Tag Archives: God

Reflections on Suffering & the Time I Could’ve Died

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. I thought I’d write this piece as a personal reflection on the value of suffering, rather than a philosophical piece. It was inspired by a question I was asked recently: rather than allow someone to go through suffering and then deliver them from it, wouldn’t it be better if God had kept them from the suffering in the first place? It made me think of the worst moment of my life.

About 20 years ago I was part of an adventure group on a “coastal walk” at the North coast of Northern Ireland. Don’t be deceived by that description. This was no leisurely stroll along the beach. This involved rock climbing, jumping off small cliffs into the sea, bouldering, and swimming. At one particular point in our journey we had to swim from one side of a bay to another. In the middle there was a small rocky island which we had to swim to first to get a short rest before continuing on.

Some rough weather had been stirring and as we were making our first swim we soon became aware that the conditions were much worse than we had thought. We had to get to safety pretty quickly, so we all made for the little rocky island. The sea had become so rough that the edges of the island were being pounded, so we had to wait until the last wave crashed and then swim in and climb up the rocks before the next wave hit. I timed my swim OK but as I attempted to climb up my foot caught on some seaweed and I slid. I was left half-lying and half-clinging to the rocks hoping that I might be able to bear the hit of the wave. I’ve never felt a force like it. Trying to hang onto the rocks was utterly futile (in fact the skin of my hands got badly torn in a few places). I was washed straight across the rocks and into a huge swell of water. Had I not been wearing a helmet my head would, in all probability, have been crushed. I was swept into a huge swell of water, unable to breathe, and too stunned to help myself. One of the others in my group was a trained lifeguard and I was fortunate enough that he was able to get me out and (with a huge effort on the part of the group) onto the island. I was in shock for some time afterwards and couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I still remember the lifeguard’s words to me: “When things like that happen you realise just how fragile we are and that your life is really quite a precious thing.”

How easy it would have been for some small detail to have been different that would have left my family in mourning. If my helmet had been too loose. If the winds had been just a little bit different and sent me straight onto rock instead of into the sea. If we hadn’t had an experienced lifeguard with us. So many things could’ve been different, and had they been different my life may well have ended that day. Imagine two worlds: the current world and another possible world in which events conspired to kill me off that day. If we compare those worlds as they each look at 9am on 14th September 2017 there will be certain big differences. Consider all the people I have interacted with – for good or ill – in the last 20 years. Many of their lives would be quite different, some hugely so. My son wouldn’t exist. My wife would’ve married someone else and different children might exist who are missing from our actual world. Over time these children might have children, and so on. It’s mind-boggling how even one small event which could have so easily turned out differently can send a wave through time and have such massive consequences, and that’s before we think of the billions of events in billions of lives every single day. This fact is the main reason why I think arguments from suffering fail: they under-appreciate this feature of reality that even small events can have huge and unforeseen consequences that can radically change the future in ways we can barely comprehend.

But what about me? Why would God allow me to go through such an experience rather than prevent it in the first place? Admittedly, my experience on this day was (and remains) the worst experience of my life. At the time, I would’ve preferred that it didn’t happen at all. But on reflection it did change me a lot and taught me a few things I wouldn’t have learnt or appreciated except for having gone through the experience. And thus it seems to me that it might indeed make sense for God to sometimes save us from the midst suffering rather than spare us from it in the first place. In other words, whilst God might have good reason for causing or permitting suffering in the first place, He could also have good reason for saving a person from the midst of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 13: Can God Change His Mind?

In Christendom God has typically been regarded as “immutable.” Sometimes this is defined as “unchangeable,” other times as “unchanging.” The former conception is a much stronger one than the latter, for the former means that God cannot change in some respect, not just that he simply doesn’t change. Of course, those who adhere to the stronger conception of immutability are careful to nuance the definition. They don’t think God is frozen into immobility and unable to act in the world. Instead, they typically mean that God doesn’t change in a number of crucial ways. For example, God’s existence doesn’t change: he has always and will always exist (“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” as the Biblical writer puts it). Further, God is considered to be unchangeable with respect to His character. His moral character of loving-kindness, grace, faithfulness and mercy never changes, and thus He can be relied upon by all who trust Him.

In a recent Twitter poll I asked “Can God Change His Mind?” 53% of respondents said “No, and I think they are right.

Many Christians might be tempted to think God does indeed change His mind, since salvation history includes a number of episodes in which it seems that God does precisely that. In fact, He is even said to “repent” of some action and change his course. If we are to take these passages at face value then it seems that we must affirm that God changes His mind.

However, I think we have good grounds for resisting that conclusion. One of the best-attested attributes of God through the Bible is His omniscience, and it is this attribute that should give pause for thought with respect to how we think of God’s immutability. God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing. He has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future. There isn’t a true proposition He fails to believe, and He believes no false proposition. Now, think of what happens when we change our mind about something. We change our mind whenever we come to be in some new epistemic situation. Perhaps we come to learn some new fact. Or perhaps upon reflecting on the things we do know we come to see certain connections between them that we didn’t see before. Further, our depth of moral insight might develop in such a way that we come see some action as wrong or not as good as some other action. This is fairly typical for beings such as we are, limited in intelligence, depth of insight, and moral development. However, it seems to me that an omniscient being wouldn’t have any cause to change His mind. He already knows all the facts. He already knows how things will pan out in the future. There’s nothing lacking in His cognitive situation that could bring about a change of mind. If a being knows that X is going to happen, then the being will have taken X into account already.

Passages describing God as changing His mind are anthropomorphic: human ways of describing relations to God and attempts to make sense of what He is doing. These passages are not theological treatises and we shouldn’t expect rigorous philosophical precision from them. They are stories of people as they wrestle with and attempt to understand their experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As such the stories simply give a human perspective on what God is doing. Take, for example, the classic case of Hezekiah, in which it seems on the face of it that God changed His mind in response to prayer to allow Hezekiah to live for a while longer. It only seems this way from our point of view. God always knew Hezekiah would pray for his life to be extended, and already knew what He was going to do. From God’s point of view there isn’t any change at all, though from Hezekiah’s standpoint it seems that God relents and give him 15 more years.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with my saying that such passages do not mean to describe God literally. However, God is regularly described (particularly in the Old Testament) in ways that clearly aren’t meant to be taken at face value. He doesn’t really have eyes, ears, legs; nor does He breathe out smoke while riding on clouds. Biblical literalism would lead us to an incredibly distorted concept of God indeed, and we should resist it where necessary (and it’s often necessary!).

In this case, literalism should be resisted, unless we are prepared to sacrifice God’s omniscience.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (6): Can God Create any Logically Possible World?

God’s omnipotence is a tricky beast to define, and very often the notion of logical possibility is used in defining it. In a recent discussion concerning the problem of evil I was asked which of two premises I rejected – that God, since he’s omnipotent, can do anything logically possible, or that God should remove suffering if it’s logically possible to do so. I reject both, but was specifically asked to say why I reject the former. This short article is an expanded explanation of what I said in response.

It is my contention that there are states of affairs which, though they be logically possible, are such that God cannot bring them about. Before I offer the two examples I gave it might be useful to be clear about what a logically possible world (LPW) actually is. As I understand and use the term a LPW is a complete description of reality as it could be. Take the set of all propositions that might or might not obtain, eg: A, B, C, D, E….n. A LPW will be a state of affairs in which every single one of these propositions – or their denial – obtains. So, one possible world would be:

A, B, -C, D, E, etc.


-A, B, -C, D, -E, etc

But we could not have:

-A, B, -B, C, -D, E, etc,

Because this contains a logical contradiction by trying to include both B and –B.

To take a concrete example: I have a son who is 10 years old. However, in some other LPW I have no son, but three daughters. There is no LPW in which I have a son and don’t have a son at the same time.

With this brief sketch of LPWs in mind, let’s look at my examples:

(1) Libertarian Free Will (LFW)

If human beings have LFW then there are LPWs God cannot bring about. Take, for instance, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ. There is a LPW in which Judas, under certain conditions, chooses to betray Christ, and another in which he chooses to remain faithful. In either case we will have a complete description of reality. The former LPW contains the proposition “Judas betrayed Jesus” whilst the latter contains the proposition “Judas did not betray Jesus.” However, (if human beings have LFW) which of these worlds becomes actual is not up to God. It’s up to Judas. Under these precise circumstances Judas chose to betray Jesus, but he really could have chosen not to betray. God couldn’t force him to act freely in either direction; this was Judas’s move as a free agent. Calling the former world PW(B) and the latter PW(-B) we can say that PW(B) was actualisable but PW(-B) was not. So, God could not actualise PW(-B), despite the fact that it is a LPW. This distinction between logically possible and actualisable is subtle but significant, and sadly the two are often conflated.

(2) Temporal Creation

My second example doesn’t require LFW. Take any two universes God could create: U-X and U-Y. Let’s say further than He desires to create two different universes, one after the other. There are two kinds of LPWs here:

(i) PW-Y1 – in which God creates U-Y first and then U-X,


(ii) PW-X1 – in which God creates U-X and then U-Y.

Now, both of these worlds are LPWs, that is they are complete descriptions of reality in which every proposition is either affirmed or denied. However, God can only create one of them. If he chooses PW-Y1 then he cannot create PW-X1. They exclude each other, and yet both are LPWs.

Now, it might be objected (and in fact during my previously mentioned discussion it actually was) that PW-Y1 and PW-X1 are only LPWs before God creates anything. In other words, once God chooses to create PW-X1 then PW-Y1 is no longer a LPW. This is incorrect and blurs again the subtle distinction between actualisable worlds and logically possible worlds. PW-Y1 remains a LPW. It remains a complete description of reality. It’s represents a way reality really could have been. However, it is no longer actualisable.

It seems to me then that definitions of omnipotence that rely on the notion of logical possibility can’t be quite right since it seems clear enough (to my mind anyway!) that there are LPWs that even an omnipotent being couldn’t create. This also means that arguments against God’s existence – such as some versions of the problem of evil – which rely on the notion that God can do anything logically possible are flawed and need to be revised or abandoned.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under God, Possible Worlds, Problem of Evil

God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump objects to Peter van Inwagen’s proposed theodicy because under the terms of that theodicy God would inflict or permit some person, S, to undergo some instance of suffering, without their permission, and purely for the benefit of some other person or group of people, Y (call this “involuntary altruistic suffering”). This is an objection I’ve heard from the lips of a few philosophical atheists also.

What are we to make of it? Better still, how do we turn such an observation into an actual objection? Precisely what is wrong with God inflicting or permitting S to undergo involuntary altruistic suffering? (I am assuming here that it is possible for some person to suffer purely for the benefit of someone else. This might be disputed by some who hold that suffering always brings about – or at least has the potential for – benefit to the sufferer, either directly or indirectly. I’m also ignoring the suggestion that S is better off in a world where S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering than in some other possible world).

Stump’s objection is that God would be in breach of a moral principle like:

“It is wrong to allow something bad to happen to X – without X’s permission – In order to secure some benefit for others (and no benefit for X).”

As much as I respect Stump as a philosopher, this principle strikes me as clearly wrong, at least if we hold it as a universal principle. It is all too easy to think of counter-examples. Van Inwagen himself lists a few general types of case where such a moral principle wouldn’t hold, for example:

1. When the agent is in a position of lawful authority over X and the others in the question. For instance, if a citizen returns to his home country from a region where a killer disease has been rampant, aren’t the authorities perfectly entitled to keep him or her in quarantine before being free to mingle with fellow citizens?

2. When the good to be gained by the others is considerably greater than the evil suffered by X.

3. When there is no way to achieve the good for the others except by X suffering (or someone else equal to X).

Imagine I’m a train driver and I’ve just been informed that a man has been tied to the tracks by a psychopathic serial killer. There isn’t time to pull the breaks. I can either run over the man or I could re-direct the train onto an abandoned line that leads off a cliff, killing all the passengers on board. I choose to inflict pain and suffering on the man (and his friends and relatives), without their permission, and purely for the benefit of others. Have I acted wrongly? Clearly not, I should think.

Perhaps, you might protest, although this is a case where there is no explicit permission given, permission could be rationally implied or inferred. How so? Well, arguably whilst the man does not consent to die, he would almost certainly agree with the decision to end his life if he was making the decision as a neutral observer.

This raises a very interesting point. We might say that if the man could objectively weigh the big picture he would consent to the infliction of the suffering. In other words, if the man was to make the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing that the person tied to the tracks is himself – he would almost certainly choose the action the train driver chooses. But if this is so it seems to me that the objection to God acting in a way such that S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering is fatally undermined. It seems that there is little objection to God permitting or causing suffering to S for the good of Y if the suffering is taken on voluntarily, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if S is not in a position to choose to accept the suffering, God – being omniscient – knows that if S were in a position to make such a decision S would accept the suffering that comes his way. In this case too there doesn’t seem to be much that’s objectionable in causing or permitting S to suffer for the benefit of Y. But, what if S is able to make such a decision and would not choose to suffer? Well, again, God knows that such unwillingness is due to ignorance. If S knew all the facts of the situation – and perhaps if S had all the right affections – then S would accept the suffering. Again, I’m not sure there is an objection here. The point is that God sees the big picture, and weighs it perfectly objectively. So, arguably in inflicting suffering on S (or permitting such suffering) He is acting in a way S would agree with if S had the big picture God has.

So, if there is to be an objection that God violates some moral principle or other we require a coherent statement of the principle and a decent argument that it passes the “counter-example” test. I don’t think Stump has achieved that.

Stephen J. Graham

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God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts, has tentatively offered a rather novel argument against God recently (Schieber has informed me that the argument is not original to him. He heard it briefly mentioned in an unknown podcast a few years ago and it got him thinking about how to formalise it). Schieber hasn’t developed his argument at any length, but helpfully provided this quick summary:

“If God is omniscient, he knows which persons would freely reject him if he were to create them as well as which persons would freely choose him if he were to create them.

If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, he would surely have created those who he knows would freely choose Him. However, God could have created Philosophical Zombies (Characters who look and act in identical ways to free creatures but lacking souls/internal mental lives) to play the roles of those he knew would reject him had he actually created them.

If he did, Hell would contain no conscious torment of persons. Heaven would contain only those who God knew would freely choose him. Those who God knew would freely reject him would never have been created.

In such a story, Free Will and Perfect Justice are preserved.”


The concept of a philosophical zombie might be a new and unusual one to some readers. Philosophical zombies are a famous part of philosophical thought experiments in the philosophy of mind. A philosophical zombie is exactly the same as a human being but lacks consciousness. They are not self-aware. They do not have thoughts, sensations, inner mental lives, or an awareness of personhood. However, they act just like any human does. They will form sentences, walk to work, sit at a computer, eat lunch, talk to taxi drivers, and tell jokes. They are effectively lumps of flesh acting a certain way but with no conscious life.

Now, not all philosophers believe the concept is a coherent one. I disagree with this and agree with comments made by Schieber in a Twitter conversation that it is easily within God’s power to make lumps of flesh look and act like humans whilst lacking any consciousness or inner mental life.

So, let’s unpack Schieber’s argument a bit further. Obviously his argument doesn’t apply to all brands of Christian theism. For instance, the open theist needn’t be much concerned by it since he or she will hold that God does not in fact know the future choices of free agents. Nor will the Christian pluralist – John Hick, for instance – be greatly disturbed since on his view God will eventually win everyone over to salvation. Furthermore, annihilationists – such as John Wenham or John Stott – will not be massively perturbed either since unbelievers will simply go out of existence.

Thus, Schieber’s argument need only concern Christians who believe (1) That God does in fact know the future choices of free agents; and (2), that unbelievers will live eternally outside of God’s presence – in Hell, however we choose to conceive of it.

In response to Schieber let’s grant:

1. God is omniscient and knows how any free person that He could create will act in any circumstances in which He might wish to create that person.

2. God is omnipotent and could have created as philosophical zombies those He knows will freely reject Him.

3. The ultimately unrepentant will live eternally outside of God’s presence.

Response to Schieber

It seems to me that there are certain assumptions underlying Schieber’s argument:

1. That in creating actual people God knows will reject salvation, God is in some way wronging them or doing them an injustice.

2. Sending ultimately impenitent unbelievers to Hell for eternity is unjust, and thus a bad thing.

3. A world with no Hell is better than a world with a Hell.

I don’t think Schieber’s argument works unless these assumptions – or others very much like them – are granted. I will argue that all are, in fact, false.

What the hell is Hell?

Let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Schieber refers to Hell as eternal conscious torment. At the popular level this idea raises images of people being burned in flames for all eternity, or perhaps tormented by demons as depicted in medieval art. However, this conception of Hell is not one which you’ll find frequently amongst theologians. Christian philosopher JP Moreland states categorically: “God doesn’t torture people in hell.” I have neither time nor space to explicate a full doctrine of Hell here. The precise nature of Hell is not spelled out in the Bible. Rather what we find are a number of different images and pictures pointing towards it rather than spelling out its precise nature. In the literature on Hell theologians tend to be in agreement on one thing: Hell is fundamentally a separation from God.

In orthodox Christianity God is the creator: a generous, loving being who wishes the best for his creatures. God’s purpose and will for us is that we should relate to and love Him. To this end God has created us with a degree of freedom – to seek, find and honour God, or to go our own way. How this pans out in each individual’s life is beyond my ability to say.

Now, I detect two differing understandings within orthodox Christian views of Hell as the eternal destiny of the unrepentant and I want to discuss both in light of Scheiber’s argument.

(1) The self-inflicted view, represented by Peter Kreeft and CS Lewis.

(2) The retributive view, represented by William Lane Craig.

Kreeft views Hell primarily in terms of a self-separation from God by the individual. He argues that the existence of Hell actually follows from the existence of Heaven and free will – as a place for those who freely reject heaven.

The central point made by Kreeft is best put in his own words: “. . . heaven and hell may be the very same objective place – namely God’s love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. . . The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.” Kreeft appears to think that the damned could turn and be saved but they choose not to. They refuse God forever, and therefore – as Sartre once remarked – the door of Hell is locked from the inside. This same point is wonderfully made by CS Lewis in his allegorical story The Great Divorce. In this book he pictures people who live in Hell (depicted as a grey, colourless, and comparatively insubstantial world – not a fiery torture chamber) going on a journey to heaven, but hardly any of them choose to stay despite the pleadings of the saints. The core point is that God allows free creatures – out of respect for their autonomy and human dignity – to separate themselves from Him if they choose. Thus, the damned choose Hell, and Hell’s existence stands as a testimony to the dignity of human moral freedom.

William Lane Craig on the other hand sees hell primarily in terms of retributive punishment inflicted on the unrepentant by God because of their sin rather than primarily as a state the damned themselves choose to remain in. Responding to the argument that any sin only deserves a finite punishment Craig points out that the damned very likely continue to sin: “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense then hell is self-perpetuating.” (I should point out that Craig disputes the notion that sin cannot rightly receive an infinite punishment. He argues that rejecting Christ is a sin of a different order altogether, one of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore believes the case can indeed be made for an infinite punishment for sin). The central point here is that if the punishment of obstinate, unrepentant sinners is just then the existence of Hell is just, and not therefore an evil.

Through Hell and Back

We return then to Schieber after our brief excursus through hell.

Take two possible worlds: Zombixia and EarthWorld. Zombixia is identical to EarthWorld in all respects except that those who God knows will reject him are created as philosophical zombies – not as real people – and thus will not go to Hell for eternity. Is Zombixia preferable?

I think our brief discussion of Hell allows us to see that Schieber’s argument does not show that Zombixia would be preferable or that EarthWorld is somehow defective by comparison to it. In fact I think a reasonable case can be made for why EarthWorld is to be preferred.

On both the Kreeft and Craig models of eternal Hell God wills the salvation of every single person and every single person is such that they have sufficient opportunity to accept salvation. All can be saved. On the molinist model that I suspect Scheiber has in mind when he offers this argument, whilst it is the case that God knows that some person X will not accept salvation, it is the case that X remains free to accept salvation or reject it. The circumstances are “freedom permitting,” even though God knows that X will freely reject him. But X has the opportunity to be saved, he really can be saved, but he chooses not to be. That he has this opportunity is a great good – one that would be missing from Zombixia.

On the Kreeft model X freely separates himself from God, and his eternal destiny is thus the upholding of his dignity as a free moral agent. In effect God respects X as a person and grants him his will. CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God “thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God therefore doesn’t wrong the unrepentant by creating them; he grants them dignity, respects their will, and upholds their personhood. These are goods pertaining to EarthWorld that are missing from Zombixia.

Alternatively, on the Craig model X is punished by God for his sin. But, this punishment is just, particularly if X continues sinning, continues in his God-rejecting unrepentant course. Now, are we to think this is bad? I don’t think so unless we are prepared to defend the notion that punishment is inherently bad. Sure, it might be bad for X but does that mean that God shouldn’t have made X as a real person? Why should God allow those who freely reject salvation to have some sort of veto power over his creative activity? He creates them as real persons, gives them real opportunity for salvation, but X squanders the opportunity. I don’t see an injustice here that Zombixia lacks by comparison. On Craig’s model no one will be in hell except by their own moral guilt and choice to reject salvation. In Zombixia God has effectively allowed the ultimately unrepentant veto power over his creative will, and to limit the number of people over which he can extend his love and offer of salvation.

Moreover, there appears to be something of very significant moral value lacking in Zombixia. Say Billy Bob is a philanthropist who spends large amounts of time and money helping turbulent Tom, destitute Dick and homeless Harry. But Tom, Dick & Harry are not in fact real people in Zombixia. They cannot truly appreciate Billy Bob’s actions; nor do those actions really accomplish anything of moral worth in the lives of Tom, Dick & Harry. Not so in EarthWorld. It seems to me that there is therefore a clear value and purpose inherent to moral actions in EarthWorld that is lacking in Zombixia.

So, it seems to me that whichever model we advocate (I prefer a modified form of Kreeft over Craig, with the hope that John Hick is right!), EarthWorld and Zombixia each preserve free will and perfect justice. However EarthWorld has values that Zombixia does not and, indeed, cannot have. EarthWorld is a real world, with real significance. There’s no pretense here. There are real choices to be made, and crucially real opportunities for every person to come to salvation. Human dignity and moral autonomy are respected in EarthWorld in a way that they aren’t in Zombixia. X truly can be saved in EarthWorld, but has no such opportunity in Zombixia. It therefore seems to me that God has reason to create the former over the latter.

Stephen J Graham

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Theodicy & The Book of Job

With its belief in the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God the problem of evil is particularly acute for Christian theism, and it therefore makes sense to inquire what resources might be found within that tradition for dealing with this problem. In this article I want to look at the Bible, and specifically at the book of Job. The book of Job is the sort of book that must be read in its entirety. Proof-text from Job at your peril!

The first thing to notice is that Job is not a work of analytic philosophy. It’s a story. It doesn’t give us 5 point deductive argument defending the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Instead Job is a narrative, cleverly woven together to give us a lens through which to view the evils and sufferings we face.

The story is of a righteous man who suffers, and, in his own eyes, suffers unjustly. The main portion of the book is taken up by cycles of debate between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Zophur, and Bildad (and later on Elihu). The theological background of the book is vital. Israelites believed that God was almighty and perfectly just; and no one was wholly innocent in His eyes. The prevailing theodicy was simple: our suffering is a measure of our guilt before God. If you were righteous you enjoyed God’s blessing. If you were not, you didn’t; you suffered to some extent in accordance with your unrighteousness. This theology undergirds numerous utterances of the various characters. Thus, for example, we find Eliphas saying, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Who being innocent has ever perished?”[Job 4:6].

But the book of Job throws up a problem: Job was righteous (though not without sin) and yet suffered greatly. The orthodox theology has broken down. For Job’s friends the theology holds true, and they therefore conclude that Job’s sin before God must be great. Job, who also adheres to this theology, believes he is righteous and therefore holds out for God to vindicate him. Theology has collided with human experience, and God has become an enigma in the eyes on the suffering righteous.

Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of Job is to refute this theology, but that is inaccurate. The purpose is to show that while it may be true that God often rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (see the cycles of sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges for an illustration of this theology at work), this isn’t always or necessarily the case. Of course, it could be the case – and could even generally be the case – that this is how God operates, but the theology is not universal: sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The world is not such that you always reap what you sow.

Elihu, who is introduced later in the book, has a slightly different take on things. While he holds to the traditional theology he takes it in a slightly different direction. Job is a sinner, like everyone else. However, rather than his suffering being a punishment for wrong Elihu seems to see the suffering as a warning of future judgment. Suffering, for Elihu, becomes God’s way to attract Job’s attention towards the sin in his life that needs to be dealt with in order to save his soul. Thus conceived the suffering of Job is actually a part of God’s love and redemptive plan. Christian theism certainly contains a theme to this effect, a theme which was highlighted by CS Lewis when he referred to pain as “[God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But, as with the aforementioned theology, we know that while this may well be true on many occasions, it isn’t the case with Job’s situation here.

Towards the end of the book Yahweh finally makes an appearance. We might at this point expect an explanation from God but He never actually gives one. Yahweh appeals simply to his omniscience, suggesting that Job’s complaints are made from a position of ignorance: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?. . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”[Job 38: 2, 4-6]. And on and on Yahweh peppers Job with such questions. Yahweh’s speeches imply that Job should trust God to do the right thing. In other words, if Job knows God is almighty, just and omniscient then Job should accept that God knows what he is doing and is doing the right thing, even though Job has no idea what is going on. Job comes to accept this divine chastening: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”[Job 42:2-3]

Notice that Yahweh never actually tells Job what the reader knows. In this instance God has been challenged by “the satan” – “the accuser” – and this challenge has massive ramifications for the God-man relationship, a relationship which the satan seeks to destroy. God delights in Job and boasts of Job’s righteousness. In response the satan makes his challenge: Job’s righteousness is in fact evil and purely self-serving; he is righteous and loyal only because he enjoys the blessings of God. God takes delight in Job’s righteousness but the satan challenges that Job’s righteousness is really devoid of all integrity, and that if God would let him break the link between righteousness and blessing then Job will be exposed as the sinner he is and God will be shown as a fool for delighting in Job. There is a lot at stake: if the satan is right then he will have succeeded in driving a wedge between God and man Elmer Smick writes, “It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stands between them that cannot be bridged.”

God then steps up to the challenge so as He and Job may be vindicated and the satan silenced. The lesson seems to be that the righteousness of man is of such importance that God values it above all else, and thus suffering in this case has deep meaning and value. Job has to endure because God is interested in freely given love and loyalty and to prove that people would still love and be loyal no matter what happened to them. God perhaps desires to prove that He is worthy of love and loyalty in Himself and not because of the positive rewards He gives.

But God never explains any of this to Job, and we could only speculate as to why that is. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Job remained righteous and loyal and, in the end, needed no explanation. As a righteous man God’s presence was all Job needed – not a theological or philosophical answer. Or perhaps the point is that God is not under some obligation to explain his dealings with us. But whatever the answer is there is a more general point to make, since the reason for Job’s suffering is not intended to be an explanation for why everyone suffers.

The more general point of the book is to show that from our perspective as we live our lives – like Job and his friends – we have a severely limited view of reality. Job and his friends have simply a man’s eye view of things. But the reader of the book is given a God’s eye view from the start. Job and his friends are “inside” the story; the reader is “outside,” and privy to information that is hidden from the main characters in the dispute. We get to see a glimpse of a person struggling to understand their suffering, while also knowing the reason why they are suffering. With a God’s eye view we know that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than any character realizes. From a man’s eye view God is an enigma and it’s easy to feel injustice, or sense a lack of purpose behind our suffering, or even offer crass explanations why such and such happens. But, with a God’s eye view there is a clear purpose and reason that often isn’t clear.

The book of Job is written primarily for the people of God who are suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t necessarily tied to sin (thus suffering need not be compounded by guilt). Further, it’s a reminder that for those who believe in the greatness and goodness of God there is no suffering over which God is not in control. Most crucially it’s a reminder that we only see a small piece of reality and thus it’s difficult to draw conclusions such as “some evil in the world is gratuitous,” or “there is no reason for much pain and suffering that occurs,” or “an omnipotent and perfectly good God would not allow such suffering to happen.” To confidently draw these conclusions we need precisely what we do not have: A God’s eye view. How do we know – indeed, how could we know – that some level of suffering is the threshold beyond which a perfectly good God would step in? How does our lack of knowledge about the purposes of some instance of suffering justify a leap to the conclusion that it has no purpose?

And, indeed, those who trust that God is perfectly good and all powerful have grounds to hold that whilst we may not see any good purpose there must ultimately be one if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists. That, it seems to me, is the underlying message of the Book of Job.

Stephen J. Graham

This is an article that I had originally intended to send for publication, but I just don’t like it enough yet! Any comments or suggestions for improvements will be welcomed!


Filed under Bible, God, Problem of Evil, Uncategorized

Leibniz’s Best Possible World


Karth Barth accused Leibniz of having no serious interest in the problem of evil. Barth was wrong about many things, and such is the case here also. The problem of evil was of concern to Leibniz from his youth, and his thinking on the problem culminated in his influential work, “Theodicy.”

The central thesis of Leibniz’s work is the notion that the world in which we live is the best possible world (BPW). The concept of the BPW is a slippery one, often left ill-defined as if those who use it expect their listeners to instinctively know what it means. Unfortunately it is used differently by different thinkers, and, as we will see, criticisms of one understanding do not necessarily apply to others. According to Leibniz the BPW is that state of affairs – or combination of possibilities – which allows the maximization of being, in terms of both quantity and quality. His idea here has echoes of Neo-Platonism’s so called “principle of plenitude;”in creating God intends to manifest his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being, and such purposes are best served by creating a rich variety of finite beings, as opposed to a mere quantitative maximum of the same sort of being: “To multiply one and the same thing only would be superfluity, and poverty too. . . to eat nothing but partridges, to drink only Hungarian or Shiraz wine – would one call that reason?

In developing his notion of the BPW Leibniz also points out that while X, Y, Z might be individually possible, they may not be “compossible” – capable of existing in the same reality. For instance, it’s possible for Dodos to exist in the year 2014 and it’s possible that Dodos be extinct by 2014. But we can’t have one reality in which Dodos exist in 2014 and are extinct in 2014. One excludes the other. So, God must choose which set of coherent possibilities to actualize. Leibniz pictures an infinite number of possible universes present as ideas in God’s mind: W1…Wn. These universes exhaust all possibilities, such that any change in W1 would render it identical to, say, W2. From surveying each possible universe God applied his creative power to bring one into existence. The combination of God’s omnipotence, perfect understanding, and perfect goodness leads him to choose the best world.

It is Leibniz’s notion of compossibility – or noncompossibility – that means that whilst God chooses the BPW, this world still contains a great deal of evil. God’s creative activity is thus limited by inherent compatibility issues. There are, however, countless possibilities from which God can choose. He compares them – perfections and imperfections, weaknesses and strengths, goods and evils – and then in His wisdom chooses the best “in order to satisfy goodness completely.”

So, God surveys all the possible worlds he could make: W1 to Wn. According to Leibniz God knows these possible worlds exhaustively, including all the free decisions of any beings he could create in whatever circumstances he chooses to create them. Moreover, God sees each world as a completed whole. So, in terms of the idea of our own world in the divine mind, He knew about the Fall and its corrupting effects, about the redemption of Christ, and about the choices of each person which leads them to either salvation or damnation. God doesn’t determine these choices; He simply decrees the existence of this world and its entire history.

Here we meet the first common criticism of Leibniz: that the universe is just as rigidly determined as Spinoza’s, despite Leibniz’s protestations to the contrary. In fact, Charles Werner accuses Leibniz of presenting us with “a perfect and devastating image of necessity.” After all, in Leibniz’s scheme, God has decreed a complete sequence of events; what room then for human freedom?

This criticism is much too hasty, as Leibniz’s view needn’t exclude genuine free will. If – as many philosophers of religion think – God has so-called “middle knowledge,” then He knows what any creature He might create would do under any set of circumstances in which God might place him. These circumstances are “freedom-permitting” circumstances. For example, under the particular circumstances God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ three times. God’s knowing this does not, however, make the actions any less free – even in the libertarian sense. So, when our world was considered in its totality in the divine mind, this included all the free actions of free agents within it. God does not determine the agents to act as they do, but rather He knows how they will freely act in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the Leibnizian view we notice that evil is unavoidable. Evil – for Leibniz – is very real, though always a privation of something good. No matter what form evils come in – whether metaphysical evils in terms of finitude and imperfection, physical evils in terms of pain and suffering, or moral evils in terms of human sins – they are part of the BPW by virtue of being inter-connected with certain goods. Leibniz here agrees with Augustine that the universe as a whole is good despite containing elements that, when considered in isolation, are bad: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them.”

Leibniz thus approves of the ancient hymn which translates as “O fortunate sin that merits such and so great a redeemer,” to illustrate this principle, and writes: “all the evils of the world contribute, in ways which generally we cannot now trace, to the character of the whole as the best of all possible universes.” But, what about tiny evils? Couldn’t we do away with even just one of them and so make a better world than this? Leibniz answers: “if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found best by the Creator who chose it.”

It’s crucial to understand that Leibniz does not think we can derive the conclusion that this is the BPW simply by reflecting on how it appears to us. This, reckons Leibniz, would be impossible: “For can I know and can I present infinities to you and compare them together?” We have no way to know what the BPW is, except in so far as we might arrive at this conclusion by reflection on the existence of a perfectly good creator. Being perfectly good (and omnipotent) means that – having freely chosen to create (as an expression of over-flowing goodness creatively expressing itself to creatures) – God will create the best possible world: “supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best.” Leibniz, then, would be utterly unimpressed by recent atheistic arguments which attempt to show that God does not exist because this is not the best possible world. Leibniz was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly omniscient enough to draw such a conclusion!

This brings us to another criticism of Leibniz’s position: the coherence, or lack thereof, of the concept of “best possible world.”

Certain theologians, following Aquinas, have argued that the “best possible world” is by definition unrealizable – like the fastest possible speed. Charles Journet argued that regardless of what world God makes he could always make a better one, and thus: “To demand that God, to be above reproach, must make the best of all possible worlds is to demand him to make what is not feasible, and to give existence to something absurd.”

It seems to me that Journet has failed to grasp the sense in which Leibniz uses the term. Following the Thomist tradition Journet holds that there is a scale of possible universes from non-being to God, but that this scale contains an infinity of steps, and that between any two universes there is always the possibility of another. This means that no matter what universe God creates there is always the possibility of there being one that is better but still less than God. If the Thomist tradition is correct then the concept of the best possible world is indeed incoherent, since there cannot be a best possible world in the sense of a closest approximation to perfection within an infinite series of such approximations.

However, this is not how Leibniz uses the term. Leibniz agreed that there could well be an unlimited range of possible worlds; however there is one which – though not particularly close to the level of God – is such as to be the most superior compossible system, in so far as it best satisfies some given criterion of excellence. Thus, Journet’s criticism misfires.

Journet then levels a second criticism at Leibniz, one with which many other commentators concur. Journet accuses Leibniz of effectively denying God’s omnipotence, and setting up a form of dualism. According to Leibniz, once God has freely chosen to create he is limited by fixed possibilities and compossibilities, and therefore even in the BPW there may well be a lot of evil. And since He is limited in these ways, God is not omnipotent.

To my mind accusing Leibniz of denying God’s omnipotence or advocating a dualist solution to the problem of evil is quite unfair. Philosophers of religion have typically argued that there are certain things which God logically cannot do. God cannot create a world in which it always rains everywhere and in which it never rains anywhere. Moreover, there are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent God cannot create. For example, it’s possible under the conditions he finds himself in that Judas not betray Christ. But God can’t create a world with exactly those conditions in which Judas does not betray Christ, because Judas will freely choose to betray Christ under those circumstances. Such a world is not feasible for God to create despite its being a possible world.

Some critics go further and accuse Leibniz’s system of being one that leaves us without hope. Why? Well, if this is the best possible world then there is no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy writes, “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Or, as Voltaire’s Candide asks in a spirit of hopelessness: “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possible, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”)

This, however, represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz. This is best illustrated by differentiating between two other concepts: a static view of the world and a dynamic view of the world. The static view treats the world like a picture – existing all at once, such that if this is the BPW then there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. By contrast, the dynamic view treats the world more like a drama, moving across time. In fact, the best possible drama might start off incredibly boring, but such boredom may well be setting the foundation for later scenes of the play. After scene one should I despair that because this is the “best possible play” that it therefore can’t get any better? Not at all! The same holds for Leibniz’s concept of the BPW. With this dynamic view we can see that the BPW can improve as time goes on. The world today can be a better place than it was yesterday and yet it would still be true that the world is the BPW. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticisms of Lovejoy and Voltaire fail. Once we adopt the dynamic view there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that it is better at time t2 than it was at t1.

Admittedly this notion of a dynamic view of the universe is not explicit in Leibniz. When he speaks of the universe as the BPW he is referring to its adequacy – as a complex whole – as an expression of the overflowing creativity of God. As such the criticism of Leibniz above is understandable, since arguably he may have thought that the universe at t2 could not in any way be better than it was at t1. At both times, for Leibniz, the world perfectly reflects God’s goodness. However, as I have argued, his view can be easily interpreted, or at least modified, in precisely the way I have outlined.

Such criticisms further expose the need to carefully define what “best possible world” means. The BPW, as I have said, is certainly a slippery concept and often different thinkers mean different things when they use the term. Some, with Leibniz, understand the term along the lines of the universe’s being the best expression of the overflowing goodness and creativity of God. Others – particularly modern atheist critics – use the term in an ontological sense to mean a world containing only “perfect” types of being. However, on the back of the dynamic view outlined above we can find another understanding of the term, one which fits neatly within an orthodox Christian view. This understanding we might call “instrumental,” and recognizes that it’s impossible to make any claims about what would be the best possible world aside from dealing with the prior question of what God is trying to achieve through creation. What are God’s purposes?

This then brings us to the question of why God created the world. We need not disagree with Leibniz that the world is the expression of the overflowing creativity of God who desires to communicate his being beyond Himself. However, on the Christian understanding of God there is more to creation than that. In fact it seems that whether or not this is the BPW ultimately depends on a prior question: why did God create us and place us in the sort of world in which we find ourselves? The BPW, then, is that state of affairs which best serves the purposes that God wishes to fulfill through it. The early church father Irenaeus seemed to think along such lines (though not in any kind of systematic way). Put simply, Irenaeus thought that man is an unfinished creature – not created in perfection, as Augustinian theologians often suggest. Human beings – as autonomous moral agents – must be developed. The world then is the “vale of soul-making,” a place built for this process, a place in which human beings can exercise and grow in virtues, but by necessity also a place where vices and real evils exist.

I will expand on this Irenaean idea in a later essay, but for now we notice what this exposes about the nature of the real divide between theists and atheists when it comes to the notion of “best possible world.” Atheists and agnostics – represented philosophically by the likes of Hume, Mill and Russell – tend to assume that if an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists then its purpose is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the creatures it creates. The BPW will therefore be that which works best to this end. Since this world is almost certainly not that kind of world, then God almost certainly does not exist. By contrast the Christian view is not at all like this. The highest good in Christianity is the knowledge of God – not the maximization of earthly pleasure. In other words the world is designed as an environment for the development of finite persons, and in this world they have real and significant freedom to engage in real and significant acts of good or evil.

This brings us back to Leibniz: how do we know that this is the BPW? For Leibniz, as we have seen, there is a reasonable answer: because it is the creation of an omnipotent, perfectly good God. For the atheist, how do we know that if an omnipotent, perfectly good God exists that He would create a better world than this one? I don’t see how the atheist can answer that question. It requires knowing that there is a world which is better than this one. But how can we know a thing like that? To paraphrase Leibniz: Can the atheist know and can he present infinities to us and compare them together? Most atheist arguments here take the form “If God existed he would/would not do this or that.” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than crass presumption, as if such a being might have the same values, goals and purposes as a modern day atheist, and no higher level of insight into reality. Such arguments would have been regarded as sheer folly by Leibniz, and rightly so.

It seems to me that Leibniz was certainly on to something in his central notion that we live in the best possible world. Even Christian philosophers who claim to reject Leibniz end up affirming his core thesis in some shape or form. For instance, in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick rejects Leibniz’s position, and yet his own position strikes me as inherently Leibnizian, with the exception that he defines “best” in more explicitly instrumental terms. Others make a similar move, implicitly accepting that if God exists with the attributes Christianity claims He possesses, then in some sense this must be the best possible world. And so they should, since if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists and has a purpose for his creation it would be inexplicable why He didn’t create the world that would be best suited for achieving it.


Filed under Atheism, God, Leibniz, Problem of Evil, Theism

Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

St Augustine is considered by many to be the fountainhead of so much of Western Christianity and his thinking on the problem of evil is no exception. Insofar as the problem of evil involves a wider sphere of Christian doctrines – creation, the fall, redemption, and providence – the shadow cast by Augustine is long indeed.

When it comes to the problem of evil there are numerous strands of Augustinian thought, all intricately woven together into a complex fabric that remains influential 1500 years later. Augustine is probably most famously remembered for his privative account of evil, but in this article I want to focus on a different strand of Augustine’s thought: what some scholars call the “aesthetic theme,” but what I prefer to call the “God’s eye view theme.” The idea here is that God sees the universe in its totality and from that perspective it is wholly good. As finite creatures we lack the necessary perspective on the universe and consider much that is evil which actually contributes to the good of the universe as a whole. Augustine here conceives of God as the cosmic Artisan, and the universe is His work of art, containing both gradations and contrasts to make it all the more beautiful in God’s sight.

The influence of Neo-Platonist writers on Augustine is well documented, and we find this same influence here. Consider the following passage from Plotinus:

We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. . . Again, we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the power of the drama is gone; these are part and parcel of it.”

Compare this with Augustine:

All have their offices and limits laid down so as to ensure the beauty of the universe. That which we abhor in any part of it gives us the greatest pleasure when we consider the universe as a whole. The very reason why some things are inferior is that though the parts may be imperfect the whole is perfect. . . The black colour in a picture may very well be beautiful if you take the picture as a whole.”

In fact, Augustine goes as far as to say, “To thee [God] there is no such thing as evil.” God, reckoned Augustine, has appointed the order of the universe in all its various elements, and when understood properly we see that the entire thing is just as it ought to be, and nothing can spoil it. Even those things we regard as evil have their divinely appointed place in the grand scheme of things. Human beings, as part of the picture, don’t see the whole thing and thus incorrectly judge everything not in accordance with their value in God’s sight but rather on the basis of their usefulness or harmfulness to themselves. The evils we might abolish from the world would be abolished in ignorance of the place they have and the role they play in making the big picture perfect.

Augustine saw beauty in the organic processes of nature: the decay of vegetation and even the devouring of animals by other animals. This is where we find one of the weaknesses in Augustine’s theodicy: his downplaying of the cruelty of nature. Sure enough we can naturally see beauty in the change and decay in, say, leaves during autumn which give rise to wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples. But leaves feel no pain. The idea isn’t so readily transferable to a deer torn to pieces by a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately Augustine isn’t terribly helpful here because his writing displays a crude insensitivity towards non-human animals. The most useful thing he has to say is that nature is like a great organism which ebbs and flows and continually changes, as individual units die and are replaced by others: “Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” That said, Augustine’s doctrine here makes better sense of the non-animal world, but leaves much of the pain of nature unillumined and shrouded in mystery.

We might also wonder what Augustine makes of moral evil. How does that fit into his system? If the “universe is perfect” and “to thee there is no such thing as evil,” what are we to make of human sins? Augustine simply squeezes the moral failings of humans into his grand scheme with the shoehorn of “moral balance.” Sin is not permitted by God to ruin the perfection of the universe, and thus each sin is balanced out, so to speak, by appropriate punishment. In Augustine’s mind a universe with no sin, and thus no punishment, is not superior to one containing sin and appropriate punishment: “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin,” and that, “. . . as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.” Ultimately humans are morally culpable for their sin, but God uses sinners to further his own good purposes, and thus the overall beauty of the universe remains intact. “God,” writes Augustine, “judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.”

That last insight holds great promise for attempts at theodicy, and has been incorporated into many various theodicies over the centuries which have sought to improve upon the Augustinian picture where weaknesses have been perceived. One such weakness that subsequent thinkers have detected in Augustine’s idea is that it seems to slip over into monism; in other words evil seems to disappear entirely, as if it doesn’t – contrary to all creaturely experience – really exist at all. However, Augustine’s idea can be modified using a better analogy than that of a picture, and thus blunt the force of this criticism. Perhaps we should think of a piece of music or a drama – some art-form containing elements of duration and change. On this view evil could be likened to disagreeable clashes within a piece of music – these noises are indeed grating, but they add to the beauty of the piece in the end when we reach triumphant resolution which wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier discordant notes. On this different way of viewing the matter the perfection of the universe is not related to its state at any given point of time. At certain points the evil is stark, very much real and terrible. But given the entire panorama of existence – including the element of time – the universe will be brought to a justifying good in the end.

This, however, leads us to one of the most basic criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy: God’s relation to His creation appears to be cast primarily in impersonal or subpersonal terms. Augustine views the universe as a complex picture whose value lies in the totality of things rather than in individuals. But again it seems to me that Augustine’s theodicy can be modified to nullify this objection. God has freely desired to create personal beings, and one of the insights of modern theologians of all stripes is to stress the desire of God for personal relations with those beings. So, perhaps rather than stress the beauty of the universe in aesthetic terms we could instead stress its perfection in the sense of how well suited it is to fulfilling God’s desires and plans for such creatures, (though we should never forget that God may well have other purposes in creation besides this. The divine purposes may very well be multi-dimensionally complex). Thus, as John Hick puts it: “Instead, then, of thinking of the origin and fate of human personality as a function of an aesthetically valued whole, we should see the great frame of nature, with all its sources of evil, as the deliberately mysterious environment of finite personal life.”

It seems then that with certain modifications this aspect of Augustine’s theodicy still has potential as part of a Christian approach to the problem of evil. In fact, a similar notion appears also in the other major tradition of theodicy inspired by the thought of the Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus viewed the world as set up by God and in the process of perfection, a process in which we must participate as free agents. The world is not currently “perfect,” but it will achieve eschatological perfection in time. In this, Irenaeus regarded the work of creation as ongoing. Irenaeus also makes use of the notion cited above in which the universe is better viewed as a drama or piece of music than a picture. For Irenaeus the Kingdom of God was the completion of world history, and will be so great a good as to justify what has happened on the way to it. So, when the world is looked at from beginning to end – with a God’s Eye View – we will see that the entire cosmic drama is good. It fulfils its purpose. Evils, whilst real, are justified by the goods that God will work through them.

Whether we agree with the various twists these thinkers and those who followed them give to these ideas, the notion of a God’s Eye View at the very least reminds us that often things look very different with a different perspective. How often have we looked back in our own lives and viewed an event differently than we saw it at the time? When dealing with the complex interactions of free creatures, the magnitude of the created order, and the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient God, it should be no surprise to find that there may well be a lot we don’t see.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under God, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

Contra God

Contra God
An all too quick survey of anti-theistic arguments

Philosophy of religion has been my “chosen specialist subject” for the past 18 years (half my life now!) and in all that time I’ve come across many arguments for and against God, ranging from the standard arguments of “Philosophy 101” classes to the often weird and wonderful musings of internet “philosophers.”

As a theist I believe there are good arguments in favour of the existence of God, but I’ve been asked on previous occasions what I consider to be the best arguments against the existence of God. Considering the various arguments against one’s position is a good exercise for anyone to do: theists, atheists, Kantians, utilitarians, socialists, libertarians, physicalists, dualists, a-theorists, b-theorists, and agnostics.

So, what is the best anti-theistic argument?

Many of the offerings floating around cyberspace can be ruled out straight away as little more than lazy slogans. For instance, some atheists will argue against the existence of God with the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The existence of God is, apparently, an extraordinary claim and therefore in the absence of “extraordinary evidence” we should reject it. It’s rarely spelled out exactly what amounts to an “extraordinary” claim or “extraordinary” evidence. In any event it’s patently false to think that as the extraordinariness of a claim goes up so must the extraordinariness of the evidence. For example, if my wife makes the rather ordinary claim that there is a red car outside then all I need to do is look out of the window to verify it. But if my wife makes the much more extraordinary claim that there is a herd of elephants down the street, how do I verify this? In exactly the same way: with nothing more extraordinary than the ‘miracle’ of sight. In any event, probability theorists are well aware that it simply isn’t the case that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to establish their probability.

Other silly arguments that are all too common include: “Who created God!?” and “Can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?!” The former question is typically asked by those who don’t understand the nature of theistic arguments and the sort of being they conclude to. For example, many theistic arguments conclude to a being that is uncaused. To ask who created this being is therefore an incoherent question: Who caused this uncaused being to exist? That’s meaningless. [for more on this point see: HERE] A similar point holds with respect to God making a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. It’s a meaningless task. There are various versions of the concept of divine omnipotence, but no one I’m aware of defines it as God’s ability to do the logically impossible (Descartes was an exception). Omnipotence is more often defined in terms of God’s ability to actualize certain states of affairs along such lines as logical possibility and consistency with God’s good nature and character.

Of course there are also good arguments against the existence of God. Two of the most popular are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.

The former comes in various guises and I have written about it on several occasions on this blog and elsewhere [see: HERE and HERE]. Even in its strongest versions I find the argument far from conclusive. The logical problem of evil has been more or less abandoned even by atheist philosophers, while the probabilistic problem is contentious on several points. (1) The incredible difficulty of assigning meaningful probabilities in a case such as this. (2) Even if we can conclude that the existence of God is improbable given evil, this doesn’t tell us anything about the rationality of theism whatsoever, which could still be rationally held given other evidence we have. (3) The fact that humans are finite – limited in space, time, intelligence and insight – makes it highly dubious that we can with any certainty make such judgments about whether or not there are morally sufficient reasons for God to permit the various evils we find in the world. (4) Most damning, the fact that even if successful the problem of evil wouldn’t show that God does not exist, unless it can be shown that necessarily if God exists he is both omnipotent and all-loving.

Is the divine hiddenness objection any better than the objection from evil? Well, like the problem of evil it’s certainly a worthy argument. However, in the same way it can never be conclusive. This argument says that God, if He existed, would leave more evidence of his existence. God could very easily have made his existence obvious and prevented unbelief entirely. However, why would God do that? If, for instance, Christianity is true, then it doesn’t chiefly matter to God whether people believe He exists or not. God is primarily interested in people coming to saving faith in Him. Do we know that in a world where more people believe God exists that more would come to have such saving faith? It seems we have no way of knowing that at all. And if so then there is little in the claim that if God existed there would be more evidence. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig goes even further: “if God is endowed with middle knowledge, so that He knows how any free person would act under any circumstances in which God might place him, then God can have so providentially ordered the actual world as to provide just those evidences and gifts of the Holy Spirit which He knew would be adequate for bringing those with an open heart and mind to saving faith. Thus, the evidence is as adequate as needs be.”

Whilst I think both arguments can be satisfactorily answered, other theists may simply appeal to mystery: we don’t know what the answer is but we know God is all-powerful, all-loving, and just in his dealings with his creatures and therefore we trust that God will do right, and that he has morally sufficient reasons for setting up the world as he has. Hiddenness and evil are then puzzles for the theist, but they need not amount to defeaters of theistic belief.

And this brings me finally to the arguments that I think are best: those against the coherence of the very concept of God. In my view, these arguments are far more threatening to theism. If a successful argument could be constructed along these lines then it’s as close to a disproof of the existence of God as the atheist could ever hope to find. Unfortunately (for the atheist, not for us theists!), such arguments are incredibly difficult to construct, and most versions tend to be highly implausible if not downright fallacious. In fact, the “heavy stone” argument dismissed earlier is a form of this sort of argument. What tends to help the theist out with respect to incoherence arguments is the fact that theologians and philosophers of God enjoy incredible latitude in drafting coherent accounts of the various attributes of God.

However, there are two incoherence arguments that I think amount to the best arguments against theism (note, I don’t say either is a good argument!).

(1) The argument against the possibility of a timeless person
(2) The argument against the possibility of a bodiless person

If it could be shown that either idea was incoherent then theism would be in real difficulties. The reason is that God, if he exists, is supposed to be personal, and if personhood is incompatible with the mode of God’s existence then the concept is flat out incoherent.

Some theologians might deny that God is “timeless,” and perhaps claim that he is everlasting through time – from infinity past. To my mind this escape isn’t satisfactory. Firstly, it faces the problem of traversing the infinite. Secondly, it faces the problem of the existence of an actual infinite. Thirdly, there’s Leibniz’s interesting question: why didn’t God create the world sooner? Lastly, there are good reasons – scientific as well as philosophical – to hold that time itself had a beginning at the Big Bang. The philosopher of religion must hold that either God is necessarily timeless, or at least timeless without creation – and either way must face the problem of timeless personhood.

These are the two arguments I’m currently working on, so I’d like to wrap up with some pointers towards a solution to each.

With respect to timelessness and personhood much will depend on what criteria we lay down necessary for personhood. This is a question that’s hotly disputed in other areas of philosophy such as the ethics of abortion and artificial intelligence. Two strategies can be adopted by the defender of timeless personhood: (1) He could deny that the criteria given by the critic are in fact necessary for personhood at all. (2) He could agree that the criteria are necessary for personhood but show how a timeless being could possess them.

Three broad areas of personhood criteria tend to be proffered: criteria on the basis of conscious states, criteria on the basis of intentionality, and criteria on the basis of inter-personal relationships. Minimally, I think, a person should be a self-conscious being, but I fail to see why a timeless entity couldn’t be self-conscious. With respect to intentionality there is no necessity that intentionality need be inherently future directed. Lastly, a timeless God could be capable of inter-personal relationships even if it is the case that were he to enter into such relationships by creating persons He would no longer be timeless. In any event, the Christian doctrine of the trinity (and in particular the notion of perichoresis) shows how the persons of the Godhead exist in inter-personal relations timelessly. So much more needs to be fleshed out here, and I am currently writing a research paper to that end – snippets of which will appear on this blog site in the coming weeks.

What, then, about the coherence of incorporeal personality? It seems to me that much here will depend on wider debates in the philosophy of mind between physicalists and dualists. Arguably, even human persons are not essentially physical either. So says the dualist and not without reason. For example, the dualist will point out that mental states are not identical with brain states. The former have properties – for instance, intentionality or “aboutness” – that the latter do not possess. As with the argument from timelessness, much will depend on what we mean by a person. If being a person is an inherently physical and temporal notion then the concept of God is in trouble. Whether or not there is any reason to limit personhood in this way is far from contentious. On the contrary, it strikes me as false, which is what I intend to show in my paper.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Atheism, God, Hiddenness, Problem of Evil

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.


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…….


Filed under Atheism, God, Problem of Evil, Theism