Theistic critiques of atheism, Part 5January 8, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing our critique of William Lane Craig’s “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” we come now to his treatment of the problem of evil, aka “theodicy.”
Undoubtedly the greatest obstacle to belief in God is the so-called problem of evil. During the last quarter century or so, an enormous amount of philosophical analysis has been poured into this problem, with the result that genuine philosophical progress on the age-old question has been made.
I think it’s interesting that Dr. Craig begins by trying to pre-emptively dismiss the issue, designating it merely a “so-called” problem. If theologians have been wrestling with this “age-old” difficulty for thousands of years, and only in the last couple decades or so have started making genuine philosophical progress, it’s a real problem. One suspects that if Dr. Craig wants us to think it’s only a “so-called” problem, it’s because all he has to offer is a “so-called” solution. And so it proves.
The reason theologians have a problem with the existence of evil is because evil shows up in real life, and God doesn’t. That’s not what we ought to find if a God exists Who is the loving, omnipotent Heavenly Father proclaimed by the Gospel. No matter how serene and sophisticated a picture you may paint with your abstract speculations about God’s omnipotence and omniscience, at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home, the real world we all actually live in is not as consistent with the theological image of God’s existence as it is with the alternative of His non-existence.
This is a critical weakness in Dr. Craig’s thesis that there are no valid arguments for atheism. He needs to prove that the reality of evil—of suffering, and futility, and cruelty, and hatred, and war, and death—is more consistent with the existence of an all-wise, all-powerful, all-good God than it is with the non-existence of such a deity. Otherwise, if the real-world evidence supports God’s non-existence as well or better than it supports His existence, Craig has failed to sustain his assertion that there is no valid argument for atheism. So he needs to show that the existence of a good God is more likely to result in evil than His non-existence would be.
A daunting task, and one that seems to put Dr. Craig into a bit of a dither. He begins by dividing the problem into two problems, then dividing one of those two into five or more problems, which he then reduces down again to two problems.
Most broadly speaking, we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of the co-existence of God and evil. The emotional problem of evil concerns how to comfort those who are suffering and how to dissolve the emotional dislike people have of a God who would permit such evil.
Contemporary thinkers recognize that there are significantly different versions of the intellectual problem of evil and have assigned various labels to them, such as “deductive,” “inductive,” “logical,” “probabilistic,” evidential,” and so on. It may be most helpful to distinguish two ways in which the intellectual problem of evil may be cast, either as an internal problem or as an external problem.
It may seem as though Dr. Craig is wandering around trying to find some way to approach this issue, but I think what he’s really doing is making allusion to the efforts of centuries of theologians as they have circled around, testing, probing, looking for some angle, some approach that makes it at least seem like a tractable difficulty. It isn’t, because it makes the fatal mistake of comparing the speculations of theologians to the actual, real-world evidence, which is an unbiased and infallible standard of truth. But Dr. Craig wants to give it a go anyway, and has a new strategy that’s a sure-fire win.
[T]he problem may be presented in terms of premises to which the theist is or ought to be committed as a theist, so that the theistic worldview is somehow at odds with itself, or it may be presented in terms of premises to which the theist is not committed as a theist but which we nonetheless have good reason to regard as true.
It may not be obvious, but Craig just pulled a subtle and ingenious shell game. In place of the larger and more difficult task of reconciling the Gospel with the evidence, he has substituted the abstract and rhetorical question of whether or not Christian philosophers are reeeeeally obligated to adopt the premises as stated by skeptics and atheists. This is quite clever, because now all he needs to do to declare victory is to find some way, any way, of restating the premises. They don’t even have to be better premises. All he needs to do is show that Christians have an alternative way of stating the problem (even if it’s blatantly biased in favor of some particular conclusion), and then he can claim to have dodged the bullet.
It is worth noting that traditionally atheists have presented the problem of evil as an internal problem for theism. That is, atheists have claimed that the statements
A. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.
B. The quantity and kinds of suffering in the world exist.
are either logically inconsistent or improbable with respect to each other.
Notice how Craig has effectively stacked the deck at this point, dealing himself a winning hand, and removing from the draw pile any cards that might be useful to the atheistic argument. First of all, he’s blaming atheists for the observation that there’s a contradiction between the idea that evil exists and the idea that everything happens according to the will of an Almighty Who does not will evil. (Quite a number of theists have noticed this problem as well.) But more importantly, he has substituted “suffering” for “evil” here. That’s a crucial switch, because it opens the door to all kinds of arguments and anecdotes about how suffering can be good for you. It wouldn’t do for a Christian to argue that sinning is good for you, but if you substitute “suffering” in place of “evil,” you can get away with it.
Craig claims that this little maneuver has defeated the “internal problem” of evil.
As a result of the work of Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, it is today widely recognized that the internal problem of evil is a failure as an argument for atheism. No one has ever been able to show that (A) and (B) are either logically incompatible with each other or improbable with respect to each other.
Obviously, however, Craig’s argument does not successfully eliminate the internal problem of evil, since it merely substitutes the much simpler and more easily manipulated problem of suffering. And even on this smaller scale, it doesn’t really solve the problem, because the way Christians reconcile suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is to propose that there are some types of suffering that are ultimately not evil, and therefore are legitimate for such a God to employ, in an “end justifies the means” sort of way. But if this kind of suffering is not evil, then reconciling such suffering with God’s existence does nothing to reconcile evil with God’s existence. Craig has simply pulled off an illusionist’s misdirection, creating the appearance of a solution to a problem he has not actually even addressed.
We’re not done with Craig’s approach to theodicy, but the next section gets rather longish, so we’ll break here for today.