WHAT HAPPENED TO THE IMPOSSIBILITY ARGUMENT?
In our last blog, we explored the “impossibility argument,” or what philosophers call “the logical problem of evil” and concluded it was false. It’s entirely possible for for an all-powerful and all-loving God to coexist with suffering.
This has caused most atheists to fall back to the improbability argument: “It is highly improbable that God and suffering can coexist” — just as it’s highly improbable that you might see an elephant sitting on a tree limb. Philosopher’s call this “the probabilistic problem of evil.”
Keep in mind that atheism is making this “improbability argument,” and atheists therefore carry the burden of proof to demonstrate that their assertion is correct. In making a more modest claim of “improbability,” the atheist is in a better position to defend this view.
THE “IMPROBABILITY ARGUMENT”
This argument begins by asking the reader to acknowledge the same alleged conflict that we discussed in the last blog, a conflict between two statements:
1. An all-powerful and all-loving God exists.
2. Suffering exists.
On the subject of suffering, the “improbability argument” asks us to think about two things that seem to contradict this idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God:
• the enormous AMOUNT of suffering we see in the world (e.g., 160 million people killed in 20th century, the bloodiest century in history),
• the egregious KINDS of suffering we observe in this world (e.g., torture, humiliation, gassing, firing squads, gulags, slave labor, concentration camps, etc.).
Atheism makes this observation that so much of the world’s suffering appears to be pointless and unnecessary. Atheism then makes an appeal that, if God really did exist, surely he could reduce the amount of evil and kinds of evil we see without undermining the overall goodness of the world.
Once again there is a critical assumption behind the atheist’s reasoning: that God could not possibly have a “morally sufficient reason” for permitting the amount and kinds of evil we see in the world.
Atheism’s Conclusion: Since the amount of evil and kinds of evil are so great, it seems highly unlikely that God could have a “morally sufficient reason” for allowing this much evil. Therefore, it is unlikely that God exists (i.e., less than a 50% likelihood).
Obviously, when we are talking about probabilities, each side of the issue is attempting to tip the scale of probability to be a better than 50% likelihood in their favor, which is sufficient enough to make a case in the minds of most philosophers and theologians.
OUR FIRST RESPONSE TO THE “IMPROBABILITY ARGUMENT”
Given our “limited frame of reference,” we are simply not in a position to be able to properly assess whether God has “morally sufficient reasons” to allow suffering.
Even if suffering appears to be unjustified, that does NOT mean that there isn’t a sufficient moral reason for suffering or that it’s unnecessary.
As finite beings, we have a frame of reference that is limited by time, space and our own cognitive abilities. God has a broader frame of reference: enhanced cognition and a better perspective of history from beginning to end.
If you take your dog to a veterinarian to get a shot, the dog doesn’t understand why this is happening, but you have a broader frame of reference to know that this temporary pain will result in a greater good for your dog. You have a “morally sufficient reason” for doing this.
Why do you leave your child in a dentist’s chair even though they are crying and pleading with you to take them away? Because you have a broader perspective that this might be a temporary pain that will eventually serve a greater good for that child. You have a “morally sufficient reason” for doing this.
As another example, some people have the view that, morally speaking, we should always do that which will accomplish the most good for the largest number of people (i.e., a perspective in ethics called “utilitarianism”). Unfortunately, from a practical standpoint, most of us don’t have a clue how to do this. Any of us, though well-intentioned, could make public policy decisions that turn out to be a disaster for most people.
“Chaos theory” is a discipline that studies “complex systems” (systems with millions of moving parts) and the impact that tiny events can have on that system. In fact, there are so many moving parts that our finite minds have difficulty perceiving what the impact will be of sometimes millions of different tiny elements within a complex system. Those who study this chaotic behavior have developed theories about how a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can initiate a chain of events that result in windstorms in Texas. Chaos theory is so new because it requires advanced computers to track all of the moving parts in a complex system in order to predict such a “butterfly effect.” Our finite minds simply don’t have this ability.
Regarding our limited perspective, can we determine what kind of impact it would’ve had on history if Adolph Hitler had died of influenza as a small boy? The answer is, “We simply don’t know.”
The only mind that could grasp the significance of such seemingly tiny events would be one that is divinely omniscient. God sees the end of history and providentially orders history to accomplish his intended purposes, even taking into account the free decisions that we will make in this lifetime. This means that God may have to maintain our free will intact and endure errors that we commit to accomplish his purpose for our lives.
Yes, most of the suffering that we see in the world does APPEAR to be pointless and unnecessary, but we are simply not in a good position to assess whether that is ACTUALLY the case. So any assertion that suffering APPEARS to be unjustified does NOT necessarily lead to the conclusion that it actually IS unjustified.
So given our “limited frame of reference,” we are simply not in a position to be able to properly assess whether God has morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
OUR SECOND RESPONSE TO THE “IMPROBABILITY ARGUMENT”
Relative to “the full scope of the evidence,” God’s existence is probable.
Any “probability” is only meaningful in relation to the full scope of the evidence. It is dependent on the background information. For example: How likely is it that Sam drinks alcohol? If I tell you that Sam is a college student and you know that 95% of college students drink alcohol, that percentage is your probability. However, if I tell you that Sam is a student at Brigham Young University and only 15% of students at BYU drink, it dramatically alters your probability calculation.
The atheist submits that God’s existence is improbable. Immediately, anyone’s reaction to a probability statement should be to ask, “Improbable relative to what background information?”
Are we really able to accurately assess the likelihood of God’s existence based on the one criterion of “suffering in the world”? If that were the only background information used to form such an opinion, the conclusion of improbability might be understandable.
However, in assessing whether God exists, it would be a mistake to limit background information to just the suffering in the world. In forming any probability, we must consider the full scope of the evidence, which would include our five logical arguments for the existence of God, not just the amount and kinds of suffering that we observe.
Atheists who only consider “suffering in isolation” for their background information are assuming that theists have no evidence or logical arguments to present that would support the existence of God — a false notion.
Considering the full scope of the evidence, we cannot logically conclude that God doesn’t have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering. So relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is very probable.
OUR THIRD RESPONSE TO THE “IMPROBABILITY ARGUMENT”
Christian theism includes doctrines that make it MORE PROBABLE that God and suffering coexist.
Atheism suggests that if God exists, it’s unlikely that the world would contain this degree of suffering. However, specifically regarding a Christian worldview, evil and suffering are not so improbable and they are not as difficult to explain as they are for other forms of theism. Let’s examine four Christian doctrines that help us explain SUFFERING and even make its existence MORE LIKELY.
Christian Doctrine 1: The chief purpose of life is NOT happiness, but the knowledge of God.
Atheism commonly assumes that God’s overriding purpose for his creatures is to build “a comfortable place for his pets.” However, the goal of this existence is not “happiness.” Instead, the goal of this life is to know God, which will eventually lead to greater fulfillment. As we go through trials, God’s purpose is for us to grow in faith and deeper dependence on him and to further his kingdom. It’s entirely possible that we live in a time when more people are coming to a knowledge of Christ than at any time in the history of the world. It’s also possible that only in a world with such natural and moral evils as we see around us that so many people would come to a knowledge of God.
Christian Doctrine 2: Humanity is in a state of rebellion against God and his purpose.
Rather than submitting, it is human nature to rebel against God, become alienated from him, carry the burden of our own guilt, live in spiritual darkness and pursue gods that we tend to create. In addition to man, Christianity maintains that there actually are malevolent spiritual beings who have rebelled against God and wish to undermine his purposes and destroy his creation. Therefore, Christians are not surprised at the existence of evil.
Christian Doctrine 3: God’s purpose is not restricted to this life, but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life.
Christian scripture promises eternal life to all those who place their trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, repent of sin, covenant to obey his commandments and become his disciples. The Christian is given the assurance by God that an eternity of joy and reward awaits every disciple who continues in that faith throughout their lives. The apostle Paul called this life a time of “slight momentary affliction” and eternity an “eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). This life is finite and even infinitesimal if we compare it to eternity. In eternity, a just God will reward every true believer commensurate with their faithfulness and perseverance in this life.
Christian Doctrine 4: The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
Imagine a scale with the suffering in this life on one side and the glory God will bestow upon his children in heaven on the other side. The weight of glory far outweighs the suffering of this life. To know God, the epitome of goodness and love, is an incomparable good and the object of human existence. Every believer can honestly claim that God is good to them.
So these four Christian doctrines increase the probability that God and suffering actually do coexist in this world. The burden of proof rests squarely on atheism to demonstrate that:
• the four Christian doctrines are improbable, or
• suffering is somehow improbable even in light of these doctrines.
NO LOGICAL CONNECTION BETWEEN SUFFERING AND GOD’S EXISTENCE
Former atheist Antony Flew states:
“Certainly, the existence of evil and suffering must be faced. However, philosophically speaking, that is a separate issue from the question of God’s existence . . . Nature may have its imperfections, but this says nothing as to whether it had an ultimate Source. Thus, the existence of God does not depend on the existence of warranted or unwarranted evil.”
Antony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York, HarperCollins, 2007), 156.
In eastern cultures, the fact of suffering is NEVER used as a means to argue that God does not exist. Antony Flew states that there is no logical connection between the two by which suffering could invalidate theism. It is only in western cultures that skeptics attempt to use the fact of suffering as an argument against the idea of an omnipotent and all-good God.
It is atheists in western culture who propose that, in light of suffering, God’s existence is improbable. Since there isn’t even a logical connection between the two, proving this is an uphill battle.
As terrible as some aspects of this life can be, there is still more good than evil. Despite the amount of suffering in the world, most people generally agree that life is worth living. When things are bad, most of us typically have a hope that in the future things will get better.
As Christians we do not accept the idea that the “amount” of suffering and “kinds” of suffering in the world make God’s existence highly unlikely. We also reject the hidden assumption that says “it is highly unlikely that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering.”
We say this because:
1. Given our “limited frame of reference,” we are simply not in a position to be able to properly assess whether God has “morally sufficient reasons” to allow suffering.
2. Relative to the full scope of the evidence (see the five arguments on this website), God’s existence is probable.
3. Christianity includes doctrines that make it more probable that God and suffering actually do coexist.
A theistic worldview that recognizes the existence of both God and suffering, particularly the Christian perspective, offers the best hope for a world that needs to return to the source of all that is good, the God of the universe.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures,
speaks in our conscience,
but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1940).
In light of ALL the evidence, it seems more likely that God exists.