Category Archives: Theism

If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist…

Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists.

The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics. Comments on this draft are welcome.

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Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.

Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.

And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

There are atheists who regard this as a water-tight argument and claim to be baffled as to why Christians can’t see the logic of it. But it seems to me that the argument goes wrong on several counts. Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.

What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. Think of the common illustration, from the science of chaos theory, of a butterfly fluttering around a plant setting in motion events which lead to a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of such events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.

Even worse: it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:

4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
5. God exists.
6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous. It all has a plan and purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.

This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. As Christians we believe in God already. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.

An illustration will help show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.

One of my favourite illustrations of this kind of principle comes from the movie “Sliding Doors.” [Spoiler alert!] In the movie the lead character is running to catch a train. At this point the movie branches off into two “sub-movies”: in one she catches the train, and in the other she misses it. The movie shows how her life goes in two completely different directions as a result of one seemingly mundane event: catching or missing a train. In one world she goes on to be incredibly successful, while in the other she goes through various trials, frustrations and hardships. However, in the life in which she is successful she ends up dying much younger; while in her other life she finally turns things around. Imagine one day in eternity God shows her just what would’ve happened had she caught the train. She might then be grateful for missing it, even though it brought hardship and frustrations for a time.

We also see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God so he might overwhelmingly reward in eternity those who go through such trials in faith.

Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the appearances, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.

No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist is content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….

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Who Created God!?!?

Too often in philosophical debates concerning the existence of God I hear atheists smugly ask, “yeah, well, who made God?” The “who made God” move is normally used to resist arguments for the existence of God. The complaint is that by inferring God as the creator of the cosmos we raise the issue of where God came from, and that therefore positing God solves nothing. Is the atheist correct? It seems to me that the atheist objector is incorrect on at least two fronts.

Firstly, we should note that Christians typically believe that God possesses the property of aseity – that is, self-existence. This means that God exists totally independently of anything else. He does not owe his existence to another being, nor does he rely on other beings for his continued existence. As such God did not come into existence. He has always existed. Some atheists think this is simply a case of special pleading – as if the theist is arbitrarily defining God as having some characteristic or other simply out of convenience. But this is not the case. Many theistic arguments make a rational conclusion to the existence of such a being, and thus the attribution of the characteristic of self-existence is far from being an arbitrary one: it’s the conclusion of an argument.

For example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument concludes to a being that is timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, and personal. Self-existence is implied by these characteristics. Alternatively, various species of the Ontological Argument conclude to a being that is “necessary” or “maximally excellent,” and again therefore self-existent. The same goes for other arguments – the argument from contingency also concludes to the existence of a necessary being. This is why the “who made God” question is so tiresome. The atheist simply hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to the kind of being inferred by such arguments. To respond to these arguments with the retort “who made God!?!” is to ask “who created this being that wasn’t created?” It’s simply an incoherent question.

But, secondly, even if this question did arise it still would not invalidate the initial inference to God. For example, if astronauts were to discover a bunch of weird technical equipment on a distant planet they would rightly conclude to the existence of some alien species even if this then raises all sorts of questions as to who they are and where they came from. The question “where did the aliens come from” does not invalidate the inference that some sort of alien species is responsible for all this technical equipment. In short, in order for some given explanation – E – to be valid, we don’t need to have an explanation of E itself. So resisting a theistic argument because you think it raises such a question is a patently flawed move.

I addressed above the atheist charge that attributing self-existence to God is arbitrary or a case of special pleading. It is noteworthy on this point that the atheist usually engages in some special pleading himself, which is smoked-out by asking the question: “who created the universe?” Unless the atheist holds the rationally indefensible position that the universe popped into existence uncaused and out of nothing for no particular reason, he must hold that the universe (or at least whatever pre-cursor he believes it sprang from) is self-existent, (Bertrand Russell once remarked that the universe just exists and that’s that. Carl Sagan once proclaimed that the universe is all there was, all there is, and all there ever will be). The point is that something must be self-existent – theists and atheists simply disagree as to what that is. Theists see a self-existent creator; atheists hold that the universe itself is self-existent. It seems to me that the weight of evidence leans heavily on the side of theism. Everything we know about the universe suggests that it is contingent, that it doesn’t exist by necessity, that it’s possible that it might not have existed. It certainly doesn’t appear to be the sort of thing that has the property of self-existence, and the atheist owes us an argument as to why we should consider it so. On the other hand theists have several streams of evidence all flowing together to show that – probably at least – the universe was created and that whatever created it must also be self-existent. To use the words of Thomas Aquinas: “and this we call God.”

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Bang Goes Theism?

Bang Goes Theism…

I have written about and defended the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God by philosopher William Lane Craig on numerous occassions. This deceptively simple argument runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins to existence has a cause of its existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

After establishing this argument, Craig goes on to argue – primarily on the basis of conceptual analysis – that this cause must be timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, incredibly powerful, and even personal.

Given that premise one is strongly supported by our universal experience of the world as well as our rationally ingrained metaphysical intutions that things cannot just pop into existence ucaused and out of nothing, Craig spends most of his time defending premise two: The universe began to exist. Not only does he provide two strong philosophical reasons to support this premise, but he also provides two scientific reasons – evidence from thermodynamics and evidence from what we know of the origins of the universe in the event that has come to be known as the Big Bang. What makes his case so strong is that we have two very different bodies of evidence both pointing strongly in the same direction. Much of the science is technical and weighty, going into deeper issues within cosmology and even quantum physics, but I was reminded this week of an argument against the existence of God from the evidence of the Big Bang by philosopher Quentin Smith.

It is this argument that I want to deal with here. I will first lay out the argument in its logical form and then bring some criticisms against it which to my mind are devastating to Smith’s case.

Smith’s argument runs as follows:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than an inanimate universe.

4. Therefore, if God created that earliest state, then it must either contain life or eventually lead to a universe containing life (1, 2 & 3).

5. There is an earliest state of the universe, and it is the unique event of the Big Bang.

6. The earliest state of the universe involves the life-hostile conditions of infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density.

7. Since the Big Bang even is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will lead to life (from 5 & 7).

9. Therefore God could not have created that earliest state (4 & 8)

10. Therefore, God does not exist.

Theists are highly unlikely to quibble with premise 1, since being the creator of the universe is one of the main features of God as conceived across a broad spectrum from deism to specifically Christian theism. It’s possible of course for God to exist and yet not have created the universe, but we can set that possibility aside here. Premise 2 lays out the more specific concept of God that Smith is dealing with in this argument. Of course even if the argument is success it would remain open that some other type of deity exists – perhaps an all-powerful but benevolently-indifferent being, or a less than perfect God, or perhaps a God of limited power. However, a huge number of theists hold to this conception of God, and so we shall run with it and still show the shortcomings of the argument.

The first significant problem with Smith’s argument appears in premise 3, the statement that “a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe,” and thus the initial conclusion stated in premise 4 is also suspect as it relies on 3 in order to function. Why must God create a universe with life? What reason is there for the claim that a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe? Better for whom or what? It can hardly be better for the beings that do not exist in such a lifeless world, since non-existence beings can have no interests at all. Nor can it be better for God. If God is perfect and lacks nothing then a universe of life is no better for Him either. Smith seems to think that God has some sort of obligation to bring about the best possible world. However, not only has he given us no reason to accept that a universe with life is in some way “better,” he fails to appreciate the incoherence in the notion that God could have any such obligation. Where does such an obligation come from? Who or what could possibly lay an obligation on God? The notion of divine obligations which exist over and above God himself simply makes little sense. It might indeed be the case that God has a reason for creating a universe with life but there is no obligation or necessity here.

Far more can be said about this point but I want to leave it here since the really fatal premise is further on.

Premise 5 is fairly unobjectionable, as is Premise 6. However, the argument really begins to come apart at the seams with Premise 7:

“Since the Big Bang event is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.”

It strikes me that this premise is begging the question, albeit implicitly. After all if an all-powerful God who wishes to bring about life exists, then it simply isn’t true that “there is no guarantee that [the Big Bang event] will lead to a universe with life.” Quite simply if God exists then there is a guarantee that we will get a universe with life. It would appear, then, that if God exists there is no reason to grant Premise 7, and in fact unless we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true then Premise 7 is flat out false. The only way Premise 7 can possibly be true is if we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true. The argument therefore commits the informal fallacy of begging the question. As such it is dead in the water.

But in the interests of flogging the goat a little more we should point out that there is good reason to deny Premise 7 in its own right. The premise, as we have seen, describes the Big Bang event as “inherently unpredictable and lawless, [with] no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.” However, maybe such a capacity to guarantee life was present at the outset even if to our eyes it appears to have been inherently unpredictable and lawless. After all, as Smith rather splendidly overlooks, the universe did in fact produce life despite massive odds to the contrary! Alternatively God could very easily have ensured a universe with life through subsequent intervention. Smith owes us a good argument if he wishes to persuade us that there is some logical necessity that a life-engendering capacity be present from the very start, but all he offers us is his own musings that if God had to intervene it would be “a sign of incompetent planning. . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” Leaving aside Smith’s apparent knowledge of the field of universe creation, he has given us scant grounds to suppose that intervention after the initial Big Bang event is in some way illogical. He only hints that God should have adopted a more efficient way of working, a way which would rule out any need for subsequent intervention. In response to this notion, Thomas Morris concludes, quite rightly, that: “Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. Before you know whether a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in. . . In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.” I have my doubts if Smith – or any human being – is in the right position with the necessary knowledge to make such a judgment call.

In any event, why should we even think that efficiency is a necessary property of a divine – and perfect – being? Even if God does not act efficiently is that somehow a defect? Hardly. Efficiency is arguably a good property to possess if you’re a being with limited time, power and resources; but God presumably lacks neither time, nor power, nor resources. God, as a perfect being, is creatively free and thus under no constraints with respect to the property of having to act efficiently.

On the basis of these considerations I therefore conclude that Smith’s argument collapses under the weight of its own faulty premises and unwarranted assumptions. No rational person need accept it without making several significant quantum leaps of logic.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Atheism, God, Quentin Smith, Theism