Here is my email to John Oakes. It's a bit less derisive than my earlier post; I just listened to the lecture and his approach is quite respectful and less self-assured than I was led to believe by just reading the notes. Nevertheless the content is the same and so I feel my criticism is warranted.
I just listened to your lecture on The Problem of Pain and Suffering and had a couple of comments.
Before I elaborate, let me mention that I applaud your respectful treatment of the difficulty that the question presents to the Christian. I also appreciate the fact that you address the sources of suffering separately, namely other people, and natural causes. It is with your explanation for the latter that I take issue, however.
First of all, I do not believe it is up to "us" — whether unbelievers, or doubters, or objects of God's creation — to propose a universe which does not include plate tectonics, before we can rightfully criticize the concept of an omnipotent God who created a world where suffering comes at the hand of that same world. It is the bible that makes the claim that such a God exists; thus the burden of proof lies with the bible — or at least the theist who claims to believe it — to sufficiently explain this assertion.
Second, would you have us believe that God spoke this world into existence, can change the nature of physics at will to enable a man to walk on water, and yet cannot save people from earthquakes caused by the plates of the earth shifting because they are necessary for life? Or, what of the virgin birth? And, is it not Jesus' unique ability to nullify the natural order of life and death, the very reason that we should believe he is from God? And yet, this same God must now submit to the very same laws of physics he so remarkably violated before? This approach seems very inconsistent.
You went on to include other phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and even bacteria. Unremarkably, then, you have made God subservient to exactly the circumstances of the natural world in which we find ourselves. If this is the case, then wouldn't it easier to assume that God does not exist, or at least does not care? At least this would relieve us of the aching burden of searching to find some purpose for senseless suffering.
Consider this: are there plate tectonics in heaven as well? If heaven is some different kind of existence, why not just start with that existence? This solves the problem of envisioning an environment that does not include plate tectonics. God could still accomplish his goal of "soul-making," or whatever other justification one might have for suffering at the hand of other humans with free will, without adding the additional burden of suffering from natural causes. Thus I respectfully find your explanation lacking.
Another issue you may wish to address in your talk is the problem of animal suffering — that is, if animals do not have souls and do not have the chance to go to heaven, their suffering has no meaningful explanation. As of yet I have not heard much argument from the apologetic side on this issue (I have not yet listened to the rest of the conference lectures so I apologize if this is addressed elsewhere).
Thanks for your time.