Objection #1: Since Evil & Suffering Exist, A Loving God Cannot (2001)
(Interview w/ Peter John Kreeft, PH.D.)
A Bear, A Trap, A Hunter, And God
The idea here is that God must allow some short term suffering in order to achieve a greater good. The analogy employed by professor Kreeft involves a hunter who is trying to free a bear from a trap, but cannot because the bear is liable to react violently, incorrectly perceiving the hunter as a threat. The hunter must therefore use tranquilizer darts and the like, which also would seem to the bear as harmful, in order to achieve what is ultimately best for the bear, i.e. freedom from the trap. The analogy is, of course, Hunter = God, Bear = Human (pp. 31-2).
For starters, if God is omnipotent, couldn’t he still achieve the long term good without the short term suffering? If he cannot, he is not omnipotent. To suggest that there are things God absolutely cannot do, is to suggest that there are laws which operate over and above God, that even He can’t transcend. I have no problem with this, but most Christians, including Kreeft, do. Thus the analogy is a false one, because no matter how sophisticated a human being might appear to a bear, the human is not omnipotent and therefore cannot conjure up a completely painless solution to the bear’s plight, whereas God, if he is indeed omnipotent, could achieve good without the suffering. This is but one of many reasons such attempts at answering this objection fail. For more, see the Secular Web’s library on the Argument from Evil.
The fundamental issue at stake here though is defining "good and evil." Why are certain things good and others evil? To a Christian the answer is, more or less, because God says so. But then, if we are to say God is "good," what standard are we judging him by? The only standard a Christian has is that which God has ordained. But with his Hunter/Bear argument Kreeft wants to say this standard can’t be used, because it is for humans, and God plays by his own set of rules. However, Kreeft assures us that God will eventually bring about the ultimate good. Why? Because He is all-good, silly! Wait a minute, though. Then the argument is: God is good because God is good? Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to much more than that tautology. If we, as humans, can’t judge God by his actions (or inactions) that cause suffering and evil, then how are we to know that he is good? We’re not to know. We are to presuppose. But even presupposing that god may be good, how do we know there are justifying reasons for him to refrain from freeing people from the many traps they do fall into? Or even to lay those traps in the first place, given the inherent dangers found throughout nature? The issues here are far more complex than Strobel and Kreeft let on. For instance, see the Secular Web’s library on moral arguments under Arguments for Atheism: Logical Arguments, and Moral Argument and Divine Command Theory.
Faith and Prejudice
Here Kreeft says there is evidence both for and against God. But, he claims the Christian’s evidence is prejudiced in favor of God by his personal experience (33-4).
At first glance, I failed to see how this is an argument in favor of God. However, after a second reading, I think I see where Kreeft is coming from. The reason I didn’t catch it the first time around is that Kreeft and I have different standards for ‘evidence’.
Once again we have a problem of definition. What counts as ‘evidence’? My standard is that of the scientific method. Much can be said on that subject but I will sum it up as curtly as possible. Evidence must be:
- 1. Empirically verifiable: Confirmable by sensory perception, e.g. sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, etc. This includes perceptions made via instruments such as telescopes, radars, microphones, etc.
- 2. Predictable: It must be possible to make predictions based on the evidence that can be verified as either true or false. The easier and more accessible this confirmation, the better.
- 3. Corroborated: Results from the majority independent researchers must agree.
Kreeft, I suspect, has a rather different standard. For him I think visions, dreams, personal feelings of joy in prayer, and a sense of direction under God all count as "evidence" for God. In light of this, I believe Kreeft’s argument is that Christians are prejudiced, and rightly so, in believing in God because while there is evidence (of the scientific variety) both for and against God, there is also evidence (of the broader, personal variety) for God.
The thing is:
- (1) If there is scientific evidence for God, I have yet to hear of it. The best attempts to invent such evidence actually fail to produce anything conclusive, as shown, for example, in the Secular Web’s library on Science and Religion (as well as the Argument to Design and the Cosmological Argument).
- (2) If you accept Kreeft’s standard for personal evidence then yes, you have evidence for Christianity. But you also have evidence for Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zeus, UFOs, telekinesis, ESP, ghosts, and well, just about anything. This is an old problem of the difference between faith and evidence, and Strobel and Kreeft hardly touch on the real issues, as one can see in the Secular Web’s libraries on Faith and Reason and Religious Experience.
A minor point of note: Kreeft says, "If we had absolute proof instead of clues, then you could no more deny God than deny the Sun" (33). Firstly, there are still people who deny that the Earth is round , so even when absolute proof is available people will sometimes reject it. Secondly, I fail to see how it would be bad (especially for Christians) if people had no reason to deny God’s existence. Why is it better to play a cosmic game of hide and seek?
Evil As Evidence For God
Kreeft claims that humans have standards of good and evil and those must have their origin in God. He also claims that impersonal evolution, if it was true, would have created a perfect universe by now. He says that atheism snobbishly disregards the fact that the majority of people believe in God, and robs life of value (34-6).
Lots to talk about here. We’ll start with standards of good and evil. Kreeft says, "…if there is no God, where did we get the standard of goodness by which we judge evil as evil?" (34). If all you are saying is that "we humans have standards" then it is not a valid jump to say "therefore God had to have made up those standards." This is also annoying because Kreeft is deliberately ignoring a number of easy alternatives. How about the easiest one: We humans made the standards up. In fact, since many different human cultures have had many, wide-ranging sets of standards, I think the "human origin" fits the facts much better. Sure, there are some "nearly-universal" standards found in civilized cultures, but isn’t it possible (even likely) that those are the result of what is necessary for human civilization to endure?
But even if you decide that it is impossible that humans made the standards up (although I don’t see how such a position could be conclusively reached) is the Christian God the only alternative? Could the Jewish or Islamic Gods have been the originators? And why a single God? Why not a Council or Pantheon of Gods? A Cosmic Congress, if you will. I don’t see how these alternatives can be discounted. Also, sound atheistic alternatives cannot be simply ignored, as one can see from the Secular Web’s library on Morality and Atheism, and theistic attempts to make a god necessary actually fail, as is shown in the Secular Web’s library on Moral Argument and Divine Command Theory.
Next up, we have Kreeft’s claim about the evolution of the universe. He says:
If there is no Creator and therefore no moment of creation, then everything is the result of evolution…There would have been plenty of time for evolution to have finished and evil to have to have been vanquished. But there is still suffering and imperfection – and that proves the atheist is wrong about the universe" (35).
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Kreeft’s blatant misunderstanding of evolution. He is anthropomorphizing it, assigning the process the goal of creating a human utopia devoid of evil. But, evolution is not a human being and has no sense of morality. It has no goals or motivations or endpoint. Most of all, it has no special care for humans. Even some scientists fall prey to the idea that humans are the ultimate achievement of evolution. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to evolutionary value, there is only one currency: survival. By that token, while humans are good, they pale in comparison to the ant or the cockroach. Furthermore, if you want to look at something as the ultimate achievement of evolution, look to the ultimate survivor: the virus. This may not be comforting, but the truth is not always what we want to hear. Ironically enough, evangelicals usually make the opposite argument from Kreeft (who is actually Catholic so perhaps that explains it). They argue that there has not been enough time for evolution to progress as it has. Those arguments are also faulty and handled in the Secular Web’s section on Creationism.
Kreeft says, "How is it possible that over ninety percent of all human beings who have ever lived…could believe in God?" (35). This is the classic argument from popular assent (a.k.a. the fallacy of argumentum ad numerum), which is about the weakest kind one can muster. One doesn’t take a poll to determine truth. Almost every human on the planet at one time thought that the earth was flat and the center of the universe around which the sun revolved. So they can be wrong.
Kreeft also says, "…just by looking at the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world, would not seem to justify believing in an absolutely good God. Yet this has been almost universally believed" (35). This is another stab at the argument from popular assent, but beyond that it is just plain wrong. There has never been such an ‘absolutely good god’ in Chinese, Hindu, Shinto, or Buddhist belief, not to mention the traditional religions in Africa or the Americas, and they have among them always comprised around half the world’s population, and still do. Even the God of the Old Testament, while I am assured He is one and the same with that of the New, does not seem to display these absolutely good and loving attributes.
Finally Kreeft attacks atheism by saying, "…it [atheism] robs death of meaning, and if death has no meaning, how can life ultimately have meaning?" (35). I have never understood this argument. It seems fairly obvious that if my life means something to me then it has meaning. Furthermore, if it means something to my family and friends then that meaning is deepened. But maybe people think their life has to mean something to a supernatural entity beyond the grave in order to truly have meaning. Why this would be, I am not sure. Certainly, atheists at large have no trouble finding life has real meaning and value, as the Secular Web library on Secular Humanism, for example, demonstrates, and one might also start by reading Richard Carrier’s essay Our Meaning in Life.
Kreeft also takes an unwarranted shot at atheism by asking us to, "…look at the results of communism, the most powerful form of atheism on earth" (36). As if atheism was why an entire centralized economic-political system didn’t work. It should also be noted that communism was not based on atheism; rather a Marxist’s atheism is based on communism, being derived from political-historical analysis, not the other way around. Besides, state sponsored atheism is no different than state sponsored religion, and people who are atheists because the state told them so, are the equivalent of people who are religious because their parents told them so.
A Problem of Logic
Kreeft is called upon to answer the following problem. "Christians believe in five things: First, God exists. Second, God is all good. Third, God is all powerful. Fourth, God is all knowing. Fifth, evil exists. Now how can all of those statements be true at the same time?" (36). This is the classic "argument from evil" which can be formulated as follows:
1. If the Christian God exists, he knows about all evil and has the power to stop all evil.
2. If the Christian God exists, he is all good.
3. If the Christian God is all good, he should stop all evil and it should not exist.
4. Evil exists.
5. Therefore, the Christian God does not exist.
Kreeft tries to answer this by dealing with each of God’s three attributes in turn (albeit not in the order suggested) and so shall I. Note that while this particular problem only deals with how God’s attributes are incompatible with extant evil, there are a lot of other compatibility problems with the five attributes besides apparent evil, discussed in the Secular Web’s library on Arguments from Incoherence.
First: God Is All Powerful
Kreeft surprises me here by deviating from the Christian hard line stance and admitting that there are certain things God cannot do, i.e. create a contradiction or make himself cease to exist. But then he invokes a spurious logic to justify this position with an all powerful God. He claims that contradictions and the like would be mistakes and, "He can’t make mistakes" (37). But a mistake is defined with regard to the intent of the creator. They would only be mistakes if God didn’t mean to create them. What if he wanted to? Could he? Kreeft is silent on the issue.
Then we jump headfirst into the old free will argument. I’m surprised it took us this long to get here. This is the classic idea that God had to create the potential for evil so that humans could freely choose good. Kreeft says, "It’s a self contradiction – a meaningless nothing – to have a world in which there’s real choice while at the same time no possibility of choosing evil" (37). I don’t know about that. It seems to me that we live in a world where our choice is limited in many ways. No matter how much I may wish to fly in the sky unaided, teleport millions of miles with a blink of my eyes, or blow up someone’s head with a thought, these things are beyond my abilities as a human being. Yet, I may choose among the abilities I have. God shorted us with plenty of abilities we could have theoretically had, so why didn’t he short us with the ability to do evil?
Kreeft answers this almost immediately with, "Real love…must involve a choice. But with the granting of that choice comes the possibility that people would choose instead to hate" (37). But this is a false dichotomy I think. Why must the spectrum run from love to hate? Why not from love to like? Or even from love to ignore? Would love be less potent without the possibility of hate? I think not. In a way, everybody develops their own little spectrum of good and evil within their life. That is why a starving beggar can have a happy day because he found a loaf of moldy bread and a dry place to sleep, yet a multi-millionaire can be miserable because he dropped a couple hundred thousand in the stock market. Based on what you are accustomed to as a "standard," things have subjective value to you in reference to how much they deviate from that standard. Even if humans were incapable of anything but love, there would still be degrees of value within that spectrum of love. And there are many other reasons why the free will defense doesn’t hold water, as demonstrated in the Secular Web’s library on the Argument from Evil.
Near the end of this section, Kreeft comes out of nowhere with, "No, the evidence is that God is all powerful" (38). What the hell? I scrambled back through the pages looking for this evidence, but either Kreeft didn’t mention it, or (as I really suspect) he thinks the freewill defense proves his point. However, the freewill defense (if valid) may provide an excuse for God’s inaction, but this only makes omnipotence compatible with lack of evidence for that omnipotence, it does not demonstrate that omnipotence exists.
Second: God is All Knowing
Kreeft returns to his point that God can operate using short term suffering for long term good. He claims the clearest example of this is to be found in the crucifixion of Christ. Concerning the crucifixion, he claims, "…the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world" (39). This is obviously an opinion, and a highly debatable one at that. Crucifying a man is a pretty awful thing to do, but is it worse than the holocaust? Is it worse than Stalin’s pogrom that murdered 20 million? Is it worse than the streets of modern day India? I have a hard time buying that. Maybe I’m nitpicking by harping on Kreeft’s hyperbole, but it is important to point out these apologists’ tendencies for ridiculous exaggeration.
Of course, none of this seems to have anything to do with God’s omniscience, which is what Kreeft is supposed to be addressing. One would think an all knowing being could devise a more coherent path to eternal salvation that didn’t involve torturing his son. I guess we should just have faith that God knows what he is doing.
Third: God is All Good
Once again we return to Kreeft’s thesis – that short term suffering can result in long term good, that we sometimes must survive hardships to become better people. But, one can surely dispute that all forms of evil are making people better. Are the former citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki better people for being atomized? Or, to use an example from a debate between atheist Edward Tabash and evangelist William Lane Craig, do we really want to tell holocaust survivors that the most powerful being in the universe had to let them suffer and torturously murder all their friends and relations to make the world a better place?
And we must consider what Kreeft’s argument boils down to: the end justifies the means. This is certainly a dubious ethical principle. Is it really okay to torture billions of people so that some people can go to heaven or otherwise be improved somehow? That is, is this ever moral? Compassion, it seems to me, would make me incapable of torturing even one person for any greater good, no matter how great the good was.
And the question remains: how are we to know the difference between a God who allows us to suffer for reasons He withholds and a cold, uncaring universe that allows us to suffer indiscriminately? Of course the answer is that there is no way to tell. You must simply assume/hope for God (if that’s what you want to believe).
Another point of interest: At the end of this section, Kreeft declares that a human trying to devise a utopia might create a precise world adored by engineers but, "…one thing’s for sure: you’ll lose the kind of world that a Father would want" (42). I find it curious that theologians will claim it is impossible to know the mind of God when it gets them out of a jam, as in the case of short term suffering/long term good, yet in many other instances, like the quote above, they seem to be so sure of God’s mind.
The Megaphone of Pain
Kreeft makes the points here that evil is ultimately punished, and humans are inherently bad and in need of redemption (42-4).
In discussing God’s eventual reckoning Kreeft says, "…the Bible says one reason He’s delaying is because some people are still following the clues and have yet to find Him" (43). Yet, if God is omniscient, doesn’t he already know whether those people are going to find him or not? If so, what’s the hold up? Besides, this whole tactic is flawed: if we can believe something for which we have refuting evidence, merely by making all the necessary excuses for why that refuting evidence exists, then we would be justified in believing anything we want.
The claim that humans are inherently bad, "defaced masterpieces", as Kreeft puts it, sells humans short I believe. But beyond that, as Gene Roddenberry once said, "We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes."
Bearing The Pain
Kreeft once again harps on good arising from suffering. He declares that a compassionate deity can endure the suffering of the world because he did. He suggests that life’s suffering will seem fleeting compared to the joys of heaven (45-8).
Kreeft praises God for his willingness to overlook our sins, which are "our fault" (as I stated above, this point is dubious) and instead take all of our suffering upon himself. Once again, I must note that while crucifixion is certainly a terrible and painful way to die, I’m not sure it is commensurate with all the suffering of all time in all the world.
Also, we must question how much Christ really suffered. If indeed he was God, how can the suffering of a being, who is all-wise and all-powerful, who has the greatest willpower and strength and fortitude of any possible being, and who knew perfectly well beyond even a shadow of a doubt that he would not really die anyway, be compared to the suffering of a mortal who shares none of these traits? God is literally incapable of experiencing suffering as humans are capable of knowing it.
As far as the joys of heaven outweighing the pain on earth, what can be said? It’s certainly a nice idea, and I can understand the psychological appeal. But there is no way of knowing such things, and besides, you might suffer all through your earthly life in a poor pagan African desert village and then be consigned to hell for being a heathen.
The Power of God’s Presence
Kreeft points out that usually, the more people suffer, the more dedicated believers they become. He also says that God’s presence is the ultimate answer to the Problem of Evil (48-51).
It is true that often times those in the most destitute conditions are the most faithful. You might think such people would give up hope for God. And some do. But, humans have a survival instinct, and I imagine that if you have no hope for this life or the next then you might not survive long. So, I think it is much more human to hope for better things to come. An interesting psychological phenomenon, to be sure, but just because people want there to be a point to their suffering doesn’t mean that there is.
To illustrate his point about God’s presence alleviating the Problem of Evil, Kreeft uses the Book of Job. He says, "He (God) could’ve written the best book on the problem of evil ever written. Instead, he shows himself to Job" (50). I fail to see how this magically whisks away the Problem of Evil. Certainly, the act of God manifesting himself to me would solve the issue of God’s existence. But I still wouldn’t know much about him. Is he all good? If so…well, you know the rest.
Besides, is the story of Job supposed to demonstrate God’s benevolence? By citing this awful biblical tale, Kreeft implies that God is causing people to suffer in order to increase or test their belief in him. Aren’t there far better, kinder ways to gain the same result? Is increasing belief even a morally acceptable excuse for doing evil? After all, that was the point of the Inquisition–so were inquisitors acting morally?
Every Tear, His Tear
Kreeft says the answer to suffering is Jesus. Because Jesus will stick with you through thick and thin (51-2).
I think Kreeft is trying to deftly skirt the issue here. First off, we must question the quality of Jesus’ friendship. When I say my friends stick with me through thick and thin, I mean they actually do things for me, protect me, talk to me, not that they follow me around and do nothing no matter what happens to me, all the while hiding in the bushes every time I turn around…that would be a dispassionate stalker, not a friend. But ignoring that, it might be great that Jesus will love you and walk with you no matter what happens, however, that is just a way for suffering and evil to be tolerable. The central issue at hand (how can an all good God and suffering exist simultaneously?) remains inadequately answered.
Drawing Good From Evil
Strobel highlights the heartbreaking tale of a father who lost a child and, as a result, became a minister. Naturally, only through Jesus was he able to persevere (52-4).
I won’t argue that Christ gives purpose and meaning to a lot of people’s lives. I won’t argue that the notion of Christ is comforting and can be enormously helpful in combating trying times. But other religions, like Buddhism, work just as well in just the same circumstances. And many atheists endure the same and even worse things without Jesus – does that mean atheists are stronger people? Most importantly, none of these pragmatic considerations have anything to do with whether it (religion, Christianity, God, etc) is true or not. Christ could be equally useful, even if he was made up.