Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Emotional Problem of Evil

First, I’d like to thank James Lazarus for this cordial exchange and for showing that debates like this are possible between theists and atheists.

Laz responded to my comments to him on the problem of evil, here’s my reply:

Laz starts by giving a fair overview of my response to him, and then proceeds to point out some “problems” he has with my answers.

I should begin by pointing out that Laz notes this about my response:

“Paul’s solution is interesting in the sense that it promotes the notion of trust in God more so than many other attempted solutions to the problem do, while simultaneously offering a “broad solution” to the problem. I think this is a virtue of Paul’s attempted solution, not a vice.”

And I thank him for recognizing this facet of my approach (which is really not mine but many Christians throughout the ages, and I don’t think Hays would deny this facet as well, he just focused on a different perspective). Ultimately, this is where I end. I think the problem of evil debate will move to two opposite conclusions: one trusts God, the second does not. At this point, if one holds option two, they’re not so much bringing a problem of evil to bear, but they’re just offering an expression of their unbelieving attitude. At base, the problem of evil used as a reason not to believe in God is seen as just an expression of a pre-commitment to unbelief. Furthermore, I think the debate can be whittled down to the objector wanting to know why. Thus, the logical and evidential problem of evil boil down to a psychological problem of evil, which in turn boils down to an emotional problem of evil.

To call the objector’s problem an “emotional one” is not meant to be a slam, though. The emotional problem boils down to the cry which comes from the sub cockles of our heart when we experience evil: WHY! And, this is not just a problem for the unbeliever. The believer asks these questions as well. The believer hurts when children are molested. We weep when people’s homes are destroyed by hurricanes. Our heart also goes out to people, even if they’re not Christians. The Christian ultimately trusts in God. That His ways are right and Jehovah will always do right (Gen. 18:25). Without this assumption, then, as Bertrand Russell says in A Free Man’s Worship,

“The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. …Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness…”

The Christian then trusts in the Word of God, even though he may not have all the details, he still knows that evil is ordained for God’s glory, and that’s the highest end. Conversely, the position of those opting for the “second answer” is that those things “just happen” and that’s the price we pay for living in an inhospitable universe. Though the Christian may not be able to answer every little request as to how, precisely, a particular evil brought God glory, we still have a broad answer when the atheist has no answer. “That’s just the way it is” isn’t comforting. But, comforting feelings don‘t always make good arguments. I’ll turn to those below.

James Lazarus deals with two points I brought up and mentioned some of the problems he has with some of my answers to some of his questions. His first set of problems center around what I called “the broad solution” to Laz’s request that a theodicy is appropriate if, “assuming a theological value system, a higher-order good justifies or trumps the amount of suffering or evil that goes on in the world.” My “broad solution” was that “According to the Bible, God’s glory is the highest good. According to the Bible, God does all things for glory, that it might be manifested. And, so, we at least know that the highest order of good is God’s glory and that’s why He allows anything that we call evil to happen.”

His second set of problems (four of them) center around an answer of mine that Laz dubbed the “Epistemic access to the solution.” Basically what is entailed here is meant as a counter to the claim that Laz made (and also made by others) that if God does have a good reason for the evil He plans or allows, He should tell us what those are. Laz gave the example of a child in the hospital whose suffering is made better (or deemed acceptable, not evil, etc) because the parents and doctor are able to tell her the reasons she must suffer. My response here was two-fold: (a) the illustration is faulty, God is incalculably higher than us (both qualitatively and quantitatively, though I didn’t mention that in my response to Laz) and so the parent child analogy is disanalagous. The more appropriate analogy, I said, was that of Einstein teaching E=MC2 to an infant in her mother’s womb. And, (b) why assume that we could understand the answer even if God did tell it to us? James mentions some problems he has with that and so I’ll deal with those when I address “The Epistemic Access Solution” below. But in both cases I don’t think he fully appreciated how my answer can ably answer many of the questions he posed, and I also think many of his questions, based on his intuitions, begged the question against my answers. First, let’s look at his problems with “the epistemic access solution” because I think that many of Laz’s problems with “the broad solution” were answered or addressed by the “epistemic access solution” and thus many of Laz’s “problems” beg the question.

The Epistemic Access Solution

Basically, this solution says that those who request specific details about how God was glorified in a particular instance of ‘evil’ or ‘suffering’ are assuming that they would understand the answer if it were given to them. Laz construes me as saying that the solution is that “we may not be able to comprehend the details, because the scope of human knowledge may not extend far enough.” But this isn’t a totally accurate portrayal. I’ll take the blame for being unclear (even though I was giving a partial response!) and thus take this opportunity to expand and clarify my thesis.

It’s not just that “the scope of human knowledge may not extend far enough,” but there’s also a qualitative difference between God’s knowledge and ours. Because of our finitude, there are just some things that we may never be able to comprehend, or grasp. Furthermore, this restatement of my position assumes that the problem is merely intellectual. But Scripture teaches that we are sinful, that we hate God (cf. Luke 16:13; Romans 1:30, 8:7; etc). So there’s an ethical problem with our knowledge (Ephesians 4:17-18). Therefore in some instances it’s not that we don’t have the noetic resources, or the cognitive abilities to know something, it’s rather that we don’t want to know. So, in some instances we may not be able to understand because we don’t want to understand. Because of our hatred for God we “won’t let God speak.” In some instances, because we are the creature and God is the Creator, we just can’t understand (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29; Isaiah 55:8, etc) . Actually, unlike knowledge about other humans, I think that the more we learn about God the greater the gap between us becomes. The more I study under, say, John Frame, the more he comes down to my level. The more I’m able to see some errors of his. The more I question some of his assumptions and admit he doesn’t have all the answers. But when I first began to study under him (even though I haven‘t, this is an illustration), I was in awe in that he was just so knowledgeable about things. This is not the case with God. The more I learn about Him and His ways, the more I stand in awe. The more I learn about God the greater the gap between Him and I becomes. So, I hope the above was clear in showing that I didn’t mean that we might not be able to understand why God does what he does in a quantitative sense, i.e., that God just “knows more stuff than us.”

There are four problems Laz finds with the epistemic access solution. I’ll run through them in order:

1. We should be able to figure out why God allows evil: First, Laz straight up denies that we wouldn’t be able to understand God’s reasons. He writes that the “only thing that we would need to discover is exactly how evil relates to God’s glory, and the nature of this question does not seem so complex that we could not in principle figure it out.” Indeed, writes Laz, “the question itself, and all of the aspects involved, seem simple enough that we can comprehend the situation and whatever [correct] answer we would be given.” (I think much of this ignores what was mentioned above, but that’s because Laz didn’t have “access” to my more robust formulation!) But let me first say that as a comeback I’ll just deny this criteria. I’ll just say, “No we don’t need to know exactly how evil relates to God’s glory. All we need to know is that God has told us that it is indeed for His glory, God cannot lie, and so there’s a morally sufficient reason for the evil he plans and allows.” So, knowing that there’s a morally sufficient reason is all that I need to know. The fact that I don’t know all the details does not logically imply that there isn’t a morally sufficient reason for the evil around us. The simple fact that there is a morally sufficient reason is all the theist needs to avoid any charge of internal incoherence, and since the problem of evil is an internal critique, all that’s needed to avoid it is to show that there’s an internal answer, internal coherence. The fact that I don’t know exactly what that is, does not strike me as problematic. Stated another way, I’m saying the knowledge we do have is enough. God tells me that he has a morally sufficient reason and, trusting His word, I find that acceptable. So, I throw the burden back on to Laz and ask him why I must know “exactly how God is glorified from ordaining and allowing evil and suffering.” Why isn’t the knowledge that there is a morally sufficient reason, enough?

Next, to ask “how exactly evil relates to God’s glory” runs into a whirlwind. That is, we’ve already been over this assumption thousands of years ago. In the book of Job we read about Job wanting to “know exactly how God allows evil.” Job realized that this is actually an immoral thing to ask. Job wanted an interview with God, and Job got it. He realized the he could not contend with the Almighty. Job comes to this conclusion: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job. 42:3). Thus it appears that given what we find in Job, as well as my argument about our knowledge and God’s, shows that according to the Bible man can not know all the details as to why God allows suffering. To assert that he can, then, begs the question. Since the problem of evil is an internal critique, Laz’s claim that we can know the reason takes for granted that my answer is false. But this is not how an internal critique works. Stated another way, given all the premises of my worldview, if they are accepted, there’s no problem of evil.

Also, we can be a bit more robust than just saying that evil promotes God’s glory. So, I’d like to also take Laz’s challenge head on and show more specific answers to how evil and suffering manifest God’s glory. (As an aside, one might be tempted to ask for even more detail than I’m about to give. To that request I simply refer the reader to the arguments above.) God uses evil to test his servants (cf. 1 Peter 1:7; James 1:3), to discipline them (Hebrews 12:7-11), to preserve their life (Genesis 50:20), to enable them to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), and to give them greater joy when suffering is replaced by glory (1 Peter 4:13). (The above Scriptural examples were taken from John Frame’s “Doctrine of God,” pg. 170.) All of these specific second-order goods bring God more glory, and these are achieved by His allowing suffering and evil.

Lastly, Laz’s talk about what he can and can’t conceive is vague and ambiguous. What is meant by “conceivability?” It can mean many things. For example, it can mean what is “coherently supposed.” This is a question of possibility and impossibility. So, is Laz trying to argue that it is impossible that God could gain glory by allowing evil? If so, where’s his proof form such a strong modal claim? There’s nothing obviously incoherent in the notion either. The two propositions don’t entail a contradiction on any reading I’m aware of. Does Laz just mean that he can’t understand how God could do so? If so, how does this not beg the question against the epistemic access solution? Lastly, when our conceptions run counter to God’s word, God wins (Romans 3:4).

2. God should have made us different: Here Laz writes, “let’s say that I’m wrong. Let’s say that the scope of human knowledge could not, in fact, understand the specific details of how evil states of affairs lead to God’s glory.” He then brings us back to analogy of the patient who needs to suffer for something good to happen. He says,

“Let’s say that the young girl simply does not understand medical practices or research, and she must understand medical practices and research in order to understand why she must go through the painful treatment that her parents and doctor are putting her through.”

But here I must point out that even if she didn’t understand the medical procedure, that would not make the procedure something through which good does not occur. Laz must justify the hidden premise that “if we don’t understand how allowing an act of evil results in a greater good, that it in fact doesn’t result in a greater good.” In other words, my answer that God allows and ordains evil for His glory does not hinge upon our ability to know how He does this. In fact, the greatest evil that ever took place, the death of Jesus Christ, God foreordained that event (Acts 2:23) and this resulted in a greater good (Isaiah 53), and God was pleased to do this because this brought Him glory (Ephesians 1:11-14). When Jesus’ death occurred, people did not know that the Christ had to suffer and die, they found out after (e.g., Luke 24:25-26). Thus their lack of knowledge had no bearing upon the fact that God allowed evil for His glory.

Continuing with his analogy Laz writes, “I think it is fair to say that the compassionate doctor and her parents would teach her what she needed to understand, in order to grasp her predicament and gain assurance of why she has to endure what she does.” But again, this is disanalogous. They can only teach her if she could understand. So, it begs the question against my “epistemic access solution.” Furthermore, why don’t we have enough information? Indeed, many patients still do not want done what the doctor prescribes. Sometimes they just need to be told, “trust me, this is for your own good.” But, the Bible does tell us why the believer must endure what the believer endures: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). I will address the suffering of unbelievers below. But, again, that God would glorify sinners who hate Him brings Him glory. And, again, I do not know how, exactly, all this works out. Laz seems to think that we should. I don’t think he’s made his case, though. I also don’t think we could understand it all anyway.

It is to this last answer that Laz asks, “Out of God’s compassion for us, why not simply give us the intellectual capabilities required to understand why suffering is necessary?” As I argued above, though, there are certain limitations that, because of our creatureliness, we just can’t know the way God knows, or inquire into his infinite plan. Furthermore, I already think we know enough, e.g., God ordains and allows evil for His glory. I’ve also provided some other biblical reasons for which God tells us he uses suffering. But at the end of the day, we need to trust in the word of the all-knowing, all wise, all-good, all-just, perfect God of the Bible, who was even pleased to bruise His own Son, to bring about His Glory. So, God leads by example.

3. God should respond to our demands for an answer: In Laz’s third point he claims that, “It’s the demand to answer trivial questions, and to demand the answer before converting or trusting God, that is a senseless and unfair thing to do.” But with respect to the questions about evil and suffering Laz “[does] not regard the problem of suffering as a trivial problem.” And so God should, since he’s revealed information about some trivial things, give us “the reason for why people suffer terribly in the world?” And, “So is it really unfair to desire somewhat specific details?” I’d like to make three brief comments. (a) Laz asks God to “give us the reasons why people suffer.” But I’d say my broad solution covers this. The reason is for His glory. (b) Laz asks for “somewhat specific details.” But I’d say that this is different than “a reason.” So, why assume that “a reason” is not enough and “specific details” should be given? (c] Lastly, we do not have the right to “demand” an answer from God. I am not “obligated” to give my 6 year old “specific details” as to why I send him to bed at a reasonable hour, no matter how much he suffers for not getting to watch the 7:30 showing of Sponge Bob Square Pants! How much more then is God not “obligated” to answer our “demands?” God requires that we trust His ways. To want to question God assumes that His say-so that suffering has a morally sufficient reason is not good enough. And so this isn’t so much a reason for not believing in God as it is a restatement of unbelief.

4. What a compassionate God would, or wouldn't, do: James’ last problem with the epistemic access solution is “that [maybe] we wouldn’t have to demand anything to begin with. The doctor, out of compassion, would try to give the young girl assurance, without any unfair demands from the young girl herself.” But we do have “assurance.” We are “assured” that God “works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28). As far as “assuring” the girl with “specific reasons” for what the doctor does, this assumes the girl is able to understand the reasons. Even as parents we have given our children the answer that they’ll “just have to trust us.”

Let’s say, though, for arguments sake, that one needed to have the I.Q. of, say, Albert Einstein to be able to grasp why God allows suffering. Is Laz seriously suggesting that God make us all Einsteins? Even 2 year olds suffer and know they’re hurting. Does Laz mean to say that all two-year olds should have the intelligence of Albert Einstein? Well, I think that once we start trying to “improve” upon God’s creation we end up on a slippery slope. In fact, I once read something from an atheist, who will remain unnamed, that God should have made us with wings so that we wouldn’t fall to our deaths!

Lastly, it’s quite possible that the “compassionate” thing is to tell us just enough so that we trust God. I don’t think we can impose our idea of compassion on God, especially when we’re not privy to all of the facts. I think my above analogy was somewhat on track. My son thinks he’s “suffering” when he has to go to bed. We see things a bit differently from our perspective. Nevertheless, my son appears to be suffering (he may cry, etc). Now, would I be “uncompassionate” if I did not tell him the specific details of why I want him to go to bed early? As he gets older, he will be able to look back and see that it was actually for his good that I sent him to bed at a reasonable hour. Analogously, when we look back after we’ve been fully matured (i.e., glorified) we may see that it was for our good and that God was not “uncompassionate” for not “telling us the details.” And, we must also recognize, that God is not merely compassionate. He’s also just. He’s also the Lord. Thus ends my response to and defense of the epistemic access solution.

The Broad Solution

Laz admits that the “broad solution” (i.e., that God allows and plans evil with the ultimate end of His Glory in sight) “would be a solution to the problem of suffering, if not for what [he] think[s] is a conceptual problem.” And just what is this “conceptual problem?” Laz states that, “Allowing great amounts of evil seems to be antithetical to glory.” He asks whether God, “in the event that he could either allow or disallow a tidal wave to kill all of his followers allowed it to happen,” could “promote his glory” in this way when “it’s clear that [God’s] allowing the tidal wave to kill his followers in no way promotes his glory. What would promote his glory is his saving his followers from the tidal wave, from their deaths and their suffering.” And so Laz’ problem “is a conceptual problem of how suffering can possibly lead to glory.” That is, Laz can’t conceive of how God could possibly be glorified by causing and allowing suffering.

I’ve already dealt with the ambiguity and vagueness of Laz’s idea that it’s “inconceivable” how God could be glorified by allowing evil and suffering. I also think this begs the question against the epistemic access argument. I’ve also addressed that this “conceptual problem” does not disprove that God could, in fact, be allowing evil and suffering for both second and first order goods. Truth isn’t confined into what we can “conceive.” And for these reasons I think the “conceptual problem” is not a valid problem and so I think Laz should say that this is “a solution to the problem of suffering.’

But, let me add something else. Above I gave many examples of how God uses evil and suffering for good in the lives of believers. I also pointed out that this is all for God’s glory. So, given that view, the apostle Paul could say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). God uses suffering for many reasons. Different people and situations require different amounts of suffering. For one believer God may sanctify him by giving him a couple of flat tires in his life. Another he may sanctify by giving him some physical defect. Another he may take his life. And all of this is not as bad vis-à-vis Job. He needed to be rocked. Take the suffering of Joni Erickson Tada. She’s a Christian who was paralyzed at a very young age. She rejoices in her suffering, knowing that God did this for His glory. To paraphrase Joni Erickson Tada, God allows that which he hates in the short term in order to accomplish that which He loves in the long-term. This is a woman who says that when she gets to heaven she will run up and thank Jesus for putting her in a wheelchair! Tada uses a beautiful illustration in one of her books. Suppose you have an expensive diamond, which you wish to display. How do you optimally enhance its beauty? Would you imbed it in hundreds of diamonds? No. You place it as a solitaire on a dark cloth. Then, you direct a single spotlight on it which reflects its beauty to the fullest.
Joni believes that her paralyzed “earth suit” creates just such a dark backdrop through which Christ may be seen. This brings great credibility to Jesus Christ's worthiness to be praised as the lost and saved alike marvel at her behavior in her circumstances! They think, "Where does she get such strength?" So, God uses our suffering to Glorify Himself.

But I think there’s a deeper confusion Laz has. This isn’t his fault, it just stems from an unfamiliarity with some biblical concepts. Laz says that God would be glorified more by “saving people.” But first, we must ask how he knows this? To have information about God like this one would need to have revelation. More importantly, though, is that God glorifies Himself “cross attributinally.” That is to say, God is no less glorified in His love than in His wrath. In Christianity, God’s wrath and justice are glorified just as much as His love and wisdom. Indeed, would not a perfect human judge receive glory for rendering wise and just punishments? How much more then the exemplar of righteousness? John Piper puts it this way: “It is God’s supreme commitment to uphold and display the full range of His glory through the sovereign demonstrations of all His perfections, including his wrath and mercy…”

And so in the suffering of both believer and unbeliever, God is glorified. This is the highest-order good. And therefore within Christianity, there is no problem of evil. To the extent that there is a “problem of evil” the objector will either assume a non-biblical view of God and so won’t be attacking the Christian worldview, or the problem will be an emotional one. Both Christians and non-Christians share this problem But why is there an emotional problem? Why is it that we scream, “WHY!” I submit that the scream is pointless given evolutionary naturalism. I submit that you take your emotional case to Christ, trust in Him. It’s either that or Russell’s “omnipotent matter” that rolls over us and makes our problems insignificant. In an atheistic worldview the answer to “WHY!” is… “WHO CARES!”

And so with the above I think I've answered Laz request for what constitutes an acceptable theodicy.


  1. :::YAWN!!!:::

    (you claim the 'Christian' worldview, but yours is only one of thousands of 'Christian' worldviews, and there is no reason to accept yours above any of the other drones)

  2. In an atheistic worldview the answer to “WHY!” is… “WHO CARES!”

    No, in a christian worldview it is "Suffering, WHO CARES....Im going to heaven!!!"

    triple the yawn.

  3. :::SNORE!!!:::

  4. John loftus, when you were a Christian apologist did you publish in any theological journals or elsewhere, your work on the problem of email?

  5. Paul,

    Not to be the bearer of ill tidings, but you just got your big ol' presupp butt handed to you...again...over at:


  6. John Loftus, you said - "But if God is as omniscient as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world too..."

    I have a serious question, John. Would this "better world" include or exclude people who told other people that they would beat their wives?

  7. heh, what a dork you are. ^

  8. I dont know if this really has any meening but Paul I read your testimony some time ago. I was really happy for you, that you found peace. That is really good. I found joy that you were given a love for souls. I dont think we would be friends in "real life" because we come from such different worlds. I was usually on the recieving end of violence. I did try to defend myself. But I can see God did a work in you. For what its worth, stick with your work in the real world. I think this Cyber world can draw us away. I do wish you and your family the very best.

  9. hey sister sarah,

    not to be the bearer of bad news, but your boy, bethrick, got his lunch fed to him. All I can say is, WOW! Now THAT'S a butt-whooping!

  10. I wasn't aware that "Snore, ZZZ, Yawn" was a logical argument. But I'm tottering on the brink of deconversion under the powerful force of this response.

    I just wanted to add (which has probably been brought out many times elsewhere) that atheism cannot provide a framework in which evil or suffering should be troublesome at all, or account for our emotional/intellectual response to it, because they cannot provide a basis for something to be morally right or wrong. Also to add that the atheists I have interacted with or read in the past (with the exception of one) insist strongly on their own free will and right to disobey God which is exactly what they have as operative in the 'problem of evil'. God really did give us a real world where we could make real decisions that have real consequences. We freely chose to subvert the good order of creation by rebelling against Him and got evil (the doctrine of God's sovereignty does not negate man's freedom: God doesn't somehow force us to choose contrary to our own desires). To further reject Him for making us with that real capacity for decisions with real consequences is simply to exercise that capacity to further the evil in the world, and it is moreover to be inconsistent -- you can't blame God for not making you a robot, when a robot is exactly what you would blame God for having made you.

  11. Incorporating biblical and psychological aspects of emotional problem will surely cause a friction with other religious groups and atheists. I hope this won't escalate into an ugly debate of faith.