Dealing With Doubt
I really appreciate this e-mail of yours, Huhu. It does seem like we have a lot in common as you said, being raised in Christian homes, doubting, Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ being our entryway into apologetics, etc. It isn’t difficult for me to empathize with your position. I am also a doubter by nature. Maybe it’s due to my obsessive compulsive disorder, or maybe it’s a desire for that willow-the-wisp known as Cartesian Certainty, or perhaps a bit of both. I’ve actually had several spells of doubt over the years, although I usually bring up that first spell because it was such a turning point in my life. First, I doubted the very existence of God and the truth of Christianity sheerly on the basis of not having any reason to believe other than my religious experience. When hounded by a Twitter Atheist “How do you know Christianity is true rather than any other religion?” or “How do you know Yahweh isn’t as much of a myth as Zeus or Thor?” I had no answer besides my experience with God, and when the atheist showed how that could just be a result of neurological processes brought on by myself because I was at the darkest point in my life and I needed that experience, the epistemological rug was pulled out from under me. Once exposed to the evidence via the writings of Lee Strobel and Dr. William Lane Craig, my doubts were resolved and I had a firmer, more evidential foundation for my belief.
But the next big wave concerned the doctrine of Hell and how God could possibly be just torturing people for eternity. It seemed like a grotesque and cruel punishment that not even the most evil human beings who ever lived deserved. And what about the unevangelized (those who never even had a chance to hear the gospel)? I had several objections to the doctrine of Hell that I wrestled with and came to satisfying answers. It eventually became the book A Hellacious Doctrine: A Defense Of The Biblical Doctrine Of Hell. Although last year, I was convinced that the annihilationist position of Hell was correct, so that book has undergone major revisions and will soon be published as Yahweh’s Inferno: Why Scripture’s Teaching On Hell Doesn’t Impugn The Goodness Of God. My mother is my proofreader because she’s really, really, really good at catching grammatical errors, spelling errors, accidentally repeated words, accidentally omitted words, and so on. Unfortunately, due to her failing health, it’s taking her a long time to get through it. But I’m thinking a July release is likely. I hope you’ll read it.
On The Problem Of Evil
Regarding the problem of evil, the version you brought up is the logical version of The Problem of Evil, and it’s important to understand that with the logical version, we only need to posit logical possibilities for how God and evil could both co-exist. This is why hardly any atheist philosopher uses this argument today. They cannot sustain the burden of proof and show that it is logically impossible for an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God to have good reasons for actualizing the world that he has.
So, as you said, we’ve got good reasons to believe that libertarian free will is required for true love to be possible, and we’ve got good reason to believe that God wants a world of true love (Loving God and each other are the two greatest commandments in scripture after all). And it’s possible that any world God could create that has libertarian free creatures in them, there would always be some who freely chose to cause suffering. No matter how God arranges the pieces on the chessboard, so to speak, there would always be people choosing good and people choosing bad. So the premise that an all-powerful God could create any type of world he chose (such as one without evil and suffering) is not necessarily true. But the atheist would have to prove that it’s necessarily true in order for the logical argument from evil to be sound. If it’s even possible that God either cannot create any world he wants or if it’s possible that he would have reasons for permitting suffering, the argument collapses. Because then God and evil are not at all like the irresistible force and the immovable object, for both are logically compatible.
Now, you said
“Perhaps God ordered the world in such a way to bring about the maximum number of people who would freely choose to love Him. But then I thought: if God allows evil because He wants us to have free will to freely choose Him, why can’t He just create a number of people at a time, reveal Himself to them and “bring them up” them while they still haven’t sinned and rejected God? Then he could create a second batch of people and do the same, then the third batch and so on and so forth. Surely these people would believe in God just like Adam and Eve did before the fall. There seems to me other possible worlds in which more people could freely choose God without evil and suffering. So why does God not actualize these worlds?”
It may seem like God could do that, and for all we know, may He can. But it is possible that even creating small batches of persons at a time wouldn’t suffice to avert freely chosen evil. It is possible that even if God decided to create and instruct 10 people every 100 years, that perhaps 1 or 2 of those individuals in a batch of 10 would freely choose to rebel against God. You make think to yourself “That sounds kind of implausible”, but plausibility is irrelevant when it comes to the logical version of the problem of evil. I only need to show that it’s possible that this could be the case, not whether it’s plausible or probable.
We would only need to be concerned with plausibility and probability if we were discussing the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. So let’s ask that question. Is it probable that God could create small batches of people at a time, that these small batches would never cause suffering, and ergo we’d have a feasible world without evil and suffering?
Well, as I’ve pointed out in my blog post “Super Hero Theodicies”, we need to have the big picture in mind.
Every event that occurs affects other events. As Christian Philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig explains “Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework. To borrow an illustration from a developing field of science, Chaos Theory, scientists have discovered that certain macroscopic systems, for example, weather systems or insect populations, are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest perturbations. A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces which would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome. The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, 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 certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.”2
Even the greater goods that come about from evil cause other future events that still cause other future events which go on to cause other future events which themselves bring about future events…depending on whether they are permitted to occur or not, as every time travel enthusiest will tell you. God providentially ordering a world of free creatures towards all of His intended goals is an extremely, overwhelmingly complex endeavor. Events just are not temporal islands unto themselves. In the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-38, for example, which I talk about in my paper “Why The Problem Of Evil Is A Failed Argument For Atheism”, God allowed Joseph’s brothers and Pontiphar’s wife to treat Joseph badly. We know later that God didn’t intervene to stop Joseph’s brothers from selling him into slavery and didn’t seal the mouth of a false rape accuser so that Joseph come into the position to interpret the Pharoah’s dreams and know to save up food during the 7 years of abundance so that there would not be mass starvation during the 7 years of famine. However, God wasn’t just concerned with saving many lives from starvation, but also of preserving the messianic bloodline, getting Israel into Egypt to prove His power to them by defeating their gods through the plagues and leading them into the promised land, and the entire history of The Bible which lead up to Jesus’ death and resurrection, which then lead to the commissioning of the disciples to spread the gospel, and so on. The entire history of salvation from the Garden of Eden to the ascension of Christ consisted of events and free choices bringing about other events and free choices bringing about other events and free choices. God, being omniscient, knows every single one of the “If, then” statements. “If X occurs, then Y would occur. If Y occurs, then Z occurs. But if X doesn’t occur, Z wouldn’t come about.”
We cannot fathom the entangled web of cause and effect and the impact that each of our lives and events has on others’ lives and on future events. Providentially ordering a world of free creatures is messy, and if God had created mere batches of people at a time, that might counteract or cancel out other goals that God had for His creation. God had to take a lot into account when deciding which feasible world to actualize. He had to (1) take in all of our free will decisions, (2) how our free will decisions would effect other persons’ free will decisions, (3)how every free will decision and every event would affect the course of future events so as to ensure that whenever evil or suffering occurs, a greater good comes out of it, (4) what prayers to answer and which ones to decline, and so on.
We’re not a position to judge whether or not this is the most optimal world God could actualize where all of His achieved goals are reached (1; there’s libertarian free will, and ergo love is possible 2; whenever evil and suffering occurs, good comes out of it either quickly or eventually, 3; the history of Israel goes in just such a way, 4; Jesus died for the sins of the world, 5; as a result of 4, eternal life is given to many, 5; the optimal ratio of saved to loss is reached, etc. etc. etc. etc.
So we’re just in no position to make a probability judgment on whether another – better – feasible world was available to God.
Divine Hiddenness and Coercion
“While true that we are able to choose to sin because we are capable of putting God at the back of our minds at the time, in the end, God’s ultimatum seems coercive. Once we realize the situation we are in, we would be like Eve in the story who has to choose death or marrying George.”
I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “once we realize the situation we are in”. Do you mean once we come to believe and realize our need for a savior? Do you mean once we realize that the Christian worldview is true and the eternal implications that it has if we don’t repent and accept Christ as our Savior and Lord? If so, I don’t see how that change from unbelief to belief changes the nature of the Heaven-Or-Hell offer. I suppose it would depend on your view of eternal security. If you think, as I do, that apostasy is a genuine possibility for the believer, even if that possibility is never actualized, then God continues to choose to be hidden even to us so that we can talk ourselves out of belief if we so choose. The book of Hebrews seems to emphatically state in a plethora of cases (especially chapter 6) that apostasy is a genuine possibility.
If God’s presence is overwhelmingly obvious – to the point of being like the sun in the sky – then many, perhaps most would obey Him just our of a drive for self-preservation. Just as Eve would marry George out of the drive for self-preservation. However, as philosopher J.P Moreland wrote “God maintains a delicate balance between keeping his existence sufficiently evident so people will know he’s there and yet hiding his presence enough so that people who want to choose to ignore him can do it. This way, their choice of destiny is really free.”3 So we can talk ourselves into believing there is no God and ergo no ultimatum to face. This holds both before we believe in Christ as well as afterward. This is why God made it so that doubt is possible. It’s why God doesn’t talk back to me in an audible voice when I talk to Him. It’s why most people don’t experience St. Faustina type of theophanies. God has given us sufficient evidence, but not compelling evidence of His presence. Why? So the pressure of obedience will be off.
Not only can we choose to accept Christ’s offer of salvation or not, but we can even doubt there is a Christ and that there is an offer of salvation. This makes God’s ultimatum different from George’s becuase unlike with God, Eve would have to be extremely mentally ill to deny George’s existence. Eve knows with a certainty (that is as close to Cartesian Certainty as one could hope for) that George exists and that she has to marry him or face the consequences. We don’t have that level of certainty with God.
In fact, the very fact that you and I have struggled with doubt, and that I even need to do apologetics proves that God achieved His goal in not being coercive. If God’s ultimatum were coercive, finding people in rebellion to God would be as rare as finding a flat earther used to be. And yet, many people don’t believe Christianity is true or they restle with doubt. Many people live extremely sinful lives. This is only possible because God maintains a certain degree of hiddenness.
I hope what I’ve said here was helpful to you regarding The Problem of Evil and Divine Hiddenness. Don’t worry about your questions sounding stupid. If it bothers you, you need to seek out answers to see if a satisfying one can be found or not. So I would encourage you to ask more questions of me in the future if and when you have them.
I also am really encouraged that my ministry has been a benefit to your walk with God, and I hope that you continue to learn and grow in your confidence as you continue to read the blog and listen to the podcast. Thank you for telling me how much you’ve benefitted from my word. I hope you’ll subscribe to The Cerebral Faith YouTube channel when it launches later this year.
I’ve got a new computer coming soon from a generous donor and it has the specs that I need to get my YouTube channel started. But he told me that it doesn’t run well if it gets overloaded, so I’m going to use the Patreon money I’ve stored up so far to get external hard drives to backup my stock photos, videos, backups of the videos I produce, etcetera. And leave the internal hard drive of the computer mostly free so it can do the heavy-duty video editing, which I plan to be very heavily text and Graphics based as opposed to just a video of me and a chair talking.
The money that I saved up for a computer, I now plan on to spend on one or more external hard drive, I originally was saving up for a computer itself. However since I’m getting donated one, I don’t need to do that. I hope that you’ll subscribe and benefit from the videos I put out.
1: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 140-141.
2: “The Problem Of Evil” by Dr. William Lane Craig –> https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-problem-of-evil/
3: Apologetics 315, “Sunday Quote: J.P. Moreland on God’s Existence” — https://apologetics315.com/2009/06/sunday-quote-j-p-moreland-on-gods-existence/