In the paper “Human Suffering and the Acceptance of God” Michael Martin attempts to show that increase in followers is not a valid reason for God to allow pain and suffering to occur. 1 He calls this the “Suffering Brings About Acceptance Defense.” His response is addressed specifically to William Lane Craig, but nevertheless I will offer a critique of Martin’s paper in this article.
The Suffering Brings About Acceptance Defense
The SBAD defense claims that the suffering and pain in our world, at least occasionally, brings people to believe in and love God. Since this is much more important than mere temporary happiness, it follows that any evil which accomplishes such a purpose is not gratuitous. Craig states it thusly:
One reason that the suffering in the world seems pointless is that we tend naturally to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this world. God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets. But in the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness a such, but the knowledge of God- which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. 2
The SBAD defense is also a component of my own theodicy (located HERE). Therefore, I will consider Martin’s objections to SBAD.
Martin states something of great significance near the beginning of the article:
It is unclear whether Craig intends SBAD to be a complete theodicy or only one aspect of a more inclusive one.
In order to clear things up a bit- here is a quote from Craig on the subject, in response to a debate opponent:
What he fails to appreciate is that God’s reasons for permitting suffering are doubtlessly complex and multifarious. That implies that no one solution is intended to cover all cases of suffering. 3
This is very important, for it takes a heavy load off the SBAD. The SBAD is not required to cover all cases of suffering, or even most cases of suffering. Rather, SBAD is just one out of many reasons God may have for permitting suffering in this world. A truly successful theodicy, argues Craig (and I am in wholehearted agreement), is one that incorporates a variety of reasons for God’s permission of suffering. With this observation, we will see that Martin’s objections are generally useless or ill-conceived.
If God’s aim was to have the maximal number of people believe in God, as Craig has argued, He has not been successful.
Although it may not seem it, this statement is entirely presumptuous. For, how exactly is it that Martin knows that God has “not been successful” in getting the maximum number of people to believe in Him? Given human free will and sinfulness, how can he know that there are other possible worlds with a better turnout? Of course, he cannot know. He is merely assuming that God “should” be able to get more people to believe in Him.
Perhaps even more important, however, is that God’s aim is not “to have the maximal number of people believe in [Him]”. Instead, the goal is to have the maximum number of people come to a loving relationship with Him. Craig himself points out that an important feature of suffering is that it may allow persons to grow a deeper dependence on God. Mere belief is probably not the concern of God- in fact it is very reasonable to assume that mere belief is not enough to gain eternal happiness with God in the first place.
Billions of people have not come to believe in the theistic God – through no fault of their own – and even today God’s message has not reached millions of people.
Here we have an entirely unsupported assertion, that “billions” of people have not acquired belief in the theistic God- “through no fault of their own”. But how can we be sure that these supposed “billions” were not at least partly responsible for their own disbelief? Even assuming that it is a necessary requirement of salvation that one hear and respond to the Gospel, there are a number of plausible reasons one may suppose that at least some of the persons who lacked belief actually dug their own hole, so to speak. 4 These speculations, although perhaps not demonstrating that all nonbelievers are at fault, do show that Martin’s statement is not necessarily true as it stands.
Further, on Craig’s view it is possible that all person’s who would accept salvation upon hearing the gospel are in fact presented it:
Furthermore, it is possible that God has created a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost and that God has so providentially ordered the world that those who fail to hear the gospel and be saved would not have freely responded affirmatively to it even if they had heard it. 5
Moreover, it is not necessarily true that all who do not hear the Gospel are instantly damned. Many Christian’s hold that God allows them a chance to make a choice, or knows their inner thoughts and saves them if possible, or something of that nature. 6
It is critical to note that, even if the preceding objections are mistaken, Martin is still confusing “belief in” God with a relationship with God. After all, even the demons believe that God exists, but such belief obviously does not entail a loving, much less a saving, relationship.
Having rested on the assumption that God’s interest is mere belief, Martin goes on to list a variety of things God could have done to perpetuate such belief. I have already dealt with similar speculations in my article responding to the Argument from Nonbelief (located HERE), and so I will merely point out two things here. Firstly, none of the methods guarantee absolute success (though most would surely increase the number of people who have mere belief), unless they involve a flagrant violation of free will. Secondly, the methods mentioned would probably only create mere belief and not a deep love and respect of God which is necessary for true happiness and eternal fellowship.
Is There Evidence that SBAD is True?
Martin next discusses the evidence Craig provides for holding SBAD as probably true.
Craig’s claim is based on examples of contemporary nations such as El Salvador where, according to Craig, intense suffering is correlated with an increase in evangelical Christianity.
Martin finds fault with Craig’s approach, claiming:
However, this is hardly adequate evidence for his sweeping factual claim. In the first place Craig’s sample is too small. In order to have any confidence in his hypothesis one have to examine many historical cases of intense suffering from different periods of time and cultures and see if the postulated correlation holds. For example, this would have to include suffering during the Plague in Middle Ages, the suffering inflicted upon American Indians by White settlers and the US Government, and the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. In these cases it is difficult to see how Craig’s hypotheses could be confirmed or even what confirmation might mean.
It seems to me that Martin is just being unreasonable here. Why would he suppose that Craig has to show that his hypothesis is always or almost always true, especially when he admits himself that it may be impossible to even obtain such confirmation? It seems that Martin is unjustifiably demanding an absurd amount of confirmation. Craig offers multiple case examples (including El Salvador, China, and Ethiopia), and I do not see why this is not enough. If Martin could perhaps offer examples of intensive suffering that decrease the number of Christians, then he may be able to develop a case. As it stands, he is merely trying to avoid the force of the data by demanding more evidence when no more is needed.
Furthermore, let us recall that Craig believes (as do I) that the reasons God allows suffering are multifarious. Therefore, it isn’t even necessary (for SBAD to be successful) that it is always, or even usually, true! In the cases where SBAD does not hold water, there may be other reasons God has for permitting the suffering. SBAD is a successful addition to a good theodicy if it is true at least some of the time, and it seems that it is given the data Craig provides.
Next, Martin attempts to question whether Craig’s inference is valid at all.
But even if we could confirm some of these correlations it would not necessarily show that intense suffering is a cause of acceptance of God. For example, suppose that it was true that in those Indian tribes which suffered the most the acceptance of Christianity was the highest. This would not show that intense suffering caused acceptance since other explanatory hypotheses are possible. For example, Indian tribes who suffered the most may have been contacted to a greater extent by Christian missionaries than tribes that suffered less. Perhaps acceptance is a function of missionary work rather than suffering. Surely this and other hypotheses would have to be eliminated in order to confirm Craig’s thesis to any extent.
It is possible that there are “roundabout” ways in which suffering leads to acceptance of God, such as the example mentioned here. However, there are many problems with this objection to SBAD. First of all, it is unlikely that all cases of suffering that lead to belief and love of God do so by such roundabout means. In the realm of discussing the problem of evil, we are unfortunately reduced to little more than intelligent speculation. However, we must make sure that our speculations are reasonable, and it seems in this case that it is unreasonable to suppose that every instance of suffering leading to belief in God occurred only indirectly. Martin’s approach here seems very suspect. If suffering seems to correspond with increase in Christianity, it is unnecessary and superfluous to suggest that the suffering isn’t what actually caused the conversions, unless evidence can be compiled to support one’s case.
Much more important, however, is that Martin’s example does nothing to eliminate the need for evil. If intense suffering to a people necessitates the consequence that more missionaries will come to help and thereby increase the number of Christians, it still follows that evil was a necessary component in the eventual conversion of the persons in question. The fact that evil was only indirectly responsible does not mean that evil played no significant role.
It could be countered that God could have brought the missionaries without the suffering. But this is not necessarily so, and in fact is quite counterintuitive after a bit of reflection. For God to force missionaries to go to countries they were not planning on going to would involve a violation of free will. 7 Moreover, there is no way to know that the missionaries would be effective if there were not widespread suffering. Perhaps the people who were ministered to would feel too comfortable and feel as though they do not need God in their lives. In any case, if an increase in belief in Christianity does actually result, in at least some cases, in places where there is much suffering, then SBAD is successful.
Indeed, there are problems even in confirming the correlations posited in Craig’s own examples. Suppose there has been an increase in countries such as El Salvador of evangelical Christianity given the great suffering in those countries. It does not follow that there has been increase of acceptance of God: In El Salvador there may simply be fewer traditional Catholics and more evangelicals. The total number of believers may be the same or even less than before.
This seems to me a minor nitpick. At least one of examples that I’ve seen Craig offer deals with Christianity in general and does not deal specifically with “evangelicals”. Moreover, it seems reasonable to suppose that a five-fold increase in evangelicals implies an increase in overall Christianity. Martin’s assumption is counterintuitive and there is little reason to believe it.
If God’s aim is to maximize acceptance of Him and intense suffering brings about acceptance, then why is there so relatively little suffering in some countries and times? Surely God could have indirectly brought about more suffering and increased acceptance.
Just because suffering may lead to increased acceptance of God sometimes does not imply that suffering has such an effect all the time, or even most of the time. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that there is a “breaking point” where suffering becomes so intense that it has the reverse effect. Therefore, God balances the amount of suffering and happiness in the world. If Martin wishes to claim that God “did a bad job” at making the right balance, then he is then simply restating the Problem of Evil.
Is God Unethical?
In his last round of objections, Martin tries to claim that SBAD has moral deficiencies.
Suppose intense suffering did bring about belief in God. Why would an all good, all powerful God choose to bring about acceptance in this way? As we have seen, God could bring about belief in Him in many ways that do not cause suffering. It is unintelligible why God would do it this way given these alternatives.
Martin now falls back on his previous argument that God could cause persons to believe in Him in a variety of ways. Once again, he makes many mistakes. Firstly, he assumes that God’s aim is mere belief, when in actuality it is a loving relationship. Secondly, he assumes that there is always a way, other than intense suffering, for God to accomplish His aim. However, this is entirely unjustified- it may be the case that some people simply need to experience suffering in order to know and love God. Finally, he seems to assume that God permits all suffering due to the fact that it will cause people to become Christians. This is not the case (for an extensive review of the various reasons why God may allow suffering, see HERE). Perhaps there is another method other than intense suffering that would gain converts in certain situations, but God permits the suffering due to other reasons. In such a case the salvific effect of suffering would be part of, though not all of, the reason that God allows such to occur.
One might suggest that suffering is a more efficient way of getting people to accept God. However, there is no reason to suppose that this is so.
Perhaps so, but there is also no reason to suppose that it isn’t. But suffering need not be more “efficient” all the time for SBAD to be successful- it only need be so in some cases. Moreover, even if suffering is not the most “efficient” method for increasing the amount of Christian believers, it may still be justified due to other reasons God has for permitting the suffering. In such a case the SBAD would be only part of a more comprehensive reason God has for permitting the case of suffering in question.
Finally, an all good God would not think in terms of the most efficient means if means would be available that were fairly efficient that caused less suffering. Consider a teacher who believed that the most efficient means to teach math was to beat his students although he knew merciful means were available that would be successful but that would take more time. Whatever we thought of this person as an efficient teacher we would not think much of his moral character.
This attempted analogy is severely flawed. First of all, God’s aim (human salvation) is infinitely more valuable than the math teacher’s aim (teaching students math). Secondly, God’s concern for efficiency is much more troubling (souls could be lost) than is the math teacher’s (it may take more time to teach the students). In any case, this assumes that alternate means may be available, which is not necessarily the case all the time. However, even if God chooses to allow suffering for the purpose of efficiency alone, it would seem that He is morally justified to do so.
Presumably a rational God would want His creatures to believe in Him for good reasons. Yet this is precisely what is excluded by SBAD. What epistemic basis for belief in an all good, all powerful God does the evidence of intense suffering provide?
First of all, I think God does want people to believe in Him for good reasons. But, if he cannot get a person to believe in Him for good reasons, should God just abandon that person and let him live his way? Martin’s argument here doesn’t follow, for even if he is right here, then God is still justified in permitting suffering for the sake of fostering good relationships.
Secondly, it is not necessarily true that intense suffering is not a good reason to believe in God. It is at least a good prudential reason for believing in God:1. I experience a lot of suffering.
2. Only God can ease my suffering, and He can only help me if I develop a loving relationship with him.
3. I should work for a loving relationship with God.
Barring prudential reasons for belief, suffering may at least lead one to investigate the topic of religion. After such an investigation occurs, one may find good rational reasons for believing in God. Suffering may be a catalyst for eventual rational belief in God.
In fact, the amount of suffering in the world has often posed an obstacle to rational belief.
Perhaps so, but this obstacle can be overcome by a well-developed theodicy. Besides, it seems to be only the well-educated that worry about the “Problem of Evil”. In fact, it seems that those who are most troubled by the problem of evil are those that experience the least of it. Those who experience the most suffering do not tend to have a lack of belief due to the existence of this suffering, as shown by the case studies that Craig offers.
Martin has simply failed to make a strong case against SBAD. The idea that suffering can lead to knowledge, respect, and love of God is both probable and supported by the evidence. Thus, SBAD is a successful addition to a powerful theodicy.
1. Michael Martin, “Human Suffering and the Acceptance of God” found at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/suffering.html
2. William Lane Craig, God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) p 120.
3. Ibid. p. 115
4. Consider a man who never hears the Gospel because he takes no interest in religion and brushed it off as insignificant. Is his lack of belief no fault of his own? Consider another person who would have heard the gospel if she had lived a relatively moral lifestyle, but does not because she dies young from AIDS as a result of her prostitution. These people may be indirectly responsible for their own lack of opportunity.
5. William Lane Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation.” In Christian Apologetics in the Post-Modern World, pp. 75-97. Ed. T. P. Phillips and D. Ockholm. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1995. Found at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/politically.html
7. This, of course, depends upon the degree to which God allows (or, grants) his creatures to freely make their own decisions. It may be that God could “lead” missionaries to travel to the needed countries, especially since missionaries are usually strongly religious and thus are prone to pray and ask for guidance. Nevertheless, significant free will might be violated if a missionary is forced by God to go somewhere that the missionary would not go unless forced. Furthermore, even if this objection is incorrect, the second consideration I provide still overcomes Martin’s objection here.