A Review of Lee Strobel: the Problem of Evil

So I’ve started reading The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. Strobel was a journalist for many years and worked with the Chicago Tribune. After spending a long time as a skeptic, he converted to Christianity in 1981. In this book, he looks at 8 objections to believing in God and examines whether or not they make faith reasonable. So far, I’ve only read the introduction and his chapter on the first objection.

The book relies heavily on interviews. Strobel tries to be the objective journalist in this book — simply asking the hard questions and searching for the truth. But it doesn’t take long to see that his objectivity is very hard to maintain. It’s hard to fault him too much on this though, because most people would probably struggle with staying objective on such a topic. He has come armed with “The Big Eight” objections to believing in God (and Christianity, especially). They are:

  • Since evil and suffering exist, a loving God cannot
  • Since miracles contradict science, they cannot be true
  • Evolution explains life, so God isn’t needed
  • God isn’t worthy of worship if he kills innocent children
  • It’s offensive to claim Jesus is the only way to God
  • A loving God would never torture people in Hell
  • Church history is littered with oppression and violence
  • I still have doubts, so I can’t be a Christian

He then interviews a respected theologian or scholar about each objection, and I assume he finds their responses satisfactory. As I said, I’ve only read through the first objection so far. But there are a couple of things that have frustrated me, and I wanted to expound on them a little.

In the book’s introduction, Strobel interviews Charles Templeton. Templeton was a friend and contemporary of Billy Graham, and he served as a Christian evangelist until he became an agnostic in 1957. He passed away in 2001. In his interview with Strobel, he said that one of the reasons he finally lost his faith was due to a picture in Life magazine. It depicted a mother whose baby had died in the midst of a severe drought. She was holding the baby in her arms and looking up to Heaven in despair. He thought to himself, “Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?” [Strobel, p 14]

Templeton elaborates further in the interview, and while I hate to bulk up this post with too many quotes, I think it’s important to include what he says:

“And then I began to think further about the world being the creation of God. I started considering the plagues that sweep across parts of the planet and indiscriminately kill — more often than not, painfully — all kinds of people, the ordinary, the decent, and the rotten. And it just became crystal clear to me that it is not possible for an intelligent person to believe that there is a deity who loves…”

But Templeton wasn’t done. “My mind then went to the whole concept of hell. My goodness,” he said, his voice infused with astonishment, “I couldn’t hold someone’s hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever — not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity? There is no criminal who would do this!”
–Strobel, p 14-15

Templeton is describing the problem of suffering, or the problem of evil. Epicurus famously summed up the problem this way:

Either God wants to abolish evil and cannot; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to but cannot, he is impotent. If he can and does not want to, he is wicked. But if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil in the world?

If you really think through those points, you can see the dilemma. The problem of evil strikes directly at the notion that God is all-loving and all-powerful. But there are a couple of responses that people sometimes give to this dilemma, and Strobel covers them in his first chapter when he interviews Peter Kreeft, author, philosophy professor, and Catholic.

One of the responses to the problem of evil is that it’s a natural by-product of free will. If God created us with the ability to make choices, then by necessity some of our possible choices would be wrong ones, or evil. That doesn’t mean God himself created evil or that he approves of it. But because he loves us and wants us to have free will, he has given us the ability to create evil. When Strobel asks about this in the book, Kreeft replies with the following challenge:

“Pretend you’re God and try to create a better world in your imagination. Try to create utopia. But you have to think through the consequences of everything you try to improve. Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom. To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose love.”
— Strobel, p 42

There’s certainly a core of logic in Kreeft’s point. He argues that the only way to truly ensure no evil exists is to take away someone’s right to choose it. Where I get frustrated is immediately following this. I think Strobel could have pushed this issue a little further, but he moves onto another topic as though Kreeft’s point is impregnable.

First of all, I don’t think it would be necessary to take away someone’s ability to choose just to make sure bad things don’t happen. There are people in our world right now who would love to start a nuclear apocalypse — so those people aren’t given access to nuclear weapons. Plenty of military and law enforcement personnel have been saved by bulletproof vests, even though the criminals who fired at them were able to exercise their free will. So would it not be possible for God to stop evil acts from causing damage, even though a person made the decision to go through with it? According to Genesis, he stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, despite Abraham’s intention to go through with the sacrifice.

Also, how free are we to “choose love” (as Kreeft puts it) when something like Hell awaits those who don’t make the right choice? If I withhold food from my children until they tell me they love me, why would I think their profession of love was genuine? If God really wanted us to freely choose to love him, then why do Heaven and Hell hang in the balance? Why does he not have a personal relationship with each one of us? I really admire Abraham Lincoln, but I don’t love him the way that I love my brother because I have no real relationship with him. Even when very religious people talk about their relationships with God and Jesus, they still aren’t the same sort of relationships that we have with the people who are close to us. You can’t see God or Jesus. You can’t carry on a real conversation with them. In order to really love someone, you need to know them intimately, not be threatened by them.

But those are minor points. My main issue with Kreeft’s assertion is that he completely undermines the concept of Heaven, which also causes a problem for him. If God couldn’t create a utopia without stripping away free will, what will Heaven be like? Will we be merely puppets in Heaven? Or maybe someone could use the argument that Heaven is a completely different plane of existence and none of us will even want to do anything evil there, even if we have free will. But that just takes us back to our original dilemma. If God could create such a place, why didn’t he do it here? And doesn’t that notion also contradict the idea that Satan is a fallen angel? How could he be if Heaven is a place where choosing evil is impossible? I would love to have read Kreeft’s response to those questions, but Strobel never brought them up.

The other response to the problem of evil that Kreeft talked about is the notion that pain isn’t always bad. For instance, when you go to the dentist you willingly endure a certain amount of pain because you expect an end result that makes it all worthwhile. But there are even situations where someone endures pain without understanding the benefit. An example of that would be a toddler getting a shot from his pediatrician. So perhaps the bad things we experience in this life work toward something better that we just don’t understand at the moment because of our limited perspective.

On the surface, this also sounds very reasonable. How many times have we all learned valuable lessons from otherwise bad experiences? And people often say that you learn more from failures than you do from successes. But when I look at the specifics of this response, I see a glaring problem. To illustrate it, I’d like to quote an extensive passage from Strobel’s interview with Kreeft:

“Job was wondering who God was, because it looked as if God was a cosmic sadist. At the end of the book of Job, the all-time classic on the problem of suffering, God finally shows up with the answer — and the answer is a question.

“He says to Job, ‘Who are you? Are you God? Did you write this script? Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ And Job realizes the answer is no. Then he’s satisfied. Why? Because he sees God! God doesn’t write him a book. He could have written the best book on the problem of evil ever written. Instead, he shows himself to Job.”

“And that satisfied him –” [spoken by Strobel]

“Yes! It has to — that’s what’s going to satisfy us forever in heaven. I think Job gets a foretaste of heaven at the end of the book of Job, because he meets God. If it were only words that God gave him, that would mean that Job could dialogue and ask God another question and God would give a good answer and Job would ask another question the next day and the next day, because Job was a very demanding philosopher. This would go on and on and never end. What could make it end? God’s presence!

“God didn’t let Job suffer because he lacked love, but because he did love, in order to bring Job to the point of encountering God face to face, which is humanity’s supreme happiness. Job’s suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that God and joy could fill it.”
— Strobel, p 50

Sorry, I know that was an extremely long passage to quote. But I think it’s important to give you his whole argument. I don’t know if Peter Kreeft has children. But if he does, I wonder how he handled all their questions as they grew up. Considering his portrayal of Job’s questions to God, I suppose he would have found them tedious.

But what really got me about this point is how he sums it up in the last paragraph. He essentially says that suffering is all worth it as long as we learn a lesson from it. Job’s suffering was really an example of God’s love because it gave Job a chance to interact with God. Well do you happen to remember all the things Job suffered through? In Job 1:18-19, we learn that Job’s 7 sons and 3 daughters were all killed as part of this bet between God and Satan. That was a measure of God’s love? Honestly, I find that offensive. And if God does exist, attributing such occurrences to his love is horrible blasphemy.

Even if we accept that Job reached some amazing level of enlightenment through this experience, what did his sons and daughters gain? What did they learn from it? And what parent would want to learn that lesson at the expense of his children? What kind of god would consider it “love” to kill 10 children just to teach one of the parents a lesson in enlightenment? In Job 42:12-13, Job is finally rewarded for all his trials and he’s even given replacements for his children — 7 boys and 3 girls. But how can they be replacements? Nothing really replaces those first children.

And that’s the problem with Kreeft’s answer. It treats too many people as collateral damage — Job’s children, the African woman’s dead child, etc. If God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) then how to we make sense of Kreeft’s answer? Too many things just don’t add up. But once again, Strobel doesn’t push him any further.

As I said, I’ve only just gotten started with this book. Maybe it gets much better. But I do know that he won’t really touch the problem of evil again in this book, and I’m disappointed with the way he treats it. I do think it’s one of the biggest problems facing the concept of Christianity, and it would have been interesting to see someone like Peter Kreeft tackle the real problems with it. Unfortunately, those problems are never addressed.

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8 thoughts on “A Review of Lee Strobel: the Problem of Evil”

  1. I struggled with the story of Job for many years… I look forward to discussing it with you sometime. It looks like I have a lot of reading to do, looking forward to reading about your journey over this last year.

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  2. i think you over-simplify Kreeft’s response, Job’s too…even the idea of “collateral damage” as applied to God is an anthropomorphizing of God that Kreeft generally doesn’t do…to see his response as allowing for “collateral damage” is again a signficant over-simplification, i believe…even as i am over-simplifying my response to your thoughtful blog…which is a common human response when we either look for a point of disagreement or when we look to find a reason to “repent” (change our mind) about something…as did Templeton…

    one of the reasons the OT wisdom & prophets are such deep, layered reading is that YHWH reveals deep bits of His heart to humans who always struggle with what He says & how He says it…i think He expects & hopes that we will continue to struggle…for if we keep up the struggle to seek…He has promised a “finding” for us…

    i think that neither the scriptures or God, Himself, ever makes light of evil, of suffering, of human pain, of animal pain…instead, this is what WE tend to do in the making of theology or philosophy as we try to fit the Eternal God & our own lives into our various mental boxes…the boxes that we either profess belief in or choose to reject…we tend to make straw men from our various views of God, both positive & negative…another common human pattern… 🙂

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  3. so human in fact, it almost seems impossible to completely separate ourselves from it. The scriptures seem to indicate that we will be judged, condemned or rewarded, for how we handle that struggle.

    The mysteries of god and the unknowns of the universe, or mortality, eternity and the afterlife are so similar to those of other faiths, as are the “proofs” of such. Part of the struggle is knowing which avenue god wants us to take, if god really even defined an avenue in the first place.

    If we simply decide or if we will just pick a starting place, it makes that part of our struggle easier. Some will just start off with the bible and go from there, while others pick or are given the koran as a starting point, and others still will start from other view points – each with their own nuggets of truth and share of questions.

    How do we determine where to start, if we are trying to be like those noble Berians and question everything, to ensure we follow god and not man? What faith is better? When are problems just over our mortal heads and when are they obvious problems that should prompt us to discard one plan and move to the next?

    I think it may be where the devil lives – in the details.

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  4. As I’m sure you know, the problem of evil is actully “The Problems” of evil, for there are several. I also assume you know that the problem is greater for the atheist, for if God does not exist, then all that does exist are natural forces which are neither evil nor good. I have written on this many times. But two are here:
    https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/does-the-existence-of-moral-evil-prove-or-disprove-god/

    https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/does-the-existence-of-evil-prove-or-disprove-god/

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  5. God could prevent children from suffering with cancer or dying by Tornado or some other divine wind, yet he does not save them.

    God commanded the Israelites to slaughter entire cities, including women and baby boys, but making sure they saved the virgin girls alive.

    Yeah, no problem with the christian God, You’re right, the Atheist must answer for evil if there is no God – because that makes sense.

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  6. Hey humblesmith,

    Thanks again for taking the time to dig into all of these. It will probably take me a while to fully answer all the comments you’ve left on the various posts. This just happens to be a really busy time for me work-wise, and I want to make sure I consider your points before just spouting off my initial reactions. But I will eventually get around to all of them.

    As to the problem(s) of evil, I do think this is one I can go ahead and answer. I disagree that it creates problems for the atheist. Since I don’t believe in a benevolent god (or any god at all), then I have no expectations that life should be pleasant for the moral and innocent. Life is just life — good things and bad things happen to everyone.

    Anyway, thanks again, and I’ll try to get back to you on some of the other points soon. Take care.

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  7. I think the issue humblesmith is bringing up is that, without God, there IS no “good” or “evil”. Stuff happens because of physics and chemistry. How can that be good or bad?

    Well, if there is an unchanging, Objective Good, then yeah, where did that come from? A universe of “molecules in motion” does not create objective standards of good and evil for us to discover…but that’s why we don’t.

    Is cannibalism evil? Some say “absolutely in all cases”; others say “only in the utmost dire necessity” (like the Donner Party, or that Soccer team whose plane crashed in South America in the ’70s–society generally did not condemn either group); but in some cultures and ages, like in protein-starved Oceania (Polynesia), it was accepted…but you can only eat defeated enemies, never your own tribe. The Aztecs were similarly accepting of eating enemies.

    Is incest evil? It can lead to a lot of genetic problems, so it is medically unwise, but its status as “evil” has not been universal. Many ancient cultures figured it was beneficial to keep the Royal Blood “pure” via broth-sister breeding for dynastic progression. The Bible, famously, tells that we are only here from two different instances where god engineered conditions so that incest was unavoidable. But then in Leviticus suddenly there are rules forbidding incest (though what is forbidden for women is different from restrictions on males). Abraham married his half-sister…but today we find that kind of thing morally repugnant.

    What about Polygamy? King David was a “man after God’s own heart” and he had 7 wives…and hundreds of Concubines, which are sex slaves. The only woman he got in trouble for was Bathsheeba, but only b/c of the evil way he went about obtaining her. The bible never says polygamy is wrong, only that if one wants to be a Bishop, one should be the “husband of one wife”. But we find the practice disgusting today.

    What about slavery? There are rules in the bible about who can be enslaved, what a fair price is, conditions for freeing a slave, and even how hard you can beat your slave before it is considered murder (he has to linger on 2-3 days, then you’re fine). One can argue “but you have to consider the culture back then”, but that just proves the point. We think god is against slavery b/c we are against slavery. If he really was against it, if it is Objectively Evil, then the Israelites would have been the most Progressive folks in history, for god would have told them “hey, these are fellow humans that I created in my image, they are not cattle; you cannot own them.”

    Where is the Objective Standard of Right & Wrong? Why do we find a similar standard of morality to our own in other Ape species (no incest, no cannibalism, murder and theft is condemned, etc), but find different standards in other social animals, like Lions (a New Male who defeats the old “king” will kill his cubs and start over)? Where is the Consistency of Design one would expect from a deity who claims to be “the same yesterday, today, and forever”?

    However, all these difficulties fade away with a Naturalistic Origin theory of morality.

    All this and we haven’t even covered the fact that the omni-benevolent, wise, and potent Mr. Deity could have created a world without droughts, floods, yellow fever, polio, The Plague, tsunamis, earthquakes, and tornadoes without removing any of our free will. This brings us right back to Epicurus.

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