God's Existence, Science and Faith, Suffering and Evil, Jesus' Resurrection, and Book Reviews

Monday, July 30, 2012

Pain, Suffering, and Purpose

The Emotional Problem of Evil

This past weekend the On Guard conference was held in Oklahoma, which gave me the opportunity to go. William Lane Craig was speaking on the problem of evil- both the intellectual version and the emotional version. He did an incredible job demonstrating how the intellectual problem has been overcome and that even atheists recognize that. The emotional problem of evil is where he stated that the problem is still quite persuasive.

In my notes on this talk I wrote down three initials. They represents a powerful and popular resource that I wanted to highlight for the apologetic community. I have been dealing with apologetics for several years now, and I cannot remember seeing this resource come up a single time. It seems to be left untapped, yet I'm not certain why.

Its Not About Humanity

In his answer to the emotional problem of evil, Craig pointed out what should be obvious- that the emotional problem of evil is based in the fact that people believe that this life is about them and the world revolves around them. The pain and suffering that we all experience does not make a single bit of sense if the purpose of our lives is to be comfortable, happy, and pain-free. Even minor inconveniences, like locking keys in the car or our internet connection not working, become quite problematic if this life is all about us.

But if this life is not about us, then that assumes that it IS about someone or something else. But what or who is it? Many people would be tempted to say that since life is not about them, that it is about everyone else- that their life is to make the lives of others comfortable, happy, and pain-free. But that won't work because pain and suffering is not limited to us alone. Everyone experiences pain and suffering. So, we must recognize that this life can't be about everyone (or anyone) either.

Many Christians and atheists point out that without God existing, there is no ultimate purpose to our lives- we are forced to create our own purposes. Atheists believe that this is liberating because we are our own gods- we can pick and choose what we wish to spend our lives doing. Christians see this as quite depressing because all the effort, resources, and suffering spent to achieve our goals become nothing with the predicted heat-death of the universe. An argument can be made that the Christian view is much more realistic than the atheist view because the Christian view takes into account the present AND the future of reality, while the atheistic perspective ONLY looks at the present.

Regardless of which perspective one takes, if this universe is all that is, all the pain and suffering that we go through in an effort to reach our own goals and fulfill our own purposes will be lost; all the goals we reach will disappear; all legacy that we thought that we might leave behind will become nothing. Where is the sense in that (logical or practical)?

How do we make sense of the existence of pain and suffering (and even the minor inconveniences)? Is there something or someone that all this will benefit? Is it possible that pain and suffering DO make sense, or are we stuck with either no answer or an answer that gives us no reason to deal with the pain and suffering of this life?

Ultimate Purpose

My pastor introduced me to a fantastic book a few years ago. As I go through it, I see that it speaks directly to the issue of the emotional problem of evil. The author puts forth the foreign idea that life is not about us, but it is about God. The reason the idea is foreign is because of the fact that man has a nature that is very self-centered and prideful. That is the only reason that the emotional problem of evil is still around and will remain persuasive to many.

The author does not simply tell us that life is not about us; he goes on to outline five different purposes of our lives that, when we see this life as revolving around its Creator, causes all the pain and suffering in the world (our experiences and others' experiences) to suddenly make sense. As he explains each one, he constantly refers back to scripture to demonstrate that if Christianity is true, then these purposes are real- the pain, suffering, and inconveniences of life have real meaning and real, ultimate purpose.

The initials that I wrote in my notes were "PDL". It refers to Rick Warren's book Purpose Driven Life. The popularity of this book has been ridiculous. Many people would read (and have read) this book long before they would pick up a book that was written by a philosopher to address the problem of evil. Because of the fact that it is in the hands of or familiar to so many already, it cannot go unused by the Christian apologist.

Later on, I will write a review on the book from the perspective of a Christian apologist. But in the meantime, please pick up a copy and see what is there that you can use when speaking to people who are dealing with life, have questions, and need The answer.

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  1. I'm curious what you mean when you say that the atheist only looks at the 'present reality' while the Christian looks at the 'present and the future.' As an atheist, I think about the future all the time. From my perspective, I'm always trying to enrich my life for the benefit of a future version of myself.
    If you mean that an atheist can't think about what happens AFTER death, that's not true either. Obviously, though, I won't be a part of that particular future. But perhaps I can leave some legacy, some important work, statement or vision that will endure after I die. I think that's one of the ultimate goods to achieve in life - to leave the world a better place than you found it, no matter how small that contribution might be.

    1. Michael,
      Thanks for the comment. I have a few questions:

      What do you mean by a "future version of myself", and what makes you believe that there will be a future version of yourself?

      How do you know that you are actually enriching it (what appears to be good as far as we can see may actually have devastating effects elsewhere)?

      "Endure" tends to refer to something that continues on without an end. If naturalism is true, there are two hard limits on the endurance of any legacy. All legacies left by humanity will be forgotten with the extinction of our species, and they will ultimately become nothing with the heat-death of the universe.

      If Christianity is true, there is life after death, and our legacy will endure; not just in this world but in the next. In light of the fact that the Christian worldview states that a legacy will continue far beyond what may be possible in a naturalistic universe, is your desire to leave a legacy satisfied?

    2. Hello Luke,

      Thanks for your thoughts. When I refer to a 'future version of myself' I simply mean getting older. I'm 42 now and with any luck I'll make it to 43. There's nothing that guarantees that, but I have to live as if that's true, otherwise why plan for any kind of future? I tend to think of what kind of person I want to be when I'm 80 and what kind of life I will have want to have lived by then. It's something we all do. It's why we have retirement accounts, life insurance and wills. It doesn't matter whether one is a theist or an atheist - we all think of the future and our place in it.

      I disagree that the word 'endure' suggests something that goes on forever, but that's a minor point. What is important is what lasts while we are here - either individually, as a generation, or as the human species altogether. What is important is what we can do while we exist and what good we can leave for others while they exist. Those are the things we know. The fact is that, for example, Maurice Ravel (an atheist; see also: Berlioz, Smetana, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Shostakovitch and Verese) existed when he did and left a musical legacy for all of humanity to appreciate while we can. And I think that is the best we can do. That we cannot enjoy it forever does not make it any less sublime for the time that I or anyone else can enjoy it. Think of this: a sunset only lasts for a few moments and then gives way to night. Does that make the sunset any less beautiful, knowing that each is unique and can only be appreciated for a short time? I've never regretted a sunset.

      Yes...my desire to leave a legacy is satisfied even if it makes only one person happy in a future where I no longer exist. Of the composers I mentioned, do you think any would have simply sat on his/her hands simply because their music would not endure forever?

      To address your last point - how do I know I'm actually enriching my life? My initial answer: how does anyone? It's something we all have to consider and decide for ourselves. For example, many years ago I spent one week of eight hour days reading War and Peace. Was it worth it? Am I enriched by it? I think that I'm enriched by almost anything that I put honest effort into. I gained knowledge and an appreciation for (arguably) one of the greatest novels ever written. It's a judgement call and I judge for my own life based on my own experiences.

      But at the very least, I think that I've shown that an atheist can and does think about the future. It's not the exclusive domain of Christians or the religious in general. Be careful making broad statements about what atheists must believe without checking to see what individual atheists actually believe. I think you'll find there's a lot more to be learned, than assumed.

    3. Michael,
      Thank you for that thoughtful reply. I certainly do not believe that the atheist cannot look toward the future. As you pointed out, it is logical to assume that we will live one more day, year, or decade, and it is wise to prepare for that time. However, you did not address how one can know that what legacy they leave will do more good than bad. I contend that such knowledge is not possible on an atheistic worldview.

      There is a 50/50 chance that what we do will bring more good than harm. There is no real reason to assume one way or the other. Our knowledge just simply can't take us any further than that. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but it seems that it would be more accurate to articulate your satisfaction as being with the mere chance of doing more good than bad. Your satisfaction is not gained from knowing that you will, but with the possibility that you might.

      And even then, the legacy will end with the human race's end (that's a good thing if the legacy harms more than it benefits, but its a bad thing if it benefits more than it harms). So on atheism, we have only the possibility of leaving a short-lived legacy.

      Regarding the great composers you mentioned: they had no way of knowing that their music would be enjoyed by humanity. For all they knew, it all could have been lost and their time would have been wasted. Imagine that there are many composers even better than they who wrote stuff even better, but since they have died their music has faded into oblivion- some legacy. I make this point to show that an atheist is not acting on knowledge, but on hope in possibility. They have faith that the odds will be in their favor and not someone else's, yet they have no evidence to lead them to such a conclusion

      The atheist is forced to exercise blind faith in an unwarranted possibility that will be short-lived. Trusting chance with your legacy is no different than trusting the lottery with your retirement. If insurance, savings plans, and wills are more dependable than the lottery regarding the future version of yourself, why are you trusting the lottery with your legacy that will live on much longer than you?

    4. Thank you Luke. So is it fair to say that you're conceding your point that, "...the Christian view takes into account the present AND the future of reality, while the atheistic perspective ONLY looks at the present."?

      You're right, I did not mention anything about the good or bad outcome of my (or anyone's actions), because that has nothing to do with the point I was making. I was only challenging your assertion that atheists 'only look at the present.' I pointed out that it's often a mistake to assert what atheists believe, or you feel must believe. The only commonality among atheists is a disbelief in gods. From there one could adopt any other philosophy or even religion. After all, there are atheists Buddhists who believe in reincarnation; they certainly would not fit your description.

      But I'm curious where you come up with the notion one's endeavors have a 50% chance of being 'bad' or 'good.' I'm sorry, but I find that a strange thing to say. What about the possibility of doing something morally neutral? Or something that may have had a good intent, but a bad outcome?

      I'll take you're point thought that I may never know the ultimate outcome of some legacy I've left behind. And that's fine, I have to accept that the world works like that. However, it doesn't diminish one's sense of accomplishment in the here an now, for the brief lifetime in which we and others can appreciate the fruits of our labors. That Ravel may have had to acknowledge that 'Bolero' wouldn't survive the heat death of the universe didn't stop him from writing it. So you may have to explain why an atheist might go to the trouble of laboring so hard for something that he cannot enjoy forever.

      Although I am curious about the Christian take on this. Suppose a Christian writes a wonderful piece of music which he can be proud of now, but also for all eternity. How meaningful is that work in a place where all one's needs are fulfilled: a paradise? After all, for many of us the drive to create, to direct our own lives, to struggle to achieve out goals is what defines us. How does one have any satisfaction when there is no struggle, no need to direct, no drive to create?

    5. Michael (Part 1),
      I would not say that I have conceded my point. I clarified what I meant. The "present" that I refer to in this post is the span of human history (and future). I will certainly concede that I was not as clear in my articulation as I could have been, though.

      I agree that atheists are free to believe whatever they want, but that does not mean that they are being consistent. My concern is with a consistent worldview, not an inconsistent one. I'm critiquing a consistent atheistic worldview, not necessarily an inconsistent worldview of an atheist.

      Atheistic Buddhism would actually fall under my critique because the doctrine you speak of is rebirth not reincarnation. The difference is "atman" (the soul). Hindu reincarnation involves a soul that moves from life to life. Buddhist metaphysics posits "anatman" (no soul). There is nothing that moves from life to life. The self does not actually exist, and any illusions of such a self are extinguished with physical death. If there was an atheistic Hinduism, then my critique would not apply to it, but it does apply to atheistic Buddhism.

      I agree that my percentage language is foreign to atheism, but not for the reasons that you cite. It is foreign in virtue of the fact that morality (objective "good" and "bad") do not exist if atheism is true. Technically, "the chance of an action being amoral is 100%" is the accurate articulation. Amoral is also in contrast to morally neutral. Moral neutrality requires a moral standard to be neutral when compared to. Atheism cannot found such an objective standard. So, there is not even a such thing as moral neutrality, if atheism is true- there are only amoral actions. Also, since there is no objective standard for morality, an intent cannot have a moral descriptor either.

    6. Part 2

      "...it doesn't diminish one's sense of accomplishment in the here an now..."

      It appears that you have narrowed my broad window of "present" in atheism from human history to merely your lifetime. It sounds like you are saying that it doesn't matter if the legacy has a negative effect during the rest of human history, as long as you enjoy what you think you may have accomplished- satisfaction. Keep in mind that others' enjoyment of the fruits of your labor can only be enjoyed by you while you live. What you do may be good for a short period of time, but may turn tragic in the future (after you're long gone). Notice the irony here: You say that I was denying that the atheist values the future, while you (the atheist) is saying "to heck with the future, as long as I'm satisfied here and now". Even without my clarification of "present", what is the problem?

      My explanation of why an atheist labors hard for something he cannot enjoy forever is specifically that he is focused on the present (be that the "here and now", his lifetime, or the whole of human history). Again, there is no problem with what I've stated and what you are articulating.

      Regarding your last paragraph- you have forgotten a very important fact of Christianity: it is not about us. Our satisfaction with what we've accomplished on earth is not the purpose of our existence. Bringing people into the Kingdom of God, so they can eternally experience God is the purpose. There is a need to direct, a drive to create, and a serious struggle- they all are founded in the purpose that God created us: to know Him and bring others to that knowledge. Bringing others to that knowledge is the result of our efforts in the present. We will enjoy the fruits of that labor eternally because the true purpose behind them was accomplished (to bring more into the Kingdom of God).

      On the atheistic worldview, you decide what to create, how to direct, and what to struggle with in your life: you define you. You are a subject that has changing desires and compulsions. Because of that, your decisions will change...there will be no set goal to work towards- no ultimate purpose. In atheism, your drive to create is to satisfy you, you direct your life to satisfy you, you struggle to achieve the goal of satisfying you with everything that you do. You know by experience, that satisfaction is fleeting- where ever you are, you can see something better and desire it. Without the knowledge of God and knowing His ultimate purpose for our lives, satisfaction is only momentary in this life, we will never be satisfied- meaningfulness and value of all the creation, direction, and struggle that you appeal to disappears when the satisfaction fades. All the creation, direction, and struggle in the life of one who knows God and knows His ultimate purpose for being on this earth will never disappear, and because they have eternal effects, their meaningfulness and value are also eternal.

    7. Part 1
      Thanks for your reply Luke. However, it's going to be difficult carrying on an intelligible conversation if you suddenly start redefining the terms we're using. There is no definition of the word 'present' that means 'all of human history.' That's a unique term you just introduced when I pressed you on my original point. You didn't specify it in your post, anywhere in our conversation thus far and no reasonable person would understand your new definition without the late-coming clarification you've made. That's far more that simply a problem of articulation. Can you explain how you justify this?

      Using double quotes means that you are quoting someone verbatim. So you're wrong in attributing this to me: "to heck with the future, as long as I'm satisfied here and now." That's not what I said and it seems that you're going out of your way to distort and misrepresent what I did say. I used the phrase "here and now" - a popular idiom - but I also explained exactly what I meant in the same sentence. It seems to me you purposely misunderstood what I said in order to attack a position that I didn't take. With your recent posts on Strawman arguments, I would have thought you'd be familiar enough with the concept to know when you were doing it yourself.

    8. Part 2

      Once again, you've brought up morality and, once again, I'm going to say that that has nothing to do with the initial point I raised, my subsequent points, nor any point in your post. This is clearly a red herring. Christians generally feel pretty comfortable thinking that they have an exclusive claim on morality, so it's not surprising that conversations usually shift in this direction. If you'd like to have an open debate or discussion about morality, I'm more than happy to do so. You could open up a dialogue in which we each contribute a post and rebuttal. But, again, that's another topic and another discussion. I'll only say that secular ethics and moral systems have been written about for thousands of years - some pre-dating Christianity and Judaism. Moral thinking, even objective moral thinking, has just as strong, if not stronger, secular tradition.

      I'll take your point about Buddhism, but I'll also say that it depends on whom you ask. Buddhist traditions vary widely and are subject to interpretation. However, atheists can subscribe to non-supernatural concepts of an afterlife - such as a Matrix-like reality or a computer simulation (see Sam Harris' take on this). So you still can't assume that atheists can't or don't think about the 'future' as you seem to mean it, i.e. in terms of an afterlife or eternity. You'll need to concede this as well.

      You still didn't explain where you get the specific percentages of one's actions being a 50/50 proposition of being good or bad in the future. I don't want to derail the discussion on the morality issue again, but I'd curious how you justify those numbers. Again, I strongly disagree that atheism automatically implies amorality - but that's an argument for a different debate. If you'd like an excellent primer on it, I highly recommend Shelley Kagan's debate with William Lane Craig (you can find it on YouTube).

      So, let me go back to my original point and insist on a clear answer. You wrote that "the Christian view takes into account the present AND the future of reality, while the atheistic perspective ONLY looks at the present." Even if you're redefining 'present' to mean 'all of human history' and 'future' (you haven't offered a different definition) as 'eternity' or 'afterlife,' it still doesn't work. I've already shown that an atheist can think about life after death. And any cosmologist clearly thinks eternity and the universe on a grand scale. No matter which way you try to make that statement, it's wrong. You can redefine terms as much as you like, but you've mis-characterized atheists and what we believe. In over simplifying and redefining what we mean and say, you've effectively created another Strawman to knock down. Talk to real atheists and you'll find that issues you so confidently challenge aren't so easy after all.

    9. Michael (Part 1),
      I have clarified what I meant by "present". If you wish to insist that it be understood out of the context of my clarification, then you are trying to force the idea that I was errecting a strawman, when in fact I was not (as evidenced by my clarification). Taken outside the context of my other writings, I can certainly see how that could be misunderstood (I concede that). However, my clarification should have allowed the articulation issue to be resolved and not be belabored. By pressing that issue, you are avoiding my points. In this case, your accusation of a strawman has become a red herring- a clear example of my most recent post.

      Taken in the context of my posts about the strawman fallacy, it should be clear that my "quote" of you was more of a summation/interpretation. I apologize that my use of punctuation was incorrect. I was not attempting to directly quote you, but show the issue with your response. Now, since I have clarified that the punctuation was an error, please address the issue and do not continue to expect me to justify my use of double quotes.

      Actually, you are the one who brought up morality in the first place. Here is a direct quote from your first comment:

      "...to leave the world a better place than you found it..."

      The word "better" tends to be a moral term. Of course, I could be wrong in thinking that you mean it as a moral term. However, regardless, "better" is a comparative term. If you wish to actually leave the world in a "better" condition, you must have a standard that you compare it to; before you left the world must also be further from the standard that it is when you leave the world. My point is that outside of Christianity, there is no objective standard. We all may have our own ideas of what a standard could be- which means that from our perspective (subjective) the world may or may not be "better". But that is only subjective; it is not objective. The reason why I focus on morality is because when most people refer to leaving the world "better" than they found it, they are talking about reducing suffering and/or increasing pleasure, and by valuing pleasure over suffering, they are making a moral judgment. But again, if there is no standard outside of ourselves, then there is no objective standard. Without a moral standard, we cannot judge what is morally good or morally bad. If a standard exists within us, our judgements are subjective, yet if the standard is outside us, our judgments are objective. There is no moral objective standard in atheism. Therefore, there can be no objective moral judgments on atheism.

    10. Michael (Part 2),
      Please note that you should not assume your worldview when trying to offer evidence of discussions of morality. If Christianity is true, then no worldview predates it in formation. If atheism is true, then all other worldviews are the result of formations. By saying that secular discussions predated the formation of Christianity, you are assuming a premise that I do not accept. Also, the time in which discussions took place have nothing to do with the truth of certain conclusions from those discussions. If that were the case then the conclusions of the ancients would take precedent over all of modern science. I am assuming that you believe that modern science has led us to conclusions that contradict what the ancients believed. If that is true, then your appeal to rich, secular discussions of morality has no value in this discussion. I'm not arguing for shallow discussions of anything any time in history; I'm arguing for the truth of objective morality and that it can only be found in Christian theism; which is the foundation of my argument that purpose and legacy are meaningless outside of Christian theism.

      There is a huge incompatibility with the world of the Matrix and knowledge. If we are the equivalent of programs in a virtual world (without any knowledge of or ability to know the real world), then even the atheist cannot insist that atheism is true- they cannot know that. That view is similar to Kant's view of the two worlds- experience and reality; the world of experience does not have access to know anything of the world of reality- just like the programs do not have access outside the Matrix. If we are programs in the world of experience (the Matrix), then we cannot know reality (outside the Matrix). All knowledge of reality is impossible if this understanding of atheism is correct.

      Keep in mind too, that appealing to the world of the Matrix opens you up to something beyond the Matrix- something super-natural. Any afterlife is outside the Matrix. Likewise, any afterlife would be outside the universe. If an atheist posits that an afterlife does exist, then they must concede the existence of the super-natural AND the existence of something that continues to exist (the soul, perhaps?), which I know that Sam Harris denies the existence of. How can an afterlife be experienced without something to experience it? That is answered within traditional Buddhism, in the doctrines of anatman and nirvana. Which again, fall under my critique that I gave in a gave in a previous comment.

      I clarified my statement about the 50/50 chance of an action being good or bad. You have not addressed the clarification; you have only insisted that I did not address it and must justify the statement. This was where I discussed your mention of "intention", which you did not respond to.

      Thank you for suggesting Craig's debate with Kagan. I will watch it.

  2. "Regardless of which perspective one takes, if this universe is all that is, all the pain and suffering that we go through in an effort to reach our own goals and fulfill our own purposes will be lost; all the goals we reach will disappear; all legacy that we thought that we might leave behind will become nothing."

    That's a great quote and what should be a sobering thought for the atheist. There's much more comfort for pain as a Christian than those that suffer for "just because".

  3. Hi Luke, I stumbled on your site as I was doing a research on the subject Information vs Education. I find your submission very useful. The depth of your thoughts led me to the above argument. I do have a question that I will want you to address, Are we (humans-Christians or non-christians) created to solve the problem EVIL? Can we make this world a better place? Can our legacy be to make it better that we meet?

    1. Passionate 4truth,
      Thank you for your encouraging comment. Your series of questions are very interesting, and I do believe that I will address them. However, I am unclear on what you mean by "make it better that we meet". Please clarify this one for me.

  4. Hi Luke,
    Thanks for your prompt response.
    Pls forgive my typographic error, what I intend to ask is ” can our ”legacy” make the world better than we meet it?”

    1. I think I'm getting hung up on the word "meet". Not sure if that is part of the typo or not, but are you asking if we can make it better than we found it?

  5. Thanks for helping me out, that is my question. Sorry for taking you thru this.

    1. Not a problem. I just wanted to make sure I had the question right. :)I am working on the response now. Depending on when its complete, it will post later today or in the next couple weeks.

    2. I just realized that I forgot to link to my response post for your questions. Here it is: Solving the Problem of Evil


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