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Michael Martin Suffering

Human Suffering and the Acceptance of God (1997)

Michael Martin


Why is there so much human suffering in the world if God is all good and all powerful? As I have shown elsewhere although there have been many answers to this question none are successful.[1] However, an answer has been offered by William Craig in his oral debates.[2] Whether his answer is completely new I do not know. What I do know is that I have not previously critically considered it in my written work. In this paper I will evaluate Craig’s answer.

The Suffering Brings About Acceptance Defense (SBAD)

According to Craig God aims for the maximal number of people as possible to know God and His salvation. However, Craig cites evidence that nations with the greatest amount of suffering have the greatest increase of evangelical Christianity. For example, Craig clams that there have been an increase from 2.3% to 20% in evangelical Christianity in 36 years in El Salvador, a country that has endured great suffering. Thus, Craig seems to suppose that the most intense suffering brings about the most acceptance of God and this provides a justification for human suffering. It is unclear whether Craig intends SBAD to be a complete theodicy or only one aspect of a more inclusive one.

The Failure of God’s Aim

If God’s aim was to have the maximal number of people believe in God, as Craig has argued, He has not been successful. Billions of people have not come to believe in the theistic God — through no fault of their own — and even today God’s message has not reached millions of people There are many things God could have done to increase belief in Him. For example, any of the following courses of action would increase belief in God:

  1. God could have made the Bible more plausible. He could have made it free from contradiction, factual errors, and made it contain clear and unambiguous correct prophecies and no false and ambiguous ones.
  2. God could have provided people with exposure to the Bible’s message by having Bibles appear in every household in the world written in a language that the occupants could read.
  3. God could have spoken from the Heavens in all known languages so no human could doubt His existence and His message.
  4. God could have sent angels disguised as human preachers to spread His word and given them the power to perform unambiguous miracles and works of wonder.
  5. God could have implanted belief of God and His message in everyone’s mind.
  6. In recent time God could have communicated with millions of people by interrupting prime time TV programs and giving His message.

Moreover, standard objections against these courses of action all fail; for example, that they would interfere with human free will.[3]

Is There a Solid Factual Basis to the Claim?

Although God has not done any of the things listed above to increase belief He has, according to Craig, taken some action to increase belief. 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 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 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.

For example, the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust resulted in the death of millions of European Jews. Would Craig’s hypothesis entail that before they were killed, there was a higher percentage of nonreligious Jews who rejected God than religious Jews who accepted Him? If so, it is doubtful whether we have evidence to support this. Or would Craig’s hypothesis entail that the relatives of the Holocaust victims would tend to be more religious than the relatives of those European Jews who were not victims? Again evidence for this would be hard to come by. The evidence for Craig’s hypothesis is equally uncertain with respect to American Indian suffering. One wonders whether there is any reason to suppose that in those Indian tribes which suffered the most the acceptance of the Christianity was the highest. Suffering and acceptance of God connected with the Plague is equally difficult to investigate. One wonders whether there is any reason to suppose that people in those countries and regions which suffered the most from the Plague tended to accept God at a higher rate after the Plague than people in those countries and regions that suffered less. Since it is likely that God was widely accepted in all countries and regions of Medieval Europe before and after the Plague, Craig’s hypothesis would be hard to confirm.

But even if we could confirm some of these correlations it would not necessarily show that intense suffering is a cause of acceptance of God. For example, suppose that it was true that in those Indian tribes which suffered the most the acceptance of Christianity was the highest. This would not show that intense suffering caused acceptance since other explanatory hypotheses are possible. For example, Indian tribes who suffered the most may have been contacted to a greater extent by Christian missionaries than tribes that suffered less. Perhaps acceptance is a function of missionary work rather than suffering. Surely this and other hypotheses would have to be eliminated in order to confirm Craig’s thesis to any extent.

Indeed, there are problems even in confirming the correlations posited in Craig’s own examples. Suppose there has been an increase in countries such as El Salvador of evangelical Christianity given the great suffering in those countries. It does not follow that there has been increase of acceptance of God: In El Salvador there may simply be fewer traditional Catholics and more evangelicals. The total number of believers may be the same or even less than before.

In short, Craig’s factual claim is not well supported.

Why Is There Not More Suffering?

If God’s aim is to maximize acceptance of Him and intense suffering brings about acceptance, then why is there so relatively little suffering in some countries and times? Surely God could have indirectly brought about more suffering and increased acceptance. For example, in the US suffering is relatively low in comparison to many Third World countries. Surely God could have arranged things to increase suffering and increase acceptance of God in the US. For example, hurricanes, earthquakes, draughts, epidemics, and severe economic depression would cause much suffering and, if Craig is right, increase acceptance. An all powerful God surely could have brought these things about.

Indeed, why is there not more suffering in El Salvador, one of the countries explicitly mentioned by Craig? Instead of an increase from 2.3% to 20% in evangelical Christianity in 36 years with more suffering and pain God could have increased his spiritual “harvest” to 80% or 90%. Why there is not more suffering is hard to explain if Craig is right.

What is the Ethical and Rational Basis for the Claim?

Independent of the lack of factual support for Craig’s hypothesis there is the ethical issue. Suppose intense suffering did bring about belief in God. Why would an all good, all powerful God choose to bring about acceptance in this way? As we have seen, God could bring about belief in Him in many ways that do not cause suffering. It is unintelligible why God would do it this way given these alternatives.

One might suggest that suffering is a more efficient way of getting people to accept God. However, there is no reason to suppose that this is so. Moreover, even if this is so, it would be a contingent fact, something that could be changed by an all powerful God. Finally, an all good God would not think in terms of the most efficient means if means would be available that were fairly efficient that caused less suffering. Consider a teacher who believed that the most efficient means to teach math was to beat his students although he knew merciful means were available that would be successful but that would take more time. Whatever we thought of this person as an efficient teacher we would not think much of his moral character.

Not only does suffering as a means to achieve acceptance conflict with God’s moral character, it seem to conflict with His rationality. A plausible rational constraint on getting people to believe something is that the acquired belief be based on good epistemic reasons. Presumably a rational God would want His creatures to believe in Him for good reasons. Yet this is precisely what is excluded by SBAD. What epistemic basis for belief in an all good, all powerful God does the evidence of intense suffering provide? In fact, the amount of suffering in the world has often posed an obstacle to rational belief. To put it in other words, whether or not suffering is a cause of acceptance is one thing. The crucial question is whether it is a good reason for acceptance. Craig does not even try to show that it is. Yet one would suppose that a rational God would want His creature to accept Him for good reasons.


Like other theodices of the past, Craig’s theodicy fails. It is based on dubious factual premises, and raises more questions than it answers.


[1] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapters 14-18.

[2] For example, in his debate with Ted Drange, and in his debate with Douglas Jesseph.

[3] See Theodore Drange, Nonbelief and Evil (Prometheus, forthcoming).