This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear, Dr. Craig,
My daughter died a little over a month ago. She would of been three January 18th.I loved her more then anything. She was born with a rare neurological disease. My question is... How could an all loving God, who loves his children and who has such great "power" would allow this to happen. How come everything that happens good to a believer confirms faith and the bad is considered a test or a cliquiest " God is mysterious" explanation. If he is so great and so good, then why he take my daughter from me?!
The most rotten of people have children, abuse them, leave them etc.. But the best of folks who want to be good parents lose their children under fluke circumstances.
How can I believe anymore Dr Craig? It's so easy to say "God has a plan" or " God isn't obligated"... Why won't he just come and speak his faithful directly? On one hand the bible says not to worry for tomorrow, God will provide, when on the other hand my tomorrow was a small child who suffered and died.
It's SOOOO easy for religious people with healthy children and successful lives to say, "Oh god is great..."etc. What nerve do they have! How lucky they are! Yeah God is great. To who? To you! What a slap in the face doctor.
Dr Craig I believe you are an exceptionally intelligent man. A proven philosopher and a great speaker, but I also believe that some of your responses to questions, like mine, are based on a subjective point of view. Your idea of truth is based on an unknowable deity according to your OWN opinion of what’s real or not, according to your interpretation of the Bible.
Dr Craig please help me to believe, I'm sorry if I sound aggressive. I'm terribly mad. She was everything to me, This whole idea has became hocus pocus to me. I've been reading a lot written by Sam Harris .Dr Craig, my goodness! I'm darn near a full blown ashiest now!
I'm in tears all the time. My heart is broke There is no god to me. There is no hope its all dark in the end. No heaven no hell Just an empty shell of what was. Her name was Evelynn and she was my whole world and Dr Craig I don't want to live feeling empty. I want to believe but my faith is a black hole of once was. I patiently await your response. Thank you for time.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
I cannot even imagine what you must be going through, Patrick. Indeed, my fear in taking your question this week is that because of my lack of a similar experience my answer might come across as unempathetic. But you complain that “some of your responses to questions, like mine, are based on a subjective point of view,” so if I respond with objective argument, you will, I hope, forgive me.
In dealing with cases of apparently pointless suffering like yours, I think it crucial to distinguish between the intellectual problem of suffering and the emotional problem of suffering. This is especially important in cases of bereavement. You surely are aware that those going through the process of grieving typically experience a period of anger just as you have. You have a lot of emotions to process during this time. Your letter leads me to believe that you are suffering from the emotional problem of suffering, not the intellectual problem of suffering. For your letter contained virtually no argument of any sort, just expressions of raw emotions. To deal with this problem you need the help of a pastor or counselor, not a philosopher like me. What I can do is to offer some thoughts concerning the intellectual problem, which may set your mind at ease so that you can deal with the emotional problem in a proper way.
Now in dealing with the intellectual problem of suffering, it’s important that we keep in mind who has the burden of proof here. The atheist claims that the pointless suffering in the world makes it improbable that God exists. The atheist must now shoulder the burden of proof. It’s up to him to give us an argument leading to the conclusion “Therefore, God (probably) does not exist.” Too often believers allow unbelievers to shift the burden of proof to the believer’s shoulders. “Give me some good explanation for why God permits suffering,” the unbeliever will demand, and then he sits back and plays the sceptic at all the believer’s attempted explanations. The atheist winds up having to prove nothing. This may be clever debating strategy on the atheist’s part, but it’s philosophically illegitimate and intellectually dishonest. It’s the unbeliever who claims that the co-existence of God and the suffering in the world is improbable. So it’s up to him to give us his argument and to support his premises. It’s the Christian’s turn to play the sceptic and question whether the atheist has shown that God cannot or does not have a good reason for permitting the suffering in the world.
About the best the atheist can do is point to some specific examples of suffering for which we see no reason (such as Evelynn’s untimely death) and infer that because we cannot see the reason therefore there is no reason. You can probably see how tenuous such an inference is.
In my books like On Guard and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I offer three responses to the atheist’s claim:
1. We’re not in a position to judge that it’s improbable that God lacks good reasons for permitting the suffering in question.
Every event that occurs in the world sends a ripple effect through history, such that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another country. Only an all-knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward His envisioned goals. Just think of the innumerable, incalculable events involved in arriving at a single historical event, say, the Allied victory at D-day! We have no idea of what suffering might be involved in order for God to achieve some intended purpose through the freely chosen actions of human persons. Nor should we expect to discern God’s reasons for permitting suffering. It’s hardly surprising that much suffering seems pointless and unnecessary to us, for we are overwhelmed by such complexity.
This is not to appeal to a cliché like “God is mysterious,” but rather to point to our inherent cognitive limitations, which make it impossible for us to say, when confronted with some example of suffering, that God probably has no good reason for permitting it to occur. Unbelievers themselves recognize these limitations in other contexts. For example, one of the decisive objections to Consequentialism (the theory of ethics endorsed by Sam Harris, who says that we should do whatever will bring about the greatest flourishing of sentient creatures) is that we have no idea of the ultimate outcome of our actions. Some short term good might actually lead to untold misery, while some action that looks disastrous in the short term may bring about the greatest good. We don’t have a clue.
Once we contemplate God’s providence over the whole of human history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for finite, limited observers to speculate about the probability of God’s having a good reason for the suffering we observe. We’re simply not in a position to assess such probabilities with any confidence.
2. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable.
When the atheist says God’s existence is improbable, you should immediately ask, “Improbable relative to what?” The suffering in the world? If that’s all the background information you’re considering, then it’s no wonder God’s existence looks improbable relative to that! (Though, as I’ve just argued, appearances can be deceiving!) But that’s not the really interesting question. The interesting question is whether God’s existence is probable relative to the full scope of the evidence. I’m convinced that whatever improbability suffering may cast upon God’s existence, it’s outweighed by the arguments for the existence of God.
In that sense you are wholly unjustified, Patrick, in saying, “Your idea of truth is based on an unknowable deity according to your OWN opinion of what’s real or not, according to your interpretation of the Bible.” If you will consult my works, such as the two aforementioned books, you will find rigorous arguments for the existence of God, which I have defended in public debates with professional philosophers. I think that God is knowable and that there are good reasons to believe that God is real quite independently of the Bible.
Most people who talk about the problem of suffering tacitly assume, as you seem to, that there are no good arguments for the existence of God. So, for them, the question is whether suffering makes atheism probable given that there’s nothing on the other side of the scale. But I think there are very weighty arguments for God on the other side of the scale. Therefore, I could actually concede that God’s existence is improbable relative to the suffering in the world alone but point out that this is just outweighed by the arguments for God’s existence.
3. Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and suffering. If the Christian God exists, then it’s not so improbable that suffering should also exist. What are these doctrines? Three are especially relevant to your situation:
(1.) The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. One reason that the problem of suffering seems so difficult is that people naturally tend to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this life. God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets. This seems to be the assumption behind your question, “How could an all loving God, who loves his children and who has such great ‘power’ would allow this to happen?” God is supposed to make us happy, right?
On the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God--which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Much of the suffering in life may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but it may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God. Of course, whether God’s purpose is achieved through our suffering will depend on our response. Do we respond with anger and bitterness toward God, or do we turn to Him in faith for strength to endure?
The point is that God never promised, nor does He owe us, a happy life. We follow a crucified Savior, and we should not be surprised if our life is filled with pain. You ask, “Why won't he just come and speak his faithful directly?” That would turn the universe into a haunted house. Every time you suffered, a still, small voice would say, “You’re suffering this because. . . .” Moreover, even if God did that, it might not help! People might still be angry or act in ways that would derail God’s intentions. What God has done is to tell us in general that when we suffer, He is in control and will strengthen us, and He has given us good evidence to trust Him. We can demand no more.
(2.) God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life. According to Christianity, this life is but the cramped and narrow foyer opening up into the great hall of God’s eternity. God promises eternal life to all who place their trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. When God asks us to bear horrible suffering in this life, it is only with the prospect of a heavenly joy and recompense that is beyond all comprehension.
The apostle Paul underwent a life of incredible suffering. Yet he wrote,
We do not lose heart. . . . For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look, not to the things that are seen, but to the 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 lived this life in the perspective of eternity. He understood that the length of this life, being finite, is literally infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life we’ll spend with God. The longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life will shrink by comparison toward an infinitesimal moment. That’s why Paul called the sufferings of this life a “slight, momentary affliction”: he wasn’t being insensitive to the plight of those who suffer horribly in this life-‑on the contrary, he was one of them‑-but he saw that those sufferings were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of everlasting joy and glory which God will give to those who trust Him.
Evelynn is with Him now. She awaits you there. In that eternity of bliss, the suffering you and she bore here in this life will appear less than the blink of an eye.
(3.) The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. The passage cited from Paul also serves to make this point. Paul imagines, as it were, a scale, in which all the suffering of this life is placed on one side, while on the other side is placed the glory which God will bestow upon His children in heaven. And the weight of glory is so great that it is beyond comparison with the suffering. For to know God, the locus of infinite goodness and love, is an incomparable good, the fulfillment of human existence. The sufferings of this life cannot even be compared to it. Thus, the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain, can still truly say, “God is good to me!”, simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good.
These Christian doctrines increase the probability of the co-existence of God and the suffering in the world. They in turn decrease any improbability which suffering might seem to cast upon the existence of God. So the atheist needs to show either that these doctrines are probably false or else show that God’s existence is improbable even given these doctrines. He has the burden of proof in either case.
Patrick, let me close with a few words of pastoral advice (brace yourself!). First of all, what are you doing reading Sam Harris during a time such as this? Are you crazy with grief? Why are you reading such destructive garbage? Is that a likely source of truth or comfort in your time of need? Second, you say that “There is no hope its all dark in the end. No heaven no hell Just an empty shell of what was.” That’s an apt summary of what atheism has to offer you. So why not instead turn to God as the only One who can provide you hope and comfort? I wonder whether Evelynn herself lost hope in God and became an atheist in the end. What would she have wanted you to do? If Christianity is true, she waits to meet you in heaven where there will be no pain nor tears forever. Will you miss that rendezvous? Third, I find it curious that there is no mention in your letter of Evelynn’s mother. Is it possible that you are so self-absorbed in your own grief that you have forgotten about her and what she must be going through? Are you going to be there for her, to support and help her through this terrible time? Will you be God’s man in such an hour and look to see how you can minister to others or will you desert the field? May God strengthen you!
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org