Does the reality of pain and suffering prove God doesn’t exist? Like most things, it depends. How a question is approached has a great deal to do with whether it can be adequately answered. And the most important part of approaching a question well is putting it in context.
Context Makes All The Difference
If you pick up a novel and begin reading chapter nine, you will have many questions. Who is the main character? What is her problem? How is she attempting to solve the problem? And so on. To answer these questions you must understand the context of chapter nine. What else can be known of the main character (from chapters one through eight)? How did her problem arise? How has she been attempting to solve her problem? Only by putting chapter nine in context can you make sense of the immediate question at hand. You have to understand the “forest” before you can understand the individual “trees”.
Another way to say this is probabilities are relative to background information. When we don’t have all the background information, something may seem very probable. But often, as we understand more of the “backstory” our conclusion becomes less and less probable (and an alternative becomes more and more probable).
For example, I have a friend named Doug who has lived in Kansas City for some time. It is reasonable to believe the KC Royals are his favorite baseball team (given this limited data, this conclusion is most probable). However, I then discover he moved here from St. Louis, and his father worked for the Cardinals organization. Furthermore, he tells me that Ozzie Smith is his godfather. With new information it becomes less probable that the Royals are his favorite team. Rather, the Cardinals are probably his favorite team! Background information is critically important to determine the probability of any conclusion.
The Same Applies to God and Evil
The approach is the same with any question we have, whether experienced in the pages of a book or in the pages of our lives. The question of the compatibility of the reality of evil and the existence of God is no different. Before delving into the details of this question, it is important to begin with the “big picture” of what we already know which can help us put this question in its proper context. The seeming incompatibility of evil and the existence of God (one “tree” in the forest or one “piece” of data) must be considered in light of other evidences for or against God’s existence (the other “trees” that make up the “forest” of religious knowledge or the other “background” data which must be taken into account).
If there is not much more data suggesting God exists, this makes it more probable that God does not exist given the reality of evil. However, if there are other data points suggesting God does exist, this information (context) makes it more probable that evil is not a good reason to disbelieve in God.
Put succinctly, even if the reality of evil is evidence against God’s existence, it is only one piece of evidence, and must be weighed against the other evidences in favor of God’s existence. We must evaluate all the relevant evidence, both for and against God’s existence, to come to a reasonable conclusion. Looking at only one piece of evidence in isolation is a sure way to be led astray. All the relevant evidence must be assessed to come to a rational conclusion. The real question, then, is “Given all the data, both for and against God’s existence, is it more probable that God does or does not exist?” This is the point of Proverbs 18:17: “The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.” (NEB) In other words, a scale tips heavily in one way when weight is put only on one side. But if something is to be added to the other side, the tip may not be so dramatic—or it may not tip at all!
We Must Reframe the Question
This point can be made best by reframing the question. For instance, if someone says, “God’s existence is improbable given evil in the world,” I would respond by asking him, “Improbable given what? Given only the fact of evil and suffering? I agree. But is it improbable given the other data that God does exist?”
The fact is that much evidence exists in favor of God’s existence. I’ve written on some of that data elsewhere. For instance*:
The irrationality of believing in only material reality (also see here and here and here and here)
Therefore, given this background information, the game changes. The amount of evidence for God’s existence significantly outweighs the evidence against God’s existence from the problem of Evil. Therefore, it is no longer improbable God exists. When all this data is taken into account it becomes very probable God does exist.
Even if the reality of pain and suffering does not disprove God’s existence, it may call into question his goodness or power. I’ll begin considering this objection next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
*See my Recommended Books page under “Apologetics” for more detail.