The Craig-Nielsen Debate:
God, Morality and Evil

Dr. Craig's Opening Statement

I feel privileged to be debating Dr. Nielsen. Youíll probably never hear a more compelling argument presented on the atheist side, and I hope I can do just as well presenting the theistic side in this eveningís debate.

Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is certainly the greatest obstacle to belief in the existence of God. When I ponder both the extent and the depth of evil in the world--whether due to manís inhumanity to man or natural catastrophes--, then I must confess that I find it hard to believe in God. No doubt, many of you feel the same way. Perhaps we should all become atheists. But thatís a pretty big step to take. How can we be sure that God does not exist? Perhaps thereís a reason God permits all the evil in the world. Perhaps it somehow fits in to the grand scheme of things, which we can only dimly perceive, if at all. How do we know?

As a Christian theist, Iím persuaded that the problem of evil, terrible as it is, does not constitute a disproof of the existence of God. On the contrary, I believe that Christian theism is, in fact, humanityís last best hope for a solution to the problem of evil. In order to explain why I think this way, it would be helpful to draw some distinctions to keep our thinking clear. First, we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of the coexistence of God and evil. The emotional problem of evil concerns how to dissolve peopleís dislike for a God who would permit suffering.

Intellectual Problem of Evil

Logical Version

Now letís look first at the intellectual problem of evil. There are two versions of this problem: first, the logical problem of evil and, secondly, the probabilistic problem of evil. According to the logical problem of evil, it is logically impossible for God and evil to coexist. If God exists, then evil cannot exist. If evil exists, then God cannot exist. Since evil exists, it follows that God does not exist.

However, the problem with this argument is that there is no reason to think that God and evil are logically incompatible. After all, there is no explicit contradiction between them. And if the atheist means that there is some implicit contradiction between God and evil, then he must be presupposing some hidden premises to bring out this implicit contradiction. But the problem is that no philosopher has been able to identify such premises. Therefore, the problem of evil fails to prove any inconsistency between God and evil.

But more than that, we can actually prove that God and evil are logically compatible. You see, the atheist presupposes that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world. But this assumption is not necessarily true. So long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent. And therefore I am pleased to report to you that it is widely recognized among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved. The coexistence of God and evil is logically possible.

Probabilistic Version

But weíre not out of the woods yet, for we now confront the probabilistic problem of evil. According to this version of the problem, the coexistence of God and evil is logically possible, but nevertheless it is highly improbable. The extent and depth of evil in the world are so great that it is improbable that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting it. Therefore, given the evil in the world, it is improbable that God exists. This is a much more powerful argument, and therefore in tonightís debate I want to focus our attention on it.

In response to this version of the problem of evil, I want to make three points.

1. We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has a morally sufficient reason for the evils that occur: As finite persons, weíre limited in space, time, intelligence, and insight, but the omniscient and sovereign God, who sees the end from the beginning, providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with evils along the way, which humans freely perpetrate. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted within Godís wider framework. A brutal murder of an innocent man, for example, could produce a sort of ripple effect throughout history such that Godís morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or perhaps in another land. When you think of Godís providence over the whole of history, then I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a particular evil. Weíre just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

2. The Christian faith entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and evil. In so doing, these doctrines decrease any improbability of Godís existence thought to issue from the existence of evil. What are some of these doctrines? Let me mention four.

A. The chief purpose of life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God. One reason the problem of evil seems so puzzling is that we tend to think that the goal of human life is happiness in this world. But on the Christian view this is false. Manís end is not happiness as such, but the knowledge of God--which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which seem utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness, but they may not be unjustified with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Innocent human suffering provides an occasion for deeper dependency and trust in God, either on the part of the sufferer or perhaps those around him. Whether Godís purpose is achieved through our suffering all depends on how we freely respond.
B. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and his purpose. Rather than submit to and worship God, people rebel against God and go their own way and so find themselves alienated from God, morally guilty before Him, and groping in spiritual darkness, pursuing false gods of their own making. The terrible human evils in the world are testimony to manís depravity in this state of alienation from God. The Christian isnít surprised at the human evils in the world. On the contrary, he expects them! The Bible says that God has given mankind over to the sin it has chosen. He does not interfere to stop it but lets human depravity run its course. This only serves to heighten mankindís moral responsibility before God as well as our wickedness and our need of forgiveness and moral cleansing.
C. The knowledge of God spills over into eternal life. In the Christian view, this life is not all there is. Jesus promised eternal life to all who place their trust in him as Savior and Lord. In the afterlife God will reward those who have borne their suffering in courage and trust with an eternal life of unspeakable joy. The apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, lived a life of incredible suffering, and yet he wrote: "We do not lose heart. For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. For 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" (II Cor. 4. 16-18). Paul imagines a scale, as it were, in which the sufferings of this life are placed on one side, while on the other side is placed the glory which God will bestow upon His children in heaven. The weight of glory is so great that the sufferings of this life literally cannot even be compared to it! Moreover, the longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life shrink toward an infinitesimal moment. And thatís why Paul could refer to them as a "slight" and "momentary" affliction. Despite what he suffered, his sufferings were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine eternity and joy which God lavishes upon those who trust him.
D. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. To know God, the source 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 say, "God is good to me" simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good.

These four Christian doctrines greatly reduce any improbability which evil would seem to throw upon the existence of God.

3. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, Godís existence is probable. Probabilities are relative to the background information you consider. For example, suppose that Joe is a University of Western Ontario student. And now suppose that ninety percent of Western Ontario students ski. Relative to this information, it is highly probable that Joe skis. But then suppose we also learn that Joe is an amputee and that ninety-five percent of the amputees at the University of Western Ontario do not ski. Suddenly the probability of Joeís being a skier is dramatically reversed!

Similarly, if all you consider for background information is the evil in the world, then itís hardly surprising that Godís existence appears improbable relative to that. But the real question is whether Godís existence is improbable relative to the total evidence available. Iím persuaded that when you consider the total evidence, Godís existence is probable.

Now rather than rehearse the many different arguments for the existence of God at this point, let me just mention one. And that is that God provides the best explanation for objective moral values in the world.

If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. Without God, there is no absolute good which imposes itself on our conscience. Professor Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and an atheist at the University of Guelph, explains,

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ĎLove thy neighbor as thyself,í they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.{1}


Or consider the late J. L. Mackie, professor of philosophy at Oxford University and one of the most influential atheists of our time. According to Mackie, "If . . . there are . . . objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have . . . a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god."{2} In order to avoid Godís existence, Mackie therefore declined to admit that moral values exist. He wrote, "It is easy to explain this moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution rather than as having been implanted by an author of nature."{3}

But if that is the case, then objective ethics goes out the window along with theism. Then human beings would have no intrinsic moral value. For example, in India, women were expected to be burned alive on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. The British put an end to this practice. But Michael Ruse, in discussing this practice, says quite forthrightly and consistently, "Obviously, such a practice is totally alien to Western customs and morality. In fact, we think that widow sacrifice is totally immoral. Clearly there is nothing particularly objective about this morality, nor is it something one would expect to find the inevitable product of natural selection."{4} In other words, everything simply becomes relative, and there are no objective absolute values.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the last century who proclaimed the death of God, understood this all too well. "The end of Christianity," wrote Nietzsche, "means the advent of nihilism." Only the man who is able to live beyond good and evil will acquire mastery in the coming age of nihilism, which stands already at the door. I think the specter of Friedrich Nietzsche must haunt every atheist. For if there is no God, then why wouldnít nihilism be true?

Notice carefully what weíre asking. The question is not, "Must we believe in God to live moral lives?" I would say, "No." Nor is the question, "Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?" I would say we could. Nor is the question, "Can we formulate a coherent system of ethics without reference to God?" That is perfectly possible. Rather, the question is, "Do objective moral values exist if God does not exist?" I donít see any reason to think that, in the absence of God, human beings would have objective moral value. After all, if there is no God, what is so special about human beings? Theyíre just accidental by-products of nature, which have evolved relatively recently on in infinitesimal speck of dust, lost somewhere in the heart of a hostile and mindless universe, and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. And if push came to shove, I think Professor Nielsen would agree with this. Although he says that he holds to objective moral values, heís using those terms in an idiosyncratic way. To say that objective moral values exist is to assert that statements of moral value like "Rape is wrong" are true independently of whether anyone believes them or not. But Professor Nielsen declines to discuss the truth of moral statements. And so he, like Ruse and J. L. Mackie, cannot seem to affirm the objective value of human beings.

But the fact is that objective values do exist, and we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than there is to deny the objective reality of the physical world. In particular, it is evident that evil exists. Some things are really wrong! And thus, paradoxically, evil actually serves to establish the existence of God. For if objective values cannot exist without God, and objective values do exist--as is evident from the reality of evil--, then it follows inescapably that God exists. Thus, although evil in one sense calls into question Godís existence, in a more fundamental sense it demonstrates Godís existence, since evil could not exist without God.

These [arguments] are only part of the evidence that God exists. The prominent philosopher Alvin Plantinga recently expounded two dozen or so arguments for Godís existence.{5} The cumulative force of these arguments makes it probable that God exists.

In summary, if my three theses are correct, then evil does not render improbable the existence of the Christian God. On the contrary, considering the full scope of the evidence, Godís existence is probable. And, thus, the intellectual problem of evil fails to overthrow Godís existence.

Emotional Problem of Evil

But that takes us to the emotional problem of evil. I think that most people who reject God because of the evil in the world donít do so because of intellectual difficulties. Rather, itís an emotional problem: they just donít like a God who permits suffering, and therefore they want nothing to do with Him. Theirs is simply an atheism of rejection. Does the Christian faith have something to say to these people?

It certainly does! It tells us that God is not a distant Creator or an impersonal Ground of Being, but a loving Father Who shares our sufferings and hurts with us. Professor Plantinga has written,

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooling observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second Person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. . . Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself . . . in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. . . he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.{6}

You see, Jesus endured a suffering beyond all comparison because he bore the punishment for the sins of the whole world. None of us can comprehend that suffering. Though he was innocent, he voluntarily took upon himself the punishment that we deserved. And why? Simply because he loves us. When we comprehend his love and sacrifice for us, this puts the problem of evil in a new perspective. For now we see clearly that the problem of evil is really our problem of evil. Filled with sin and morally guilty before God, we face the question, not of how God can justify Himself to us, but how we can be justified before Him.

So, paradoxically, even though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil.


{1}Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269.

{2}J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 115-116.

{3}Ibid., pp. 117-118.

{4}Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269.

{5}Alvin Plantinga, "Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments," Lecture presented at the 33rd Annual Philosophy Conference, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, October 23-25, 1986.

{6}Alvin Plantinga, "," in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James Tomberlin and Petr van Inwagen, Profiles 5 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), p. 36.

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