A Critical Review of "Evidential Problems of Evil," by Gregory Ganssle and Yena Lee

As announced earlier I’m planning on reviewing every chapter in the new anthology on the problem of suffering titled, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain,edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew. [To read other entries in this series just click on the "God and Evil" tag below this post]. All of the chapters seems to be original to the book, which is a big plus. As for a big minus, all of the contributors are evangelicals except for one atheist, Michael Tooley, whose debate transcript on the subject with William Lane Craig is provided in the Appendix. This deficiency won’t allow it to rise to the standard set by Daniel Howard-Snyder’s 1996 anthology The Evidential Argument from Evil.You see, Snyder’s book had chapters written by a few atheists, which is probably why it advanced our understanding of the subject matter. By contrast Meister and Dew are doing pure apologetics. It's not that the authors purposely misrepresent the other side, it's rather that they didn't risk a real dialogue with them. Nonetheless, their book has value irrespective of this deficiency and even if I'm asking it to be more than it's meant to be.

So let's jump right into chapter one (pp. 15-25), "Evidential Problems of Evil," co-written by Professor Gregory Ganssle and Yena Lee (presumably his student at Yale University). Genuine kudos, by the way, to Lee for contributing to a chapter Ganssle probably didn't need any help writing (or, did he really need help, and if so why?). The authors tackle the evidential arguments of William Rowe and Paul Draper in this well-written chapter (except for one difficulty I had in knowing what problem "of this third kind" on page 22 they were referring to, but I figured it out anyway). I'll just focus on Ganssle and Lee's objections to William Rowe's argument, which is as follows:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Rowe focuses on two instances of suffering in his writings. The first was a fawn that was trapped by a forest fire and slowly roasted to death. The second is of a five year old girl who was severely beaten, raped and strangled to death. Ganssle and Lee tell of the first example but (due to space considerations?) don't relate the second one.

Ganssle and Lee respond to Rowe with Stephen Wykstra's noseeum argument. Wkkstra argued that just because we cannot "see" a God justifying reason for suffering doesn't mean there isn't one. Said differently, just because we "no see um" doesn't mean there isn't a God justifying reason for suffering just beyond our view. For example, if we walked into a dog park and didn't see any hippopotami then we are justified in concluding there are no hippopotami in that park. But if we don't hear any dog whistles being blown then we are not justified in concluding no dog whistles are being blown. Why? Because human beings are not in the position to hear dog whistles.

Ganssle and Lee claim that Rowe's argument is analogous to the dog whistle example, where human beings are not in a position to reliably judge if any dog whistles are being blown in that park. And since Rowe's case depends on the probability that we are in a position to reliably judge whether there is a God justifying reason for suffering, it fails for the same reason as someone who claims there are no dog whistles being blown. We are just not in a position to judge, they argue. It's not that it's impossible to discern some God justifying reasons for some kinds of suffering, it's rather that "given the gulf between God's knowledge and our knowledge, it seems unreasonable to expect that we could know the God-justifying reason for every case of evil, even if such a reason were to exist...In fact, if theism were true, we would expect there to be situations for which we cannot give a full explanation. The existence of some evil that cannot be fully explained is just what we would expect if theism were true."

There are a great many things I could say in response, but let me just stick to the specific issue itself. Notice the partial sentence "it seems unreasonable to expect that we could know the God-justifying reason for every case of evil." [Emphasis mine] Now I have read a great deal from Rowe on this matter and not once can I find him requiring that theists should explain "every case of evil." He always refers to the two cases I mentioned above. He wants theists to explain those two cases, one involving natural suffering and the other involving morally caused suffering. So I find this phrase (inserted by Lee, no doubt?) to be a mischaraterization of Rowe. The reason they concoct this out of the blue is because most reasonable people would agree that if there is such a God then it would be unreasonable to expect apologists to explain "every case of evil" in the world. Just once I would love to read where an atheist argument is not mischaracterized in some fashion by apologists. But it's the rule rather than the exception. The question Rowe poses is whether or not intense suffering of these two specific cases can have a God-justifying reason. He is not asking apologists to explain all cases, just these two. Although, I'll grant that if any extension of his argument can be reasonable inferred from them, then it's a challenge to explain two categories of suffering, intense moral and natural suffering. If, for instance, no God-justifying reason for these two categories of suffering can be found then it's probable such a God doesn't exist. That's his argument by extension. So if Ganssle and Lee admit they cannot explain these two cases within these two categories, then what specific cases can they explain? Surely even though they cannot explain them all they can explain a few, right? I could offer tons of other examples if these two don't suffice. Just read your daily newspaper. The problem is that these kinds of horrendous sufferings take place around our world in one form or another almost every minute of every day. What Ganssle and Lee are admitting is not just that they cannot explain these two cases but that they cannot explain any similar kinds of suffering given their God-hypothesis.

Now to the heart of their objection. Are we in a position to see a God-justifying reason for this kind of intense suffering? Remember, we're not just talking about an omniscient being, but one who is also omnipotent and wholly good. I wish theists would make up their minds which God concept they are trying to defend.

When they want to talk about a wholly good God they'll point to the death of Jesus on the cross who saves us from sin. They conveniently leave out the omniscience of this same God who would certainly know that there are external and internal processes that cause us to be who we are and to do the things we do, such that our so-called sins are almost completely, if not completely biologically and environmentally based. They are caused to such an extent that in some ways we act like our animal predecessors, who do not know they are doing anything wrong. Do dogs and cats, chimps and bears, birds and bees, crocodiles and sting rays sin when they act according to their nature? Hardly. We too are animals. We descended from them. If their behavior is caused by these factors then ours is as well. In any case, this omniscient God should know every influence in our lives such that nothing we do can surprise him, even if he doesn't have foreknowledge of our free will choices, as open theists argue. "Oh, it looks like Joe is going to rob a store tonight and kill the owner," God could be heard thinking. "Given everything that has happened in his life I could've predicted this would happen." ;-) Well then, if God can predict this as the ultimate mind-reader then he would know the causes that led Joe to do this deed. Anyone who fully understands another person as completely as an omniscient being could do cannot hate or condemn him for what he does. Such an omniscient God would also know that what we believe is almost completely, if not completely involuntary. Furthermore, an omniscient God should also know that we do not intend him any infinite offense when we "sin" even if we do so with complete libertarian free will. With no infinite offense intended then no infinite punishment is deserved, and no atoning God/man sacrifice is needed either.

When theists want to talk about an omnipotent God they will point to a serpent or ass that could talk, an axe head that could float on water, fire that was called down from the sky, or a sea that parted allowing six million Israelites to pass on dry ground who subsequently lived for forty years in the dessert where their sandals never wore out and were fed by miraculous manna from heaven. Or they'll point to a virgin who had a baby, the supposed resurrection of Jesus, or a blind man from birth who was made to see again. With an omnipotent God anything is possible they'll argue. Such a God concept allows for these kinds of miracles and more, you see. He can do anything like this. He is a miracle working God. It escapes the apologists that whenever God did one of these "miracles" he also affected the free will of anyone who saw one, since by virtue of the miracle itself, it changed their beliefs. But when the issue is why there is so much intensive suffering in the world they will switch gears, saying God doesn't want to interfere with our free choices. They will subsequently focus on the omniscience God-concept, that we cannot understand why God fails to intervene. I call this the Omniscience Escape Clause, a kind of get out of jail free card that is repeatedly used to escape from any number of problems for Christian theism, or theism in general. It's little more than a charade, a dog and pony show, or an empty shell game. It's a magician's illusion used to make their faith seem reasonable. It's anything but that. They selectively choose one of these three attributes of God depending on the problem to be solved. But consistency? Throw it out the window. Who needs that when you have faith?

*Whew* I don't know about you but that felt really good to get that off my chest. Now back to a dispassionate response.

When it comes to intensive massive ubiquitous suffering in the world, we should know enough about God to conclude he is good from what he's doing (or not doing). It's that simple. It seems very likely we should be able to see God’s reasons for allowing suffering since theists also claim God wants us to believe in him and will condemn us to hell if we don’t. If we don't have a clue about such matters then we cannot know enough to know that God is good, much less wholly good. Ganssle and Lee admit as much. They are skeptical theists, which by their lights is that "there are cases in which we cannot recognize a reason God might have to allow something evil no matter how hard we search" even while maintaining this doesn't imply "there are no such reasons." Again, let me just reiterate they are are back to the original mischaracterization of Rowe's argument, for which re-read the above if needed.

So let's compare what we have on this issue. On the one hand, Ganssle and Lee admit they don't have a clue with regard to intense suffering highlighted in Rowe's two examples. They admit they are clueless to explain these two cases and any number of others of the same category I could mention instead. On the other hand, we know of plenty of ways an omnipotent God could intervene to help alleviate all cases of intensive suffering. That's right, all of them. Name me one and I can show how an omnipotent God concept worthy of the name could intervene to help. David Hume suggested several possible scenarios. Here are just a few ways God could show he cares (from my book, WIBA):
A heart attack could have killed Hitler and prevented World War II. Timothy McVeigh could have had a flat tire or engine failure while driving to Oklahoma City with that truck bomb to blow up the Murrah federal building and the people in it. Several of the militants who were going to fly planes into the twin towers on 9/11 could’ve been robbed and beaten by New York thugs (there’s utilitarianism at its best).

A poisonous snakebite could’ve sent Saddam Hussein to an early grave, averting the Iraq war before it happened. The poison that Saddam Hussein threw on the Kurds and the Zyklon B pellets dropped down into the Auschwitz gas chambers could have simply “malfunctioned” by being miraculously neutralized (just like Jesus supposedly turned water into wine).
The one I use the most concerns the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. It was caused by an earthquake. An omnipotent God could have averted that earthquake such that no one would suffer or die, and no one would be the wiser that he did it. If it would take a perpetual miracle then what's the problem? Is God lazy or something?

So while skeptical theists don't have a clue, reasonable people can come up with a multifaceted number of ways an omnipotent, wholly good, omniscient God could alleviate cases of intense suffering.

Let me close with something else I wrote in my book:
Wykstra's argument cuts both ways. We’re told that we can’t understand God’s purposes, and this is true; we can’t begin to grasp why there is so much suffering in our world if a good omnipotent God exists. But if God is omniscient, as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world, especially since we do have a good idea how God could’ve created differently...So which is more likely, that we cannot even begin to understand God’s omniscient ways, or that we can have some kind of idea about them? If we accept the Christian idea that we’re created in God’s image the answer seems obvious. We should indeed have some kind of idea about God’s omniscient ways. Since this is so, and since we do not have a clue as to why there is so much senseless suffering if God exists, and since we do have some good ideas about how God might have done things differently, the most reasonable conclusion by far is that such an omniscient wholly good God does not exist.