Are natural disasters proof against God?

January 22, 2015
"I do not want to take on William Lane Craig in a debate about God!"

“I do not want to take on William Lane Craig in a debate about God!”

As he usually does when confronted with skeptics’ arguments against God’s existence, Dr. William Lane Craig ably refutes the arguments of physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is quickly becoming the most powerful celebrity skeptic out there. (Eat your heart out, Richard Dawkins.)

In Part One of Craig’s response to this Tyson interview, Tyson objects to God’s existence on the basis of morality: How can we believe that God is all-powerful and all-good in the face of natural disasters that kill thousands in one fell swoop? As Craig says,

He enunciates, you’ll notice, a version of the logical problem of evil, based upon so-called natural evil in the world… But what our listeners, I think, need to understand is that this version of the problem of evil (that it is impossible for God to be all-powerful and all-good) is rejected by virtually everyone today – both theist and non-theist – because it lays upon the non-theist so heavy a burden of proof that nobody has been able to sustain it. The non-theist would have to show that it is impossible logically that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil and suffering in the world that is due to natural disasters. There is simply no way that the non-theist can justify such a claim. He can say, as Tyson does, Well, I don’t see why these things would occur. But that doesn’t even take one step toward proving that it is logically impossible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing these disasters to occur.

Tyson also seems to think that if God allows so-called “natural” evil to occur, then we believers are required to say that these things are really good: “I refuse to allow someone to say, ‘I’m going to give you cancer, birth defects, and shorten your life, and somehow call that good.’ I am not going there.”

Craig responds:

He is assuming that what ought not to be ought not to be permitted. That doesn’t follow. I think that there could be cases which one permits evil or suffering to take place because even though that event is evil or bad there can be some greater good that would come out of it, or the prevention of some even worse evil in the future… Say that you got a choice between either allowing one person to be shot and killed or three people to be shot and killed – you can’t do both. You can only prevent one. If you prevent the three people being shot and killed, you’ve permitted the one person to be killed. But that doesn’t mean you’ve done something evil.

For me, the most enlightening part of Craig’s response comes when Tyson accuses us believers of being presumptuous and hypocritical in our knowledge of God. When, for example, God permits tsunamis to wipe out a quarter of a million people, Tyson says that we believers shrug our shoulders and say, “God works in mysterious ways.” On the other hand, when things go our way,

you did understand [God]. How are you saying this is the handiwork of God? You are doing God’s work. God wants you to do this. Somehow you know God’s motives every other way, but when a quarter-million people get wiped out, God works in mysterious ways. Why do you even claim to have access to God’s mind in some context and not others? Just admit you have no clue and get on with life. That is how I look at it.

I would remind Tyson that inasmuch as we “have a clue” about God, we do so because we believe that God has revealed something about himself to us. That’s why, for example, we can assert even in the face of tragedy, evil, and suffering that God is good. But, as Craig points out, it shouldn’t surprise Tyson or anyone else—based on logic alone—that we are unable to say why God permits something to happen. We believers aren’t being irrational; we’re merely recognizing the limits of our finite minds.

Craig says:

When something good happens, the theist doesn’t, I think, necessarily say, “I know that God did it for this reason.” How do you know what reason he did it for? The reason might not emerge until hundreds of years from now through the reverberation this event sends through human history. We can be thankful for the good things that happen, but I don’t think any informed theist would be so presumptuous to think that we know all of the reasons for which God permits things to happen whether good or bad because these are simply beyond our scope of knowledge as finite creatures limited in time and space and in intelligence and insight…

So I would simply say that in going through life we don’t have the ability to make any kind of guesses about why things happen in the world. We are just not in a position to make those kind of judgments. Rather, our responsibility, I think, as the book of Job emphasizes, is to trust God and live faithfully for him through the circumstances that we go through. Maybe some day in heaven looking back we’ll see the reasons why good and bad things occurred, but while we are here in the midst of life, that knowledge is simply not within our grasp.

3 Responses to “Are natural disasters proof against God?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    In general, I agree. However, I think the Bible does plenty of times say why some good or bad thing happened–punishments for disobedience and blessings for obedience. Deuteronomy. Of course, there is no “one-to-one correlation,” because of other factors under my “Doctrine of Competing Principles.” Nevertheless, there is a substantial amount of scripture, especially in the OT, where God or a prophet says why bad things are happening. This includes no rain, plagues, locusts, etc., not just individual punishments. (For the latter, see David–Note: Even though David was forgiven, God still exacted penalties for his sin.) Even in the NT, we have Ananias and wife, and the letters to the Seven Churches. So, because of this prospect (among reasons), we are motivated to pursue good behavior and avoid evil. See Hebrews 12. Also: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”

    With respect to the converse, why good things happen, what about answers to prayer? Why should we pray if we don’t think God is going to “make things happen” as a consequence? “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” “Whatsoever you ask in my name, believing, you will receive.” “You have not, because you ask not.”

    So, in trying to avoid the “downside” of being “baffled” by a tsunami, Craig goes too far the other way in saying we virtually have “no idea” why good things or bad things happen. We can’t know everything in that regard, but surely sometimes we have a pretty good idea, especially in the “smaller” or more “personal” circumstances.

    • brentwhite Says:

      When God uses natural disasters to punish, then I would say that counts as one of Craig’s “morally sufficient reasons.” But I agree that Craig overstates his case when he suggests we can’t (ever?) know why something happens, good or bad. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since he was speaking extemporaneously.

      • brentwhite Says:

        His main point is that our humility about what we can know about God is fully justified. It’s not a cop-out on our part. And that needs to be said.

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