Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering

Mitch LeBlanc has summarized an argument from J.L. Schellenberg called the Argument from Horrors. The argument begins by defining “horrific suffering.”

Horrific Suffering (def.) = that most awe-full form of suffering that gives the victim and/or the perpetrator a prima facie reason to think that his or her life is not worth living.

Schellenberg’s argument is then stated formally.

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God realize their deepest good.

(2) Necessarily, if God exists, the prevention of horrific suffering does not prevent there being finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God.

(3) Necessarily, if God exists, the prevention of horrific suffering does not prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good. (from 1, 2)

(4) Necessarily, if God exists, there is horrific suffering only if its prevention would prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good.

(5) Necessarily, if God exists, there is no horrific suffering. (from 3, 4)

(6) There is horrific suffering.

(7) God does not exist (from 5, 6)

Some may consider it unfortunate that I do not find the argument at all persuasive. Mitch asks, “What could be superior to the experience of the perfectly good, merciful, loving, just, and wise creator of everything?” The answer to this question as it pertains to us is “probably nothing,” but some things are superior to our experiences. I realize that the argument does not address things outside of our experience as it is framed in terms of humanity alone. For example, “a deepest good is a greatest good for a particular individual.” In a moment I will note that this oversight is fatal to the argument.

The second premise of the argument is defended by an appeal to, “persons in the actual world who attest to experiencing the reality of God in some way and who, themselves, have not gone through the horrific suffering defined at the beginning.” Are there such persons? Perhaps, but then we must assume that these people are not lying, deceived, forgetful, or otherwise confused about their alleged lack of horrific suffering. Since the opposite assumption appears extraordinarily improbable we will grant that there is at least one person who fits the aforementioned category. But what happens if we raise the same inquiry again concerning lying, self-deception, forgetfulness, or other confusion with respect to the experiencing of the reality of God? Now experiencing the reality of God in this argument, whatever it means, is surely a more subjective matter by its very nature than is experiencing horrific suffering (understood by virtue of the definition provided for the sake of the argument). Now we need not take so strong a position as to deny that these people have experienced the reality of God in order to plant this objection. Rather, we may point out that the subjective nature of experiencing the reality of God is sufficient to raise our suspicions about these people who claim to have had the experience of God without the experience of horrific suffering. How do we know that what one non-suffering person believes is an experience of the reality of God is anything at all like what some suffering person believes is an experience of the reality of God? Perhaps the former is misinterpreting some indigestion as an experience of the reality of God (assuming that the indigestion does not warrant its being designated horrific suffering). Still, let’s grant that at least one person is correct about not having experienced horrific suffering while also being correct about having experienced the reality of God. It does not follow that this individual is in any position to “ever more fully experience” the reality of God, but that is what the relevant premises of the argument require. It could be the case that the non-suffering individual experiences the reality of God in an increasingly fuller sense but that the individual will never experience the reality of God to the degree that she could have had she of endured horrific suffering. To “ever more fully experience” the reality of God is to allow for indefiniteness in our understanding of the potential for experiencing the reality of God that these people possess, but then we have no basis upon which to believe that the second premise is true. Thus Mitch is incorrect in claiming, “Such suffering then cannot be a necessary condition of finite persons realizing their deepest goods and so, the prevention of such suffering would not prevent that realization from occurring.” (emphasis mine)

Mitch notes that, “Premise (4) is motivated by a typical theistic response to the traditional problems of evil.” He explains, “many theists maintain that a perfectly good God would justifiably cause/permit some person A to suffer, if that suffering were necessary for bringing about some greater good for A.” Unfortunately many theists is not all theists. This alone is reason to doubt the conclusion of the argument. I am certainly not ready to immediately grant that, “a perfectly good God would justifiably cause/permit some person A to suffer, if that suffering were necessary for bringing about some greater good for A.” It is conceivable that a perfectly good God would “justifiably cause/permit some person A to suffer” even if that suffering were not necessary for bringing about some greater good for A. God not only owns that person, but is Himself the standard of what is just. God does no man wrong by taking his life from him immediately and without any cause known to us, and the same might just as easily be said with respect to “horrific suffering.” Herein lies a serious difficulty with reasoning through atheists’ arguments; the assumption throughout this particular argument is that humanity is the main focus of God’s dealings rather than God being the main focus of God’s dealings as Scripture describes.

Recall that the fourth premise states that, “if God exists, there is horrific suffering only if its prevention would prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good.” (emphasis mine) One may deduce from Scripture that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting horrific suffering. Unfortunately Mitch offers absolutely no reason at all for assuming that such a reason either is or must be restricted to the potential for individuals to realize their deepest good. Moreover, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to conceive of how he could establish such a qualification. For at least this and the aforementioned reasons the argument fails.


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Bolt and Horrific Suffering | Urban Philosophy

[…] Bolt has recently authored a response to Schellenberg’s Argument from Horrific Suffering. To recap, the argument is: Horrific Suffering […]

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Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 | Choosing Hats

[…] posted an argument in summary fashion from J.L. Schellenberg found here which I answered here  and Mitch subsequently responded to my answer here. There is much to be said about his response, […]

Bolt and Horrific Suffering II | Urban Philosophy

[…] place as follows: The Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]

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Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 3 | Choosing Hats

[…] Chris Responds to the Argument  […]

Bolt and Horrific Suffering III | Urban Philosophy

[…] place as follows: The Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]

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ZaoThanatoo Answers the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Guest Post) | Choosing Hats

[…] Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]

Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 4 | Choosing Hats

[…] place as follows: The Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]

Bolt and Horrific Suffering IV | Urban Philosophy

[…] place as follows: The Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]

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ZaoThanatoo Answers the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 (Guest Post) | Choosing Hats

[…] Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 […]


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