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William Lane Craig and Human Suffering

In 2008, the world was shocked to learn of the horrid crimes of Josef Fritzl of Amstetten, Austria. In 1984, Fritzl lured his teenage daughter, Elisabeth—whom he had already abused on previous occasions—into the basement of the family home. What Elisabeth did not know was that her father had converted the basement into a dungeon, in which Elisabeth would be confined for the next twenty-four years.

During this period, Fritzl raped his daughter on numerous occasions, and Elisabeth gave birth to seven children: one died as an infant and was incinerated by Fritzl, three were raised by Fritzl and his wife, and the remaining three remained in the dungeon with Elisabeth, never seeing the light of day until Elisabeth’s oldest daughter, Kerstin, was taken to a local hospital for medical treatment and Fritzl’s evil activities were subsequently discovered.

Why did this happen? A secularist would say that Josef Fritzl was a vile and disgusting man, and that he used his power over his family for the most insidious of purposes. The fact that some humans are capable of such behavior is an interesting and important question from a biological and anthropological standpoint, but the tragic events do not need to be infused with any cosmic meaning.

But how might a Christian apologist such as William Lane Craig explain the plight of Elisabeth Fritzl and her children? If God is conceived in the classical theistic way as all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why did this happen? Craig is bound to answer in one of two ways. Either he can say that the suffering of the Fritzl’s was absurd, which is problematic, since if there were no necessary reason for it to happen, there is no necessary reason for God to permit it to happen; or he can say that God has some purpose for the Fritzl’s suffering—a purpose, which, presumably, humans are unable to discern, for the Lord’s ways are mysterious. Indeed, Craig is wont to explain tragic suffering in this latter way.

In his 2004 book God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (coauthored with Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, who argued the atheist position), Craig wrote:

It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people into His Kingdom … it is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977, the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimated there were 30-75 million Christians by 1990. [Craig does not indicate how this data was compiled though his footnote references Patrick Johnstone and Operation World. At any rate, and the rather wide spread in these numbers causes one to question their reliability]. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.[1]

This assertion, of course, raises an important question: if God’s intent was to expand the Christian community in China, could he, in his omnipotence, have achieved that end without the deaths of so many millions?

But Craig has an answer. In his debate with Sinnott-Armstrong, he wrote:

We as philosophers are called upon, not just to express how we feel about some issue, but to reflect rigorously and dispassionately about it. And despite the undeniable emotional impact of the problem of suffering, I am persuaded that as a strictly rational, intellectual problem, the problem of suffering does not constitute a disproof of the existence of God. It will therefore be helpful to distinguish between the intellectual problem of suffering and the emotional problem of suffering. The intellectual problem concerns how to give a rational account of the co-existence of God and suffering. The emotional problem concerns how to dissolve the emotional dislike people have of a God who would permit such suffering. The intellectual problem lies in the province of the philosopher; the emotional problem lies in the problem of the counselor.[2]

While one wishes to be charitable, Craig’s definition of what he calls the emotional problem of evil seems to imply that anyone revolted by the idea that God had to allow twenty million Chinese to be brutally murdered to achieve his ends is simply in need of therapy.

This is quite ironic, considering that Craig frequently asserts that God is the ground of objective moral values. In a 1994 debate with Michael Tooley of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Craig stated unequivocally: “God provides the best explanation for objective moral values in the world. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.”[3] He further says that “God’s commands are not arbitrary, but are rooted in his own moral nature. So that his commands flow necessarily out of his own nature …”[4]

One would wish to ask Craig: does the death of twenty million Chinese say anything about God’s nature? It would seem that such a God is either limited or cruel.

Craig makes similar comments regarding suffering in El Salvador. For this, Michael Martin takes him to task. Martin writes:

According to Craig, intense suffering brings about acceptance of God. This explains why God allows people to suffer. Craig’s claim is based on examples of contemporary nations such as El Salvador where, according to Craig, intense suffering is correlated with an increase in evangelical Christianity.

However, this is hardly adequate evidence for his sweeping factual claim. In the first place Craig’s sample is too small. In order to have any confidence in his hypothesis one [would] have to examine many historical cases of intense suffering from different periods of time and cultures and see if the postulated correlation holds. For example, this would have to include suffering during the Plague in [the] Middle Ages, the suffering inflicted upon American Indians by White settlers and the US Government, and the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. In these cases it is difficult to see how Craig’s hypotheses could be confirmed or even what confirmation might mean.[5]

Craig’s distinction between the intellectual and the emotional problem is seriously flawed. The reason for this is that emotions can have cognitive content. To illustrate this point, imagine that I am asked to judge the redness of an object, but I am completely colorblind. In such a case, I simply do not have the competence to make a judgment. Similarly, to arrive at an estimation of what suffering means, I must have access to a particular kind of data. In this instance, it is not the data derived from the action of photons upon the rods and cones of my eyes, but the sort of sympathetic understanding that can never be understood by cold reason alone, devoid of emotional content.

The role of emotions in making sound judgments has even been recognized in the courts. In her book Poetic Justice, Martha Nussbaum elucidates the role of what she calls the “judicious spectator.” In her chapter titled “Rational Emotions,” Nussbaum cites
a case, Woodson v. North Carolina, “[that] had set out the importance of … sympathetic emotion in an eloquent way, insisting on the connection between sympathy and being treated as a unique person with one’s own narrative history.”[6]

Nussbaum then quotes from the ruling in the case, which involved a potential sentence of death, and states:

A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind. It treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings, but as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass to be subjected to the blind infliction of the death penalty.[7]

As we can see, there is good rhetorical reason for Craig to make this distinction, because uncountable instances of human suffering—the Fritzl case is but one example—are truly appalling, and if the wisdom of the heart is allowed to work in conjunction with the knowledge of the brain, one will surely find such occurrences devoid of any overarching meaning, and will conclude that there is no justification for them. Craig himself writes: “It is important to keep this distinction [between the intellectual and emotional problems of evil] clear because the solution to the intellectual problem is apt to appear dry, uncaring and uncomforting to someone who is going through suffering.”[8]

Indeed. Craig would have us view humanity as “members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass.”

And, indeed, the suffering of millions is hard to grasp. If we can come to grips with the suffering of one—let us say the suffering of one innocent child—the problem of suffering is really brought home.

Fyodor Dostoevsky did this quite effectively in his great novel The Brother’s Karamazov, and various of Craig’s debate opponents have used Dostoevsky’s novel as an example; Craig himself has stated that in Dostoevsky “the problem of evil is presented … powerfully.”[9] In chapter ten of the book, the atheist Ivan discusses the existence of evil with his pious younger brother, Alyosha. Ivan relates stories of horrid abuse, perhaps as awful as the Fritzl case. For example, he recounts the grim tale of:

[A] poor five-year-old girl [who was subjected by her educated parents] to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesses: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up … [to relieve herself] … in the middle of the night (as if a five-year-old sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age)—for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And this mother could sleep while her poor little child was moaning all night in that vile place! Can you understand that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand such nonsense?[10]

Alyosha, of course, is unable to answer the question. But what of Craig? In the debate with Tooley, Craig stated:

We’re just not in a good position to assess the probability of this premise [that God lacks morally sufficient reason for permitting evil] being true. Take an analogy from chaos theory. In chaos theory, scientists tell us that even the flutter of a butterfly’s wings could produce forces that would set in motion causes that would produce a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet looking at that butterfly palpitating on a branch, it is impossible in principle to predict the outcome of that event. Similarly, an evil in the world, say, a child dying of cancer or a brutal murder of a man, could set a ripple effect in history going such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or in another country.[11]

So the little girl locked in the outhouse, or, for that matter, Elisabeth Fritzl, locked in her dungeon and raped repeatedly by her father—such events might produce a good of sufficient magnitude to justify these atrocities? Aside from coming across as very callous and cold-hearted (and this reminds us again why Craig attempts to separate the intellectual from the emotional problems of evil), these arguments make no sense when we are speaking of an omnipotent God. For, if the wing of a butterfly can start a hurricane—a causal relationship that, while mysterious to man, must be clear and obvious to God—cannot the Deity achieve his purposes through some other means than horrid child abuse? Craig comes very close to saying that suffering of the nature described above is necessary. But does not this assertion place a limitation on divine omnipotence?

In his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Craig asserts that “if there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog.” But what kind of being would assent to treat a dog in the fashion described above?

In the same book, in a section regarding the value of life, Craig writes:

The horror of a world devoid of value [which Craig asserts must be the case if there is no God] was brought home to me with new intensity a few years ago as I viewed a BBC television documentary called “The Gathering.” It concerned the reunion of survivors of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, where they rediscovered lost friendships and shared their experiences. One woman prisoner, a nurse, told of how she was made the gynecologist at Auschwitz. She observed that pregnant women were grouped together by the soldiers under the direction of Dr. Mengele and housed in the same barracks. Some time passed, and she noted that she no longer saw any of these women. She made inquiries. “Where are the pregnant women who were housed in that barracks?” “Haven’t you heard?” came the reply. “Dr. Mengele used them for vivisection.”

Craig continues:

Another woman told of how Mengele had bound up her breasts so that she could not suckle her infant. The doctor wanted to learn how long an infant could survive without nourishment. Desperately this poor woman tried to keep her baby alive by giving it pieces of bread soaked in coffee, but to no avail. Each day the baby lost weight, a fact that was eagerly monitored by Dr. Mengele. A nurse then came secretly to this woman and told her, “I have arranged a way for you to get out of here, but you cannot take your baby with you. I have brought a morphine injection that you can give to your child to end its life.” When the woman protested, the nurse was insistent: “Look, your baby is going to die anyway. At least save yourself.” And so this mother took the life of its own baby. Dr. Mengele was furious when he learned of it because he had lost his experimental specimen, and he searched among the dead to find the baby’s discarded corpse so that he could have one last weighing.[12]

Such horror almost defies description. And again, Craig is forced to say that it happened for a purpose or for no purpose. He wants to say that God is able to work greater good through even such unspeakable evil. But again, we simply ask: if God is omnipotent, could he not have worked his hidden purpose in some other way?

Craig frequently asserts that the purpose of human life is not happiness in this world, but “knowledge of God which will ultimately produce true and everlasting happiness.”

He continues: “What that means is that many evils occur in this life which might be utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness. But they might not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God.”[13]

Here, we are again reminded of Dostoevsky:

Can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil [nor would he have known God, presumably]. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to “dear God.” I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones![14]

Indeed, the idea that God would require the suffering of a little girl in order to promote knowledge of himself is absurd, and such a God would not be the benevolent being Craig says he believes in.

In a 1998 debate with Craig, Professor Edwin Curley, in discussing the Dostoevsky example, pointed to another problem. If one is to argue that Dostoevsky’s little girl had to suffer (she is a fictional character, but quite possibly based on a real person, and in any case we could easily substitute Elisabeth Fritzl) in order to bring about a greater good, an issue of fairness arises. Allowing for sake of discussion that human freedom is a greater good which justifies a great deal of suffering, Professor Curley stated:

For the father to have the opportunity to display moral goodness, God must give him the opportunity to choose evil. You can’t have the one opportunity without the other. And the father’s having the opportunity to display moral goodness is such a great good that it outweighs the fact that he chooses evil.

But notice who gets the good here. It’s the father. And notice who suffers the evil. It’s the little girl. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the benefit outweighs the cost. Freedom is a very great good. Still it makes some difference who pays the cost. Freedom may be a great good, even a good so great that it would outweigh really horrendous suffering. But justice requires some attention, not only to the net amount of good, after you have subtracted the evil, but also to the way the goods and evils are distributed. Some distributions just aren’t fair.[15]

Presumably, Craig would not be impressed with this. In a debate with Dr. Kai Nielsen, Craig stated: “Innocent human suffering provides an occasion for deeper dependency and trust in God, either on the part of the sufferer or perhaps those around him.” [16]

What Craig says here presents a major problem. In effect, he argues that Dostoevsky’s girl or Elisabeth Fritzl had to suffer in order to trigger a free will decision in someone else for Craig’s version of the Christian God.

But does this conform to any theory of justice? Certainly we can ask: “Must Elisabeth Fritzl have been confined in a dungeon for more than two decades? Must she have been raped by her father to bring some unknown person closer to God? Did the mother who survived the Holocaust but who had to kill her own infant really have to endure such anguish to bring someone else to Craig’s position? Of all theodicies, this seems the most selfish and the most abominable.

Craig makes the assertion that suffering is good for the sufferer—essentially that pain builds character (this is sometimes referred to as the “soul-making” theodicy), frequently. For example, he writes:

The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it [of course, we are not omnipotent]. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect a child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a responsible adult. Similarly, God may permit some suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or the achieve some other overriding end.[17]

While it is true that some measure of pain can, in the proper context, lead to improvement—think of members of a football team enduring pain during training camp that will help them to later win a championship—there are other forms of pain and suffering that apparently lead to no good at all. One would come across as a bit more than callous to suggest that somehow Elisabeth Fritzl—or her mother, for that matter —is better off for her ordeal.

Elsewhere, Craig argues:

If libertarian free will is possible, it is not necessarily true that an omnipotent God can create just any possible world that he desires … God’s being omnipotent does not imply that he can do logical impossibilities, such as make a round square or make someone freely choose to do something. For if one causes a person to make a specific choice, then the choice is no longer free in the libertarian sense. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom to choose as they like, then it is impossible for him to guarantee what their free choices will be. All he can do is create the circumstances in which a person is able to make a free choice and then, so to speak, stand back and let the person make that choice. Now this implies that there are worlds which are possible in and of themselves, but which God is incapable of creating … Suppose, then, that in every feasible world where God creates free creatures some of those creatures freely choose to do evil. In such a case, it is the creatures themselves who bring about evil, and God can do nothing to prevent their doing so, apart from refusing to actualize any such worlds. Thus it is possible that every world feasible for God which contains free creatures is a world with sin and evil.[18]

(It should be noted that, in the same work, Craig, following Alvin Plantinga, claims that “natural evils”—earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like—could be the result of demonic activity. To the extent that such rank superstition deserves to be taken seriously, it is worth pointing out that if this argument is to be made, there is at least some need to prove the existence of demons; later in the text Craig admits that the idea of natural evils being caused by demons is “ridiculous”).[19]

However, an important question has been suggested by Historian of Christianity Bart Ehrman. Ehrman asks if Christians think they will have free will in heaven. This is a question of fundamental importance. For, if the Christian answers “yes,” then it was possible for God to create a realm in which humans would have free will, and yet they would choose the good every time. On the other hand, if humans are to no longer have free will in paradise, then it seems that God does not care all that much about free will in the first place.[20] Thus, Craig’s argument that God must create a world which includes evil and suffering, if he is also to create a world with free creatures, is exposed as baseless.

With respect to free will, there is one final objection which comes to mind. Sometimes humans make free will decisions with the best of intentions, but with tragic results. Craig could argue that human happiness is not the purpose of life, but certainly a benevolent God would have some consideration for human happiness. Consider, then, the number of women in previous decades who took the drug thalidomide as a treatment for morning sickness. The drug was administered with the best of intentions, but the results included shocking birth defects. Here, it seems, God could have provided useful and timely information that would have prevented much suffering without violating free will. Once again, Craig would probably assert that there may be some unknown purpose for this to happen—one theodicy, it seems, must rest on another —but in the final analysis, all he can do is assert, for such a proposition can in no way be tested or demonstrated.

We can thus conclude from what we have seen that Dr. Craig’s attempts to explain evil and human suffering in conjunction with the existence of the traditional God of theism fall far short of meeting their mark.


[1] Craig, William L. and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 121.

[2] Ibid, 112.

[3] Tooley, Michael. “Debate on the Existence of God.” (accessed 3/25/2010).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Martin, Michael. “Human Suffering and the Existence of God.” 1997. http//www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/suffering.html (accessed 4/3/2010).

[6] Nussbaum, Martha. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1995.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Craig, William L and J.P. Moreland. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervaristy Press, 2003.

[9] Ibid, 551.

[10] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990, 242.

[11] Tooley, Michael. “Debate on the Existence of God.”

[12] Craig, William L. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 2 ed. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994, 66-67.

[13] Tooley, Michael. “Debate on the Existence of God.”

[14] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brother’s Karamazov, 242.

[15] Craig, William L. “The Craig-Curley Debate: The Existence of the Christian God.” https://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-curley01.html (accessed 3/29/2010).

[16] Craig, William L. “The Craig-Nielsen Debate: God, Morality and Evil.” (accessed 3/27/2010).

[17] Craig, William L. and J.P. Moreland. Philosophical Foundations, 539-540.

[18] Ibid, 539.

[19] Ibid, 539-541.

[20] Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem,: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

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