Theistic Critiques of Atheism, Part 6

We’re continuing to slog our way through Dr. William Lane Craig’s scholarly article, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” and we’re up to the section on theodicy, the question of evil. In order to support his claim that there is no valid argument for atheism, Dr. Craig needs to show that evil is more likely to result from the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God exists than it is if no such God exists. Otherwise the real-world evidence is more consistent with atheism than with Christianity, and atheists do indeed have a valid reason for doubting God’s existence.

Instead of confronting this problem, however, Dr. Craig pulled a switcheroo, substituting “suffering” for “evil,” and thus dispensing with what he calls the “internal problem” of theodicy (i.e. the contradiction inherent in Christian dogma itself). He next turns, with a bit of (premature) crowing, to the rest of the problem of theodicy, safely reduced to an abstract rhetorical manuever regarding who gets to define theistic premises.

Having abandoned the internal problem, atheists have very recently taken to advocating the external problem, often called the evidential problem of evil. If we take God to be essentially omnipotent and omnibenevolent and call suffering which is not necessary to achieve some adequately compensating good “gratuitous evil,” the argument can be simply summarized:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

2. Gratuitous evil exists.

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

What makes this an external problem is that the theist is not committed by his worldview to the truth of (2). The Christian theist is committed to the truth that Evil exists, but not that Gratuitous evil exists. Thus the atheist claims that the apparently pointless and unnecessary suffering in the world constitutes evidence against God’s existence.

This is a bit misleading, actually. The alternative to “gratuitous evil” is “necessary evil.” In the context of Christian dogma as a whole, however, there can be no such thing. “Necessary evil” is the stone so heavy that God cannot lift it, morally speaking. As Dr. Craig has already discussed, this is an obvious impossibility, since it is a contradiction in terms: the definition of “omnipotent God” precludes the possibility of the existence of an immovable rock, just as the definition of an immovable rock precludes the possibility of an irresistably powerful force like an omnipotent God. And the same applies to the “unliftable” burden of evil—if it does indeed exist, then God, as traditionally defined, does not.

This argument shows why it is so necessary and rhetorically useful for Christian apologists to divorce such issues from their contexts and consider them as abstract philosophical propositions. In the context of Christian dogma as a whole, everything that exists is either (a) God, or (b) that which God has created. That is, once upon an eternity, only God Himself existed. Whence, then, the existence of a necessity so compelling that it can force even almighty God to incorporate evil into His all-wise and all-loving plan for history? Either God compels Himself to embrace evil as part of His designs for human history, or He created the necessity, directly or indirectly.

If God Himself is not evil, however, then at some point He was under no compulsion to directly or indirectly create a necessity for evil. If God today is under compulsion to incorporate evil into His all-wise plan, it can only be because one way or another He chose to put Himself into a situation where evil would be “necessary.” He created, in effect, a moral stone so heavy that He Himself could not lift it, but He did so freely, gratuitously, without any necessity to put Himself under such a necessity.

In the context of Christian dogma as a whole, therefore, all evil is necessarily gratuitous, by definition. This, in fact, is the core of the problem of evil, an inherent, internal contradiction that makes Christianity logically incoherent in the face of real-world evidence. Craig is simply exploiting human lack of omniscience as a smoke screen to cover up the true flaw in his philosophy.

Now the most controversial premiss in this argument is (2). Everybody admits that the world is filled with apparently gratuitous suffering. But that does not imply that these apparently gratuitous evils really are gratuitous. There are at least three reasons why the inference from apparently gratuitous evil to genuinely gratuitous evil is tenuous.

1. We are not in a good position to assess with confidence the probability that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world.

This is an interesting variation on the Emperor’s New Clothes argument. The Emperor is standing there, goose-bumps plainly visible on his wrinkled, sagging skin, and even Craig admits that he can see certain dangly bits not normally reserved for public display. Every (*gulp*) square inch of the Imperial Hide, in fact. The Emperor, however, is only apparently nude, Craig assures us, because we can’t be certain that in some far off, unseen realm, some invisible deity might not have a refined enough eye to possibly discern some sort of perceptible quality to the New Clothes.

Let’s recap for just a second. God does not show up in real life, so we’re not talking here about trying to find the simplest possible explanation that fits all the observable facts about God. His failure to show up means there aren’t any observable facts to explain. Instead, what we have are human, fallible philosophers telling us stories about God—stories with obvious inconsistencies that ought to be sufficient to alert us to the fact that they’re not true. But these men want us to believe them anyway, on the grounds that our lack of omniscience means we can’t prove absolutely that their inconsistent stories are necessarily false.

Color me skeptical. First of all, Craig is advancing an “end justifies the means” ethic, which I think is morally questionable. Yes, evil is indeed part of the world God has made, but it’s only the evil means to a good end, and therefore the evil isn’t really evil. Or is it? There are plenty of historical examples of people doing evil things in the name of good goals, and in fact one need look no farther than the history of the Christian Church itself to find notable (and infamous) examples of the kind of behavior that sort of morality leads to.

The issue is not whether or not God can produce a compensatory justification for incorporating evil (prescriptively or permissively) into His divine plan. The issue is whether or not He chose to make evil necessary despite the possibility of alternatives with no such requirement. As the almighty, all-wise Creator of all that exists, Who allegedly has been in control since there was nothing other than Himself, God necessarily did have other alternatives and is under no obligation to choose the evil ones. Thus, evil is gratuitous, if the Christian God does indeed exist.

Needless to say, Craig’s quibble #1 is nothing more than an appeal to ignorance. It’s not that we know there’s a justification for evil, it’s that we don’t know for certain that there’s not a justification for evil. It’s a rationalization, an excuse for ignoring the fact that all the evidence we do have is inconsistent with dogmatic definitions of God’s abilities, motivations and character. By accusing us all (including himself) of insufficient omniscience to settle the issue conclusively, he is merely throwing up a smokescreen of ineffable hypotheticals in order to distract us from the significance of immediate reality.

But this is hardly the worst thing about Craig’s argument. It’s actually quite reprehensible, because in order to dispute the claim that gratuitous evil exists, he must assume that every evil has a corresponding moral justification sufficient to merit God’s implicit approval and assent. If there exists even one evil so vile and so wrong that no moral justification is possible, then Craig can no longer reasonably deny the existence of “gratuitous” evil (or suffering, as he sneakily substitutes once again).

Think about it. In order for this argument to work, it must necessarily be true that, for any evil act we might consider committing, there exists sufficient moral justification that it is better for the evil to happen than for it not to happen. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Holocaust, the individual atrocities of children being raped and tortured to death, or murdered by their own parent(s), not to mention tsunamis, plagues, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters—each and every one of these calamities inflicted by or on men must be morally superior to the non-evil alternative.

Note that it is not sufficient for there to be a moral justification that merely makes evil the moral equal of non-evil. Evil is still evil, so all other things being equal, the evil alternative is morally worse than the non-evil alternative. No, it must be true that the moral justification for evil exceeds the moral justification for the absence of evil, and therefore he who sins must be morally superior to he who refrains from sinning—if Craig’s argument is true. Follow this logic to its logically consistent conclusion, and Christians are obligated to sin as much as they can, because every sin has to have a superior moral justification in order for Craig’s excuse to work.

Call me a stickler, but I think that any apologetic argument that ends up making evil virtually mandatory is a faulty apologetic. Maybe I’m just not in tune with God’s will, but I simply can’t believe that it is always better to do wrong than it is to do right. If it’s not, though, then at least some of that evil is unjustified, and therefore unnecessary.

Craig has two more arguments for why Christians ought to be allowed to doubt the existence of gratuitous evil, but perhaps it would be good to break here and save the rest for tomorrow. As Jesus said, “Let the evil of the day be sufficient unto itself.”

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Posted in Unapologetics. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “Theistic Critiques of Atheism, Part 6”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Let’s say that reality is a square peg that fits in a square hole that we’ll call, the ‘test of reality’.

    Christian doctrine and dogma happen to be the segments that fit over each side of the ‘square peg of reality’ which makes a round peg of Christianity!

    How dare you, sir! That’s not fair! You are trying to shove the round peg of Christianity through the square hole of reality!

  2. jorgaba Says:

    Well said.

    I am happy to let Craig substitute “suffering” for evil within certain bounds — suffering is a description of what happens whereas evil rather seems instead to get at motive. I would equate evil with “gratuitous suffering”, and I would use it the same way you use “gratuitous evil”. I would argue “necessary evil” is a contradiction — if its necessary, there is nothing evil about it. Suffering may be necessary, but it only becomes “evil” when one allows or causes suffering beyond what is necessary.

    I wonder if this is what Craig is intending to say — it would mean that so long as god allows suffering in the service of some larger good, god is not doing or allowing evil. Of course, as you point out, this still requires god to be limited in some way. Craig thinks he’s disposed of “omnipotence”, but he still needs to be clear on whether or not god has equal ability and power to do the following:

    1. achieve a good end with suffering
    2. achieve a good end without suffering

    Its very simple: if god has the power to do both with equal ease and facility, then suffering is unecessary and therefore gratuitous. God then does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing it. Craig seems to think the problem can be dismissed just by using words other than “evil”. In fact, the problem can be articulated just fine without using the word “evil”.

    And doesn’t this “means to an end” model of evil indicate that God’s ethics are fundamentally utilitarian rather than based on absolute principles. Yet, theists are always so ready to point out the moral depravity of utilitarianism when people adopt it.

  3. jim Says:

    Doesn’t this all boil down to simply another angle on the well-worn apologetic- “If we only understood, then we would understand; but, since we don’t understand, then God’s ways remain mysterious, and misunderstood. Therefore, God exists’? Translation: equine excrement.

  4. Dave S. Says:

    Question. If there is only ‘necessary evil’ and ‘gratuitous evil’, and ‘necessary evil’ is a contradiction, doesn’t that mean then that all evil is therefore gratuitous and saying ‘gratuitous evil’ is a redundancy?

  5. jorgaba Says:

    Dave —

    I vote for redundant. If evil is gratuitous suffering, then “gratuitous evil” would be “gratuitous (gratuitous suffering)”. That would seem to imply a context in which there exists an alternative kind of “gratuitous suffering” that is necessary or non-gratuitous…if there is a context in which such a distinction makes any sense, I don’t know what it is. Apologetics have certainly not provided it.

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