Monday, March 14, 2011

God, Earthquakes, & Tsunamis

In my MCCC Philosophy of Religion classes I am now teaching the section on the argument from evil against the existence of God. I think the free will defense adequately answers the problem of moral evil. But what about the problem of natural evil? What about, e.g., the recent devastating events in Japan where largest earthquake ever recorded hit and then triggered a tsunami? As I’m now writing this thousands of deaths have been confirmed, with surely more to follow. If there is an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God, where was he and where is he in all of this? Does this catastrophe and others like it argue against the existence of the God of theism?

Sadly, this catastrophe is not some new kind of thing. History is filled with natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornados, and diseases such as smallpox, malaria, polio, and cancer. Add to this congenital disabilities such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. We see the results of accidents and injuries such as drownings, burnings, etc. etc.. As I write millions around the world are facing starvation. Theists such as myself ask “God, how could you permit such things?” Atheists cite such examples as arguing against the existence of the theistic God.

Most people try to make sense of life when gratuitous suffering strikes them. Recently, I’ve found William Lane Craig’s two chapters in his book Hard Questions, Real Answers helpful. Here’s a summary of his reasoning on the problem of natural evil. As always, read these chapters for yourself to get a fuller picture. (All quotes from Bill’s book unless otherwise indicated.)

The question is: “In light of the quantity and nature of the suffering brought on by human or natural causes, how can it be that an all-powerful, all-good God exists?”

Bill distinguishes between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The former concerns how to give a rational explanation of God and evil; the latter concerns how to comfort those who are suffering from such evil. Bill’s focus is on the intellectual problem of evil.

The intellectual problem of evil can be formulated in two ways; viz., either as an internal problem or as an external problem. The internal problem is about whether “the Christian worldview is somehow at odds with itself.” Is there an inner tension within the Christian worldview? The external problem concerns providing evidence against the truth of the Christian worldview.

The internal problem of evil takes two forms: the logical version and the probabilistic version. I’m going to pass on the former for now. Bill deals with it. I’ve written about it on my website. It’s mostly understood, even by atheists such as William Rowe, that the logical argument fails to disprove the existence of the theistic God.

I think the free will defense answers the probabilistic argument re. moral evil. I will focus on the probabilistic argument re. natural evil. Bill deals with all of these in Hard Questions. I am personally most interested in how he handles the problem of natural evil as providing an inductive (probabilistic) argument against God’s existence. Given theism, why does God permit natural evils like earthquakes and tsunamis to occur? They seem, to us, pointless and gratuitous. What can we say about this?

First, we should not isolate the problem of natural evil from the bigger picture. Craig says that “a Christian could actually admit that the problem of evil, taken in isolation, does make God’s existence improbable.” We Christian theists can ourselves wonder and ask “Why this?” But we do not need to, indeed should not, isolate the issue of natural evil from evidence that is relative to God’s existence. And what evidence would that be? Craig cites:

• The ontological argument for a maximally great being

• The [kalam] cosmological argument for a Creator of the universe

• The fine-tuning argument for an intelligent Designer of the cosmos

• The noological argument for an ultimate Mind

• The axiological (moral) argument for an ultimate, personally embodied Good

• Evidence concerning the person of Christ

• The historicity of the resurrection

• The existence of miracles

• Personal existential and religious experience

Craig writes: “When we take into account the full scope of the evidence, the existence of God becomes quite probable…. [T]he scales are at least even or tipped in favor of Christianity.”

Again, taken in isolation, natural evil poses a problem for theism. But that doesn’t make God’s existence improbable. When the total scope of evidence is considered “the scales are at least even or tip in favor of Christianity… If one insists that God exists, then there is no problem that this belief is improbable relative to the evil in the world.” Craig writes: “Even if God’s existence is improbable relative to the evil in the world alone, that does not make God’s existence improbable, for balancing off the negative evidence from evil is the positive evidence for God’s existence.”

Second, we don’t ourselves have reasonable epistemic access to judge whether or not God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting such evil. We cannot be certain that moral and natural evils really are pointless and gratuitous. Maybe they fit into the bigger picture. “According to the biblical scheme of things, God is directing human history toward His previsioned ends. Now can you imagine the complexity of planning and directing a world of free creatures toward some end without violating their freedom?” Assessments of probability with regard to evil can be very difficult and even impossible. “Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us – but we are simply not in a position to judge.” There are “inherent cognitive limitations that frustrate attempts to say that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting some particular evil.” As philosopher Stephen Wykstra has written, we do not have reasonable “epistemic access” to judge such things.

Third, on Christian theism the chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. God’s role is not to provide a comfortable environment for us, His human pets. (See John Hick’s “soul-making theodicy.”) “Many evils occur in life which may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.” “It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people into His kingdom.”

Fourth, humanity is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose. Jesus-followers are not surprised at the evil in the world. On the contrary, we expect it. And, on a Christian worldview, “there is a realm of beings higher than man also in rebellion against God, demonic creatures, incredibly evil, in whose power the creation lies (1 John 5:19) and who seeks to destroy God’s work and thwart His purposes.” So, as a Jesus-follower, I am not surprised that there are moral and natural evils. Remember that the encounter with Satan lies at the heart of the Jesus-story. Greg Boyd, e.g., in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a case for demonic activity influencing natural events.

Of course this is all foolishness to many. It was once foolishness to me, too. But whether or not there are demons is a function of one’s worldview. And within the Christian theistic worldview which I embrace, powers of evil exist.

Fifth, God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life. Paul, e.g., suffered from natural disasters like we do. He apparently had a debilitating illness. He was involved in three separate shipwrecks. While traveling through the Roman Empire “Paul was constantly in danger from both human enemies and natural disasters.” In his own words he suffered “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) And yet Paul was not bitter towards God. Because he believed that the sufferings of this present life could not be compared to the glory that was going to be revealed to him in heaven. (Romans 8:18) Craig says that “one reason the problem of evil seems so intractable to us today is because we no longer live in this perspective.” If we believe that we only go around once in this life then we will grab for all the gusto we can get. If God exists, and this life is the only life there is, then it seems hard to understand why there would be any suffering.

Sixth, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. “What C.S. Lewis called “the weight of glory” is so great that it is literally beyond comparison with the sufferings we endure. “Thus, the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how often his pain, can still truly say, “God is good to me!” simply by virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good.”

What, then, can the Christian theist say in response to natural evils like the recent earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan?

• This event was truly horrendous and sad. Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who are now suffering loss.

• That such events have happened and will happen does not contradict a Christian worldview.

• Why did God allow this particular event to happen? I don’t know. Because, for one reason, I am not the all-knowing God. I can say this without an internal-worldview contradictoriness, since within any worldview there are unknowable and unanswerable things. Atheism is no exception. Epistemic access is limited no matter what the worldview. Craig says, “If the Christian story is true, then we don’t need to know.” I think it is true. So while I may want to at times know I don’t need to know. Note: this is not “blind faith.” It is, for me, a reasonable faith based on proofs I find convincing re. God’s existence, the evidence for the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and past and ongoing personal experience with God.

• We must not isolate such examples of evil from the bigger picture we hold to independently of such evil. For example, Linda and I lost one of our sons at birth. I held his dead body in my hands. I don’t think I have ever felt such pain and grief. This did not shake my faith in God. In fact, our testimony was this: If we did not have God to turn to in a time like this, what would be do? Probably I would be an alcoholic or drug addict. I have met many, many people who have responded to catastrophe in this way. In fact, the early Jesus-followers of the Bible responded this way, too.

• I remember Romans 8:18. This was one of the very first Bible verses that got into me. It’s not only in my head, it’s in my heart. I consider that the present sufferings I am going through are not worthy of being compared to the glory that will be revealed to me in heaven. I believe Christ rose, historically, from the dead, and that I can partake of his resurrection. I do not believe this life is my only life.

• The point of the whole thing, on Christian theism, is to know and be known by God. God loves us. Our calling is to love God in return. This is what we were made for.

• In spite of life’s present losses and suffering I have experienced the love of God, to me. As William James knew, such personal religious experience have a noetic quality. They have the right to be “absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come."

• I agree with theistic philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder, who points out that “the problem of evil is thus a problem only for the person who finds all its premises and inferences compelling and who has lousy grounds for believing in God; but if one has more compelling grounds for believing in God, then the problem of evil is ‘not a problem’.” (Craig; citing Howard-Snyder’s The Evidential Argument from Evil)