GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (Three Talking Points)

(Read Part One: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? Two Skeptical Challenges) 

#1 Everyone has to deal with the problem of evil

Everyone seems to agree: something has gone horribly wrong. Existence could be different; maybe it even ought to be different. Wherever we look in the world, and in every corner of the past we find suffering, and we don’t like it. In other words, the problem of evil is a universal human issue. Christians are often challenged with the presence of evil, but we are not the only ones who need to give an answer.

If we leave God and accept atheism, has our problem gone away? Not at all! In this case, evil, pain and suffering still exist, and we still don’t know why! Well-known philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “No one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.” This is an understandably difficult situation. But William Lane Craig has some questions of his own. He asked:

“What is Bertrand Russell going to say when he is kneeling at the bed of a dying child?" … 'Tough luck? Too bad? That’s the way it goes? That’s all that’s left for him...'  You see, as an atheist, Russell has nothing to offer. Because if there is no God then we are trapped in a world filled with senseless and unreadable suffering with absolutely no hope from deliverance of evil.”

Atheism does not provide an answer to the problem; it merely eliminates one of the solutions. Children still die, forests still burn, and hurricanes still destroy. Atheism doesn’t remove suffering; it merely removes hope.

 Eastern religions believe that pain and suffering are illusory. They don’t exist. We’re just floating in the Matrix and merely have perceptions of pain and suffering. Their answer is to ignore it because it isn’t real. That hardly sounds helpful. Anyone who has experienced pain and suffering knows how absolutely real it is. Can you imagine telling the parent of a dying child that their child only appeared to be in pain? 

 Humanity is presented with what often looks like a long, dark tunnel. Atheism asks us to accept the tunnel. Eastern religions tell us that the tunnel may seem dark, but it isn’t real. Christianity admits that he tunnel is sometimes dark, but there is a light at the end. The tunnel is real, but it is not permanent. It can be painful, but it will end – and in the meantime we are not alone. In short, Christianity offers one thing no other worldview can: hope.

#2 Natural forces are not evil.

In the Christian worldview, God set up the world – and it was good. Since then, entropy has taken over. Everything dies. Iron rusts. People age.  So we have this tension: we live in a world that is both beautiful and broken. Both these states occur through the simple unfolding of natural events in a very complex world. This hardly makes the events themselves evil.  For example, trees, picnic tables, computers, guns, money, and bicycles are neither good nor bad – they just are. However, the events which they precipitate can be experience in very different ways. If a tree falls, is that good or bad? I suppose that depends on whether I wanted firewood or shade. Is rain good or bad? That depends on whether I am camping or farming.

These are minor example, but many things we call “acts of God” are simply a description of the natural order unfolding on a much larger scale. Natural disasters can be emotionally devastating because people are effected by them. We grieve the impact on those we love, as we should. We do our best to prepared for natural calamities. These response are clearly appropriate, but the condemnation of the God behind the creation of the world is more of a stretch. After all, the same forces that bring suffering are the ones that bring about astonishing beauty. Think about the following…

  • Is it possible to make electricity that does not electrocute?

  • Is it possible to have a system of plate tectonics without the possibility of earthquakes and sinkholes?

  • Can you have water without the possibility of drowning?

  • Can you have wind without the possibility of tornados?

  • Can you have oceans without occasional hurricanes?

  • Can you have gravity without the possibility of falling?

  • Can you have fire that burns wood in fire pits but not homes?

The God of cyclones is also the God of sunsets. In both instances, God created a world in which the wildly creative potential of the habitat would not be possible if it did not contain within it the possibility of incredible destruction as well. 

#3 We need to understand the nature of God’s Will

Is God responsible, then, when tragedies happen? Was it His will? If we are to understand what we (or others0 mean when talking about God's will for life, we need to understand two aspects of God’s will: things he commands and things he desires.

 God commanded the universe into being. Nothing could oppose him. God commanded his incarnation, death and resurrection, and no one could stop it. The fancy name for this is God’s decretive will (He decrees it).

 The other category of God’s will is his desires. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. It is not his will that any should perish. He has given us instructions that explain what we should and should not do. This is called God’s prescriptive will (he prescribes, like a doctor prescribes medicine). 

Command (Decretive Will)                                        Desire (Prescriptive Will)

God decrees it; it will happen.                                         God prescribed it; it should happen

We don't need to understand                                           We are helped to understand

Plans that can't  be thwarted                                           Instructions that can be thwarted

God's sovereignty  causes them to happen.                    God's restraint allows them to happen.

God caused the universe to begin to exist (decretive will), but he allows history to unfold in a cause/effect reality (prescriptive will). God caused people to be created in His image; He permits them to exercise free will. The unfolding of natural events and the consequences of our bad choices have impacted us from their inception. This is what we would expect in a meaningful world.