider the recent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean that took the lives of almost 200,000 people. Consider as well the infamous Nazi Holocaust in which millions of Jews and others were mercilessly slaughtered. Moreover, we can watch the evening news on almost any day and hear of people in our neighborhoods being robbed, beaten, and murdered. How and why could God allow such things?


However, perhaps God’s existence is incompatible with a certain kind of evil that exists. For example, the atheist William Rowe has argued that God’s existence is inconsistent with pointless or gratuitous evil. By “pointless evil,” Rowe means evil that does not and cannot serve a greater good. And Rowe believes that there is such pointless evil in the world. He thus concludes that God does not exist. Rowe’s argument may be simply stated as follows:

  1. If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
  2. There is pointless evil.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

[…]But, is there pointless evil in the world? Rowe thinks there is. To show that there is pointless evil, Rowe introduces what he calls the “noseeum inference.” Like the pesty little bugs that some readers may be familiar with, a “noseeum” is something that you cannot see—it is a “no-see-um.” And a noseeum inference is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what one does not see. The basic structure of all noseeum inferences looks like this:

  1. I cannot see an x.
  2. Therefore, there probably is no x.

We all make noseeum inferences everyday of our lives. Every time I go to cross a street, I look both ways and I step out into the street only after I “no-see-um” a car coming.

[…]Rowe applies this kind of noseeum reasoning to God and evil. Rowe suggests that if we cannot see a reason for a particular instance of evil, then there is probably not a reason. Suppose we hear about a very young child who is tortured to death to amuse some psychotic person. We think about this event and we examine all the circumstances surrounding it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot see any good reason why this child had to suffer the way she did. Since we cannot see a reason why God would allow this child to suffer, there probably is not a good reason—the child’s suffering was pointless. Of course, Rowe would be quick to point out that he is not speaking merely hypothetically. There are cases like this in the news every day—real-life cases in which we shake our heads in frustration, wondering why God would allow such a thing.

Is Rowe correct in his conclusion? Do such examples prove that there is pointless evil in the world? I don’t think so. To see why, we must recognize that noseeum inferences are not all created equal. Some noseeum inferences, as we have seen, are reasonable and appropriate. But, many are not. Suppose I look up at the night sky at the star Deneb and I do not see a planet orbiting that star. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that there is no planet orbiting Deneb? Of course not. Suppose that using the best telescopes and other imaging equipment presently available, I still cannot see a planet around Deneb. I would still be unjustified in concluding that there was no such planet.

To know that any given instance of evil or suffering is gratuitous/pointless requires a high level of knowledge. How much knowledge? Well, consider this paper by the late William Alston of Syracuse University, who lists six problems with the idea that humans can know that any particular instance of evil and suffering is gratuitous. Humans just do not have the capability to know for certain that God has NO morally sufficient reason for allowing any particular instance of evil and/or suffering. God’s morally sufficient reason is a noseeum. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and the burden of proof is on the person who says there is NO morally sufficient reason. They’re making the claim, they have to shoulder the burden of proof.

By the way, I HAVE the PDF of the William Alston paper. But I can’t post it publicly because it’s copyrighted.

However, here is a summary of his argument: (it’s unnecessarily wordy – this is not Thomas Sowell or Theodore Dalrymple writing this)

The recent outpouring of literature on the problem of evil has materially advanced the subject in several ways. In particular, a clear distinction has been made between the “logical” argument against the existence of God (“atheological argument”) from evil, which attempts to show that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God, and the “inductive” (“empirical”, “probabilistic”) argument, which contents itself with the claim that evil constitutes (sufficient) empirical evidence against the existence of God. It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking.

In this paper I will be concerned with the inductive argument. More specifically, I shall be contributing to a certain criticism of that argument, one based on a low estimate of human cognitive capacities in a certain application. To indicate the point at which this criticism engages the argument, I shall use one of the most careful and perspicuous formulations of the argument in a recent essay by William Rowe (1979).

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. ,
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being (p. 336).

Let’s use the term ‘gratuitous suffering’ for any case of intense suffering, E, that satisfies premise 1, that is, which is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented it without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.’

[…]The criticism I shall be supporting attacks the claim that we are rationally justified in accepting 1, and it does so on the grounds that our epistemic situation is such that we are unable to make a sufficiently well grounded determination that 1 is the case. I will call this, faute de mieux, the agnostic thesis, or simply agnosticism. The criticism claims that the magnitude or complexity of the question is such that our powers, access to data, and so on are radically insufficient to provide sufficient warrant for accepting 1.And if that is so, the inductive argument collapses.

What the atheist has to show is that God could have prevented some instance of evil that appears to be pointless without losing any overall goodness. I.e. – suppose someone gets sick and has to stay home instead of going to a party. The person is suffering, but how do we know that God isn’t justified in allowing this suffering? What if, by allowing this suffering, God protects the person from being killed by a drunk driver? If the atheist says that there cannot be ANY moral justification for allowing the suffering, he has to be able to know what would happen in the future to know that nothing good would never come out of it. That’s the burden of proof on the atheist, and Alston claims that the atheist is not in a position to know that.

Also, remember that on the Christian view, the good aim that God has is NOT to make humans have happy feelings in this life, regardless of their knowledge, wisdom and character. That’s what atheists think, though. They think that God, if he exists, is obligated to make them feel happy all the time. They don’t think that God’s goal is being actively involved in forming their knowledge, wisdom and character. God has a purpose – to work in the world so that everyone who can freely respond to him will respond to him. The Bible says that allowing pain and suffering is one of the ways that he gets that group of people who are willing to respond to respond to him – FREELY. To be able to claim that evil is gratuitous, the atheist has to show that God can achieve his goal of saving all the people he wants to save while permitting less suffering in the world. And that is a very difficult thing for an atheist to show, given our human cognitive limitations.

But as I said before, atheist confuse the purpose of life. They think that the purpose of life is to have happy feelings, and they wonder “how could allowing me to suffer create MORE happy feelings?” And that’s where the problem arises. They can’t accept the idea that God has a right to form their character, to put them through certain experiences, and to place humans in times and places where he can orchestrate a world that meets his needs, not our needs.

I also found this opening speech from a debate that Steven Cowan did on the problem of evil, which may also be useful to you.

The best place to learn about no-see-ums is in this excellent lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett.

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