Is There Gratuitous Suffering?

A new interlocutor, G. Ehrlich, has engaged me in comments on the previous post on a range of matters. But, in his view, the main matters are these:

Consider the point I made about what I take to be involved in “reasonable deliberation” (as opposed to “dogmatic insistence on the truth of the initial premises). I suggested that reasonable deliberation generally involves not (or not simply) holding premises for which one has further evidences (I granted that you had this) but also “an openness both to the possibility of contrary evidence (at least when we’re talking about substantive premises such as the one you offer) and to the contrary evidence itself, with corresponding willingness to revise one’s confidence in one’s former premises.” I offered this characterization to further motivate the questions I had just previously asked: “Can you imagine encountering anything that would count for you as evidence that we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? Is there nothing that counts against all your supposed evidence for that initial premise?”

We have yet to hear your answer to these questions. They are, at least to my mind, particularly pressing insofar as you apparently reject what I suppose most thinkers would regard as rather strong prima facie evidence to the contrary: the prolonged suffering of a baby deer in some remote forest just before it dies in isolation from all witnesses. Given your apparent rejection of such prima facie evidence (we find this rejection in your insistence that such suffering either never occurs or that its avoidance would be like squaring a circle), what could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds?

I think we share a lot of common ground here. We agree, for example, that one ought to have good reasons for what one believes or, at least, be able to reply adequately to challenges to that belief. We agree that if one cannot adequately defend one’s beliefs, including one’s premisses, one ought to change one’s beliefs, or premisses, or something. One shouldn’t just keep believing things that one cannot adequately defend.

But let’s stop there for a moment. Why shouldn’t I be entitled to keep believing things that I cannot adequately defend?

Suppose, for example, I believe something because I have believed it all my life and it seems to make good sense of whatever it is it is supposed to describe or explain. It seems to fit the facts. Perhaps it is, in fact, true. So when someone comes along and offers apparently strong arguments against my belief, I could certainly accede to those arguments and give up my belief. But couldn’t I also decide that, while the arguments against my belief certainly seem sound for the moment, perhaps they are not as sound as they appear? Perhaps, in fact, they are not sound at all, and I am just not sophisticated enough to see immediately why they are not sound. Indeed, since my belief has seemed to me to be true for quite a long time and over quite a number of relevant circumstances, wouldn’t it be rather reckless of me to drop a belief simply because I can’t defend it well right now? Wouldn’t such an attitude dispose me to credulity and even abuse at the hands of magicians or charlatans or con men or preachers of false doctrines?

When I think, furthermore, that lots of apparently capable people hold to that belief also, it would seem reckless indeed to drop that belief simply because I can’t defend it adequately, for perhaps some of them can. Indeed, isn’t it very likely that some of them can, since it is exceedingly unlikely that I am now encountering a brand new, devastating argument never before encountered and handled well by any of my fellow-believers? So perhaps I might ask around a bit, do some reading, get some expert counsel, before I drop my belief at the first sign of serious trouble.

That’s what a scientist ought to do. That’s what a scholar of any discipline ought to do. That’s what any rational person ought to do.

Still, Brother Ehrlich and I agree, I’m sure, that to postpone the day of reckoning is one thing, but to blithely shrug off potential defeaters to one’s belief is quite another. Honesty requires one to grant opposing evidence and argument proper recognition and to deal with them in accordance with their evident power. Trivial challenges can properly be swatted away in hopes they buzz off and don’t return. Serious challenges deserve serious answers, however, and no religion or philosophy is worth much if it cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.

Such a religion or philosophy is especially contemptible, moreover, if it advises its practitioners to avoid proper investigation of the challenges in the name of “faith.” Such a reflexive resistance to probing questions isn’t really faith, since faith is trust in something or someone grounded in what one believes about that something or someone. No, faith that silences all doubts and questions isn’t faith–it’s fanaticism. And Brother Ehrlich and I agree that fanaticism is a Bad Thing.

In the particular instance before us, however, I don’t feel terribly troubled by Brother Ehrlich’s challenge. Understandably, that puzzles him, since the suffering little deer seems to be a pretty good challenge.

Now, among the many things on which Brother Ehrlich and I agree is perhaps a surprising one, namely, the concept of God. More specifically, we agree that the suffering of a baby deer to no adequately good purpose counts against belief in an all-good, all-powerful God. (This objection to theism is what is technically called the problem of “gratuitous” evil.)

Not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, the idea of a Deity who creates the universe and then steps away to let it run without caring for its members. Not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, the idea of a vague, impersonal Force that births the cosmos but has no interest in it. And not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, Harold (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) Kushner’s well-meaning-but-inadequate God who can’t manage the world very well, and especially its evil. No, we agree on what is in truth a Biblical view of God, a God truly  worthy of worship who cares about the welfare of all creatures, including a baby deer dying painfully and alone.

So how can I possibly maintain my belief in such a God in the face of a fact like the suffering deer? That, I take it, is Brother Ehrlich’s fundamental question. And the answer to that question is a combination of theodical arguments (which I think get us pretty far in imagining why an all-good, all-powerful God might have made and then maintained a universe such as ours) plus strong grounds to believe that God is indeed all-good and all-powerful even if God appears not to be–as I grant that God frequently and terribly has appeared not to be.

Those strong grounds go well beyond theodicy, for I have not found theodicy–for all its virtues–to be adequate to sustain belief in the kind of God Brother Ehrlich and I have in mind. Here is, I expect, yet another point on which we agree, namely, that theodicies don’t fully do the job they are intended to do. They really don’t fully justify the ways of God to human beings.

The strong grounds I have beyond theodicy, then, are the grounds to believe the following syllogism, which I’ll call Syllogism A:

Major premise: Jesus is good.

Minor premise: Jesus is God.

Conclusion: God is good.

If I have grounds to believe that Jesus is good and I have grounds to believe that Jesus is God, then it follows that God is good. Therefore, either there is no such thing in the real world (rather than in the imaginations of Brother Ehrlich and me) as a baby deer suffering forlornly or there is in fact a good reason for it  to suffer thus–in fact, a good enough reason to justify it suffering thus, even if such a reason remains opaque to our understanding.

What I did not make as clear earlier as I hope I am making now is that precisely since Brother Ehrlich and I seem to agree on so many things pertaining to this question, I could respond as I did because I believe the following syllogism also, which I’ll call Syllogism B:

Major Premise (from Syllogism A): God is good.

Minor Premise: Gratuitous evil is inconsistent with divine goodness.

Conclusion: There is no such thing as gratuitous evil.

I fully grant, and have fully granted in the previous post and comments, that to look at the world–not just at hypothetical baby deer but at actual children in cancer wards or actual victims of the latest natural disaster–is to look at abundant reasons to doubt the goodness and power of God. People have looked at the world since, well, ever and we have called God to account.

So how can good and wise people still believe in (such a) God? The reason they have faith is that they believe they have knowledge enough to justify their faith. They believe both that they know enough of the right sort of things about God and that they actually know God in personal acquaintance that they are willing to trust God anyway.

In the face of the world’s evil–or even just the evil in your own life–it would take a lot to believe in God. But that’s what Christians think they possess: beliefs about God + experience of God that combine into a sort of intellectual-cum-existential cumulative case to keep believing in God despite powerful appearances to the contrary.

I haven’t provided those grounds here, of course. I do that at some length elsewhere on this weblog and in my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil. But I write what I do now because the structure of my reasoning was obviously unclear to Brother Ehrlich (and Sister Rebekah!), and I felt his serious questioning deserved a serious answer.

Given that structure, finally, I want to return to Brother Ehrlich’s last question: “What could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds?”

Since the centre of Christian belief is, unsurprisingly, Christ (and not, I should perhaps point out, “God-in-general,” for Christians are not mere “theists” but Christians), evidence that assails the Church’s Scripture and tradition about the nature and work of Jesus Christ would count decisively, crushingly, categorically against my claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds.

So: reasons to doubt the veracity of the Bible or reasons to doubt the Church’s traditional interpretation of the Bible in regard particularly to the identity and mission of Jesus would suffice entirely to destroy Christian confession. If Jesus can be shown not to have existed, or to have been a bad man, or to have been mentally ill, or to have taught a religion or philosophy quite different from what the New Testament says he taught, or to have escaped the Cross (as Islam teaches), or to have not escaped the grave–any of those would show that the Christian faith is a giant mistake.

Since, however, I believe that the evidence supporting the basic Christian picture is confirmed–quite massively, in fact–then I don’t harbor particularly strong intellectual worries about the goodness of God and, in particular, about gratuitous evil.

To be sure, I get angry with God at times for not running the world the way I wish he would. I positively rail against suffering in my life, or in the lives of those I love. And please don’t pass over this point too quickly: I do feel the apparent absurdity of a wonderfully good and powerful God letting my mother, for instance, struggle almost to death with cancer, and my father die of a massive heart attack twenty-five years younger than did his father or grandfather. I’m not playing around when it comes to this question in particular, despite whatever jocular tone I might occasionally adopt.

I feel badly even about a hypothetical baby deer. And I think I am supposed to feel badly about these things. Suffering is BAD. It’s not disguised good. And one day, the Bible promises, suffering will end . . . for all of creation, including baby deer.

Therefore, since I have very good reason–intellectual and existential–to believe that God is good, because I have very good reason to believe that Jesus is good and Jesus is God, then I carry on believing that such a God would allow not one atom of unnecessary (= gratuitous) evil into his cosmos.

I am not shutting my ears, or eyes, or brain, or heart against contrary evidence or argument. I’m just saying it would take an awful lot of evidence and argument to convince me at this point in my life that Jesus isn’t good or that Jesus isn’t God. That is the core issue, and on that core issue, I’m pretty convinced.

0 Responses to “Is There Gratuitous Suffering?”

  1. Apostatulo Eluzita

    Sounds like Stockholm syndrome to me. It is a well-known feature of human psychology that people will excuse and even love an abuser after horrendous torture if the abuser then offers the slightest comfort.

    I say that you excuse the most horrendous suffering on yours and billions of other humans and conscious creatures’ parts because of a few minutes of imagined spiritual fulfilment.

  2. Apostatulo Eluzita

    And your syllogism is deductively sound, but inductively absurd. You have the overwhelmingly abundant evidence of suffering all around you against the hearsay of some nutters two millennia ago.

    Who are you going to believe, some failed revolutionaries who couldn’t handle the idea that their leader got tortured to death, or your own lyin’ eyes?

  3. M

    Brilliant and gracious rebuttal to some difficult questions. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight on these issues, Prof Stackhouse!

  4. poetreehugger

    I read this post with interest and growing satisfaction. I am a Christian, sometimes slightly doubting, therefore often examining, and so far always finally confirming the basic tenets of Christian faith.

    I remember my eyes passing over a book on a bookstore shelf because it questioned the traditional interpretation of the Biblical records, then going back to that book and actually purchasing it and reading it because I refused to avoid it for fear it might shake my faith. If I believe what I believe to be true, I should never fear a search for truth.

    It is the lucidity and logic of thinkers such as Professor Stackhouse, who can express what I find difficult to verbalize, that are an encouragement to me in my continuing search for continuing truth.

    Thank you.

  5. D.J. Brown

    After all of the useful academic debate, one invariably faces the personal decision, to use Stackhouse’s phrase, “Will I trust God ‘anyway’, yes or no?”
    Now in my old age, after a lifetime of research, doubt and Christian faith, I have yet to discover any possible third option.

  6. Spencer Capier

    I get slightly itchy when we differentiate ‘gratuitous’ suffering and suffering that somehow leads to a ‘greater good.’ I don’t feel comfortable with the evangelical push to assign even great evil to God’s ultimate plan.

    I mean forget the little baby deer, how about the billions of gallons of blood shed through billions of years of evolution and natural selection? Suffering and Death are not incidental, but neither are they (could they?) be intended by a loving God.

    Can God’s omnipotence allow for a neutral background of suffering, like gravity or entropy? Would this allow, like Viktor Frankle suggests in “Man’s Search for Meaning” a place for us to choose our own meaning for our trials? Would the deer be given such an opportunity as well? The infant? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m genuinely curious.

  7. C. Ehrlich

    Prof. Stackhouse offers a generous response and a newly charitable approach to our dialogue. Since I am to him an anonymous stranger mostly offering only criticism, I find his efforts here especially commendable. Although I could affirm and even expand upon our many points of probable agreement, what I will say in response will again be mostly critical. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on those aspects of Prof. Stackhouse’s statement that I find dubious or puzzling. Please understand that the comments that follow target only the professor’s stated reasoning. If they or their implications come across as pointed, it is only because I seek to make the ideas clear and concise. I take for granted the professor’s own integrity as a scholar to provide him not only with ample cushioning, but also an appreciation for critical feedback and the opportunity to clarify, if not improve, his own thinking.

    Professor Stackhouse,

    (1) Upon a closer review, I expect that you will readily see that your reasoning in the following statement is obviously invalid: “If I have grounds to believe that Jesus is good and I have grounds to believe that Jesus is God, then it follows that God is good.” It is generally conceded that one may have grounds for believing something that is in fact false (one may have good, or even decisive, grounds for believing something which, as it turns out, is actually false). This is no mere quibble, as the logical gap that arises between your Syllogism A and the above quoted explanation of that syllogism would explain a more general problem with your overall reasoning as a response to my questions. The logical gap, let’s be clear, is the gap between (a) your having grounds (or evidence) for believing a premise, and (b) the premise being true. As we will see, many worries come to light when we return the focus to your evidence/grounds for believing the premises of your syllogisms. My questions, as you will recall, had to do with evidences.

    (2) Evidence or grounds for believing in a given premise obviously comes in many kinds and degrees. We may say that one’s evidence for a given belief or premise is partial, strong, or decisive. Evidence for a given premise might be just strong enough to justify a sort of cautious, provisional belief in it, or it may be so strong and obvious as to render it unreasonable for anyone to fail to believe it. It isn’t exactly clear what you take to be the quality or force of that evidence to be. Towards the more modest extreme, you could say that your evidence is at least good enough as to not render him completely unreasonable in believing the various propositions. Towards the ambitious end, you might claim that your evidence is so solid that it establishes a decisive case for your final conclusion.

    (3) However strong your evidence might be for particular premises in your syllogisms, your final conclusion (that there is no gratuitous evil) rests upon the strength of your evidence that ALL your premises are together true. As a result, the strength of your evidence for your final conclusion will assuredly be much weaker than the strength of your evidence for individual premises.

    (4) A (valid) deductive argument—such as your syllogisms A and B—conducts the force of the evidence in more than one direction. Just as you suggest, if you have evidence that God is good, and you have evidence that God’s being good precludes gratuitous evil, then—by the deductive connection—you have evidence against gratuitous evil. However, if you have evidence that there is gratuitous evil (or that ours is not the best of all possible worlds) then—by the same deductive connection—you also have evidence that either God is not good or that God’s being good doesn’t preclude gratuitous evil.

    (5) When answering my question about what could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds, you only mentioned evidence counting more or less directly against the premises of your syllogisms (e.g. reasons to doubt that Jesus is good, or that Jesus is God), and only indirectly against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds. What is striking is what you don’t concede: that there is, or could be, less indirect evidence that ours is not the best of all possible worlds. Is there for you no actual (or even imaginable) horror more directly about the natural world that wouldn’t count as evidence that it isn’t the best of all possible worlds?

    (6) If your answer to my last question in (5) is “no,” then this should help to explain my previous suggestion that your position seems to involved a “dogmatic insistence on the truth of the initial premises”—an insistence that perhaps arises because you either leap the logical gap identified in (1), or you have rendered your assessment of your evidences for those premises with a sort of dogmatic prematurity, thereby illicitly preempting the possibility of relevant counterevidence. That logical leap or dogmatic preemption would explain (without justifying) your otherwise very curious insistence that either (i) baby deer do not suffer alone in distant forests, or that (ii) preventing any such suffering would be like squaring a circle, or that (iii) it would adversely affect our world should any such suffering be reduced for even one baby animal by even one minute!

    (7) If, on the other hand, your answer to my last question in (5) is “yes,” then, by the relation of evidence and deduction observed in (4), this should influence your assessment of your overall grounds for believing in the very premises that supported your conclusion that there is no gratuitous evil. This influence should probably correspond to some alteration in the degree of confidence with which you believe that final conclusion (as well, perhaps, as the premises that you use to deductively support it). This would be an indication of what I called “reasonable deliberation.”

  8. C. Ehrlich

    Sorry for the double negative in my key question under point #5. It should read:

    Is there not any horror (actual or even imaginable) more directly about the natural world that would count for you as evidence that ours isn’t the best of all possible worlds?

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks for this response.

      I’m not sure of the force of #1, since you understood, correctly, me to say, “I believe I have good grounds to say…” about both the major and minor premisses of Syllogism A, so OF COURSE the same qualification applies to the Conclusion. I’m not arguing that I’m certain about the conclusion, just convinced of it.

      What we’re finally talking about is whether the evidence or grounds or warrants (broadly understood) for Syllogism A are such that they outweigh the powerful sense we all have that God must not be either all-good or all-powerful given the amount of evil, and particularly instances of apparently gratuitous evil, in the world. I think there are such grounds and you, it seems, do not. But it’s not as if my position or attitude is immune to counterargument: I just don’t find the counterargument compelling–namely, that the evil in the world is such as to defeat belief in God.

      That’s why I’m not terribly moved by reference to the baby deer–not in light of the Black Death or HIV/AIDS or the K-T extinction or Stalin or Mao. There are a billion stronger reasons than the baby deer to believe that God is not all-good or all-powerful. So far, at least, I haven’t found those good reasons sufficient to outweigh my understanding and experience of Jesus–the one who assures me that God is good despite manifest appearances to the contrary.

      So you ask whether I can imagine any instances of horror so great that they would shake my faith. But why imagine? If the horrors of the real world aren’t enough, then imaginary horrors won’t likely do the job, either. No, I have already indicated the kinds of counterarguments that would not only shake my faith, but blast it to bits: evidences that Jesus is NOT who I have understood him to be and did NOT do what I have understood him to do.

      I’m sorry to have to repeat myself, but OF COURSE I agree with you that it seems like God could ameliorate the suffering in the world without some great cost to the universe (as you put it) or some great compromise of his divine plan (as I put it). But just because it seems that way to you or me doesn’t, I’m sure you would agree, make it so. Instead, since I believe I have very strong grounds to believe that God hates suffering and intends to eradicate it eventually from his good creation, I believe that God keeps the creation from being any worse than it absolutely has to be.

      Because, bluntly, why wouldn’t he? Given the Christian view of God, it seems to me, OF COURSE we live in the best of all (truly) possible worlds. For why would God stint on his creation, so to speak? Why would God not do his best by the world he so obviously loves–at the cost of his own self-sacrifice in Jesus as well as in lots of other respects?

      To reiterate, the argument here is on the relative weight of two sets of grounds. You adduce the evil in the world as a powerful argument against belief in an all-good, all-powerful God who, we both agree, would never let a baby deer suffer unnecessarily. I agree that those are powerful grounds: so powerful that I’ve spent a lot of time considering them. And in that consideration I have also considered the grounds that God is, despite appearances to the contrary, in fact all-good and all-powerful, which grounds include both theodical arguments (that I think can be somewhat helpful, if not fully adequate to allay our worries) + encounter with Jesus as the human face of God, which I think is indeed adequate to ground faith.

      I trust, therefore, that the shape of the argument is at last clear and that you need not wonder any longer if I’m promoting some sort of intellectual irresponsibility. Quite the contrary: I think the problem of evil is problematic indeed–intellectually and existentially–and only very, very good grounds for faith will suffice in the face of it.

      • C. Ehrlich

        “What we’re finally talking about is whether the evidence or grounds or warrants (broadly understood) for Syllogism A are such that they outweigh the powerful sense we all have that God must not be either all-good or all-powerful given the amount of evil, and particularly instances of apparently gratuitous evil, in the world.”

        While this is certainly an interesting question, it is not the one I have been pressing (nor is it the one I am ultimately interested in). My central question has rather been this: should we concede that there are (or even could conceivable be) bad things about the natural world that constitute evidence against the claim that ours is the best possible world? An affirmative answer to this question (even without the parenthetical addition) is entirely compatible with an affirmative answer to your question. We can concede that there is evidence that a better world than our own is possible without committing ourselves to the belief that “God must not be either all-good or all-powerful.” And despite conceding the evidence that ours is not the the best possible world, there may still be plenty of room to reasonably avoid affirming that proposition.

        Now, when you concede that there are “a billion stronger reasons” to believe that God is not all-good or all-powerful, it is difficult for me to understand how this does not amount to the concession I have been asking for all along. Are these billion stronger reasons not a kind of evidence that our world isn’t the best one possible? Remember: evidence admits of different degrees of strength. To concede that there is evidence against one’s favored belief—even good and strong evidence—is not the same as conceding that it is decisive evidence. (Keeping this in mind should also clarify why it continues to strike me as so fanatically dogmatic to refuse to concede that there could be things about our natural world that would constitute evidence that ours is not the best possible world.)

        I suspect that one of the reasons that you feel that you have to keep repeating yourself is that, in our last correspondences, you have not really been hearing the actual questions I repeatedly press. The issue, let me emphasize, is not whether you should completely give up your belief in an all-good and all-powerful God. My question is rather whether you should concede that the natural world provides (or even could provide) evidence against such a belief, and whether or not such evidence would make it appropriate to downgrade your confidence in those related beliefs about God which you continue to affirm (and certainly in your belief that ours is the best possible world). While I think all this should have been clear from my prior comments (including those in the previous thread), I now feel that I have bent over backwards to render the point unmistakable.

        • John Stackhouse

          Strange. We each think we’re being clear and the other guy isn’t getting the point. I’m sorry for the frustration! So let me try again, as I appreciate your perseverance.

          I do concede, as I thought I had conceded a number of times, that the amount of evil in the world, and certain instances of evil in particular (especially those that appear to be gratuitous), count as grounds/evidence/warrant to disbelieve in the God we’re both meaning by “God” (all-good, all-powerful, the God of the Bible, etc.).

          Moreover, evil (in the senses I put forward in the previous paragraph) counts as a strong qualification of my belief in God, such that I have to keep saying, as I have kept saying, that I believe in God DESPITE the strong appearances from evil to the contrary.

          Indeed, the whole shape of my argument concedes that in evil Christian belief faces a daunting possible defeater and that only massive counter-evidence of God’s goodness and power could possibly suffice to sustain faith in presence of such evil. That counter-evidence I have summed up as particular theodical arguments + encounter with Jesus Christ (as I argue in “Can God Be Trusted?”).

          A related question you seem to be asking is about the strength of my belief given my concession about the strength of the argument from evil against such belief. I would say that I have very strong grounds to believe in God AND very strong grounds not to believe in God (because of evil, especially, but because of other good arguments against belief in God as well, since I concede that there are such).

          Since the balance of grounds/evidences/warrants in my understanding tilts decisively toward belief in God, however, I believe in God.

          Saying that, to be sure, doesn’t mean I believe in God with rock-solid certainty. Oh, boy, does it ever not mean that.

          For one thing, I’m not omniscient. So I have no way of knowing anything for certain. I might well know true things–I trust that I do!–but I can’t know for certain that they are true, because I’m not omniscient. So I do not claim certainty even for my most well-grounded beliefs.

          For another thing, in this case, as I have taken pains to show in several posts now, the evidence against my particular belief in God from the problem of evil is very strong. So I particularly don’t want to appear to be claiming certainty.

          What I am claiming is a different sort of thing that has nothing to do with intensity or firmness of conviction. What I am claiming is an argument of entailment: Since I believe certain things about God and God’s way toward the world, I (currently) believe that this is the best of all possible worlds–in the sense that God does ameliorate suffering all that God can and should, such that there is therefore no gratuitous evil.

          But I readily concede–again, just to make as sure as I can that I’m being clear–that my belief in the best of all possible worlds is an entailment of my belief in God that itself is grounded in very strong warrant over against what I judge to be strong warrant against belief in God that is provided in the problem of evil.

          I think I have been saying this all along, but I hope it’s now clearer and that I am meeting your question with the right sort of reply.

          One more thing, which I ought to have stated much earlier in this exchange.

          Some Christian philosophers have said that for God to be acclaimed and worshipped as truly God, God must create and sustain only a “good” world, not the best of all possible worlds. Spencer Capier (yes, I did read your comment, brother!) raises this possibility.

          I, however, don’t yet see how one can eat one’s theological cake and have it, too. I don’t yet see how one can believe in the Christian God and also believe that that God allows a baby deer to suffer FOR NO GOOD REASON. In fact, I have been putting it more strongly: I don’t see God allowing a baby deer to suffer one bit more than it has to in order to achieve God’s good purposes and, put positively, the suffering of the baby deer is justifiable in terms of what God is accomplishing through it, even if that justification is invisible to us. Why, I’ve been asking, would (such a) God allow it to be otherwise?

          Of course I freely concede that things don’t LOOK that way. I wouldn’t have to argue this point if things looked like God was ameliorating all the suffering God should, etc., etc. And because they don’t look this way, there is a genuine problem/obstacle/possible defeater for faith in such a God. Only encounter with Jesus, I conclude again, will suffice to sustain belief in God in the face of evil.

          I earnestly hope that this helps make things more clear…

          • C. Ehrlich

            I think we made progress in understanding each other. Our most recent interchange alleviates the concerns I had about what I took you to be suggesting. We agree on the following two points.

            (1) The natural world provides strong evidence against the claim that there ours is the best possible world. We have strong evidence that there is, e.g., “gratuitous” suffering.

            (2) Such evidence makes it appropriate to downgrade our confidence in certain central tenets of Christianity (such as the belief that God is all-powerful and all-loving). (We might even say that it would be unreasonable for a person not to allow such evidences to affect her levels of confidence in those central tenets of Christianity.)

            Conceding these points may be entirely compatible with reasonably maintaining an orthodox Christian faith, despite such strong and contrary evidence. That compatibility, however, depends on passing the buck to yet other arguments for maintaining the Christian faith, arguments which must be strong enough to countervail not only strong evidences mentioned above, but also the various other evidences and arguments against the Christian faith which it would be unreasonable to dismiss. The point to stress is that in making this cumulative, all-things-considered assessment of the Christian faith, we must concede that the suffering and “evil” of our world always continues to have its place on the side of good reasons to reject the Christian faith. In other words, whatever may be the Christian answer to the “problem of evil,” that answer does not license the Christian to dismiss the suffering in our world as continuing to provide weighty evidence against her faith. Such evidence looms in the background, ready even to constitute the decisive case against her faith should her other promised justifications come up short. We agree on all this.

            None of this, as we should also stress, of itself implies the further conclusion that a Christian should surrender the belief in an all-loving and all-powerful God. If there is any short route to that further conclusion, I’m ignorant of it. A further question one might more feasibly consider is this: given that the suffering in our world provides such strong evidence against the belief in an all-loving and all-powerful God, does it also make it reasonable to give up such a belief? That is, instead of asking whether or not the suffering in this world makes it unreasonable to maintain such Christian beliefs, we might more modestly ask whether or not the same evidence makes it reasonable to give up such beliefs.

            But that’s a further question, and I think we’ve more than earned the right to leave the discussion here. Thank you ever so much for your perseverance!

            • BrianT

              I have been following this topic with interest and have found your exchange with Prof. Stackhouse quite intriguing. However, I find your attempt to wrap things up less than compelling.
              We will have to see how the good professor responds, but it seems to me that you are begging the question by asserting that we have strong evidence for gratuitous evil and therefore against an all-good and all-powerful God. To be sure, most people will agree that we have strong evidence for evil in this world. But what is the nature of that evil? That is the point of the debate: is the evil “necessary” or “gratuitous?”
              Some people will argue that any evil in our world is strong evidence against a good and all-powerful God. However, that argument falls flat if the evil is necessary.
              This is not what you are arguing. Your point is that some of the evil sure looks gratuitous! This is true, and I don’t think anyone is disputing that, but there is a huge leap between prima facie gratuity and strong evidence for the same!

  9. John Carlson

    I’ve been following this discussion and have really benefited from the gracious, well-thought out arguments of both sides. I feel I have a much clearer grasp of the issue and would be able to talk much more sensibly about the issue with others. Thanks guys.

  10. tim ellison

    Something that I wonder about in the whole discussion regarding pain and suffering is where do we get the notion from that pain and suffering are bad things? Do we not have to have some sort of transcendant reality to appeal to in order for us to know that suffering of a baby deer, or cancer are in fact not good? I am not trying to be funny or fecitious here, but we do assume that some sort of universal standard exists that says certain types of suffering are not good or not desirable and other things are. Where does this come from if there is not some sort of transcendental reality that gives us a way of knowing what is good and what is not. It seems to me that this point is made often by some apologists that unless you have a God who reveals that pain and suffering are not good things, the whole discussion is in fact pointless. I think Ravi Zacharias brings this up in his writing and basically says to those who seek to deny God and yet complain about the way the world is, need to be seriously challenged as to why they think suffering deers and babies with cancer is actually a bad thing. Anyhow, that is my two bits worth.

    • Jerry


      You said, “we do assume that some sort of universal standard exists that says certain types of suffering are not good or not desirable and other things are. Where does this come from if there is not some sort of transcendental reality that gives us a way of knowing what is good and what is not.”

      There are many people who don’t think there is a universal standard for morality. But this doesn’t mean they think anyone can do whatever they want, either.

      I think atheists, in general, think morality is earth-born, a mixture of human nature and nurture, not born out of something transcendent like a deity or from anything other than a naturalistic reality. (Not because those other things don’t exist, but because there’s no falsifiable evidence for those things existing.)

      Humanity has a variety of innate desires; and communities have constructed they’re own ethical/moral standards to socially manage some of the more common desires.

      For instance, the majority of humanity don’t want to be tortured, raped and murdered. However, there are humans who desire to torture, rape and murder others. And the result is that, generally speaking, torture, rape and murder are commonly outlawed.

      And social contracts like these are always being revised over time, not always for the better, but the more we become aware of what we don’t favor or what we consider hurtful (and what challenges our survival), the more we educate ourselves and expand our ability to empathize with our fellow human beings.

      And it’s also possible that a God exists and that this God planned to have morality develop in this naturalist manner, too. Although, I’m not sure if that is a common belief among christians.

  11. John Stackhouse

    I appreciate Brother Ehrlich’s patience as we laboured together to better understanding. I presumed too much and I’m glad for the opportunity to lay things out better.

    I don’t think Brother BrianT is raising new issues. I see all of us having to decide on the relative strength of the evidence for “gratuitous evil,” but it seems to me that there is considerable reason to wonder if there is such a thing–of course there is!–and, in fact, a considerable burden of proof on anyone (such as I) who would seek to deny its actual existence.

    As to this most recent issue as to whether one can coherently speak of goodness in other than descriptive terms (as in “what most of us prefer” versus “what is right, no matter what we prefer”), well, that’s a good question, but a different one. I hope perhaps to return to it ere long. I’m heading to Chicago to celebrate our middle son’s graduation from college, so I’ll sign off detailed blogging for a little while….

  12. Myron A Penner

    Cool thread–haven’t read every word of every comment, but why let that prevent the contribution of what should hopefully amount to two cents….

    (1) Best of all possible worlds
    John, you seem to suggest that Christians ought to be committed to the view that this world is the best possible world for a reason something like “If this isn’t the best possible world, then it’s because there are some instances of gratuitous suffering that could have been avoided in worlds better than this one and that’s the world God, a perfect being, would have been compelled to create (by his own nature). But that’s not right. For example, I don’t think this is the best possible world, but that’s because I don’t think the series of possible worlds (ranked in ascending quantities of goodness) is finite–I think it ascends infinitely, such that for every good possible world, there exists one possible world better than it. So, if there is no *best* world (in the same way that there’s no largest natural number), then God’s not creating the best world doesn’t detract from his perfection. It’s a logical impossibility to create the best if there is no best.

    (2) Evidence and Testability of Christian Theism
    Testability for claims and thus what counts as empirical evidence for or against some claim is more often than not a function of the auxiliary assumptions one makes alongside the initial claim as opposed to merely a function of the content of the claim itself. Example: strictly speaking , “electrons exist” might not be testable because electrons are unobservable in an of themselves. But we have very good ideas about what observations we could make in the right circumstances (vapor tracks in a cloud chamber) if electrons did exist–these very good ideas are auxiliary assumptions we bring to the table when we test for electrons. So too, “God exists” might not be testable because it is unclear what, exactly, the empirical consequences are for that statement all by itself. But, theists, atheists, and agnostics of various flavors all have ideas about what the empirical consequences of God’s existence would be, and the content of *those* assumptions will determine whether we find empirical evidence for or against God’s existence. This is relevant to the claim of whether some instance of suffering is gratuitous (thus disproving or disconfirming theism) or not gratuitous (thus not counting as evidence against theism) or as predicted by and accounted for within theism (thus counting as evidence that confirms theism).

    (3) On the Existence of Gratuitous Suffering
    There is a strong movement in philosophy of religion known as “skeptical theism” according to which (I’m simplifying here) one should be skeptical about one’s ability to discern reasons God may have for allowing suffering–we don’t have that cognitive capacity. And if we don’t have that cognitive capacity, (a) we shouldn’t be surprised that for many instances of suffering we don’t have a clear grip on what divine purpose it may serve, and (b) suffering does not count as evidence against God’s existence whatsoever. (Does my inability to a mosquito in Rogers Arena count as evidence against the existence of a mosquito in Rogers Arena? No, because I’m not the kind of thing that should be able to detect that mosquito with a high degree of certainty and thus the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So, too, does my inability to discern a reason God may have for allowing some horrendous evil count as evidence against the existence of such a reason? No, because I’m not the kind of thing that should be able to detect such a reason with a high degree of reliability and thus the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence here, either….

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother Myron,

      I like what you say in #2 and #3. Thanks for setting those ideas out.

      I disagree with #1, obviously, because it isn’t an argument but is merely an elaborate way of saying you don’t agree! You simply assert, “I think there is a better possible world, and one better than that, and so on ad infinitum,” and that’s an interesting opinion–but it’s not an argument.

      I DON’T think there is such a set of possible worlds. I therefore deny, by implication, that the question is anything like the set of natural numbers.

      My whole argument depends on the idea that God so balances the various values by which he providently governs the world that there is, in fact, no better world that he could instantiate. We might THINK that it could be “this world + 1 better feature,” but we are wrong to think that, in my view. And I have given an actual argument to support that view. Do you have one for yours, my friend?!

      • Myron A Penner

        What happened to being away until June 8th, as per your auto-reply? (Thought I’d have a bit more time before needing to craft a response….)

        First, I should say that I do feel the pull of a ‘best-world’ scenario for Christian theists. When I teach Leibniz to undergraduates I usually wind up convincing a number of them (and sometimes nearly myself) that the following kind of Leibnizian argument is a good one:

        1. If God creates any world, it would *have* to be the best world possible.
        2. God created this world.
        3. So, this world is the best world possible.

        Leibniz thinks that (1) is true because God always acts for a reason, and the reasons for which God acts are always consistent with his perfect goodness, knowledge, and power. For Leibniz, a ‘no-best-world’ scenario would be such that God would have no sufficient reason for actualizing one world as opposed to another, which would make God out to be arbitrary and less than perfect.

        But I think that (1) is false because I don’t think that God’s creating a world implies that that world has to be the best logically possible world. And in order to show that, I need to show that God’s actualizing some world (God, mind you–not some impoverished deity, but the God of both scripture and perfect being theology) is consistent with there being some other world which is both better and creatable. And I think I can show that. Here’s an argument for the conclusion that there’s at least one possible world better than this one (note–it depends on a libertarian account of freedom according to which my free choice to X is incompatible with being determined, either by God or physics, to choose X):

        4. The quantity of goodness of a possible world depends, in part, on the choices of free agents who exist at that world.
        5. There are possible worlds in which free agents exercise free agency in ways that bring about less suffering than the amount of suffering in the actual world.
        6. So, there’s at least one possible world better than this one.

        Here’s an argument to the conclusion that for every possible world of goodness quantity *n*, there’s another possible world of goodness quantity *n*+1:

        4. The quantity of goodness of a possible world depends, in part, on the choices of free agents who exist at that world.
        7. For any possible world W containing X number of free agents the choices of which result in goodness quantity N, there is a possible world W* containing X+1 number of free agents the choices of which result in a goodness quantity greater than N.
        8. So, for any possible world W containing goodness quantity N, there is world W* with a goodness quantity greater than N.

        As noted above, premise (4) in both arguments depends on a concept of libertarian freedom, and (5) and (7) depend on modal intuitions about logical possibility–both of which have their detractors.

        So, I guess to sum up, (a) I don’t think that Christian theology obviously entails the claim that this world is the best logically possible world, and (b) (4), (5), and (7) above, by my lights, just seem way more plausible than (3)…..

        • John Stackhouse

          Thanks for this, Myron. Here’s my reply.

          God is interested not in just any old free agents, but in the particular free agents he has created. Could God have created a world in which there is less evil (or more good–take your pick) by creating a person nicer than me instead of me? Surely he could have. But if he wants ME to exist, then he’s stuck creating me and therefore the idea that someone nicer than me could be nicer than me is irrelevant.

          The situation instead is not nearly so abstract. Given that God created this world, do we have strong grounds to conclude that God could have created this world such that there would be less evil in it than there is–that is, is God ultimately responsible for creating this world more evil than it has to have been?

          Given what Christians believe about the goodness and power of God, I conclude that this is the best possible world–which always means, I’m assuming, the best possible according to God’s intentions (which include instantiating you and me, not just any two people in our place).

          I think your argument is quite good in its abstract form, but it (and others like it) fail to connect with the point I’m trying to make, namely, about this world with these people in it. Recall that we’re talking about whether this (particular) world has any gratuitous evil in it. I’m saying there isn’t: That this is the best world there can be OF THIS SORT OF WORLD. I’m not bothering to argue that, given a completely clean slate, this is the best of all possible worlds in some abstract sense (as Leibniz has been understood to argue–I’m not sure that’s what he meant), because I have no idea how to talk about THAT.

          Does that sit better with you?

  13. Myron A Penner

    Sure, I think that clarifies things a bit. I think we’re using “best possible world” in different senses. I’m using “best” and “possible” in a kind of Anselmian sense of a world “than which none greater can be conceived”, and I think you’ve got a different concept of “best possible world” in view (i.e. “best relative to THIS SORT of world…”—though I’d need to see that fleshed out further in order to get a handle on the relevant qualification here).

    Also, perhaps I wasn’t clear above–I certainly don’t think that this world contains any gratuitous suffering. And I agree with you that the existence of gratuitous suffering would be inconsistent with what Christians believe about God’s power, knowledge, and goodness.

    But I don’t think my view is as abstract or disconnected from the creatures which actually exist (e.g. you and me) as you make it out to be. I think that given the causal power with which God endows free agents, the measure of goodness in a world is, in part, up to the free choices of creatures. It certainly seems possible that there’s a total way things could have turned (but didn’t)–that’s a rough and ready definition of “possible world”–where you and I (not dopplegangers, but really you and I) sin less and contribute to a world which, on balance, is better (even if ever so slightly) than the way things have actually turned out. And if that’s true for you and me, there’s no reason to think it’s not true for other free creatures too—from Mother Theresa to Hitler, from Billy Graham to Billy the Kid.

    In my view, claiming that this world is the best possible (in either of the senses I mention at the beginning of the post) commits one to claiming that either creatures lack morally significant freedom, or that the actual choices made by free creatures are the best ones they could have made—both of which seem pretty implausible. At any rate, those consequences are intimately, personally, and practically connected to our experience and assessment of the very world in which we live. When a person experiences suffering as a consequence of moral evil—i.e. resulting from the free choice of another agent—part of the sense of tragedy stems from our sense that things didn’t have to be that way; things sure seem as if they could have turned out better than they actually did. This is true even if some good results from some evil, and even if some goods are only possible as a result of evil (e.g. forgiveness, atonement, soul-building, etc.). I don’t think there’s anything within Christian theology that commits one to believing in those situations “Well, things couldn’t possibly have turned out any better than they actually did.” To my naïve ears, when I hear the phrase “best possible world,” attached to the way things have actually turned out, it seems that one is claiming exactly that: namely, that things couldn’t possibly have turned out any better than they actually did. And that just seems subject to numerous counterexamples (counterexamples, by the way, which in no way undermine God’s perfect goodness).

    So, is there gratuitous or pointless evil? Both you and I say “no.” We both agree that there can’t be gratuitous evil as a consequence of Christian belief about God. What about apparent instances of gratuitous evil? I say that our inability to detect a morally sufficient reason for allowing some particular evil in no way counts as evidence as to whether there is such a reason. Perplexing? Yes. Epistemically relevant? No. You, I think, add something like, “Plus, there can’t be pointless evil because this world is the best world possible (among a certain subset of possible worlds defined by some contingent factors).

    And finally, both you and I agree that God can be trusted, whether it’s trusted to bring things about in the best possible way, or to secure his good ends given the foreknown contingencies that result from human choice—or both!


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