Hippopotami and the Problem of Evil

I received a question from someone struggling with difficulties in the Old Testament and with how a good God can allow people to go to hell.

My response is below:

I would like to provide you with the form of argument you seem to be dealing with.  There are a family of arguments that all take the same form and I refer to them generally as the “Problem of Evil.”  It can be the “Problem of Unbelief”, or the “Problem of Slavery”, or the “Problem of Kooky Laws” and the form of the argument will be the same:

  1. Nothing happens apart from God’s allowing it. (for the reductio)
  2. X happens.
  3. Therefore, God allows X.
  4. God will not allow X unless God has a morally sufficient reason (MSR) to allow it.
  5. God does not have an MSR for X.
  6. Therefore, God does not allow X.
  7. Therefore, God both does and does not allow X, which is absurd.

With only slight modifications, you can modify this to your current problem and see the reasoning.  Perhaps 1) becomes “No law is prescribed in scripture apart from God’s prescribing it,” and 4) would become, “God would not prescribe X unless he has a morally sufficient reason (MSR) to prescribe it.”

Most of these arguments fail at several points, but they all fail at premise 5.  In order for such a critical argument to go through, we would need to know that God does not have a morally sufficient reason to allow/prescribe what he allows/prescribes.  We simply are not in a position to know such a thing.  Stephen Wykstra gives a great analogy that helps to show why.

Imagine you are in a dog park and you say to yourself, “I do not see any hippopotamus in this park, therefore there are no hippopotamus in this park.”  Surely such a conclusion is warranted because you can expect to see any hippopotamus that may be present.  Consider, however, a different line of reasoning, “I do not hear any dog whistles blowing, therefore there are no dog whistles blowing.”  Now suddenly such a conclusion is unreasonable.  Why?  Because you would not expect to hear a dog whistle if it were blowing.

When it comes to God’s morally sufficient reasons to do what he does, we simply are not in a position to know those things.  God operates at a scale much greater than we can fathom.  His morally sufficient reasons may occur in a different century than the one in which we live, and perhaps on a different continent.  For this reason our inability to know what God’s reasons are is insufficient for us to conclude that he does not have morally sufficient reasons.  The critic, however, must show that God does not have such reasons for his argument to go through.

When you are feeling doubt as a result of these things, I would just remind yourself that you just aren’t in a position to know everything.  The moral of the story in the book of Job is that we should trust God when we don’t know on the basis of what we do know.

Matt Bilyeu

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