Addressing Rosenberg’s Argument from Evil

This article will address the exchange between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Alex Rosenberg on the subject of the Argument from Evil which occurred during their February 2, 2013 debate: Is Faith in God Reasonable? In particular, the article will offer apologetic approaches in response to Rosenberg that differ somewhat from those of Craig.  The article will also offer several critiques of parts of Craig’s handling of Rosenberg’s claim that faith in God is not reasonable on the basis of the logical version of the Argument from Evil.

The Debate

Alex Rosenberg: Opening Speech

Rosenberg uses a very important debate tactic in his opening speech. He establishes what he believes will be readily accepted common ground and then follows with an attack based upon that previously stipulated common ground. Here is what he believes is the common ground:

“The God we’re talking about has the following features: if he exists, he’s got the three Omni’s and benevolence. He’s got omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and an unqualifiedly good will. If these four features are incompatible with some obvious fact, then of course the theists’ God is nonexistent.”

At first glance, this statement seems reasonable.  In fact, I agree with the first sentence that if God exists, then He is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and benevolent.  In the second sentence, however, Rosenberg starts to slightly skew the first sentence and lays the groundwork for the move away from the biblical concept of God.  He does this with the use of an informal fallacy. By shifting the basis of his argument from God’s “benevolence” to “an unqualifiedly good will,” he creates room for the development of a straw man.  By the two terms, Rosenberg does not mean the same thing. By the term “benevolence,” he probably means the traditionally accepted view that God is good.  But, by the phrase “unqualifiedly good will,” he means, as I will show, that a god so described would not allow evil to exist.  This sleight-of-hand has, in effect, cleared the way for Rosenberg to redefine “benevolence” to suit his argument.  What he hopes to do is setup a straw man god that is not, in fact, the God of the Bible, and then knock down that false description of God.  This is no less than Satan’s move in The Garden when he deceived Eve. Rosenberg is preparing to deny a truth about an attribute of God, namely His goodness (benevolence), by inserting a lie, namely that good entails preventing either the existence, or at least some level, of evil.  Satan denied that God would kill Eve for eating the forbidden fruit and then asserted that God’s reason for forbidding the fruit was His own pride.  Satan denied an attribute of God (truthfulness), and asserted a lie that God would not keep His promise to kill her (faithfulness).  Here, Rosenberg is using the same tactic.

Moving on to other matters in his opening speech, Rosenberg returns later to take up his straw man with these remarks:

“Of course the killer argument against God’s existence is the argument from evil. It’s enough to show that theism is unreasonable… The argument is simple and terrible. And it goes like this. If the theistic God exists, he is omnipotent and benevolent. A benevolent creature eliminates suffering to the extent that the benevolent creature can. Therefore, if there is a God and he is omnipotent and benevolent, he eliminates all suffering. As we know, it’s obvious that there is plenty of suffering in the world—both man-made and natural suffering. So, if there is a God, then he is either not omnipotent or neither benevolent nor omnipotent or benevolent and theism is false. The problem of evil is theism’s problem from hell.”

Now, Rosenberg reveals his true definition of benevolence by stating that, “A benevolent creature eliminates suffering to the extent that the benevolent creature can.”  For the sake of space, I will not remark beyond mere mention of the fact that even Rosenberg’s definition of god would uphold the Creator-creature distinction.  But, back to the point, Rosenberg has redefined “benevolence” to mean that a god so defined would eliminate suffering.  His straw man is now fully erect. The God of the Bible, Himself, brings about suffering by His own hand in judgment, chastisement for the purpose of training, and character development. And, reasonable people see such suffering as acceptable and good.

No one’s concept, that I am aware of, regards judgment of wrongdoers as something that is, or should be, pleasant. The very concept of judgment demands an unpleasant response to wrong. The unpleasant response of judgment is the payment of the cost that necessarily must attend wrongdoing.  Concepts of justice which do not require suffering for wrongs fail for lack of teeth.  I am certain that Rosenberg would zealously seek justice and fervently demand the punishment of criminals who harmed him or his loved ones.  I have no doubt that he would hold similar attitudes toward persons who started forest fires, cheated on their taxes, or perjured themselves in court.

Even as weak human parents, we take away privileges, give timeouts, require duties as penance, and yes, even spank, when our children act up or disobey. We apply negative reinforcement in order to change their behavior.  Literally, as I was writing this very paragraph, I caught my son, a 9th grade homeschooler, using his iPhone to look up a word while taking a mid-term writing and grammar exam.  The penalty will be the reduction of a letter grade.  My hope is that he will learn from the pain of the lower grade.  No more clearly seen is the effective use of negative reinforcement to change behavior than in the training of bird dogs.  Each hunting season, I outfit each of my two dogs with e-collars and then give them annoying, but quite mild and otherwise harmless electrical stimulation when they disobey my commands.  These collars can be purchased on line or from any pet store or hunting outfitter.  Soon, their behavior is adjusted to the training and they begin to perform very well.  Not only does this produce success in the field (the focused pointing, flushing, and retrieving of game birds), but it also serves to keep order in the hunting party and secure everyone’s safety, including that of the dogs.

God uses, and sometimes even causes, suffering, often not as a result of anything specific we have done to warrant it, in order to bring about an adjustment in our character. God’s aim is to conform us into the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Like sand paper that is used to smooth out the rough surface of a piece of wood furniture or remove rust and old paint from a car fender, so God uses the sand paper of suffering, illness, calamity, etc. to bring about the results He desires in us.  A textbook case of God doing such work through suffering was the calamity of Job.  Job, described in Scripture as a righteous man, endured terrific suffering, at God’s direction.  Job lost the lives of his children, his wealth, and suffered greatly through physical illness.  God’s aim was to address Job’s pride, which was not revealed until the final chapters of the book that bears Job’s name.  Job is humbled before God, and then God restores his family, his fortune, and his health.  The purpose of the calamitous events God brought about in Job’s life were ultimately for Job’s own God.  Moreover, God was glorified throughout the entire ordeal.  His power, sovereignty, and love were all on display.

In each of these three examples of the good of suffering (judgment, chastisement for the purpose of training, and character development), I have demonstrated the failure of Rosenberg’s claim that the correct definition of God (as Rosenberg defines the concept of god) entails a good who eliminates all suffering.  Not even Rosenberg would eliminate the kinds of suffering I have described.  Admittedly, there are forms of suffering which do not fall into these three neat categories, and I will attempt to address at least some of them in response to Rosenberg’s further charges against God in this regard a bit later.

A couple of additional thoughts before moving on. What about the pain of loss? Would Rosenberg also seek its removal from life?  The pain of loss of a loved one, or even of a cherished pet, is often the only thing the survivor has to hold onto.  That pain of loss is a comfort.  It is the evidence of what was lost.  I grew up with no father, but decided to look him when I was in my thirties.  As it turned out, he only lived about five years after we met, and died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven with a lung disease.  While we became much acquainted with each other during those five years, I had not developed an emotional attachment or affectionate love for him by the time he died.  At his funeral, his mother (my grandmother) wailed and moaned, repeating over and over, “Noel, it just hurts so bad. It hurts so bad!”  I can understand the pain she was in (a son should not predecease his mother), and I was envious because I did not know that same pain, since his death was not an acute loss for me.  I simply did not love him the way she did.  She hated the pain of her son’s death, but would she have preferred to have been in my shoes, having known him and lost him as a father, but felt nothing?

What about physical pain due to illness or injury? Are not these forms of suffering also good?  When I wrecked my motorcycle on I-45 in March of 1983, while traveling in traffic at about 50 miles an hour, I escaped death, but enjoyed a compound fracture of my left arm (raw bone protruding through the skin), had multiple contusions and abrasions, and suffered a concussion. When I was taken to the hospital, I was screaming and writhing in pain, and also using very questionable language with the nurses in the emergency room (this was before my conversion).  I kept demanding pain medicine of everyone who walked past me.  I was hurting pretty bad and felt abandoned because I was being ignored.  Finally, one nurse stopped to speak to me and said, “Pain is a diagnostic tool.  We can’t give you anything until the doctor has determined what is wrong with you.”  What was wrong with me seemed obvious to me; I was skinned up and had broken bones.  But, the medical staff was prepared to allow me to continue to suffer until they no longer need my pain as a diagnostic tool to help me.  I immediately understood the truth of her remarks.  Once they were able to determine that I had no internal injuries, I was given a strong pain killer and anesthesia, and went into surgery to repair my arm.  Pain tells us that something is wrong, and compels us to seek attention and remedy.

Rosenberg’s next move, a potentially effective one, was to bring human atrocities into the debate, and in a very personal way.

“Now, I want to say one last thing about the problem of evil and about the potential responses that Dr. Craig will make and that he has made in the past. And I need to make something about my own personal history clear here. There are lots of responses to the problem of evil that I find morally offensive, and I find them morally offensive for a certain reason: I’m the child of Holocaust survivors (emphasis mine). My whole family, except for my parents, was killed by the Nazis including two half brothers of mine. I will not take kindly to a suggestion that Dr. Craig has made repeatedly in debate formats like this that the innocent children who died in the Holocaust or died in the hands of the soldiers of Israel in Canaan—that these innocent children like my half brothers—were more fortunate, were luckier because they ascended to heaven directly, than the SS soldiers who killed them and lived very nice, very comfortable, very long lives in West Germany after World War II.”

Rosenberg refers to “innocent children,” implying that they were not deserving of death. But, I argue that we are all going to die, and that the death of children in war is no less a loss of human life than the death of centenarians from old age is a loss of life. I cannot remember ever hearing someone complaint that death should be eliminated from life, or that such is a moral obligation of God.  Consider that war does not increase death.  It merely hastens it.  All those killed in all the wars of history would nonetheless have died of something, if not old age.  Death, in itself, is not an injustice to be hung around the neck of God, and will not be avoided by anyone (except, of course, for those raptured at the Parousia). We are all going to die. The existence of death is not a forceful argument against the existence of God.

I further argue that there is no such thing as “innocent children.”  We are all guilty of sin. Augustine has observed that even young children are “greedy” for the breast.[1]  Anyone who has raised children knows that they are born with a propensity for evil.  We do not have to teach children to be bad.  They are born with both the ability and the desire to be selfish, vengeful, dishonest, harmful to others, and so on.  We have to teach them to be good because their nature is to be bad.  “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23.  We are all sinners, and given the existence of God, entitled to our pay – death.

Lastly, on this charge, given the existence of God as Creator, may He not do with His creation as He pleases?  Suffering in the world is not a moral wrong if God sees that its usefulness warrants its existence.  But, its usefulness does not necessarily have to benefit the sufferers.  It seems to me that if its usefulness benefits the Creator, then that should be sufficient reason form its existence.  I offer several points to consider.  First, without suffering through injustice, God cannot demonstrate His justice.  For justice can only exist in the presence of injustice.  Without sin, which brings about all manner of suffering, God cannot demonstrate His forgiveness.  For, forgiveness can only exist in the presence of sin.  Without suffering of any kind, God cannot demonstrate His mercy and grace in relieving it.  Mercy and grace can only exist where there is suffering.  God’s virtues are on display in the presence of suffering.  And, for the Creator, that is not only a sufficient good, but it is a necessary good.  God deserves glory for His moral attributes more than we deserve protection from suffering (as I have shown above) which is a result of our lack of moral attributes.  The display of God’s virtues is a greater good than the utter elimination of suffering of every type for all eternity.  I realize that these last three replies do not amount to a complete rebuttal to the Argument from Evil, as formulated by Rosenberg, but I believe they do weaken the strength of Rosenberg’s claims.

William Lane Craig: First Rebuttal

I wish Craig had done more to dismantle Rosenberg’s Argument from Evil.  His response to Rosenberg’s version of the argument was wanting.  I would have preferred that he had taken a toe-to-toe, point-for-point attack.  My concern in watching the debate and taking the course was to become a better apologist, not a better debater.  Craig’s short reply to Rosenberg on his evil argument is almost dismissive of the serious points Rosenberg raised.

“The problem is that that argument is based upon controversial premises such as if God is all powerful, he can create just any world that he wants and that if God is all good, he would want to create a world without evil, and neither one of those is necessarily true. And that is why among philosophers, even atheists, the logical version of the problem of evil is widely rejected. So what Dr. Rosenberg needs to show is that it is impossible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world, and until he does that he hasn’t even begun to offer a problem of evil that disproves theism.”

Craig is incorrect in this statement made early in his first rebuttal to Rosenberg’s opening speech that Rosenberg is arguing that since God did not create a world without suffering, and that, given the theistic attributes of omnipotence and benevolence, He should have been able to, this defeats theism. Rather, Rosenberg is arguing that the mere fact of evil in the world is incompatible with theism based on Rosenberg’s proprietary definition of theistic benevolence.  Craig should have attacked Rosenberg’s definition of benevolence, as I did above, rather than default to the debate tactic.  That said, Craig’s debate skills were in excellent form with his counter.  He quickly turned the table on Rosenberg by redirecting the burden of proof for the success of the Argument from Evil back onto the shoulders of Rosenberg.

Alex Rosenberg: First Rebuttal

In his own first rebuttal, Rosenberg reiterates the fact that his argument rests on the question of the logical compatibility of the supposed co-existence of suffering and an omnipotent and benevolent god, something that Craig failed to address in his first rebuttal. Rosenberg is correct to refer to Craig’s rebuttal as a “brief rejoinder.”

“The last thing I want to talk about is Dr. Craig’s brief rejoinder that there is no logical incompatibility between God’s being omnipotent and benevolent and the existence of suffering.

William Lane Craig: Second Rebuttal

In Craig’s second rebuttal, he commits the same infraction that he accuses Rosenberg of committing when he argues that Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen have concluded that the logical version of the argument fails.  This appeal by Craig to authority is somewhat dubious as both Plantinga and van Inwagen are committed Christian philosophers and apologists.

“I am really excited about that last statement that Dr. Rosenberg made. Honestly, Dr. Rosenberg, if you would read the work of people like Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, and others on this problem of evil, you will know that hardly anyone to date defends the logical version of the problem of evil because the atheist simply hasn’t been able to shoulder the burden of proof required to put it through.”

Rosenberg committed the offense when he argued in his opening speech that:

“There are 2,000 members of the National Academy of Sciences, the most important body of the most distinguished scientists in the United States (of which four are faculty here at Purdue as are Purdue’s two Noble Prize winners in chemistry), of these 2,000 people, 95% of them are atheist and the percentage for the physicists is even higher. What do these people know about physics that Dr. Craig doesn’t know? Is it a coincidence that this number of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are unbelievers?”

Craig denies his own theology when he argues that God created the world to maximize the number of conversions:

“It’s possible that only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would the optimal number of people come to know God freely, find salvation and eternal life. So the atheist will have to prove that there is another possible world that has this much knowledge of God and his salvation in it but which is produced with less evils. How can he possibly prove that? It is pure conjecture.”

There is no “optimal number of people [who] come to know God freely, [and, as a result] find salvation and eternal life.” Orthodox Christian theology teaches that salvation and eternal life are not the results of people freely coming to know God, especially through their observance and/or endurance of evil and suffering.  On the contrary, the apostle Paul wrote that “no one seeks God” Romans 3:11.  Further, the Savior, Jesus, Himself said that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” John 6:44.  No one comes to God through any means other than the regenerative and illuminative work of the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:4-7 Paul writes,

“But when the kindness of god our savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the holy spirit, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our savior, so that being justified by his grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

We are regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit, by whom we are made able to receive the gospel message and, in response, turn in repentant faith to Christ.  People come to Christ who have never endured or witnessed or even been aware of the depths of evil and suffering into which man, broadly, has plunged himself through the ages.  The knowledge of evil is not the means by which God saves souls.

Alex Rosenberg: Second Rebuttal

Rosenberg fairly summarizes the Free Will Defense offered by Craig, and gives a serious three-point argument in response.

“Professor Craig invoked the free will defense: that God gave us free will and because he gave us free will, he gave us the power to do evil and the evil is done by us as a result of our exercise of free will. Well, I have three things to say about this. The first is that God could have given us free will without giving us the Holocaust or the Bubonic Plague. He could have given us free will without giving us all the horror of the history of our species. The second thing is that God apparently made some people with free will who caused no suffering at all, whether it’s small children or the saints of the Catholic Church or whoever your favorite person without sin may be. And the third thing is this… Why couldn’t God have arranged the universe and us so that we all have free will and temptation was never presented to us, or when it was presented to us, we always chose rightly? …That seems to me a logically coherent possibility and is enough to show that the problem of evil remains with us.”

William Lane Craig: Closing Statement

In his closing statement, Craig gives a response to Rosenberg’s complaints about the Free Will Defense.

“This has been dealt with by theists dealing with the problem of evil, and the reason is because the wrong subjunctive conditionals of freedom might be true for God to actualize such a world. There are possible worlds which are not feasible for God to actualize because if he were to create the creatures in certain circumstances and leave them free, they would go wrong. And as far as we know, for all that we know, in any world with free creatures in which there is this much good in the world, there will also be this much evil. It may not be feasible for God to actualize a world having this much good without this much evil.”

I would offer one additional point to buttress the Free Will Defense.  Even if it were granted that the Holocaust, the Bubonic Plague, and a hundred other of the worst episodes of mass suffering in history were prevented from ever having occurred, atheists would simply choose the next hundred worst episodes that occurred and complain that they had not been prevented by a benevolent God.  The point is that the theist could argue that God could have created a universe in which there was much more suffering than this one, but that He limited to the degree necessary to achieve His objectives the suffering and evil in the universe He actually created.  Without any benchmark, the atheist has establish one arbitrarily and, thus, cannot argue that there should be less evil and suffering in the world, if there were an omnipotent, benevolent god.  In other words, who is the atheist to say that the historical and current levels of evil and suffering are any more than they should be, since the atheist has no benchmark, other than his own attitudes about right and wrong (which he would argue are not moral absolutes anyway), from which to demand less?


In conclusion, the Craig – Rosenberg debate on the question of the reasonableness of faith in God was not a perfect performance by either participant, however lively and interesting it may have been.  While the poled audience gave the debate to Craig hands down, Craig was only partially successful, if his intentions reached beyond the mere winning of the debate by technical decision on points.

Craig is perhaps the most skilled debating apologist on the circuit today.  Nonetheless, he could have offered more direct responses to Rosenberg’s argument, including some of the responses that I offered in this paper.  At times, Craig seemed too focused on winning the debate rather than winning the hearts of Rosenberg and the non-Christians in the audience.  Careful viewers likely saw that Craig skirted some of Rosenberg’s points and that may have left them with a few unanswered questions.

Rosenberg’s logical version of the Argument from Evil left some to be desired. In addition to Craig’s very good responses, I offered a number of additional credible responses as well, the combined weight of which seriously weakens, if not outright defeats, Rosenberg’s argument.

It was obvious that Rosenberg was in command of his subjects, even though he appeared nervous and inarticulate at times.  Much of the nervousness and inarticulateness is lost in the written transcript.  On more substantive ground, Rosenberg seemed oblivious to fact that there are actual goods that can and do come from evil and suffering, even if some of them may be distasteful to him.  I showed that even Rosenberg would have to agree with the adage, “No pain, no gain.”

I would hope that Rosenberg’s next outing performance reflects greater pre-debate preparation.  As apologists, we do not want easy wins.  The more rigorous the debate, the more the truth of Christianity is shown to stand well its ground.  And in his future outings, I also hope that Craig remembers that he is not debating in order merely to win debates, however noble that objective may be.  He is debating to win hearts and minds to Christ.  After all, apologetics is one important and indispensible way we are fulfilling the Great Commission in our time.


[1]  Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions (Christian Image Publications, 2013).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *