Tackling The Problem Of Evil - Part 3: The Butterfly Effect

In the previous blog post, we saw that a theistic universe contains suffering because God gave human beings free will, He gave humans free will despite knowing ahead of time that we would go wrong because only in a free-will world, can love be possible, not to mention moral accountability. A possible world where free-will creatures never go wrong was infeasible for God to actualize, if it were feasible, He would have created it. He didn't refrain from creating anything at all because the wicked shouldn't have a veto power over whether or not God is free to create. The actions of Jack The Ripper shouldn't prevent me from experiencing an eternity with God.

But one may wonder why God even sits back and allows people to go wrong at all? Why not intervene beforehand? Why not reach down and slap the apple out of Adam's hand? Why not give the 9/11 terrorists heart attacks before they could board the plane? In the previous post, I said that one reason is that this would be akin to putting shock collars on humans, and therefore they wouldn't really be free at all. However, I think there's more to it than that. Maybe God has some reasons for not intervening to stop occurrences of evil and suffering.

I brought this up as a possibility in part 1 of this series, and the mere possibility that God can have good reasons for not intervening is enough to refute the logical version. However, the advocate of the probabalistic version will say that we need to show that it's probable that God has good reasons. He thinks it's improbable. Certainly when you think about all of the various evils that have afflicted our world since the dawn of man, it certainly seems improbable that God could have good reasons for permitting every single one of them. But while it may seem improbable, is it actually improbable?

The Butterfly Effect, Sliding Doors, And Cognitive Limitations

I don't think we're in a position to judge one way or another whether it's probable that God has good reasons for permitting suffering. We're just not in a position to make such probability judgments given that we humans are limited in time and space, and are of finite knowledge. God, on the other hand, is omniscient. He sees the end of history from it's beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and He knows what would occur in any given circumstance. The only one who would be in the position to make such probabilities would be God Himself!

In chapter 7 of his book On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision, William Lane Craig offers two illustrations to flush out this point; one from contemporary science and the other from pop culture.

The first illustration draws on the concept of Chaos Theory: that tiny disturbances in a system can set off a chain reaction that leads to catastrophic consequences. Craig makes reference to a butterfly fluttering its little wings on a tree branch. People looking just think "Aw, what a pretty butterfly", but little do they know that the fluttering of this butterfly's wings has set in motion a chain of events which eventually result in a hurricane blowing over the Atlantic Ocean. No one observing that little butterfly could possibly have predicted such an outcome.

The second illustration draws from the movie Sliding Doors which features a woman named Helen, portrayed by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie opens with Helen hurrying downstairs to catch a train. But as she nears the train, her life splits into two totally different timelines, two totally different lives Helen could live. In one life, she is enormously successful, prosperous, and happy. In the other life, she encounters failure, misery, and unhappiness. Whichever life she endures will all depend on a split second difference on whether or not she is able to pass through the subway doors. Dr. Craig then points out that that difference is due to whether a little girl playing with her dolly is either (A) snatched away by her father, or (B) momentarily blocks Helen's path. Craig says that we have to wonder about the events that lead up to that event. Craig says that perhaps whether A or B occurs is due to whether the girl and her father were delayed leaving the house that morning because his daughter refused to eat her cereal, or whether the man just wasn't paying attention to what his daughter was doing because he preoccupied with reading the newspaper. What lead up to that event? We don't have a clue.

The movie has a twist at the end. In the happy and successful life, Helen is killed. In the life that brought her so much misery, it turns around and she finds true love. Dr. William Lane Craig's point is that given our cognitive limitations, we are in no position to judge whether or not God can have a morally sufficient reason for permitting any event. Given the dizzying complexity of life, and the incomprehensible way in which events are intertwined with one another, it is beyond the mental capacity of mere man to say that with any confidence whatsoever that, when some incident of suffering occurs, that it's improbable that God has a good reason for permitting it.

Craig writes “Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history, such that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another country. Only an all-knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward His envisioned goals. Just think of the innumerable, incalculable events involved in arriving at a single historical event, say, the Allied victory at D-day! We have no idea of what suffering might be involved in order for God to achieve some intended purpose through the freely chosen actions of human persons. Nor should we expect to discern God’s reasons for permitting suffering. It’s hardly surprising that much suffering seems pointless and unnecessary to us, for we are overwhelmed by such complexity.”1

Given the dizzying complexity and the impossible to comprehend way that our choices and the events of ours lives interlock with one another and affect the course of history, it is impossible for us to be confident in making probability judgments on whether something allowed by God was justified. 

From Helen’s perspective, whether or not she got through the sliding doors didn’t seem like such a life changing event to her, but if you’re an omniscient Being like God, then you know whether a certain event happens or not can have radical effects on future events that take place after that, if you want a certain event in the future to occur, you’ll have to allow a certain event in the present to occur. If A doesn’t happen, then B won’t happen, if not B, then not C, if C doesn’t happen, then D won’t happen, if D doesn’t happen, then E won’t happen. In order to get E to happen, you’ll have to allow A through D to happen. Events A through D may be events of horrible suffering, but event E is a greater good which justifies the allowance of events A through D. God knew that if he didn't allow suffering A, then greater good E would not occur. 

To refer back to the question of why God didn't strike the 9/11 terrorists down before they could destroy The World Trade Center, God knew the ripple effect that would emerge from that single event: what would happen if He allowed it, and what would happen if He prevented it. Why did God allow 9/11? I have no idea. But God does. Perhaps God had many morally sufficient reasons for permitting it to occur that will manifest themselves at different points in time in different peoples lives for centuries. Maybe there's some event in in the 25th century God needs to bring about, but it wouldn't come about unless God allowed 9/11 to occur. 

Time Travel Illustrations! Great Scott!

Read any science fiction novel or watch any movie about time travel and you'll see a recurring rule given to the time travelers: don't tamper with the events of the past. Don't change even a single thing! If you do, you could alter the future in ways unimaginable. If you step on a butterfly in 23,000 B.C you could end up being ruled by super intelligent butterflies in 23,000 A.D. 

In Back To The Future, the birth of the protagonist Marty McFly depended on whether or not his peeping Tom of a father got hit by his grandfather's car, resulting in them taking him into the house to meet his would-be mother Loraine, and other events that followed. However, when Marty traveled back into the past, he ended up being the one to get hit by the car, resulting in his would-be mother falling for him instead. Marty had to find some way to get Loraine and George together or else he would be erased from existence! 

In a Star Trek episode called  "City On The Edge Of Forever," McCoy accidentally changes history so the Nazis win World War II, and as a result in the present, the Enterprise no longer exists. 

Time Travel enthusiasts know full well that changing even a single event can send ripples through time. Every event brings about other events, so if one event doesn't occur, the events that that event prompts or causes won't occur. God, being omniscient, will know what will happen whether He allows or stops X from occurring. If X would bring about a greater good, or if X would prevent disaster, God might allow it. 

Let's say that a man named Rick has an important interview for a high paying job. He prays to God that he does well in the interview and that he gets the job. But on the day Rick is supposed to meet with his would-be employer, his car won't start! He can't go anywhere! He could call an UBER cab or a friend to take him, but by the time they reach his house, pick him up, and take him to the office, he will have been late. You see, when Rick entered his car, he was already running late. There was a short black out the previous night, so Rick's alarm clock went off and never came back on, so Rick overslept. There is no conceivable way for Rick to get to the interview, so Rick prays and prays and prays for God to make his car start. After 20 minutes of praying and turning the key, Rick angrily storms into his house. He misses the interview and doesn't get the job.

Why did God allow Rick to not get this job? Doesn't He know how badly he needed it? Doesn't he know that the Job Rick currently has is barely enough to put food on the table? God knew that if Rick had left the house, he would have been in a fatal car accident. By allowing things to come about as they did, God saved Rick's life. Moreover, God also knew that 10 years after this event, Rick would be in the just-right place at the just-right time to stop a suicide. Ten years from that date, Rick would be walking down the street and see a man about to jump from a bridge. Rick manages to not only talk the man out of committing suicide, but he also leads him to Christ. If God answered Rick's prayer for his car to start, he would have died, and if Rick died, he wouldn't have been able to talk that man 10 years later out of committing suicide and to give his life to Christ. And if Rick hadn't lead that man to Christ, he would have gone through with his suicide, died without knowing Christ, and would have gone to Hell. By not answering Rick's prayer ("God, please make my car start"), he not only saved Rick's life, but he saved another man's soul.

When Rick was angrily storming into the house, he had no idea why God allowed his car to break down and miss an important job opportunity, but in retrospect, Rick can see that God's inaction was justly permitted.

Here's another illustration: A soldier loses his leg in a war and he meets his true love (a nurse) at the hospital he goes to. They get married and have a child. That child grows up to be a doctor and saves many lives. One of the lives that doctor saved was a future scientist who would find the cure for cancer. If that soldier hadn't lost his leg in the war, he wouldn't have met the woman of his dreams, and they would not have given birth to the doctor, and that doctor would not have saved all those lives including the scientist who would discover the cure for cancer.

Biblical Examples Of God Using Suffering To Bring About Good

There are examples of God permitting suffering to bring about greater goods in The Bible as well. This isn't actually surprising as The Bible teaches that God allows suffering to bring about a greater good. Romans 8:28 says "And we know that God works all things for the good of those who love Him.". The first example that comes to mind is the story of Joseph in Genesis chapters 37-50. 

Joseph was the son of Jacob who was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham. Joseph was one of Jacob’s 12 sons. Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was Jacob’s favorite child and this was obvious from the fact that Jacob constantly showered Joseph with far more affection than his other children. One day Joseph’s brothers finally had enough, and they sold him into slavery.

As if being a slave weren’t bad in and of itself, Joseph suffered in his slavery as well. Pontiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to rape her (she did this out of spite because she came onto him and he refused to have sex with her). This resulted in Joseph being sent to prison. While Joseph was in prison, he was able to accurately interpret the dreams of two other prisoners who were there. One of those prisoners told the Pharaoh about Joseph’s amazing ability to accurately interpret dreams once they were released and Pharaoh was in need of having someone interpret his dreams. Pharaoh let Joseph out of prison and told him his dreams. Joseph told the Pharaoh that his two dreams meant that there would be 7 years of abundant food followed by 7 years of horrible famine, and that to prevent widespread starvation he should store up food during the 7 years of abundance so that they could compensate for the lack of food the next 7 years. Pharaoh elected Joseph as governor and put him in charge of food storage.

As bad as Joseph’s experience was, God had a good reason for allowing it all to happen; If God hadn’t let Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, Joseph would never have been able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and that would mean that Pharoah would not have known to save up food during the 7 years of abundance so that they would have food to eat during the 7 years of famine, and that would mean that thousands of people would have died of starvation. As Joseph was being carried off to Egypt, he was probably wondering why God didn’t intervene to stop his brothers from selling him into slavery. He might have been thinking “Why didn’t God stop my brothers from selling me into slavery? Now I’ll never see my father and younger brother Benjamin again!” If Joseph had reasoned like an atheist, he would have thought "I can't see any good reason for God not to have intervened to stop my brothers from selling him into slavery. God must not exist." But Joseph later realized God’s purpose for allowing his suffering (and Jacob’s suffering as well for that matter since Jacob was mourning because he believed a wild animal had killed Joseph). He himself said so when he saw his brothers again years later “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” – Genesis 50:20

God had a reason for not intervening when Joseph's brothers were sinning against him, but from Joseph's vantage point it was impossible to discern that reason. If Joseph had judged that it was improbable that God had a good reason for allowing him to be sold into slavery, he would have been wrong. 

The crucifixion of Jesus is another example. From the perspective of the disciples, Jesus' crucifixion made absolutely no sense. The 1st-century Jewish expectation of the messiah would be that of a conquring warrior king. They had no expectation of a dying and rising messiah. So, when Jesus was being crucified, it likely bewildered the disciples. It's only in hindsight, after the resurrection, that the disciples realized why God allowed Jesus to die. Jesus was being punished for our sins, He was experiencing the punishment we were supposed to experience (Romans 4:25, 1 Corinthians 15:3) and He did this not only for a few people but for the entire human race (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 2:4-6). Because of the suffering of Christ on the cross, any wicked person who forsakes his wicked ways and turns to Christ will be forgiven by Him (see Isaiah 55:7). He will “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

The worst evil in history: the torturous, slow death of the innocent incarnate God was permitted (actually, planned) to bring about the greatest good in history: the chance to be saved from the penalty and power of sin. If God had a good reason in allowing His son to be tortured, couldn't he have good reasons for allowing other evils? If God could bring the greatest good (salvation) out of the greatest evil (the torture and mutilation of His Son), couldn't he bring other goods from other evils? I think the burden of proof lies on anyone who says "No". 

There are 3 other instances I could talk about, but I won't here. I cover them in the blog post titled "5 Instances In The Bible Of God Having Good Reasons For Suffering"

We Know How Many Times God Doesn't Stop Suffering, But What About All The Times That He Does? 

We know how many times God does not intervene to prevent something bad from happening, but we have no idea how many times He does intervene. For example, if God caused me to have trouble finding my car keys in order to make me late for work, yes I might get in trouble with my boss if I'm late for work, but....God might have caused or allowed me to lose my keys so that I would be delayed from getting on the road and being in a precise moment where I would be in fatal car crash. Therefore, in that example, it's possible that by getting me to be late for work, God ended up saving my life.

We don't know how many examples like this may exist in our lives. The reason we don't know is that the things never come to pass. We know about the bad things that happen to us, but often times, we're clueless of how close we came to disaster. Do you remember that old cartoon cliche with the sleepwalking character that was always headed for impending doom? Another character was always trying to manage the situation to prevent this character from sleepwalking to his death. The sleepwalker walks into traffic and nearly gets hit by cars but miraculously makes it to the other side (much to the Sleepwalker's friend’s relief). He would then be headed towards a hole filled with cement at a construction site until the character saved the sleepwalker by moving a crane holding a steel beam over to him. The sleepwalker would then be walking across the steel beam. Of course, he’s about to fall off which makes it important for our frantic hero to move the steel beam over to the unfinished building so he can have more footing. This goes and on and on until finally the sleepwalker makes it back home in one piece, wakes up and doesn’t know all that his friend went through to keep him from dying.

In an analogous way, we have no idea how many times God has stepped in and prevented disaster from befalling us. 

A fictitious conversation I once read on Facebook perfectly gets this point across. A person comes home after having a bad day, and he asks God "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" and God says "Sure". The guy says "Why do you allow so many bad things to happen to me today? First, I woke up late, then my car took forever to start, then, at lunch, they made my sandwich wrong and I had to wait. On the way home, my phone went dead just as I picked up a call. On top of it all, when I got home, I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager. But my foot massager wouldn't work! Nothing went right today! Why did You do that, God?" and God responded "The death angel was at your bed this morning and I had to send one of my angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that. I didn't allow your car to start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road. The first person who made your sandwich today was sick and I didn't want you to catch what they have. I knew you couldn't afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call. I didn't even let you talk to them so you would be covered. Oh, and that foot massager, it had a shortage that was going to throw out all the power in your house tonight. I didn't think you wanted to be sitting in the dark." After hearing God explain himself, the man was ashamed and embarrassed, and softly said: "I'm sorry, God." God said to the man "Don't be sorry. Just learn to trust Me...in all things, the good and the bad." 

In the conversation, you can see that God allowed some inconveniences in order to prohibit greater suffering from occurring. 


God can have and most likely does have morally sufficient reasons for permitting instances of evil and suffering to occur. Every event that occurs in history sends a ripple effect throughout time. God, being omniscient, knows what would happen whether he permits a certain evil or not. Moreover, given the dizzying complexity of life, we are in no position to judge whether God could have a good reason for permitting X.

Additionally, The Bible teaches in Romans 8:28 that God works all things for the good of those who love Him, and The Bible's historical narratives actually show us examples of God permitting suffering and shows us the good that came out of it (e.g Joseph's brothers selling Joseph into slavery, Jesus' crucifixion). This makes it more probable that God exists in light of suffering, since not only do we know that God can permit suffering to bring about good, but God actually has done that in the past, according to The Bible. And remember, the atheist has to take what The Bible says into consideration because he's pretending it's true for the sake of the argument. This raises the question: If God could have good reasons for allowing Joseph and Jesus to suffer like they did, couldn't He have good reasons to allow other instances of suffering? 

Every event sends ripples through time and God, being omniscient, knows what would happen if He permits or stops X from occurring. We are not omniscient, so when some instance of suffering afflicts our lives, it is arrogant of us to claim that God should have intervened to stop it from happening. God said "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:9). This is why Scripture tells us to "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;" (Proverbs 3:5). Now, I want to make clear that what I have said is not an appeal to mystery. What I've argued is that our cognitive limitations prevent us from being able to rightly judge whether any instance of suffering couldn't be justly permitted by God. God knows the ripple effects that would spring forth from every event that happens in history, and in His wisdom, He may not stop that instance of suffering from occurring because He knows the future will be better off because of it. We don't know the ripples that 9/11 caused, or the ripples that the Holocaust caused, or the ripples that came from someone's child dying in infancy, but God does. God does. God is omniscient and we are not, so would it not make more sense to put faith in His judgments than in our own? 


1: William Lane Craig, "On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision", Chapter 7, page 158, David C Cook.