Ehrman’s Problem 15: He Failed to See Eternity

I mentioned previously that most apologists argue that the reason God allows evil is that it is a greater good for God to allow evil than to create a world where evil is impossible. For God to create a world with significantly free beings, He must allow these free beings to use their free will wrongly (or He hasn’t given free will in the first place). Christians believe, in fact, that that is exactly what Adam and Eve did. They used their free will wrongly and so plunged us into suffering and death. But, with all the horrors that this misuse of free will has wrought, it is preferable to a world without significantly free beings.

So now we come to Ehrman’s only relevant criticism of the greater good theodicy. He writes, “I am absolutely opposed to the idea that we can universalize this observation by saying that something good always comes out of suffering. The reality is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive, outcomes” (155-156).1

What Ehrman is arguing about is what philosophers call “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil which appears to serve no “greater good.” For example, skeptics point out that sometimes fawns burn to death in a forest fire and ask what possibly good purpose could result from that? What skeptics hope to accomplish by this is to say that God isn’t good for allowing the fawn to suffer since no possible good can come from it.

I have several things to say in about this.

First, when we say that God can do all things we don’t mean things that are logically contradictory. Even God cannot make square-circles or colorless-red cars. Likewise, it wouldn’t be possible for God to let a man use his free will, say, to start a forest fire and at the same time to protect all the inhabitants of the forest unless he were to intervene miraculously for millions or billions of creatures (I say “billions” because, after all, the case could be made that He shouldn’t let beetles or butterflies burn to death). If God were to intervene like this and in countless other situations, rebellious humans would have undeniable empirical evidence of His existence which would then interfere with these rebels’ free will (they would be compelled to feign loyalty).2

Second, when humankind sinned, God cursed the ground. This presumably enabled all kinds of natural evils as a consequence of their rebellion. Once creatures rebel against God, there is no moral obligation upon Him to make the rebels’ lives joyous or even easy any more than a man has a duty to protect someone who seeks to terrorize him. Therefore, if the race of Adam suffers because God has withdrawn His protection then they should understand that as the price of rebellion. If we don’t like all the suffering that ensued from Adam and Eve’s sin then there is a cosmic lesson: Hate Sin! Learning that rebellion against God results in going it on your own outside of God’s constant protection is a “greater good” lesson available to anyone paying attention.

Third, and related to the above, it is true that many who suffer in this life won’t see good come out of it here. But, Christianity isn’t primarily about this life—as in this life on earth! Christianity is primarily concerned about eternal life and we are learning lessons here that will benefit us for eternity. One of those lessons happens to be that God is and was right all along. We are learning here to distinguish good from evil and learning to overcome evil with good (Heb. 5:14, Rom. 12:21). At the Judgment everyone will see the horror of human rebellion, and that is a greater good than God shielding all of us from the consequences of rebellion. Experience is usually a harsh teacher, but it is the most thorough teacher, and eternity will dwarf our suffering to insignificance.

  1. Emphasis his. []
  2. This could be intellectually unpacked for many hours, but there’s not time for that here. For a thorough treatment of this answer, read Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil,” Philosophia Christi 14 (2012): 165-180. []
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8 Responses to Ehrman’s Problem 15: He Failed to See Eternity

  1. Michele Marshall says:

    There is also the unintentional equivocation of equating evil with suffering. Suffering is evil only if God does not exist. Since God exists, disobedience is evil and suffering is not. Suffering may be a consequence of disobedience, but suffering is not in itself evil. As it turns out, suffering may also be a consequence of obedience! To imply that the existence of suffering is evidence of the non-existence of God is to beg the question.

  2. hiero5ant says:

    “If God were to intervene like this and in countless other situations, rebellious humans would have strong empirical evidence of His existence which would then interfere with these rebels’ free will (they would be compelled to feign loyalty).”

    Do you believe that the accurate textual transmission of resurrection accounts from eyewitnesses (or persons who spoke with eyewitnesses) constitutes strong empirical evidence for the Christian faith, and if so, do you think apologists who deploy this evidence are interfering with rebels’ free will?

    “Second, when humankind sinned, God cursed the ground. This presumably enabled all kinds of natural evils as a consequence of their rebellion. “

    Where in the geological record would you tentatively place this boundary prior to which there were no natural evils, and what are your error bars?

    • clayjones says:

      Good point about “strong,” hieroSant! I’ve changed the word to “undeniable.” I’ll get into the beginning point of natural evil in the future.

      • hiero5ant says:

        If you believe the evidence for the existence of Yahweh is not sufficient to compel rational assent, but still maintain that salvation is dependent on what one believes (instead of whether one is a good person), then ipso facto you are saying that Yahweh will subject many people who have made no epistemic mistake at all to infinite, conscious torment, forever and ever and ever. A damnable doctrine indeed. One might even go so far as to say, if a person came to believe such a being existed, it would be a moral obligation to thwart that monster’s plans at every turn.

        Beyond this, it is unclear how a trifling change in verbiage would affect the irrelevance of evidence to “free will”. “Undeniable” in this context means normatively undeniable, not causally undeniable. It is undeniable that the World Trade Center was brought down by a gang of angry theists, but millions of people deny it. More importantly, nothing turns on the difference between “strong” evidence and “undeniable” evidence; evidence either interferes with free will or it doesn’t.

        • clayjones says:

          Hi hieroSant,
          God gives enough evidence so that those who are willing to believe have their beliefs justified but not so much evidence that those who are unwilling to believe are forced to feign loyalty. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” In other words, those stubborn in their sin will always ask for more evidence but Jesus resurrection from the dead is sufficient for others. For an example of the cognitive dissonance of those who refuse to believe, see my post “God or “We Got Lucky”.”
          Clay

          • hiero5ant says:

            One thing I’m not seeing in any of this is anything like an answer to why one kind of evidence “interferes with free will” and another doesn’t, or the moral relevance. Because it should be obvious that seeing sunlight coming through the window and forming the belief that it is daytime is not in any way morally analogous to chaining someone up in a basement, as far as “interfering with free will” is concerned. If turning on a light to see what furniture is in a room “interferes with free will” because you have no conscious power to disbelieve what you see, then mutatis mutandis leaving the light off “interferes with free will” because you have no conscious power to form positive beliefs about what you don’t see.

            So you don’t feel like you’re taking shots in the dark, let me state my (tentative) hypothesis clearly: I think “too much evidence would be a bad thing for free will” is simply an old apologetic slogan tossed out reflexively, without trying to see if it coheres with the rest of our beliefs, when the honest thing to have done in response to doubts like Ehrman’s would be to say, “You know, I just don’t know. I wish I did. I pray about it a lot.”

            Trying to come to terms, emotionally and spiritually, with a universe that often at least seems cruel and indifferent, with the rain falling on just and unjust alike, is one of the most difficult things a human being can do. You and I may end up giving different answers to a person in that situation who seeks our help, but I hope you would agree that Compassion and honesty should be the most important thing, not throwing out any old answer in order so you won’t be seen as “losing” some academic argument. Because when someone has begun the process of doubting their faith, the absolute worst thing someone ministering to him can do is to pretend to know something they could not possibly be in a position to know. If they begin to suspect – fairly or unfairly – that they’re being sold a bill of goods, then their anger will make them not hear anything else you may have to say – again, fairly or unfairly.

            Regarding the verse from Matthew, my apologies, but that’s simply blatant prooftexting; from context it is clear that it does nothing to support your grand claim about how much evidence we should expect. Let’s agree to table for the time being the fact that the passage is a clear contradiction with other passages. Jesus was clearly delivering that statement to an audience of bible-believing theists! He certainly wasn’t making any universal claim about the level of evidence for theism in general being micro-tailored to each and every person who ever lived.

            And if “feigning loyalty” were really a concern, the OT wouldn’t be such a cornucopia of punishments and tortures explicitly delivered for the purpose of instilling terror and obedience. Which is just to say, this line of defense is simply a red herring, and should be dropped from the apologetic arsenal.

            p.s. That linked post was… unfortunate. I certainly hope for your sake that those Dawkins quotes were assembled from a secondary source you were relying on in good faith, and not from a direct reading of the texts. You probably have a busy teaching schedule, but maybe by the end of the summer you could issue a correction or retraction after reading the original context?

  3. Gary M says:

    “Do you believe that the accurate textual transmission of resurrection accounts from eyewitnesses (or persons who spoke with eyewitnesses) constitutes strong empirical evidence for the Christian faith, and if so, do you think apologists who deploy this evidence are interfering with rebels’ free will?”

    Evidence, in one sense, has nothing to do with free will. Free will does not mean ignorance of truth (Christianity), but only the ability to not choose it. An example would be in the fall of Lucifer and 1/3 of the angels. Who knew more about God than these angels? On the other hand, Dr. Jones mentioned millions, billions, and intervening “like this and in countless other situations.” It seems to me his point was not meant to pick a single incident, but a wide sweep of God’s intervention throughout the world in massive doses. In that case, God could determine that it IS too much and DOES interfere with one’s free will. So, no, any human who deploys any evidence, is not interfering with one’s free will. One can still choose any other option.

    “Where in the geological record would you tentatively place this boundary prior to which there were no natural evils, and what are your error bars?”

    We cannot know all that “cursing the ground entailed.” Much of that question is answered differently as to whether one is a young earth or an old earth apologist. But it is quite easy to see that with only a handful of humans on the earth during that time (and only Adam and Eve at the cursing), that any ‘measurable’ geological changes need not occur.

  4. DagoodS says:

    Dr. Jones,

    Do you believe people will still have free will choice to choose to do immoral acts in eternity?