Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 4 of 7: Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist Part 3

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil

Loftus Answers Objections

In chapter 13, Loftus presents part 2 of his treatment of the problem of evil, in which he answers some objections and theodicies that have been put forth to answer it.  He begins by reiterating that he is making an internal critique; this time, in defense against the charge that he, as an atheist, has no ground for believing in evil.  This first section of the chapter is almost identical to the “partial response” that Loftus offered in his first comment to me on this subject.  At one point he explains the nature of his argument:

The dilemma for the theist is to reconcile senseless suffering in a world with her own beliefs (not mine) that all suffering is for a greater good.  It’s an internal problem for the theist, so it doesn’t matter what the beliefs are for the person making this argument.  The person making this argument is merely using the logical tool for assessing arguments called the reductio ad absurdum, which attempts to reduce to absurdity the claims of a person.  The technique is to force a claimant to choose between accepting the consequences of what she believes, no matter how absurd it seems, or rejecting one or more premises in her argument.  The person making this argument does not believe the claimant and is trying to show why those beliefs are misguided and false to some degree, depending on the force of the counterargument.  It’s that simple.  If skeptics cannot use this argument on this issue, then we should disallow all reductio ad absurdum type arguments. p. 243-244 also here

Reductio ad absurdum” is just a latin title for an internal critique.  So, from what we’ve seen, is Loftus actually using reductio ad absurdum?  I don’t think so.  In fact, as we saw before with his appeal to “gratuitous evil”, his argument does, in fact, depend on a belief in objective morality.  As we’ve seen many times by now, the reductio just fails to show any inconsistency within Christian belief on this matter, and I think Loftus knows this, and so he doesn’t actually limit himself to this type of argument.  He only appeals to it when he’s challenged to account for objective moral evil on his own worldview.

Loftus sidesteps the issue as well in this statement:

Christian theists argue that in the natural world nothing can count as evil for the atheist, since everything that happens is part of nature. So, they claim atheists have no objective basis for arguing there is any evil in the natural world that can count against the existence of the Christian God. But this is fallacious reasoning. What counts as evil in my atheist worldview is a separate problem from the Christian problem of evil. They are distinctly separate issues. Christians cannot seek to answer their internal problem by claiming atheists also have a problem with evil. Yet, that’s exactly what they do here, which is an informal fallacy known as a red herring, or skirting the issue. Christians must deal with their internal problem. Atheists must do likewise. I will not skirt my specific problem by claiming Christians have one. I adjure them to do the same.  p. 244 also here

Something very important should be noticed here.  Loftus’ first statement about Christian theists is true.  But the theists he’s describing are not doing what he thinks they’re doing.  Christians like C. S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and Greg Bahnsen, when making this statement, are not defending against the problem of evil.  Let me say that again.  To say that, without God, there is no ground for believing in real, moral evil, is not itself a defense against the problem of evil.  Rather it is what’s called the moral argument for the existence of God.  The Christian theists that Loftus refers to are making a positive argument for God’s existence that basically goes like this:

1. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no objective moral truths.

2. There are objective moral truths

3. Therefore, God exists.

Incidentally, in his treatment of arguments for God’s existence in his book, Loftus does not address this argument at all.

Read what Loftus said above again.  He doesn’t actually show why this is fallacious reasoning.  He simply says that Christians are skirting the problem of evil when they put this argument forward.  As I’ve said before, if a Christian puts this argument forward as his sole defense of the problem of evil, then he is guilty of what Loftus charges.  Loftus knows this, since he always limits his objection to someone who says only this one thing as a defense.  He improperly utilizes this point, however, when he charges anyone who puts this argument forward at all of making the same mistake.  There is a difference between the moral argument and defenses of the problem of evil, and anyone who treats them as the same thing is arguing fallaciously.  Whether it’s a Christian who depends on nothing else to deal with the problem of evil, or Loftus, who treats any Christian who uses it at all of making that mistake, dismissing it rather than dealing with it himself.

Part of my reason for writing these articles can be found in Loftus’ statement toward the end: “Christians must deal with their internal problem. Atheists must do likewise. I will not skirt my specific problem by claiming Christians have one.”  This is an admission that there is an atheist problem of evil, too, as exemplified by the moral argument.  Loftus claims that he will not skirt his problem, and that is why I’m writing this; to show that he never does answer this problem and to show that his presentation of the Christian problem is fully answerable.

How God Does It

Loftus divides the various Christian theodical arguments into two categories; one called the “God can’t do it” defense and the other the “ignorance” defense.  We’ll deal with each of these in turn.  First of all, Loftus’ very title for this first defense is a straw-man.  The only things that most Christians believe God “can’t” do are those that contradict His own nature.  Be they logical impossibilities, for he is not illogical; or mistakes, for He knows all and is in perfect control of His own words and actions; or moral failings, for He is perfectly good.  Indeed, some of the Christian defenses in this category do fit that conception of God, at least as the Christian defender understands Him.  However, by lumping all of the defenses he does into this category, Loftus misrepresents Christianity at several points, as we’ll see when we outline these defenses.  Not all of the defenses mentioned try to exonerate God because he “couldn’t” have done it differently.  But since a correct representation of the biblical faith on these issues would have weakened his case, Loftus has chosen to characterize these defenses under their weakest possible heading so as to make his own argument look stronger than it is.

Since I don’t agree with all of the defenses he’s listed, I will only deal with the ones I either do agree with or find something relevant to comment on.

“Evil is necessary as a means to good.”  Even if this is so, God could’ve created a world with far fewer evils, which is my point.  Besides, how does this solve the problem of animal suffering?  What good do they get out of their suffering? p. 245

This seems like a good place to start.  While it is true that many Christians would say that evil is a necessary means to good, I think that a more biblical perspective would be to say that, “evil is one of God’s chosen means to certain goods.”  I can only speculate, but I’d say that Loftus probably didn’t deliberate between these two choices.  My formulation or one equivalent to it probably didn’t even occur to him, so I won’t say that he deliberately chose the weaker of the two defenses.  I think that what he chose is weaker, though in one sense.  It assumes that evil is necessary, which is harder to argue for within the Christian worldview than that God chooses to use it.  To be fair, my formulation is less likely to win over unbelievers who will only believe in God if He can be shown to be in some sense “distant” from the evils we witness.  Loftus’ formulation is popular among Christians who are interested in distancing God from the suffering in the world.

We also see Loftus making three other fallacious or invalid inferences.  The first is when he says that God could’ve created a world with fewer evils.  I’ve already shown how this reasoning doesn’t go through.  It may be that God could’ve done that, but Loftus would still have written his argument, highlighting whatever evils happened to be the worst in that world.  Second, he refers to animal suffering.  This comes up several times in this section.  What’s wrong with this kind of reasoning is that Loftus looks at each of these defenses as if it is the sole defense offered by any given Christian.  He does not take them as a whole or any subset of them as a whole.  This is arguing against the weakest version of his opponents’ arguments again.  If I have three defenses to an argument he gives, which, taken together, answer all of his challenges, then it obviously does him no good to talk about how one of my defenses doesn’t answer one of his challenges.  He has to tell me why none of them does.  Re-read my summary theodicy, asking whether it addresses “all evil”.  Remember that neither I, nor any Christian that I’m aware of, has ever said that a precise answer can be known for each individual case, only that God has morally good and justified reasons known to Him for everything He does.  Remember also that, since Loftus says he’s only offering an internal critique, he has to show that my theodicy is self-contradictory in order to refute it.  The third mistake Loftus makes is to misunderstand what Christians mean by “good” in this defense.  He assumes that it must mean, “good for the one suffering”.  But he must know that no Christian would agree to that definition, since we consider the willing death of Christian martyrs at the hands of their persecutors, from Jesus Himself down throughout history, to be good things.  They are evil as to the persecutors, but good as to the character and steadfastness of those martyrs.  This is why I refer to Loftus’ sloppiness.  By his own statements, which I do not doubt, he was brought up to know a Christian worldview.  I think, therefore, that it is not out of mere ignorance that he makes these mistakes.  He is just not careful to correctly represent the worldview he’s trying to defeat.

Loftus goes on:

On the one hand, a theist is the first one to say we should try to alleviate suffering wherever we can, even though God is not obligated to do the same.  But if we do, then aren’t we also reducing the total good created by God, since suffering is good for us?  Maybe we should rue the day that someone found a vaccine for tuberculosis, or polio?  Maybe our real duty would be to increase human suffering, since it molds character?  On the other hand, if suffering can be alleviated by modern medicine without making it worse off for us as a whole, then those very evils we eliminated were not necessary for our good in the first place.  Can the theist have it both ways? p. 245 or same argument made here (in comment thread)

Yes, the theist can have it both ways, because this is another misrepresentation of the defense in question.  As I’ve said before, God is not on our level.  He is the Potter.  He has a perfect plan and it calls for suffering at times, and it is not our place to judge Him.  We, too, have rights over the things we create to dispense with them however we choose.  God has given us laws and guidelines that dictate what it is for us to be moral, and that includes alleviating suffering.  We are not in conflict with His plan when we do so.  In Genesis, Joseph suffered when he was sent to Egypt, and both God and Joseph’s brothers were deliberate in sending him.  God’s intent was to put him in a place where he would save many lives.  The brothers’ intent was to remove the object of their jealousy and profit from it.  Also, since Joseph was God’s creation, God had every right to put him where He wanted him.  Joseph’s brothers did not have any such right.  They were wrong.  God was right.  

It appears that Loftus thinks that when Christians say that evil serves a good purpose that we are making a normative claim about the nature of evil as if we are saying that evil is a good thing.  We are not.  We are making a particular claim about the whole set of particular evils.  God uses many things for good, not just evil.  In Joseph’s case, it was his suffering that led to the alleviation of suffering for many people.  God, in addition to using suffering, also uses ingenuity and virtue for good.  Loftus is again misrepresenting the Christian and arguing against the weakest possible version of the Christian’s defense.

“Evil is the punishment for wrongdoing.”  The supposed fall of man in the Garden of Eden is supposed to account for the sheer amount for our natural suffering in our world. p. 246

Well, this isn’t completely false, but it’s not really correct, either.  It is not any part of Christian belief that “the sheer amount of…suffering” is simply a direct result of the fall of Adam.  The fall is how sin entered the world, making man an enemy of God, such that we now have a propensity to rebel against Him and His righteousness.  It may be that death itself comes to all of us because of Adam’s sin, (Rom. 5:12-14) but the “sheer amount” of suffering is often a result of our own sin. (Rom. 1:27)

Loftus then goes on to argue that the “punishment doesn’t fit the crime”.  He then says that, “The crime was not rebellion, but curiosity, selfishness, and ignorance–the very things God created in them.  The whole idea that this world is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin is sickening.” If by “punishment”, he means all human suffering, and if by “crime”, he means the fall of Adam, then he’s arguing against some strange version of Christianity that I am not familiar with.  I’m sure he could dredge up some quote from some Christian that could be interpreted the way he is doing it.  But even if he can, he’s not referencing the Scriptures, which are the only infallible authority for the evangelicals he claims to be refuting.  Also, it would just prove my earlier point that Loftus is not interested in accurately representing Christianity or refuting its strongest expression.  It would show perfectly that he’s only interested in interpreting some Christian’s statements in the weakest possible light and then refuting a straw-man.

If he is correctly identifying which punishments go with which crimes, which his statements don’t bear out, then he’s only stating his opinion, with no support.  He’s saying that, if God exists, then He is punishing too harshly because He does not punish based on Loftus own sensibilities about how God should punish.  Loftus asserts later that:

The so-called punishments simply do not fit the “crimes.”  Just look at our own “selfish” system of punishments, and compare that with the (sic) God’s punishments in the Bible.  Our punishments are kinder and gentler.  They’re civil.  The punishments of God in the Bible are barbaric.  We simply put criminals in jail.  We don’t break both arms of an infant because her father lied at the office. p. 247 same argument here in final paragraph

Loftus simply cannot be describing the Christian position.  His view is simplistic at best.  Christians never say that God’s punishments and man’s punishments should look the same.  Our punishments are human legal matters that address human legal infractions.  God’s law is something greater than any human legal code.  It expresses what true human righteousness looks like.  To break that law is to be in open rebellion against our own Creator, the thrice-holy Judge of the universe, and the spotless King.  God determines what constitutes righteousness by His own righteous nature.  The reason we, in civil states and nations that are not founded by divine mandate and miracles, do not so punish is because we do not have the rights that God has, and because we are punishing under a lesser law.  Also, the last statement in this quote shows again that Loftus thinks that the punishments He gives are solely due to the sin of Adam.  The Bible nowhere says this, and so Loftus is misrepresenting Christianity.

Loftus then offers a strange take on the situation with Adam and Eve:

Furthermore, how could Adam and Eve know that god was telling the truth?  The serpent questioned this, didn’t he?  So there wasn’t enough evidence for Adam and Eve to know for sure that what the serpent said was not true…So if they sinned, he knew in advance that he didn’t give them enough evidence to believe and heed the warning.  If God didn’t give them enough evidence to know he was telling the truth, then God shares the blame for their sins.  Why?  Because if they know for sure what would happen, they wouldn’t have sinned. p. 246

One of the hallmarks of a bad argument is inconsistency.  If Loftus’ argument can be used to refute his own position–perhaps his book–then it’s a bad argument.  Loftus is arguing here that if Adam and Eve had enough evidence, they wouldn’t have believed the serpent.  No special argument is given as to why this is the case, so we are left to assume that the hidden premise in his argument is, “If any person has enough evidence for a belief, that person will hold that belief.”  Loftus’ argument is only valid if this premise is true.  But if it is, then I can easily construct an argument showing that there is not enough evidence for Loftus’ position.

1. If anyone has enough evidence for a belief, that person will hold that belief.

2. Reading Loftus’ book supplies enough evidence for atheism.

3. Therefore, if anyone has read Loftus’ book, that person is an atheist.

4. However, there are Christians who have read Loftus’ book and have not become atheists.

5. Therefore, reading Loftus’ book does not supply enough evidence for atheism.

If Loftus’ argument about Adam and Eve works, then so does this argument about his book.  Obviously this is a bad argument.  Mere disagreement does not prove that a position lacks sufficient evidence.  Therefore, Loftus’ argument is bad for exactly the same reasons.

It is bad for another reason, though.  He asks how they could know that God is telling the truth.  Until the serpent’s lie, they had not encountered lies, and as soon as they did, Eve correctly identified two facts:  that the serpent had contradicted God, and that God had promised punishment if she disobeyed.  Whether that constitutes “enough evidence” for Loftus doesn’t really matter, since, again, he claims that this is all an internal critique.  He needs to show how the Christian’s theodicies, and/or worldview are inherently inconsistent on this issue.  Even if we ignore Loftus’ own characterization of his argument and consider this as an appeal to evidence, i.e., consider Loftus’ opinions about punishments and crimes to be appeals to objective facts about the universe, then the argument fails on two counts:  (1) He doesn’t give us any reason to believe his assertion over against the Christian account.  He simply offers his opinion that what we happen to do in one particular society is better than what God does.  And (2), unless he can give us an atheistic account for objective moral facts about what punishments fit what crimes, then his argument defeats his own position.

Next, Loftus examines the account of Job, making some points worth addressing:

In Job, for instance, we see the biblical answer for the problem of evil in the first two chapters.  The answer was that God is testing us with disasters and he allows Satan to do us harm so that he might be glorified from our actions.  That is a sick answer to the problem of evil, and here’s why:  Medical ethics will not allow us to experiment on human beings with life-threatening procedures, nor with procedures that might cause other serious complications.  And they certainly don’t allow us to experiment on anyone involuntarily.  The other people in the story–like Job’s family–don’t even matter to God at all.  But this is what we find God doing to Job and his family, presumably because he can.  What we really want to know is if Job’s God cares for him and his family, and he doesn’t.  p. 246

First, medical ethics apply to human beings treating fellow human beings.  They do not apply to human beings making pots.  They do not, therefore, apply to our Maker in his relationship to us any more than us in relationship to pots.  Second, Loftus just makes two completely unfounded assertions: that Job’s family doesn’t matter to God and that God doesn’t care for Job or his family.  Any fair-minded reader understands what it is for someone to be the central player in a story.  This story is primarily about Job and how he and his friends handle this suffering, and how God interacts with him.  The story is not primarily about Job’s family, but it simply does not follow that they don’t matter to God at all.  Loftus knows this, because if I wrote something saying that Loftus’ atheist friends or his wife don’t even matter to him at all just because he doesn’t focus on them in his book, he’d make the same exact argument I’m making.  As for whether God cares, that is one of the central themes of the book of Job, and for Loftus to just dismissively say “he doesn’t” without any care or examination of the text just reveals the lack of carefulness with arguments on Loftus’ part.

Loftus’ only offered answer to any Christians who say that God has more rights than we do is this:

For Christians to retort that God can do whatever he wants to because he’s God, still doesn’t morally justify his actions. p. 247

Now, I find it hard to decide where to start, so I’ll limit myself to making two points I’ve already made.  First, as I’ve said before, on the Christian worldview, God’s status as Creator and Ruler gives him the right to do anything He thinks is good with this world.  His own perfectly good nature is his only restraint when dealing with us.  Second, as I’ve said before, Loftus can’t demand moral justification for God’s actions on an atheistic worldview that cannot account for objective moral values.  If he retreats to saying “it’s an internal problem”, then my first point answers it.  If he thinks there are objective moral values, let him tell us how they can exist in a naturalistic universe.  I know I’m beginning to sound repetitive, but these issues are really the main problem any atheist who wants to use the problem of evil must solve if they want their argument to succeed.

Loftus then turns to two passages in the Gospels that address the problem of evil.  The first is Luke 13:

In Luke 13:1-5 we find Jesus commenting on why a couple of disasters took place.  Were these people worse sinners than those who escaped the particular disasters?  Jesus’ answer is an emphatic, “No!”  His point says nothing at all against the culturally accepted view that our sins cause disasters.  He only says that these people were no more guilty than those who didn’t suffer these disasters.  So apparently everyone deserves the disasters that occur; it’s just that some do not experience what their sins deserve. p. 247

Actually, Loftus is 100% right in his analysis of this passage.  Yes, Jesus does not try to discredit the “divine punishment” analysis of suffering.  Read Revelation and you’ll see that He is the one dispensing that punishment.  And yes, it is the biblical position that everyone deserves suffering, because all have sinned. (Rom. 3:9-18,23-24)

Next, Loftus considers John 9:

In John 9 Jesus’ disciples asked him who sinned that a particular man was born blind.  His answer was that neither he nor his parents sinned.  But this was a special case, for the reason he was born blind was so “that the work of God might be displayed in him,” and then it says Jesus healed him.  So his “purpose” in being born blind was for him to later be healed by Jesus.  p. 247

Jesus never says that this is a “special case”.  He gives the primary reason why the man was born blind.  Sure, it was a specific case of blindness and a specific healing, but that doesn’t mean that God’s purposes all-of-a-sudden change for this one person.  Otherwise, what is He teaching his disciples?  This also demonstrates what I said earlier about Loftus not considering the fact that these different explanations for evil in the world are not mutually exclusive, and that most Christians believe that many of them apply to many situations differently.  It is perfectly consistent that God sometimes brings suffering as a punishment for evil, thus displaying His justice, and at other times brings suffering in order to be healed, thus displaying His power and presence in the world.  Loftus keeps treating these explanations as if they can’t coexist, again not dealing with Christianity as it is, but making straw-men to rail against.

“Evil is necessary for building character, or ‘soul-making,’ which is a higher good.”   Again this does not explain the suffering of animals, and it’s difficult to see how this explains senseless evils. p. 248

As this is not my primary defense, I won’t spend much time on it.  I quote it only to make the point that his appeal to “senseless evils” just doesn’t work as an internal critique.  No internal critique can appeal to “senseless evil”.  But, since this isn’t the only explanation for evil, and since the Christian worldview does claim that all evil serves a purpose, it then follows that there really is no such thing on the Christian worldview as a “senseless” evil.  Appealing to them in an alleged internal critique is therefore, well, senseless.

“The purpose of intense suffering is to cause us to turn to God.”  If so, God has done a poor job of this. p. 248

Loftus refers to a statistical study in a book by Patrick Johnstone that documents cases of increased conversions and faith at times of tragedy.  He counters that he knows of many who have left the faith because of evil and suffering.  I don’t doubt that he knows such people.  So there are people who have accepted Christianity and people who have rejected Christianity because of suffering.  Everyone has to come to some conclusion on the matter, and people disagree.  Loftus then puts forward a Michael Martin argument that boils down to:  If God wanted the most people to believe, then there should be less suffering.

The problem with this line of reasoning is the same as an earlier argument Loftus made about the severity of suffering.  Arguing that something should have been greater or less than it is is very tricky, and can’t be pulled off by mere assertion.  One cannot simply say that the way things are doesn’t make enough believers.  What if there were five more?  one hundred?  one million?  Would Loftus or Martin abandon this argument?  I think only if they were personally one of those people.  If they weren’t they’d still say the same thing.  Mere differences of degree cannot, therefore, be simply asserted as evidence without some pretty convincing argumentation to support why they don’t fall prey to this problem.  Also, the theodicy that I and the Reformers would put forward does not suppose that God is trying to save the “maximum possible” number of people.  My worldview, along with theirs, says that God successfully saves every person He chooses to save.  Loftus has only offered insults when faced with this worldview, no arguments.  But I’m not concerned with whether he likes or approves of my worldview.  He says he’s making an internal critique of the Christian worldview, and he has to show that I’m being inconsistent if he wants that critique to succeed.

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3 thoughts on “Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 4 of 7: Loftus’ Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist Part 3”

  1. You’re a dolt if this is what you really believe. To say, as you do, that God just so happens to choose evil is insane: on your own view, as you repeatedly say, God cannot choose anything outside of its nature. If the current setup is the best of all worlds – which it must be – then God didn’t have any choice in the matter at all. Whatever God does, God does as a matter of logical (i.e., not modal) necessity. Unfortunately, you use too many words to say too little for me to actually read what you say, so I’m going to try to make this easy for you: what is your explanation for why evil exists (for why, in other words, God chose to use evil for whatever you think it’s being used for)?

  2. Drew: <>Loftus is arguing here that if Adam and Eve had enough evidence, they wouldn’t have believed the serpent.<>Let me state the obvious here, since you are oblivious. If you had no doubt that if you crossed a line in the sand you would be beaten within an inch of your life by a bunch of thugs would you cross it?Sheesh. This is becoming amusing to me, and I don’t say that to insult you, since after all you are really trying hard to defend what you believe. You just have your God-blinders on. Care to take <>The Outsider Test for Faith<> with regard to what you’re arguing here? Didn’t think so. 😉

  3. Drew,Great job so far. I appreciate your level headed presentation of a Christian response to the problem of evil. I hope John Loftus doesn’t stay away but instead continues to comment. I look forward to future postings.Enochps, if you weren’t aware, Centuri0n (aka Frank Turk) is in the beginning stages of a similar critique at his site centuri0n(dot)blogspot(dot)com.

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