A Classic Debate on the Existence of God

November 1994
University of Colorado at Boulder

Dr. William Lane Craig & Dr. Michael Tooley

Dr. Craig's First Rebuttal

You'll recall I said I was going to argue that there are no good reasons to think that atheism is true, Dr. Tooley has responded by arguing that it is reasonable to believe that God does not exist. Now notice, first of all, that that is not enough to justify atheism. He's got' to argue more than that it's reasonable to believe atheism is true: he’s got to argue that atheism is more reasonable than is theism. Now has he managed to justify that? Well, I don't think so.

1. What about atheism as a default position? Frankly, I'm very surprised to hear this argument coming from him because I think it's clear that the failure of arguments for God's existence in no way proves that God therefore does not exist. Kai Nielsen, who is an atheist philosopher, makes this point as follows. He says,

To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false. ... All the proofs of God's existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists. In short, to show that the proofs do not work is not enough by itself. It may still be the case that God exists.{18}

Atheism does not simply win by default.

Let me give you an analogy. In current cosmology, many scientists believe that there was an era of inflationary expansion in the early history of the universe. We have at this point no positive evidence, however, of such an era. Does that therefore mean that no such era ever existed? Of course not. The absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Atheism doesn't simply win by default.

2. What about the nature of minds? The evidence shows, Dr. Tooley says, that minds are dependent upon physical states, and therefore he draws the conclusion that there can be no mind that exists independently of matter. Well, I guess I'm just not impressed by the argument because it seems to me that's a whopping big inference to make. Let me just respond with a couple of points.

First of all, all that the evidence shows is that being embodied is a common property of minds, but that doesn't show that it's an essential property of minds. To draw the conclusion that there can be no unembodied mind you'd have to show that this is an essential property. I don’t see how he can do that.

Secondly, he neglected to mention there's a good number of people who defend dualism-interactionism today-people like Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir John Eccels, the great neurologist, or his collaborator Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science. They wrote a book called The Self and its Brain{19} and defended dualism-interactionism, according to which the self and the brain work together in tandem.

Thirdly, how about our experience of human freedom? Surely this counts as some sort of evidence for a mind or soul that exists independently (or can exist independently) of the brain. If the mind is simply the brain or is totally causally dependent upon the brain, then everything you think or choose or do is determined by the stimuli that you receive. But surely our experience of human freedom suggests that we are not just deterministic machines, that minds are not simply reducible to the brain or causally dependent upon it. So I think he's just making a very, very large inference here from data which don't support it.

3. What about the apparent hiddenness of God? He argues that it is deeply puzzling that God is hidden. Well, here I would simply agree with Pascal, the French philosopher, who said that God has given evidence which is sufficiently clear for those with an open mind and open heart, but sufficiently vague so as not to compel those whose hearts are closed.{20} I think that those who are seeking for God, who are open to God, will find the evidence satisfactory. In fact the New Testament says that God's existence is evident to all persons through the created order around us and by the moral law that we sense in our hearts.{21} Moreover, the New Testament says that God hasn't simply left us to work out by evidence whether He exists, His Spirit also speaks to the heart of every person, drawing us to Him.{22} That was my sixth point. If we respond to His drawing, I think that we can come to know God in a personal way and have that experience of Him immediately. So this apparent hiddenness, I think, is just God's not being coercive.

4. What about the argument from evil? Dr. Tooley argues that it's very unreasonable to believe that God exists. This is his most important argument, and I want to make several points by way of response.

(1) I want to suggest that there is no way for us to know that God doesn't have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur. In his article on this subject, Dr. Tooley admits that the whole argument for evil stands or falls upon the claim that there are in the world evils which are such that God would have no morally sufficient reason for permitting them.{23} And I would suggest that you just can't know that.

There are two reasons why you cannot prove that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil:

(i) In order to know that it is actually true that God lacks such reasons, Dr. Tooley would have to prove it to be necessarily true. You see, otherwise there are possible worlds which are exactly like this one, with exactly the same evils occurring in them, and yet in those worlds God justly permits such evils. So how do you know the actual world isn't one of those possible worlds? The only way you can know that is by proving that necessarily God can't have morally sufficient reasons for these evils.

But Dr. Tooley admits in his article that he cannot prove that this is necessarily true. He admits, for example, that it's possible that God prevents animals from feeling pain even though they exhibit pain behavior, or that evils could be justified through life after death.{24} So as long as these are possible, he cannot demonstrate that it is necessarily true that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. And if he can't prove that it’s necessarily true, I don't think he can prove that it's actually true.

(ii) I want to argue that we're just not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur. Take an analogy from chaos theory. In chaos theory, scientists tell us that even the flutter of a butterfly’s' wings could produce forces that would set in motion causes that would produce a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet looking at that butterfly palpitating on a branch, it is impossible in principle to predict such an outcome. Similarly, an evil in the world, say, a child's dying of cancer or a brutal murder of a man, could set a ripple effect in history going, such that God's morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or maybe in another country. We're just not in a position to be able to make these kinds of probability judgements.

William Alston, a philosopher at the University of Syracuse, summarizes the point. He says, "The judgements required by the [probabilistic] argument from evil are of a very special and enormously ambitious type and our cognitive capacities are not equal to this . . .. We are simply not in a position to justifiably assert that God would have no sufficient reason for permitting evil."{25} So I don’t think that you can show that that central premise of his argument stands.

(2) Christian doctrines increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the evils in the world. Let me just mention a couple of these.

(i) On the Christian view, the purpose of life is not happiness as such in this life. Rather it is the knowledge of God---which will ultimately produce true and everlasting happiness. What that means is that many evils occur in this life which might be utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness. But they might not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Dr. Tooley assumes when he talks about changes that would make this world a better place, that the purpose of life is basically to be happy in this life. And I certainly admit that you could make changes that might appear to make this life a better place, make it happier. But that's not God's purpose. So if you understand that the purpose of life is not happiness as such, I think that you can see that the existence of evil doesn't necessarily cast any improbability upon God's existence.

(ii) It's also the Christian view that God's purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife God will bestow a glory and happiness upon us that is incomparable to what we’ve suffered here on earth. And the longer we spend in eternity with Him, the more the sufferings in this life shrink by comparison to an infinitesimal instant. Dr. Tooley admits in his article that it is possible that immortality could justify such evils. But, he says, it's "very unlikely" that there is life after death. Well, I have two comments. First, I'd like him to prove that it's unlikely that there is life after death.{26} Second, I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus gives us grounds for hoping in life after death, and I've attempted to justify that historically. So given these Christian doctrines, I think you can see that the existence of God and evil is not so improbable after all.

(3) The arguments for God's existence outbalance the argument from evil. Dr. Tooley admits in his article that if one had a proof for God, then one would have a defense which would be compatible with one’s not being able to say, for any of the problematic evils, what morally sufficient reason there is for allowing its existence.{27} In other words, even if you couldn't explain why God permitted such evils, if you have a proof for God, that would solve the problem. You wouldn't need to be able to explain what His morally sufficient reason was. In the first speech, I attempted to give just such an argument for an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being. I think that these arguments simply outbalance any argument that there might be from evil in the world.

(4) Finally, I think that there is actually an argument for God from evil. It would go like this:

(i) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there is no God, moral values are either socio-biological by-products or just expressions of personal preference.

(ii) Evil exists. That's the premise of the atheist. There is real evil in the world.

(iii) Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.

(iv) Therefore, God exists.

Thus the presence of evil in the world actually demonstrates God's existence because in the absence of God, there wouldn't be any distinction objectively between good and evil, between right and wrong. So although evil in one sense calls into question God's existence, in a much deeper sense, I think, it actually requires God's existence.

So in the light of these four responses, I think that the argument from evil, as difficult and emotionally pressing as it might be, in the end doesn't constitute a good argument against the existence of God. So I think the four arguments given against the existence of God by Dr. Tooley are inconclusive. You've still got my six arguments for God's existence, and therefore I still think that on balance the evidence favors theism as the more rational worldview.


{18}Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 143-4.

{19}John Eccles and Karl Popper, The Self and its Brain (New York: Springer, 1977).

{20}Blaise Pascal, Pensées, #430.

{21}Romans 19-20; 2.14-15.

{22}John 16. 8-11.

{23}Michael Tooley, "The Argument from Evil," in Philosophical Perspectives 5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, Ca.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991), P. 108.

{24}Ibid., pp. 105-6, 126-7.

{25}William Alston, "The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition," in Philosophical Perspectives 5: Philosophy, of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, Ca.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991), pp. 65, 61,

{26}Tooley, "Evil," pp. 126-7

{27}Ibid. p. 129.


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