This objection to God’s sovereignty over the design of the universe (or, in some cases, to His very existence) makes several assumptions which I think are unfounded, including things like:
- God would ensure that the natural processes of His world arrive at the highest forms of life in the shortest time with little or no “failures.” God would be “efficient.”
- If God wants any life in the universe, then He would make most or all of the universe suitable for life as we know it.
- Species (or planets or galaxies or…) that die out are failures.
- More broadly, humanity knows all by itself what constitutes notions like “success” or “failure” or “inefficiency” or “sadism.” And thus, humanity is in a position to evaluate God’s choices.
Basically, the objection assumes that God would do everything the way I would do it if I had His power. It would be like saying, “If God doesn’t do things the way I would expect, then He is the one who is wrong, or He isn’t there at all.” Echoing the discussion above, the hubris there is palpable! We should go the other way: we would do everything God’s way if we had His knowledge, wisdom, and moral perfection .
For those who know God, they recognize that God is rarely after “efficiency” (in our view of efficient, anyway). If He were, He wouldn’t use natural processes at all – He would just speak everything into existence without any time elapsed! But of course He doesn’t do that, and we sometimes can see reasons why (though sometimes the reasons aren’t revealed to us). In other facets of life, His supposed “inefficiencies” actually lead to higher goods in the end, so there’s nothing inefficient about them after all. For example, we would not be able to fully grasp the depths of His grace and forgiveness if He didn’t allow sin. Perhaps, if God did not allow the “bad design” elements, we would never understand His power, provision, or protection of us. Maybe our seeing them increases our appreciation of the beauty of His creation. Sanctification is a long and complex process! Should we be surprised if He includes elements that confound human wisdom? See 1 Corinthians 3:18—20. “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” For humanity, He is interested in our restoration of relationship with Him, and all that that implies (acknowledging His power, marveling at His wonder, beholding His beauty, recognizing His knowledge and wisdom exceeds ours without measure, etc.). And of course, He likely has purposes in creation that have nothing to do with humanity at all. And what are they? They evidently don’t directly concern us as they aren’t entirely revealed, so speculation about them is only of limited value, but I think they come down to His pleasure. In any event, He has purposes beyond what we can fathom; His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
This objection is aptly termed a “dysteleological argument,” one that argues that the “inefficiencies” or “failures” serve essentially no purpose. I hope that those who hold to this objection can be convinced, through discussions like the ones that I and others on this forum have presented, of the greater purposes that God has in allowing things that we might not understand.
John Frame in his book, “Apologetics” briefly discusses dysteleological arguments (pp. 113ff.). He notes that, if God exists, we ought to expect some observations to be in analogy with our experience, and some observations not to be in analogy. In short, if we understood everything perfectly, we would be God!
He continues with a deeper point on page 115, which gets to my final assumption listed above: “Our ability to distinguish between apparent teleology and apparent dysteleology, and our ability to speak intelligibly about the limits of our knowledge and about alternative explanations for data, implies that we have (or think we have) access to certain criteria by which to resolve questions of this sort. Ultimately, then, we have access to the values of rationality and truth.” How do we have access to such lofty ideals as rationality and truth? He argues previously in the book (with arguments too lengthy to reproduce here) that rationality and truth must come from an authority higher than humanity (to him, they are essentially moral values). His argument shows that that authority can be none other than, in his terms, “the absolute personality, the biblical God.” (I highly recommend his book for the full discussion.)
In other words, even our ability to raise the apparent objection in the first place, to think we recognize the difference between “better” and “worse” creation, is itself evidence for the God of the Bible. How do we know the values of success and failure? How do we know how an omnipotent Creator ought to create? If we think we know the answers and can evaluate God, we have put ourselves in the place of God. Do we think we can judge Him and His choices? Again, palpable hubris.
To summarize, this is my primary critique of this objection: it assumes that we know the best way for creation to have occurred. But our “best” might not be what God is after; His purposes are different (and yes, better) than ours.
From nonbelievers, this objection is sometimes accompanied by some form of a statement like, “the ‘bad design’ elements are consistent with what we would see in a universe where the God of the Bible doesn’t exist. Therefore, they provide evidence that the God of the Bible does not, in fact, exist.” However, this line of logic is fallacious, for it makes the same assumption critiqued above (namely that we know what we would see in a universe with God, and we know that this isn’t it). Christians ought to reject the premise. Besides, we have only ever observed the universe that we are currently in, so how would we know what a different universe would be like?
Uses of this objection for atheistic conclusions is a strawman argument. It assumes a distorted view of God, and then shows that that God doesn’t exist. Well, that view of God isn’t the one of the Bible anyway, so the argument falls flat, at least in regards to the only God I claim to exist, the God of the Bible.
I think this objection is actually a useful opportunity to share with the objector. If someone holds to this objection, then they have a distorted view of God. What an opportunity to introduce them to the real God! How disarming to realize that the “debates” were about different notions of God the entire time! This might just allow the Holy Spirit to open their eyes to the Living God for the first time. I pray that many of us can have such opportunities, and that God would use them to bring new believers to Himself.