Thursday, August 15, 2019

That's a hard question to answer

Today, I had an extended back and forth with atheist video blogger (and actor) Scott Clifton. I wanted to post one bit of the exchange here because I address a very common type of question about the problem of evil.

Clifton: Can you name a good—any good—that can’t be brought about by an omnipotent being without millions of children being raped?

1. It's not uncommon in Q/A sessions where a Christian apologist is speaking to a college audience (or something like that) to be asked the kind of question where he prefaces his resonse by saying, "That's a hard question to answer." 

Now there are different motivations for an atheist to pose a question like that. Sometimes the atheist feels genuine moral outrage. I'd just say that atheists like that are intellectually shallow fools. They have no justification for their outrage.

Sometimes the question is designed to make the Christian apologist squirm. It's a wedge tactic. The objective is to expose cracks in the foundation of his faith. Push an apologist to the point where you show that he's conflicted about his theology.

2. It's important to draw a distinction between two different ways in which a question is hard to answer:

i) A question that's intellectually hard to answer

ii) A question that's emotionally hard to answer

Take someone who feels funny. Something's off. He goes to the doctor. Describes his symptoms. The doctor runs some tests and comes back with the results. The patient asks the doctor, "So what's wrong with me?" What did the tests reveal? Suppose the patient has a condition with a terrifying prognosis, viz. brain cancer, MS, ALS, Parkinson's, senile dementia. 

The question is easy to answer intellectually but hard to answer emotionally. The question has a correct answer. And it's not hard to find out what that is. 

But from the standpoint of human compassion and empathy, it's painful to break that news to the patient. His condition is hopeless and terrifying. 

3. Apropos (2), Clifton's question isn't a tough question to answer intellectually. A (theistic) universe with child-rape contains second-order goods that a universe without child-rape would not and could not contain. And not even an omnipotent being can produce a second-order good directly. In the nature of the case, some second-order goods necessarily require evil as a prior condition. Now, we could debate whether the value of certain second-order goods is sufficient to justify horrific evils required for their production, but that wasn't the question.  

The dilemma for a Christian apologist is that it may seem heartless to give an affirmative answer to that question. It may seem cold-blooded to offer an explanation. But that's like the dilemma of a physician who has heartbreaking news for his patient. And, frankly, if you're going to ask a Christian apologist a tough question, it's hypocritical to take offense if he gives you a tough answer.

4. In addition, it's important to draw another distinction:

i) A question that's hard to answer

ii) A question that's impossible to answer

Clifton's question has absolutely no impact on my Christian faith. That's because, while the problem of evil may be a hard question for the Christian to answer (whether intellectually or emotionally), it's an impossible question for the atheist to answer–and given a choice between hard answers and impossible answers, I have no difficulty preferring a position that's able to give answers, however painful, to a position that has no answers. Hard beats impossible every time.

In naturalism, nothing is morally good or bad. Some people have brains that tell them child rape is heinous while others have brains that tell them child rape is okay. It never rises above a human level. In naturalism, what makes the brain of a child rapist mistaken? Nature isn't normative. And secularists assure us that atypical natural variations (like homosexuality) are just as legit. That logic includes sociopaths.  

For that matter, we're just temporary, replaceable, interchangeable organisms. Like the fact that most baby animals don't survive to adulthood. They are eaten by predators. The universe is amoral. There's no way anything is suppose to be. Whether it's one way or another way is arbitrary.   

5. Finally, it's ultimately not my responsibility to answer for God. I just play the hand I was dealt. I don't need to feel defensive about angry, accusatory questions from knee-jerk atheists who don't think three steps deep. In my judgment, there are adequate answers to the problem of evil. And the secular alternative is sheer nihilism. But even if I was at a loss, at the end of the day it's up to God to explain his own actions. I'm just a pinch-hitter. 


  1. Steve said:
    Apropos (2), Clifton's question isn't a tough question to answer intellectually. A (theistic) universe with child-rape contains second-order goods that a universe without child-rape would not and could not contain.

    Indeed, with chaos theory (particularly the butterfly effect) this becomes even more intellectually feasible. In other words, the second-order good that may come about might not even come about for 10,000 years. When children are abused, it has a massive effect on how they will behave from that point forward. Given the fact that mathematically, you don't even have to go back very many generations to find a common ancestor among all humans in a nation (for demonstration, search "EVERY baby is a ROYAL baby - Numberphile" on YouTube), then we can say with certainty that the reason that *any* of us exists today is probably because of evil abuse against a child during the Roman Empire, because had that not happened the boy or girl would have grown up interacting with people differently and would have ended up in different relationships and the children they may have had would certainly not have been those that make up any of our lineages. For us, at least, it is clearly a second-order good that we exist instead of not existing. And we do not know what that effect rippling through time will have for future generations. But it clearly is not absurd to think that the sum total at the end will be a much better second-order good than anything that could have happened otherwise.

    Of course, none of that touches the emotional argument. Even intellectually knowing all the above, I still hate all the evil that has happened against me during the course of my lifetime. Evil causes genuine harm, which hurts those who experience it, and the pain doesn't just "go away" because there is a second-order good. I mean, in that sense it's no different than knowing that if you want to run faster you have to work out and train, and that will cause muscle pain. You don't have to work out--there's no moral compulsion to do so--but you may very well still endure the pain for the second-order good of being more fit. Knowing you will achieve a better good out of it doesn't make the pain go away, however. It just makes it worth going through.

  2. It was a gotcha question. Interestingly, Clifton didn't frame his question this way:

    "Can you name a good—any good—that can’t be brought about by an omnipotent being without millions of children being murdered before birth?"

  3. I maybe not be able to name a good that comes out of the situation, but it seems the atheist assumes there can never be one.