Thursday, March 20, 2014

Understanding and Answering the Problem of Suffering

The following are notes I took from primarily from William Lane Craig's book On Guard and from a lecture by philosopher Garrett DeWeese on the problem of suffering.  I believe they will prove helpful to the Christian Case Maker wanting to be better equipped to answer this often discussed objection.

The Argument from Suffering

3 Forms of the Argument

1. Logical Version- tries to show that the coexistence of God and suffering is logically impossible.

2. Evidential Version- tries to show that the coexistence of God and suffering is highly improbable.

Question to ask for clarification: “Are you saying that it’s impossible for God and the suffering in the world to both exist, or are you saying that it’s merely improbable that God and suffering both exist?

3. Emotional Version- concerns people’s dislike of a God who would permit suffering

Logical Version: “It’s Logically Impossible for God and Suffering to Coexist.”

The argument goes something like this:

1. An all-loving, all-powerful God exists.
2. Suffering exists.

Usual assumptions…

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.

Argument: God is all-loving and all-powerful.  Therefore, He both can and wants to create a world without suffering.  Therefore, it follows that the world has no suffering.  But that contradicts 2, Suffering exists. Therefore, God must not exist.

For this argument to work, both 3 and 4 have to be necessarily true.  

3 - If God is all powerful, He can create any world 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.  That is as logically impossible as making a round square or a married bachelor.  God’s being all-powerful does not mean that He can bring about the logically impossible- indeed, there is not such “thing” as the logically impossible.  It’s just an inconsistent combination of words.

Great point to make with an atheist: If the unbeliever insists that an all-powerful being can do the logically impossible, then the problem of suffering evaporates immediately, for then God can bring it about that He and suffering both exist, even though this is logically impossible!

Since it’s possible that people have free will, it turns out that 3 is not necessarily true.  For if people have free will, they may refuse to do what God desires.  So there will be any number of possible worlds that God cannot create because the people in them wouldn't cooperate with God’s desires.  If fact, for all we know, it’s possible that in any world of free persons with as much good as this world, there would also be as much suffering.

Conclusion: This inference need not be true or even probable, but so long as it’s even logically possible, it shows that it is not necessarily true that God can create any world that He wants. 

4- If God is all-loving, He prefers a world without suffering.

- God could have overriding reasons for allowing the suffering in the world.
- Some goods, for example, moral virtues, can be achieved only through the free cooperation of people.
- It may 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.

Push the argument further: You can demonstrate that God and suffering are logically consistent.  All we have to do is come up with a statement that is consistent with God’s existence and entails that suffering exists.  

Here is such a statement:

5. 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.

It may well be that a world with as much good as the actual world, but with less suffering, wasn't an option. If statement 5 is even possibility true, it shows that it’s possible God and suffering both exist.  Surely, 5 is possibly true.

Evidential Version: “It’s improbable that God could have good reasons for permitting suffering.”

About the argument: This argument is always based on probabilities.  For example, one may claim that because of all the suffering in the world, God’s existence is unlikely.

a. Human Limitations- We’re not in a position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. 

As finite persons, we’re limited in space and time, in intelligence and insight.  God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially orders history to His ends through people’s free decisions and actions. In order achieve his purposes God may have to allow a great deal of suffering along the way.  Suffering that appears pointless within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted by God within His wider framework.

This is not to appeal to mystery but rather to point to our inherent limitations, which make it impossible for us to say, when confronted with some example of suffering, that God probably has no good reason for permitting it to occur.

b. The Full Scope of the Evidence- Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable.

- We have stronger reasons to believe God exists than we have to accept that the amount evil successfully calls His existence into question.  Since the Evidential argument is only probabilistic, we are rationally justified in concluding God does exist.

Consider just some of the arguments for God‘s existence:

1. The Cosmological Arguments
2. The Teleological Argument- fine-tuning of the universe and the information content in DNA
3. The Moral Argument
4. Validity of the Bible
5. Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection 
6. Argument from Religious Experience
7. The Ontological Argument- argument from being
8. Argument from Reason

- Evil is evidence for God’s existence.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, objective moral values exists (some things are evil).
4. Therefore, God exists.

Conclusion: The unbeliever may conclude that God’s existence is improbable relative to the suffering in the world alone but point out that this is just outweighed by the arguments for God’s existence.

c. Suffering Makes More Sense under Christian Doctrine- Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and suffering.

If the Christian God exists, then it’s not so improbable that suffering should also exist.  It actually turns out that the problem of suffering is easier to deal with given the Christian God rather than some bare-boned concept of God.  

Consider the following:

The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.

We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God- which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment.  Much of the suffering in life may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but it may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.  Because God’s ultimate goal for humanity is the knowledge of Himself-which alone can bring eternal happiness to people-history cannot be seen in its true perspective apart from the kingdom of God.

Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose.

The terrible human evils in the world are testimony to man’s depravity in his state of spiritual rebellion from God.  The Christian should not be surprised at the moral evil in the world, but expect it. (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28)

God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life.

The length of our finite lives are literally but a vapor in comparison with the eternal life we’ll spend with God. The longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life will seem insignificant.

2 Cor. 4:16-18- Paul imagines a scale in which all the suffering of this life is placed on one side, while on the other side is placed the glory that God will bestow upon His children in heaven.  And the weight of glory is so great that it is beyond comparison with the suffering.

Emotional Version: “I can’t believe in a God would permit suffering.”

For most, the problem of suffering is not really an intellectual problem, but an emotional problem.  However, it’s important to work through the intellectual problems of suffering because:

a. People think their problem is intellectual so by working through it with them we can respect their opinion and help them see the real issue.
b. The answers to the intellectual problems can be very helpful when God asks you to suffer through something.

- Many times, words don’t help.  Just silence, presence, and sharing tears.
- Understand that the God who is allowing the suffering had the guts to take His own medicine.  In other words, look to the cross.
- Encourage, don’t tear down.
- Be sensitive when quoting Bible verses.
- Pray

Courage and Godspeed,

1. Notes taken from William Lane Craig’s On Guard, Chapter 7: What about Suffering?, p. 147-173.

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