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Neil DeGrasse Tyson: wrong on God, evil, and miracles

Published: 14 November 2020 (GMT+10)

Martez R. from the United States writes:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Hello, this question has been stuck on my mind for quite sometime. I saw a video long time ago in school where Neil Degrasse Tyson was asked “Does God Exist?”. He described an event that happened in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755 where an earthquake and tsunami happened on a religious holiday and killed many people that were holy and knocked down many churches. It made me wonder why would God kill his own people that did believe in him. He also stated that God is not luck, that when miracles take place it’s just “probability and statistics”. An gave an example where 1000 people would flip a penny and whoever held that penny with tails faced-side up would be eliminated. It would keep going on until there would be 1 person left. It made me question does God really look over us? Are miracles real, or is it just probability? I really hope you answer these questions for me as they have kept me from having a strong belief for God? Thank you.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear Martez,

Thank you for writing in. It looks like you’re referring to this.1 Anyway, let’s look at his two objections to God.

The Lisbon Earthquake and the Problem of Evil

The first issue Tyson brings up is a version of the problem of evil (on which see Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? and Why did God allow sin at all?). And Tyson appeals to a classical example: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. That was used by several skeptics in the 18th century to argue against God. He argues from that event against God like this:

“Either God is not all good, if we define ‘good’ as being in the interest of your health and longevity. That’s a pretty simple definition of something that’s good for you. Or God is not all-powerful. But it’s not clear whether God could be both of those at the same time for that event. So, I take issue with what many people say God is.”

It’s important to remember who has the burden of proof, here. Tyson has put forward an argument against God, so he has the burden of proof. The theist doesn’t have to prove God, in this instance. Rather, we can object to this argument by showing that it doesn’t work, given the existence of the biblical God.

And there are plenty of ways to do this. First, why should we accept Tyson’s definition of ‘good’? Even in this life, there are plenty of things that we know to be ‘good’ that aren’t conducive to a person’s health and longevity: e.g. anyone who dies or even risks their safety to protect someone else. Indeed, on biblical theism, there is an afterlife in which God will set right all these problems. But if death isn’t the end of the story, Tyson’s definition of ‘good’ falls short. Plus, is God’s ultimate desire for us to live long and healthy lives, or to know Him? Clearly the latter. But this isn’t a part of Tyson’s definition of ‘good’, either.

But aside from that, why think God permitting the Lisbon earthquake makes him less than all-good? Tyson offers nothing. Indeed, is he even in a position to know whether God has good reasons for permitting it? Can we see enough of history to know what God’s reasons could be? Of course not. It’s beyond our ability to know. So, Tyson has no good grounds from the Lisbon earthquake (or similar events) to say God is less than all-good (or all-powerful).

Ironically, though, if the Lisbon earthquake is an instance of real evil in the world, then it’s actually evidence for God. How? Well, there’s an argument for God that goes like this:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there’s no God, moral values are either just the byproducts of evolution and culture, or merely personal preference.
  2. Evil exists. That’s what the atheist is saying. The world has real evil in it.
  3. Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This is a modification of the moral argument for God. For more on this, please see Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?, Why believe in objective morals?, Cultural Relativism and Morality, and Answering a moral relativist).

Miracles and probability

What about what Tyson says about probability and the paranormal? This is his scenario:

There are many people who will see things happen to them that are in their favour. They’ll say, well, ‘Someone’s looking over me.’ That’s a fascinating phenomenon, when that happens. And, when you analyze those situations, what you find is that we as humans simply have a profound inability to understand statistics and probability. It’s really that simple.
Here’s a quick experiment. Line up a thousand people, and give them a coin, and have them flip the coin. And, whoever gets tails, tell them to sit down. So, there’s about half—so, 500 people left. You repeat it—250 people left, 125, 60, 30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1. It’s a thought experiment.
So, approximately half the people sat down every time they flipped the coin. Half of them get heads, half get tails. There’s one person that’s standing at the end: that person flipped heads ten consecutive times.
So, who does the press go to? The press goes to that person. And they say, “How do you feel about this?”
“Well, I felt that ‘heads’ energy about halfway through, and I kinda knew I was gonna win. I felt … I saw heads on the thing …’”.
And did they interview anybody else who might’ve felt exactly the same way but didn’t flip heads ten times in a row? Because they’re on their way home now! They’re not there for the interview.
So, we’re thinking that this guy had some kind of clairvoyance about his fate, or that he prayed, or whatever. And so, whereas every time you do this experiment, basically, somebody flips heads ten times in a row. And so we don’t know how to handle coincidences or things that are rare for you, even if they’re common in total. So, yeah, no, whatever God is, God is not luck. We can demonstrate that mathematically.

I can agree with Tyson that, in the event he posits, there’s no good reason to think the guy who won had some kind of clairvoyance about the win. After all, several people probably had a similar ‘feeling’ to the winner before they lost.

But can probability show us that there was no connection between the winner praying for the outcome and him winning? No. Probability only shows that someone was likely to win, not that the person who prayed was likely to win. If the winner prayed for the win beforehand, there’s no fault in him reasoning from the win to God having answered his prayer. Why? Because we don’t have to assume God did a miracle to make the winner win. God simply sovereignly ordered the natural circumstances such that he would win. And can science or probability refute the idea that God sovereignly controls history? Of course not. Such a claim is beyond science’s ability to test.

But why believe God sovereignly orders history? Well, the Bible teaches it. Plus, Jesus teaches it, and there’s solid evidence that his teaching was ratified by God when God raised him from the dead. (see Why did God allow sin at all? for more information). We don’t need to rely on improbable events to believe God is sovereign over history. But once we believe God sovereignly orders history, when we see improbable events that fall in our favour, I think the impulse to thank God is rational, since all good things come from him.

But Tyson’s scenario doesn’t remotely resemble what most people would call a ‘miracle’. So, let’s change it a bit to give a better example. What are the chances that the same single person will be left standing each time if we run this experiment 10 times? Much smaller, obviously. Smaller than even 1 in 1030 [Though see the comment of Richard P. for a different way of reading the ‘game’, which would give a result of the same specific person winning 10 times a chance of exactly 1 in 1030—Ed.]. So small, in fact, that we’d suspect foul play (e.g. the winning coin flipper has a double-tailed coin). But what if we found out that there was no foul play—everyone played the game properly, and all the coins were fair? Sure, it’s possible for it to happen by chance, but don’t you think we’re starting to deal with probabilities that render a chance explanation implausible? After all, while someone will most likely win each time, there is no necessity in the same person winning every time. It’s at this point most of us would start looking for an intelligent cause beyond the confines of the system. (See Cheating with chance)

But, here’s the thing—I don’t think anyone would deny that this could happen by natural causes. It is possible. So, is it a miracle? It depends what we mean by ‘miracle’. I would prefer to call this a case of ‘special providence’, where God arranges a set of natural circumstances to produce an highly improbable event that is readily recognizable as an act of God. (For more on miracles, please see Miracles and science, God, miracles, and logic, and How do miracles happen?)

Now, I wouldn’t quibble with people calling this a miracle in common parlance. But if we want to get specific, I think a ‘miracle’ is an event natural causes can’t produce, and has a religious significance. For instance, Jesus’ resurrection. Dead bodies stay dead. There are no exceptions to this, and we know the physics of why they stay dead. But, Jesus didn’t stay dead. Even more, he rose never to die again. Does that sound like anybody you’ve ever known? Of course not. Bodies can’t be immune to death, given the laws of physics as we know them. So, we’re looking at a genuine physical impossibility. And it had a clear religious significance: to usher in the first instance of New Creation—God’s restoration program for the world. Thus, what physics can’t do, God did. This is a miracle in the purest sense. And this is nothing like what Tyson describes in his scenario. (On Jesus’ resurrection, please see Argument from miracles: Jesus’ resurrection, Easter’s earliest creed, Proving Jesus’ resurrection without the Bible?, and Can we believe the Gospels?)

Kind regards,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

References and notes

  1. Tyson, N.deG., Was the Moon Landing faked? | Big Questions with Neil deGrasse Tyson, youtube,com, 22 Nov 2019. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Egil W.
Regarding the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755; if the Bible is right, it wouldn’t automatically be God’s fault, but Adams’.

Since the Earth, the ground was cursed because of his original sin.

Satan would also be among the actual guilty, since he tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thus making them bring curse and sin into our world.

Just because God is Almighty and omnibenevolent, it doesn’t follow that The Creature suddenly has become a mere mechanically caused reaction.

As such, Adam is the one who brought all suffering onto our planet.

Not God.
Abe M.
I'm still baffled by this question: Where did evil come from before the Fall (even before Lucifer rebelled and was cast out of heaven along with 1/3 of the angels)? Where/how could rebellion exist in God's (Holy) domain? =).

I'm sure this has been answered by CMI, I'm just still confused regarding. =).
Richard P.
“Either God is not all good, if we define ‘good’…”. Exactly. Tyson skewers his own argument right there: “WE define good.” Shaun Doyle points out this flaw immediately, but there is a deeper issue behind it too. We all, until properly taught, have an inherent tendency to expect God to come to us on our own terms, rather than approach Him on His terms. How often the sceptic reasons, “If there is a God, He ought to do what I want,” which thus makes the sceptic himself to be a god. Logically, we should say, “If there is a God, I ought to do what He wants,” but our pride finds this difficult, to say the least.
Incidentally, I'm glad Kathy K and Geoff CW have pointed out the flaw in Tyson's imaginary scenario: there won't necessarily be a winner. The situation could however be remedied by adding an additional rule: “If at any stage everyone flips Tails, no one is eliminated.” That way you get a competition which guarantees a single winner. But they won't necessarily have flipped heads 10 times, nor even every time.
But then there's a fault in Shaun's follow-up. The probability that the same person wins all 10 games is 1 in 1027. Somebody will win the first game. The probability that the same person wins the second (assuming a fair game) is 1 in 1000. And so on for all the other 8 games. So the chances are 1 in 10009, which is 1 in 1027. Even the probability that a specified person (rather than an arbitrary person) wins all 10 games are not “smaller than 1 in 1030”, but exactly 1 in 1030.
Shaun Doyle
I think I took the number of coin flips to be significant in the game, such that I was thinking of a specific person winning ten times via 10 consecutive coin flips. The chance of that happening is indeed less than 10–30, since 2–100 is a little less than 10–30, and sometimes more than one person will have flipped the same result 10 times in a row. But if we take the amount of coin flips needed to win to be irrelevant to the game, and there can only be one winner, then you are right that a specific person's chance of winning this game 10 times is a row is exactly 10–30. And I admit that way of reading the example is better than the way I did. It's just that Tyson made such a big deal about the amount of consecutive coin flips that I saw it differently. I made an editorial note in the text to refer people to this comment to explicate the issue.
Christopher H.
Not every act of nature is an act of God. Satan killed Job's children with a tornado, for example.
Shaun Doyle
Perhaps, but I'm not sure this escapes the challenge. After all, God knew it would happen, and He at the very least chose to make the world in which it would happen. And in the specific case of Job, He gave direct permission to Satan to do this. The skeptic will still regard God as in a real sense 'responsible' for what happened, and it's not an unreasonable supposition. The question, I think, is whether God is morally culpable for such events at that level of 'responsibility' for them.

Personally, I don't think the category of 'morally culpable' can even apply to God, since He is the paradigm of goodness. More clearly though, I think we've got good reason to think God is perfectly good (e.g. the moral argument for God), but I think we're not in a position to know what God's morally sufficient reasons for allowing such events are. Indeed, that was the substance of God's answer to Job; Job wasn't in a place to know why God did what He did, and so had no grounds to judge God for what He did.
Clive W.
The only reason we die is because of sin. We all every day sin, that is, do things that are inconsistent with God and his love. The reason our sin effects the inanimate creation is that we were created to be stewards of the cosmos. The stewards turned against God and preferred their own knowledge of good and evil to knowledge of God, They hid from God, rejecting him. The consequence is a 'natural' order that is disconnected from God. Of course bad things happen to random people.
Anna V.
I enjoyed reading this although I did wonder if the second question was more about survivor bias - ie everyone prays and most don't 'survive' and one does - so this one still thinks God exists. God presumably didn't hear the prayers of the others but they are no longer around to change their beliefs accordingly.
It was a good point to make that the probability of any real miracle is actually zero - and so any miracle is a grace.
The original argument seems to suggest that we believe in God and worship Him because we see Him do stuff for us. In fact we worship Him first and foremost because of who He is - and say with Job 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.' (Job 13:15)
Shaun Doyle
Yes, the survivor bias is behind Tyson’s complaint in the coin-tossing story. And with the clairvoyance claim, we should only begin to suspect clairvoyance if we knew that e.g. the winner was the only one who had these sorts of feelings during the game. In other words, we need to know what happened with the 'failures' to even begin justifying the clairvoyance claim.

And with prayer, knowledge of the ‘failures’ should likewise remind us God isn’t a genie. He doesn’t always answer such prayers with a ‘yes’. But a theologically literate Christian should already know that since God is free, He can say ‘no’. So, when He does say ‘yes’, it is still rational for the Christian to thank God for answered prayer even in the face of God answering many other people ‘no’ because we know He didn’t have to answer ‘yes’ to us. Indeed, the plethora of ‘no’ responses to such requests should engender in us humility as well as gratitude—it emphasizes that God didn’t have to say ‘yes’ to us.

Unfortunately, when we see that God has said ‘no’ to most others, the temptation to think He answered ‘yes’ to us because we’re worthier than others is strong. Skeptics seem to think this is the main conclusion Christians reach. Whether they’re right or not, it’s pretty easy to see that such a conclusion is wrongheaded. After all, if God didn’t spare Jesus from the cross, despite Jesus asking to be spared from it, then clearly a ‘no’ from God isn’t always about how worthy we are for a ‘yes’. ‘Oh, but Jesus had to die for our sins!’ Yes, that’s the point. Sometimes a ‘no’ from God can have good reasons even if you’re worthy of a ‘yes’.

Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying you’re right on the money.
Danny B.
The argument that a good god wouldn't let people die is based on the assumption that dying is the worst thing that can happen to, which would only true if there were no possibility of something better than this life after death. Dying in that disaster may have been the best thing that ever happened to some of those people, and ever will.
Terry W.
I've been laughing for a good minute and a half over this little error. At one point, you quote DeGrasse Tyson:
Here’s a quick experiment. Line up a thousand people, and give them a coin, and have them flip the coin. And, whoever gets tails, tell them to sit down.

Losers get tails, got that. Later on...
What are the chances that the same single person will be left standing each time if we run this experiment 10 times? Much smaller, obviously. Smaller than even 1 in 10³⁰. So small, in fact, that we’d suspect foul play (e.g. the winning coin flipper has a double-tailed coin).

Um... ...wouldn't you lose every time with a double-tailed coin? Maybe I was in a mood to laugh about this because my imagination had just gone off on this tangent.

Article: “So, who does the press go to? The press goes to that person. And they say, ‘How do you feel about this?’”

My imagination: “I didn't expect to win. This is the first time I've ever won a game of chance in my life: My grandma took me to the bingo hall every Sunday and my grandpa took me to the horse track every Saturday and I never won even a free play. Dad would bring me strips of scratch-and-wins; nothing. I found a fiver in the gutter yesterday, took it to a casino and threw into the nickel slot machine—a hundred pulls, nothing. Not only is this the first time I've won a game of chance, it's the first time I've ever had a newsie with a camera shove a microphone in my face. Maybe God is real after all.”

And one final Word: “The lot is cast into the lap,
But its every decision is from the Lord.” — Proverbs 16:33 NKJV
Bill P.
"Let GOD ALWAYS be truthful and every man a liar". As for myself I will trust in The Lord and His Word. It's a very grave error to deny or even underestimate the Power and Glory of The Living GOD, Creator of heaven and earth and everything in them. The world can keep their PHD'S, College Degrees and what ever else it is that they give to those who think the are wise. I pity Mr. Tyson.
Nichola W.
Other miracles (and there are many more) are the Israelites clothes not wearing out during their 40 years of wandering in a harsh climate and terrain, Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands with someone's lunch and having more food left over than what was started with, Daniel's 3 friends surviving being thrown into a furnace, the heat of which, killed the soldiers who threw them in.
Norman W.
It is like the cosmonaut who, upon finally making it into space, looked out the window and said, "I do not see God, therefore he does not exist." A pastor's response to that was, "Well if you would exit the vehicle without a suit, you would meet Him." The arguments "scientists" come up with to try to prove there is not God are absurd and lack any real intelligence.
Alf F.
Its true that one cannot claim human rights without admitting human wrongs, otherwise the word right loses all meaning.
Also, atheists/Darwinists should not talk too much about probability, because they say the universe came about by chance, out of nothing, which occurrence is indistinguishable from a miracle. There is surely as much chance of a chicken changing into a cow instantly. So they ought then to admit miracles as "scientifically" possible, though very rare.
That of course would mean redefining science.
Lester V.
Even in the case of "natural" events there may be a miraculous intervention on the part of God. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea, recorded in Exodus 14, has been "explained" by skeptics as the result of a temporary blockage of the flow of water into the Red Sea. It might be possible for this to be true, but it doesn't fit the facts. It fails to account for the fact that the waters stood up like a wall on each side of the pathway the Jews took across the Sea, something water cannot do in the natural. Nor does it explain how this happened at exactly the precise moment that Moses raised his staff over the Sea. Then, the seawaters returned to their normal place at exactly the right time to drown the Egyptians. Other skeptics have claimed that the part of the Red Sea the Jews crossed over might have only been a few inches deep, in which case the miracle was that water that shallow was able to drown 600 Egyptian chariots along with their charioteers, horses, and soldiers. This event was known to have happened, and helped to discourage the heathen nations living in the Promised Land, as Rahab testified in Joshua 2:9-11. Proverbs 25:2 says "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings is to search out a matter." When God miraculously acts "behind the scenes", He is concealing His involvement, but those who are seeking Him can search out and discover His hand at work, and give Him the glory He deserves.
Shaun Doyle
Thanks for the comments. You might also like The Red Sea Crossing: can secular science model miracles?
Chuck R.
It all simply comes down to where our priorities lay and our current extreme reaction and panic to this 'pandemic' is a perfect example.
For so many, the fear of death is so intense, either because they believe it is the end (atheism) or they are afraid that they have yet to earn their way into heaven, preserving life here is worth even bankrupting our economy and the placing of huge restrictions on the freedom and liberty of others all to gain a few precious months or years.
As a Christian, I know my home is not here: I'm an alien here, and while it would be nice if like Enoch and Elijah to escape death (think of the family, friends, and loved ones they left behind) and be with God, but until God calls me home, I shall be like Paul and understand that it is more needful for me to remain here (Phil. 1:23, 24), yet I know death ushers in my reward, my moving into the mansion where there will be no more tears and in fact, death is actually good.
The specter of death is God's way of reminding us that we are mere mortals.
Kathy K.
What Tyson did was simply chance. The last few people could all have easily flipped their coin and had to sit down and no one was left standing.
God doesn’t work with chance. He simply does his will. He says the rain falls on all. It’s our faith in him, our belief that makes the difference. We’re winners whether the rain falls on us or not, or whether we’re the last man standing or not.
Tom G.
One thing about miracles, especially regarding healing, atheists generally attribute it to ‘mind over matter’.
Many years ago I was called up for national service training. The Vietnam war was still in progress and, although I hadn’t long become a Christian, I had a strong residual fear of death, so was not looking forward to serving.
At my medical examination they noted that I had a skin disease which they said would preclude me from serving. So they booked me in to see a skin specialist in a weeks time to make a report on it.
Although I certainly didn’t want to serve, I had a gut feeling that God wanted me to, so I gave him an ultimatum - if you really want me to serve, you will have to heal me before the appointment.
To make it more difficult, I had been trying for months to get rid of this thing, and had actually just run out of the prescribed cream!
It was completely healed by the time I went for the examination!!! But definitely not a case of mind over matter!
Yvonne R.
As a Christian in 1985 a lady at my employment asked me to pray for her marriage because her husband had been unfaithful. I prayed for GOD to do HIS will (knowing my own insufficiency) in restoring this ladies marriage. The next day while I was on my meal break, her husband came into the room where there were several people, with flowers and chocolates, kissing her. When I returned from my break, I was told we cannot have this situation occurring to which I told them "I do not know what you are referring to". Then the lady said to me one thousand thankyou's. I told her that was not me "JESUS was the ONE who did this for her marriage. The ladies body language showed she was in awe of me - she could not see that JESUS could only be the ONE. Again in 1985 I spoke to a boy of seven years, telling him about JESUS. His mother told me when he arrived home from school that day he told her "a lady told me about JESUS" from that day on whenever I passed by him in the street he always smiled and waved to me and at the age of 21 years became Bible study leader at the church. I prayed a mustard seed prayer and shared with a boy only seven for GOD's purpose of developing within me the faith that I would need later in my life. GOD has stated "remember the Wonders I have done". In May 1989 GOD set me on a path of faith and trust in HIM for giving support to a man in desperate need of a friend that is continuing to this day All praise and thankfulness to GOD for HIS goodness and grace and mercy.
Philippus S.
Please do not allow Neil DeGrasse Tyson close to your children.!
Geoff C. W.
Tyson's conclusions from his experiment are also flawed. There won't necessarily be a winner. What if the last two, four or eight all throw tails? There could also be an early winner - if say seven of the last eight throw tails.
As for God killing those people in Lisbon, that wasn't God. We live in a fallen world, and this is one of the consequences. The only thing it says about God is that He could have prevented it. So why didn't he? Who knows? God prevents some things we don't like, and he allows others. If He prevented everything we don't like, most people would live forever. But that's not possible because of the fall. As it is, some people live to 120, while others die (or are killed) before they even leave their mother's womb.
Here's an interesting question: How many people do you know who question God's goodness because He allows hundreds of thousands of unborn babies to be killed by doctors? That's way more deaths than occurred in that Lisbon incident. And it's deliberate. These deaths do not demonstrate that there is no God. They demonstrate that there is evil in the world, which, as Shaun says, is part of the proof that there IS a God.
Shane D.
"...does God really look over us..."?

In Daniel 4, God teaches king Nebuchadnezzar "... that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses." Daniel 5:21 NKJV.
God is not "watching us from a distance". He is actively ruling in the earth.
That being said, it is not ours to judge an event good or bad.
As God said to Job:
"Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?" Job 40:8 NKJV
David M.
Thank you Shaun. I was glad to read your paragraph that includes the statement “why should we accept Tyson’s definition of ‘good’?” For me this is an illustration of the result of someone (Tyson here – but includes us all at various times) having eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is we elevate our own knowledge rather than the knowledge that comes from the fear of the Lord. Pro 1:7, 9:10.
Frank S.
Thank you Shaun for your clear thinking.
Great response. You tantalisingly just touch on it, but you could go on from the coin flipping example to flip the tables on Neil and run offence against evolution. Neil, in appealing to evolution, isn't dealing with the fellow who flips heads 10x, or even 10x10x, but repetitions massively more fantastical. The problem is in his court, not ours.

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