Notes: the Princeton University/Veritas Forum 2/23/12 Lennox/Rosen Dialogue

Posted on February 27, 2012 by


The following is a summation of my handwritten notes taken at the Veritas Forum event “Making Sense of Suffering”: a dialogue between a Christian Apologist (Professor John Lennox of Oxford) and an Atheist (Professor Gideon Rosen of Princeton). I was privileged to attend and witness this dialogue in real-time as well as share a few words of encouragement and prayer with Professor Lennox prior to the debate.  I want to thank  campus Chaplain, Scott Luley, for his gracious email replies that allowed me to navigate through the logistical maze and attend the event.

The impact it had upon me is this: neither side in this centuries old dialogue has either the upper hand nor a “knock-out” blow, argumentatively speaking: intelligent reasoning resides on both sides and it was nice to see a well-behaved capacity crowd gather and enjoy the evening’s topic.

Real people, thinking real thoughts and seeking real solutions in a world that, quite frequently, leaves us grasping for no easy answers to a myriad of complex issues surrounding the human condition: grief, suffering, disease and the persistent presence of evil (regardless of what or whom to which one attributes said evil).

People of good will on both sides of the issue needs must come to the discussion table with a heightened sense of sensitivity and spirituality when dealing with the heartache and intense pain often present in the 80 some-odd years (+/-) that we spend upon the planet. Within that discussion there is zero room for jeering or name-calling…for solutions are not borne of such ill-mannered behavior.Within the opportunity for the understanding that such a dialogue opens, we all shoulder the burden of making our points known in as intellectually honest a manner as our education, upbringing and, yes, faith (for a degree of faith is required within any discipline or World-view) affords us.

Here then my observations on the evening:

Gideon Rosen:
The slow, painful, terrifying suffering & death of the innocent is “intolerable”, evil in & of itself & evidence that, if there IS a God…he’s not a very nice or compassionate one.
The death of  “innocents” is intense & undeserved: what is God’s relation to these deaths given that He could have prevented each & every one of them?
Rosen concludes that God not only allows these deaths, but causes them: i.e. God kills and, therefore, is evil. Rosen continues that since the Bible states that God is perfectly good…and that from his observances God appears to be perfectly evil…that one cancels out the other: thereforethere IS no God (although he admits that there could exist a flawed god).

Faith, then, in the teeth of reason = wishful thinking.

What possible good can come from the deaths of children? He posits an ethical challenge: he imagines a family in which the husband brutalizes the children in horrible ways with the mother’s knowledge which she initially sees as ghastly, but slowly because of its persistence, comes to see as good (the analogy is that believers maintain that God is good despite the proliferation of evil & suffering because of a promised eternal “reward” which, Rosen posits, cannot begin to compensate for the  previously inflicted evil).

Rosen questions the love & devotion of believers in the face of what God seems to do to His creation. Rosen posits a moral/ethical barrier against such devotion is erected from which there is little, to no, retreat. “What”, in a word, to make sense of such devotion in light of evil & suffering?

John Lennox:
“Whereof the stated “evil”…if no God?” Are we simply the product of a random collection of cells, hopelessly dancing to our DNA?

Where is the metric for good & bad, right & wrong? Lennox posits no ground for morality from an atheistic perspective or world-view: raw, bleak & not necessarily true. Couple that with its inability to prop up any semblance of hope and the future is dreary indeed!

Atheism presents no rational justification for morality. Reason does not get one to morality; therein lies its bleakness as a worldview or a map to make any existential sense of life.

  • [But, I would add (Gene)  most atheists I speak with do not recognize this within their own point of view: that their belief system provides no moral compass or perspective.
    It’s not that atheists cannot behave morally – it’s that in so doing, they needs must borrow from the Christian worldview. They are like a goldfish, swimming in a bowl – yet denying the existence of water! They are so made (by a Creator whom they deny) with an internal moral code written upon their hearts (yet also with a free will to accept or deny that fact) that they use it unconsciously…all the while thinking they they intellectually thought up the very construct of morality.“Man”, it is said, is the “measure of all things”. But, if that’s so…WHICH man? Adolph Hitler? Hugh Hefner? Mother Theresa? Billy Graham? John Lennox or Gideon Rosen? Morality is not subjective. It is only objective. Therefore morality cannot come from within ourselves or be born out of mankind – it must come from another source. Objective moral laws must originate from an objective law giver.
    The best atheism or naturalism can bring us to is pure pragmatism: yes, all other things being equal, it is better to be alive than dead…but as to WHO should remain alive (abortion) and WHO dead (euthanasia)…neither science nor a morally devoid atheistic approach can tell us.]

Given the presence of fire, electricity and viruses that can kill…can there exist a world without pain, suffering & natural & moral evil? And what of God and His son, Jesus Christ…God incarnate? What IS His relationship to us in & within our suffering? What IS God doing on a Cross? He is not distant or uncaring…but part of the story of human suffering.

Given the choice between dying from the ravages of a hideous cancer…and being publicly beaten, flayed via scourging, spat upon, hated then forced to carry my literal Cross to the point of crucifixion…then actually crucified (a horrible death), I would have to think long & hard about the 2 options. I literally wince & writhe when I view the scourging scene from the movie The Passion of the Christ. Few visceral depictions in cinema elicit such a reaction…and I have to believe the movie caught only a glimpse of the pain & suffering of Jesus during that moment in history. God most certainly knows, chose and has endured intense suffering first-hand.

Resurrection visibly demonstrates that death is certainly not the end. Our choice, as the choosers, is this: death with Christ or death without Him. And that, if fully understood, leads to the greatest suffering of all: an eternity separated from our Creator.


The idea of life being a “mixed bag” of results (good/bad/indifferent) and we as “moral agents” came up with 2 different perspectives:

Professor Rosen, if I understand him correctly, leans towards man being able to intellectually discern between “moral facts”, which he claims exist for our discovery and “empirical facts”, which would be determined by a more scientific process.

Professor Lennox posited morality as only coming from God and understood by man because God created us as beings capable of distinguishing between as well as making moral choices…OR immoral choices.
Lennox refers to “inference to the best explanation” – as regards morality, that inference would be to a holy God as law-giver rather than man as his own moral interpreter.

  • This section incorporates a “mixed bag”of notes: statements made by Professor Lennox blended with my own as a teacher of Christian Apologetics:
  • We exist in a world made imperfect by mankind’s collective choices. And, although I cannot back this next conjecture up with data, I surmise that the world we live in today is fraught with perils made of our own desire to live with modern conveniences. Electricity, chemical compounds and processed foods, I am certain, while providing a convenient mode of living also subject us to the ravages of cellular attack not experienced in ancient times.As a result, while we have beat back diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles we are, at any one moment, exposed to the affects brought about by a side-effects that modern conveniences afford us. My guess would be that we experience not only better lifestyles but also higher incidences of cancer than those of ancient Israel…(the warning: CAUTION: causes cancer in laboratory animals comes to mind).Given that premise…and tossing in the “mixed bag” philosophy mentioned above: life then becomes a coin-toss as to who succumbs to illness & who does not.Who, then, should be given a “pass” on pain and suffering? You…me…children below the age of  ten…the elderly…everyone?And…if God should deliver us from suffering: where should He stop: cancer, diabetes, AIDS, hurricanes & tornadoes…a paper cut or a stubbed toe? Given our all-too fallible humanity, I suspect the answer would eventually become “all of the above”…including an occasional “Lord…deliver unto me the lottery [just this once?]”–We live in a world that offers “love”. Love which can only exist with the possibility of not loving as well.
    –We live in a world that offers sunny days. Sun which can only exist when co-mingled with rainy, dreary days.

    –We live in a world that offers the hope of success. Success that can only exist amidst the possibility of abject failure.
    –We live in a world that offers the possibility of vibrant health. Health that can only co-exist with the possibility of disease.Shall we live forever? Shall we only worship a God who delivers Easy Street with a wave of His hand? Shall we only “opt-in” once we’re assured everlasting joy & bliss? Shall we only travel to a casino once we’re promised a successful run on the House?
    I think not.Given the endless possibilities, as well as the evidence, I choose faith in an almighty, everlasting and all-knowing God who grants me the freedom to choose.
    And, with that, I choose to be responsible for my choices, knowing that I won’t always choose correctly…or wisely.
    That’s my choice; what’s yours?
Posted in: Answering, Apologias