Skeptical Theism: A Powerful Response to the Problem of Evil

Context and Background

Long ago there was once an argument called the logical problem of evil, and it was defeated. It has a quite simple form:

  1. If God exists, then there does not exist any evil
  2. There exists some evil
  3. God does not exist

These days, even the most ardent sceptical philosophers do not defend the logical problem of evil. To poorly summarize centuries of fairly technical dialectic, the theist rejects 1 by saying that God is justified in permitting evil if God uses that evil to bring about some greater good that depends on the existence of the evil. This seems pretty plausible, and so most atheists do not try to put forward 1 any longer.

But this doesn’t bother many of them, because they attempt to put forward an evidential formulation of the argument. Here is what modern evidential problem of evil arguments looks like:

  1. If God exists, then there are no evils which do not bring about some greater good
  2. There exist some evils for which we cannot see any corresponding greater goods
  3. For some of these evils, if such a corresponding good did exist, we would see it
  4. Therefore there exist evils which do not bring about some greater good
  5. Therefore God does not exist

This argument is valid, and the first premise is pretty plausible. So the theist must proceed by attacking or undermining premises 2 or 3. In general, an attack on premise 2 is a theodicy, and an attack on premise 3 is called skeptical theism.

I think theodicies are too heavy a burden for us to bear, at least given an evidential argument like the one above. In this case, the Christian has to give a sufficient reason for the existence of every evil that exists. We have to explain specifically how a child with a painful terminal cancer produces some higher-order good. I do not think that we can do that, and I think attempts to do so often end up being grotesque.

I think the wiser route, and the more biblical route, is to question premise 3. That is, argue that we are not in a position to see such reasons if they do exist, so the inference from “we do not see them” to “they do not exist” is not justified. As Josh Rasmussen helpfully puts it, we can make two observations here. We can either 1) fail to see a reason why God would allow it, or 2) see that God would have no reason to allow it. And are we in a position to differentiate between 1 and 2? The atheist has to put forward an argument that we are in situation 2. But instead of just sitting and waiting to hear that argument, I think we can do better.

What I aim to do here is to put forward some reasons that the theist has for thinking that we are in case 1 rather than case 2. If we have such reasons, this will undermine the atheist’s claim that we are in case 2.

Let’s introduce some terminology that will make our life a bit easier. We will call an evil Gratuitous (G) if it is an evil for which there is no resulting greater good that justifies the existence of that evil. We will call an evil a Horror (H) if we cannot find such a justifying reason. A G evil is the kind of evil that would be incompatible with the existence of God, and the evidential argument for evil is essentially a move from H to G, and from G to the nonexistence of God.

Epistemology and Skeptical Theism

We can develop some reasons to put forward the skeptical theist position from a consideration of some very plausible principles in epistemology. The main example of such a principle is something called CORNEA, put forward by Wykstra and Perrine.

On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim ‘It appears that p’ only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.


CORNEA is a powerful principle which, if true, would undermine many conceptions of the problem of evil. Even “commonsense” problems of evil such as this one. I think it is more intuitively phrased in Bayesian terms, and is better understood as simply a restatement of what Bayesian evidence is. That is:

Observation E is evidence of some proposition H if P(E|H) > P(E| ¬H)


To get a better intuitive handle on this, let’s consider a real-world example. Suppose I get home and notice that my grass is wet, and I form two competing hypotheses as to why:

  1. My wife watered the grass
  2. It rained

Now suppose that I know that if it rained, the grass is always wet, but that if my wife waters it, she does a bad job, so it only gets wet 50% of the time. Knowing these things, my conclusion should be that the grass being wet is evidence of rain. Because the rain hypothesis does a better job at explaining the observation, the observation is evidence of the rain hypothesis.

If Bayesian reasoning is new to you, I suggest spending some time learning about it. It’s very useful. The point here is that if some observation is equally likely given two competing hypotheses (or we are unable to calculate either of those likelihoods), then that observation can’t be evidence one way or the other.

The point of this kind of idea is this: if both theism and atheism predict H with a similar degree of confidence, then H simply can’t be evidence either way. Being generous to the atheist and granting that atheism does predict H, the atheist now has to argue that theism does not predict H. And while we could wait for the atheist to make such arguments and then respond to them, I think it is also worthwhile putting forward some positive arguments for the claim that theism predicts H with some high degree of certainty.

One such argument, given by Howard-Snyder, is the Progress Argument. I will rephrase it here:

  1. Many moral truths which we now take to be obvious were not considered true in the past
  2. Therefore there are many moral truths of which we are now ignorant
  3. Some of these may include justifications for the H evils that God ordained in the world
  4. Therefore we are not justified in inferring that there do not exist any goods which can justify the H evils in the world

This is an inductive argument, and it is hard to deny the force of it. Surely there are some people who will say that we have plateaued, and have discovered a very large portion of the moral truths that exist, and so our inference is justified. But I think these people are probably wrong: society continues to “discover” new moral truths with increasing rapidity. Even if I do not agree with all of these changes, most people who put forward this argument are probably people who will believe that recent changes in the moral zeitgeist concerning homosexuality and transgenderism are improvements. But those improvements have come about in the last 20 years or so. I think it’s exceedingly foolish to say that no further “improvements” or “discoveries” will come, or at least none significant enough to make us a bit more humble about our own moral knowledge.

To improve the strength of this argument, Howard-Snyder puts forward a supporting argument. Quoting directly from the SEP:

This argument begins by recalling that the data from which the strongest arguments from evil start are the profusion or seeming excess of evil in the world which, indeed, seems to be integrated into the fabric of nature and society. But for that very reason (their complexity and intricacy), any complex good whole of which these evils are a part would have to be exceedingly complex. Thus, he infers that it would not be surprising if it were beyond our ability to fathom.

These are some good starting points to consider a positive case for skeptical theism purely from secular epistemology and plain reason. However, the theist has more tools in their box than just this, and by considering some facts about the nature of God (and the particular nature of the Christian God), we can put forward an even stronger case.

Human Experience and Skeptical Theism

An interesting argument that I do not see discussed often is the argument from the theism of suffering people. It seems like the only people who really endorse the problem of evil, who really make the inference “there is no justification for this suffering”, are the people in the world who suffer the least. That is, the educated westerners. We live like kings, having all of our basic needs easily met and having the leisure time to pursue whatever we choose, including getting into arguments with strangers on the internet. We have the easiest lives anyone has ever had. And yet we are the only ones who really have any atheists among us.

On the other hand, the global poor, the suffering, the hurting, etc. are far more religious. They do not think that they can responsibly make the inference from suffering to the nonexistence of God. Presumably, at least some of them have considered the option and rejected it. Presumably, some of them are intelligent and clear-headed enough to be epistemically responsible in rejecting it.

Why this difference? I speculate that it is because us educated westerners have become so accustomed to the very mild suffering that most of us go through that any worse suffering has become unimaginable, and therefore we say that God would not allow it. But the people going through the suffering often don’t think that way. Maybe the educated westerner has underestimated man’s capacity to handle suffering due to our pampered position.

Some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different from the kinds of evil the atheist is calling horrors and using to motivate their argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than the atheist is to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified.

Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. It is also my experience that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it (or at least, will say that their lack of seeing reasons doesn’t justify an inference that there are no reasons), I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Bare Theism and Skeptical Theism

If all we grant is that there exists the classical theist God, then I think we have some very good reasons to put forward a skeptical theism.

One such reason is the Parent Analogy, put forward famously by Wykstra. The analogy is quite simple: God under most conceptions of theism has a relationship to us similar to a parent’s relationship with their children. It’s no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a child to the dentist that sometimes, parents have to subject their children to suffering for reasons that the children don’t understand, but are nonetheless good reasons. Every child, if they were articulate enough, would be able to find some mysterious suffering that they are subjected to by their parents and say “I cannot see any sufficient justification for this suffering, it appears gratuitous to me”. Does the fact that the child experiences this suffering as mysterious, and can’t see any reason for it, mean they are justified in believing that there is no reason for it? We must say “no”. Sometimes children simply can’t understand the reasons that parents have, and they’re in no position to judge. If the relationship between man and God is relevantly similar, then this undermines the atheist’s judgement that the suffering that we see and experiences has no sufficient justification.

I think we can also, given theism, predict skeptical theism due to some goods that seem to arise from skeptical theism itself. The chief contenders here are trust and compassion. It seems to me that these attributes are impossible to develop in the absence of some mysterious and sufficiently great suffering.

Let’s think first about trust, specifically trust in God. It seems plausible that God wants us to develop trust in Him, at least under Christianity this is a central part of our relationship with God. So if God wants us to have this faith, how can He cause it to happen? It doesn’t seem like trust can exist if no H exists.

To see this, consider an example. If my wife says to me “I’d like our relationship to be one in which you can trust me”, can I safely respond “of course I trust you, I’ve got a camera and microphone hidden in your handbag!”? I don’t think I can, and not just because of the invasion of privacy, but also because such surveillance leaves no room for trust! I don’t have to trust, because I can surveil. Similarly, if I am able to see a corresponding good for each evil that exists, I never have to trust God to know what He’s doing. So in short: if God wants us to trust Him, horrors will exist. Plausibly God wants this, so plausibly God will allow horrors to exist. So the observation of the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against God.

Compassion is another attribute that God plausibly wants us to develop: people are simply better people when they’re compassionate. That’s part of what makes someone a good person. And compassion is developed by suffering. I think many of us know this intuitively too, having experienced this ourselves or seen it in others.

As John DePue says in his paper on skeptical theism and divine deception:

Another second-order justification for the appearance of gratuitous evil is that it produces some of the greatest acts of love and compassion. When we respond to seemingly pointless and unjust pain and suffering throughout the world, the exceptional character of the generosity and kindness that motivates these actions is fueled by the fact that the circumstances appear to be purposeless. Arguably, many of the highest degrees of human love would remain unrealized without the appearance of gratuitous evil that spurs us to extend these extraordinary acts of charity to others. Of course, positive skeptical theists are not claiming that these evil events themselves are justified on this basis, which would effectively disqualify their view as a version of skeptical theism. As skeptical theists, they insist that the justification for these evils remains beyond our understanding. What positive skeptical theists are claiming, however, is that if there is a God, we should expect the world to contain the appearance of gratuitous evils. This is the second-order justification for why God allows us to experience the world as appearing to have gratuitous evil.

The Bible and Skeptical Theism

The Christian has some further reasons to think that skeptical theism is plausible, following from some scriptural passages and various other facts that we know about God.

Consider first Job. The book of Job is probably the oldest book in the bible, and so constitutes the earliest Jewish (and therefore Christian) source. But the book of Job is all about mysterious suffering: Satan challenges God that job only serves Him because of God’s blessings on His life, so God removes these blessings and proves Job faithful. So right from the start, in the earliest source we have for our religion, we are told that deep mysterious suffering is not only possible but expected. So the Christian has a good reason to affirm skeptical theism, and the atheist has a lot of trouble motivating premise 3 of their evidential argument. In Bayesian terms, if Christianity predicts H, the observation of H can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The story is similar to that of Joseph. Sold into slavery, falsly accused and thrown into prison, he experienced great evil and suffering for which he could not see any justification. It was not at all apparent what greater good was coming from his suffering, if there even was one. If we are now justified in saying “there can be no reason for the evil I see”, so can Joseph. Joseph could have said that, if such an observation can be made at all. But if Joseph had said that, he would have been wrong. His suffering was used to preserve Israel, and later in his life, he would remark What you intended for evil, God intended for good”. Joseph would later see the good coming from it, and would praise God for bringing it about. Joseph thinks that the horror was not gratuitous. And that’s part of the story here: in another very early Christian text, the first book of the scriptures, we are told in no uncertain terms that great and mysterious suffering will befall us, but at the end we may see why. Christianity predicts H.

And Joseph serves as a type of Christ. In the Christian perspective, the death of Christ was the greatest evil to ever occur. The only perfect man, the only innocent man, the one who is Himself God and the rightful King and Ruler of the world, is betrayed by His friends, falsely accused, tortured, and publicly executed. For the Christian, there is nothing more evil than this. The Apostles, who did not understand, would see this as the clearest example of a horror to ever occur. But Christ rises and God is vindicated, as the greatest possible evil results in an incredible good, the salvation of God’s people from the power of sin. And that good was not possible without the blood of the Son. What I want to emphasize here is this: if God is able to use such a tremendous horror to bring about such a great good, then it stands to reason that there are great goods that can result from the evils we see around us. We do not know what they are, the Apostles didn’t know yet why Christ died, but if God can turn the cross into a good, God can turn anything into a good. So again, the Christian has grounds to reject the atheist’s move from “I see no reason for this evil” to “There is no reason for this evil”.

Another point to make here is the theology of transcendence. God is above and beyond us. All throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear things like His ways are not our ways, He is in heaven and does all He pleases, how unsearchable His judgements and unfathomable His paths. We are reminded again and again that He is God and we are not. This is what He says in Job too, somewhat sarcastically. We should not at all be surprised by mysterious events, God’s purposes are often mysterious. In fact, we would be surprised if we did see such reasons all the time. This point is regularly made by preachers and pastors, even outside the context of formal discussions on the problem of evil.

If one of God’s purposes in the world is the glory of the incarnate Son sacrificed to save the unworthy, then we again expect a world full of rampant sin and evil for which we can’t see any purpose. We expect a world that is entirely unworthy in every way. Because such a world magnifies the glory of Christ, as He steps into the world and dies for it. And this is not a justification for any individual evil like a theodicy would be, but is instead a principled prediction from the core truths of Christianity that the world will contain severe evil for which we can see no justification. The worse the world is, the more unrestrained evil in the world is, the greater the glory of the Son who stepped into it and died for it.

Objections to Skeptical Theism, and Responses

With any topic as important as this, philosophers have gone back and forth many times on various problems caused by accepting skeptical theism, and various ways of solving those problems. Here are some of the main ideas.

Ad Hoc

One important objection is that skeptical theism is ad hoc. To understand the force of this objection, consider the geocentric model of the solar system. As we all know, this model doesn’t quite fit the observations. So the proponents of the model added epicycles. These are ad hoc modifications of the model to make it fit the data, and if you add enough epicycles you can fit it to any data. You can always continue to modify a model in an ad hoc way to make it fit the evidence. So the evidence that should have refuted the geocentric model ended up being incorporated as epicycles, and now the model “predicts” that evidence.

If skeptical theism were an ad hoc modification do theism, then that would undermine our Bayesian argument. Yes, Christianity would predict H, but only because Christianity was modified in an ad hoc way to predict H. Therefore Christianity is made implausible. The good news is that we don’t seem to have this problem.

To avoid the charge of being ad hoc, what we need to do is demonstrate that the expectation of H under Christianity is entailed by the core of Christianity, rather than just being an extra bit that was tacked on to avoid the argument from evil. And I think we can pretty easily show that to be true. We talked about Job, and from Job we know that the expectation of H has been part of Christianity right from the start, as early as we can go. And Job is incredibly early, possibly as old as the patriarchs. There can’t be any ad hoc modification if there was never any modification in the first place, and Job significantly narrows the window during which such modification could have happened.

We can refute the accusation in another way: not only by showing that our faith was never modified in this aspect, but also by showing that it proceeds from a central part of the belief. And it does, central to Christianity is God’s transcendence. We have argued this above: that because of how vast the gap between God and humanity is, it is entirely expected that some (most!) of God’s purposes will remain mysterious to us. Alexander Pruss makes a similar argument on his blog: it would be surprising for the Christian if they were in a world where:

of this evil was such that its point (a) could be understood by us and (b) it would be on balance good for us to understand its point. In regard to (a), we can cite our cognitive limitations. In regard to (b), we can cite the fact that it is likely that some of the justifications for permissions of evil would involve soul-building, whereas it is very plausible that some soul-building would require techniques that are hidden from its beneficiaries.

If skeptical theism were ad hoc, then we wouldn’t have been able to give a bunch of reasons from epistemology, theism, and Christianity that motivate skeptical theism. But those reasons are all pretty plausible, so it does not seem like sceptical theism is ad hoc.

Normative Skepticism

Another objection to skeptical theism is that skeptical theism entails normative skepticism. The intuition here is easy to see: if we can’t make moral judgements like “this H should have been prevented”, then maybe we can’t make any moral judgements at all. Why be skeptical about some of our moral judgements, but not others? Any perhaps more dangerously, any reason we have for undermining the moral judgements we use in the problem of evil argument will end up undermining our normal, every-day moral judgements.

This is the argument of the philosopher Sharon Street, which we have talked about before. I still believe that the strongest solution here is an agent-relative ethics: it may be right for humans to try and do what they think is right, and it may also be right for God to frustrate them and counteract them. It seems quite plausible that God’s moral duties towards the world are different from a human’s moral duties towards the world, because of the vastly different kinds of things that humans and God are. This is what is argued in a recent paper by Philip Pegan:

In particular, moral common sense dictates that it would be seriously bad for a human being who knew she could easily prevent such an accident to fail to do so. Moral common sense obviously dictates nothing of the sort about God. So long as it is reasonable for the theist to believe that if God were to exist his relationship to the world would—or even just might—be relevantly different from that of any human being’s relationship to the world, reflection on this case need not give the theist any reason to doubt that it would be seriously bad for a human being who knew she could easily prevent this accident to fail to do so.


I think this is very plausible under Christianity. Most classical Christian accounts of ethics are something similar to virtue ethics, and in such a view the kind of thing that an object is determines what is right for that object to be or do. If God and humans are different kinds of things, it’s very easy for the Christian to say that they have different kinds of duties towards the world.

The atheist here may still respond “When I make ethical judgements, I am judging about what makes the world better or worse qua world, and acting based on that judgement. If skeptical theism were true, it would still undermine this judgement”. This is forceful because we are now looking at the value of a world qua world, whether or not a world will be better or worse based on the outcome of our actions. But I think this approach will fail as well, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s not clear to me that moral judgements are about the world qua world. When I choose to save a drowning child, it’s not because I think that doing so will end up making the world better on average. I have no idea what kind of person that child will grow up to be, and even if I did know that they would grow up to be evil, I would probably still save them. I am not making a judgement about the moral value of the world under my decision, I am making a judgement about what kind of action that I qua human ought to take.

The uncertainty posed here is my second point: if we are attempting to judge which of our individual actions make a world better or worse, we are in a hopeless position. We have nowhere near enough information to make informed judgements of that kind. We have no idea what kinds of complex moral goods or evils might vindicate or condemn a particular world-choice. We have no idea what the long term consequences of our actions will be. If we have learned anything from the study of the discipline of economics, it is that well-intentioned and reasonable-sounding policies can have disastrous second-order effects.

So I think the normative skepticism objection does us no harm. We can appeal to a strong tradition of virtue ethics within Christianity to avoid Street’s argument, and avoid the arguments from the atheist that we need this kind of judgement to decide between good and bad worlds in our own actions.

Divine Deception

I will not spend too long on this point, since we are getting quite long as it is. Some atheists have argued that if skeptical theism is true, God is deceptive. The argument is obvious: if God makes a world under which it seems like X, but really not X, then God is deceptive.

I think that this paper from John DePoe presents a very strong counter-argument: God does not intend to cause people to believe false propositions and God does not provide sufficient evidence for someone to justifiably believe a false proposition. Since these conditions are not met, God is not deceptive. I do not think I can phrase it better than he did, so I will encourage you to read the paper instead.

Objections to CORNEA

Because of CORNEA’s strong restriction on what counts as evidence, some philosophers have suggested that if we endorse CORNEA, we have no ammunition to respond to the problem of global skepticism. That is, we have no ammunition to respond to the problem that we may all be brains in a vat, or deceived by an evil demon into thinking we exist in the physical universe, or something similar. The arguments here are quite technical and a bit beyond our scope for today, so I will simply refer you to this paper for a discussion on the problem and some suggestions on how to resolve it. I think that the principles required to solve the problem are quite plausible and can be endorsed by the theist without any danger.

There are also concerns that CORNEA is incompatible with another plausible and widely accepted epistemic principle: commonsense epistemology. Dougherty lays out the argument here. Similarly to the above, the arguments here are dense and technical and beyond the scope for today. Matheson responds here and here, and those responses satisfy me.

Conclusion

When faced with an evidential argument from evil, the Christian has very good reasons to reject the inference from “we cannot see a justification for some H” to “There is no justification from H”. These reasons are motivated by plausible principles in epistemology, from experience, from the content of theism, and from the specific content of Christianity. Therefore at the very least, the evidential problem of evil fails when deployed against Christianity.

Further Reading

Some Preliminary Notes on the Problem of Evil

I am putting together a large post on the problem of evil, where I intend to clearly and fully lay out my reasons for thinking that it is unsound. Before that, I want to outline some of the important ideas I will be drawing on. Since the main post is probably going to take a while.

I intend to put forward a positive skeptical theism, rather than a negative skeptical theism. Maybe a higher burden for me, but it is also compatible with some what I am thinking of as second order theodicies: reasons why God might want us to be skeptical theists.

Consider this principle: “An observation E is evidence of hypothesis H over the negation of H if H predicts E at a higher probability than the negation of H predicts E”

This is a straightforwardly Bayesian definition of evidence, but under this definition, it seems like the problem of evil fails. Since clearly, Christianity predicts the existence of horrors at some high probability, the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The atheist here has a way to continue: Christianity doesn’t predict horrors a priori from some core principle, but instead slaps that prediction on to the world view in an ad hoc manner so that it won’t be defeated by evidence. Just like adding epicycles to geocentrism. Add enough epicycles and you can overcome and contrary evidence.

When it comes to predicting horrors a priori, I think we need to flesh that out more: neither you nor I can be said to really be making predictions here a priori at all. Both of us are embedded in long intellectual traditions which have evolved and developed in many ways because of the horrors that exist. Job might be the earliest Christian writing that exists, and you’re not willing to call it a priori. Maybe we treat this similarly to scientific advancement. I have an older theory which you claim has some ad hoc modifications to make my predictions true, while you have a newer theory which has no ad hoc modifications. I claim I have no ad hoc modifications, and that these predictions are really motivated by the belief. What we need to work out is whether my “ad hoc modifications” are epicycles or if they’re dark matter. I think that this doesn’t come down to “a priori” because that’s a mythical place neither of us can get to. I think it comes down to whether Christianity’s prediction of horrors (which you’ll definitely find in the scriptures) is consistent with the Christian worldview, or whether it’s an inconsistent or unmotivated concession to reality, to avoid rejecting Christianity entirely. And I think it’s easy enough to argue for that consistency.

Even if we take a very minimal Christianity to be the central motivating principle for our predictions, we have the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of all Christian theology. And the Gospel is that Christ came into a dark and evil world and rescued helpless, unworthy, and wretched sinners. So right there we have a motivated prediction of the existence of evil. We even possibly have a prediction for the greatest evil, the crucifixion of Christ. And not only the crucifixion, but the evil it takes to make the world dark enough, so that Christ is more glorious in incarnating. And the evil it takes to demonstrate us to be unworthy, or to make us unworthy. If we’ve predicted great evil, have we also predicted horrors? I think so. The only way we don’t predict horrors is if we also predict that we will have access to all of God’s reasons for each individual evil. But how would we have that access? Either God grants it to us via revelation, or we are able to plainly see it. But why should we expect either of those, given our wretched state and the transcendence of God? It’s very plausible that I can’t understand what an individual horror is doing any more than my cats can understand why I abandon them for hours every day. And it’s also plausible that God deliberately keeps such things hidden from us to remind us of our lowly state compared to Him, and to help build in us such qualities as trust and compassion. I don’t think it’s possible to truly develop compassion without being subjected to mysterious suffering, and I don’t think there’s any real trust if I always know precisely what God is doing.

If my wife says “trust me”, and I tell her “of course I trust you, I’ve got a hidden camera and microphone on your handbag”, maybe I don’t actually trust her. But if God wants us to trust Him (which He does under Christianity), then there must be some times of darkness where we cannot see what God is doing.

And there is one final strong argument here: some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different to the kinds of evil you’re calling horrors and using to motivate your argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than you are to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified. Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. And I think also that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it, I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Calvinism, Hiddenness, and Skeptical Theism

When it comes to arguments against God, the two big ones are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. I think that Reformed thinking holds important solutions to these problems for the theist.

Divine Hiddenness

The argument from hiddenness, famously defended by John Schellenberg, goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, God would have good reasons to desire a close, intimate, and open relationship with each person (content of Christian theology of God and love)
  2. If God wanted such a relationship, He would have one (content of Christian theology on omnipotence)
  3. God does not have such a relationship
  4. God does not exist

The argument seems valid, so we must attack some premises. 3 is pretty sturdy, few people would argue that everyone has that kind of relationship with God. 2 might be questionable on grounds of libertarian free will, though even if such libertarian free will existed I think those objections would ultimately fail. So we have to attack 1.

And clearly, the Calvinist would reject 1. Calvinism is an (at least) plausible take on theism under which God doesn’t desire such a relationship with all people in that way. While God with His moral will desires such a relationship, with His sovereign will He elects some for such a relationship and ordains that others will not obtain such a relationship.

While this may just seem like a “Nah!” to premise 1, the Calvinist has strong reasons for thinking that this is the case. These are grounded in exegesis of various passages of scripture, which we won’t really go into here, but suffice it to say that the Calvinists think that they have very good reasons to endorse a theology which entails that 1 is false.

Apart from any exegesis of important passages like Romans 9 and John 6 and Ephesians 1 and 2, we can give a priori theological reasons that make this view at least plausible. Monergism itself is quite plausible, because if God is primarily interested in glorifying Himself (again, a priori plausible, as the most valuable being it is right for Him to display His value), then God will make Himself the primary mover. If God is interested in redeeming a people, it seems to better display His unconditional love by redeeming people who had nothing good in them wholly by Himself, rather than redeeming only those who had enough innate goodness to choose Him in the first place. And if monergism is true, then God has three options:

  1. Save everyone
  2. Save no-one
  3. Save some people

God clearly won’t choose 2, as then God does not get to demonstrate His unconditional love. And God has good reasons to not choose 1, because then God does not get to demonstrate His perfect justice. But it seems like the world is better if it is a world in which God fully displays a wide range of His attributes. So plausibly, God chooses 3. And if God chooses 3, then there are some people who are not saved.

So the Calvinist can comfortably reject 1, and the problem of divine hiddenness fails against the Calvinist.

The Problem of Evil

The other big boy when it comes to these arguments is the problem of evil. Specifically in question here is an evidential problem of evil, which goes something like this:

  1. If God existed, there would not be unjustified evil in the world
  2. There is unjustified evil in the world
  3. God does not exist

The response I want to use here is the skeptical theist response. That is: the atheist has no reason to think that there are unjustified evils, because we have no way of telling which evils are justified or not. Indeed, we have good reasons to think that we wouldn’t be able to see these reasons that God has for allowing evil.

One way that the atheist responds to this is to argue that God, if He existed, would not keep such reasons hidden from us. And the main reason that it seems that God would not keep them hidden from us is that many people seem to lose their faith over God’s lack of transparency here. There are, as the atheist says, many people who have become atheists because they have seen evils for which they can’t see any reasons God might have for allowing that evil. And so in order to preserve the faith of these people, God ought not ordain the existence of evil without also making the reasons for that evil transparent.

The Calvinist can also respond here: God will preserve those who He has elected, and will cause their faith to not fail because He is the ultimate source of their faith anyway. And indeed, anyone who falls away was never truly one of the elect. So in this case, it doesn’t seem like God has this motivation for making His reason transparent.

In the end, I think both of these arguments fail, and I think the Reformed theologian is in a stronger position to respond to each of them than other schools of thought. Turns out that if we emphasize God’s sovereignty and God’s holiness, arguments that rely on premises like “God would do X” are not all that troubling.

Saturday Links 11/8/18

A Bad Response to the Problem of Evil

In thinking about the post yesterday I remembered a particularly bad response to the problem of evil that I often see Christians deploy. The atheist claims that if evil exists, then the God of Christianity cannot. And the Christian responds by saying something like “As an atheist, you can’t even know what evil is, since you need God in order for moral facts to be true. So without God, there’s no evil. And since you do not believe in God, you cannot believe in evil, so you cannot formulate a problem of evil.”

I think that this is a very poor response, because I think it misunderstands what the problem of evil accomplishes. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument.

If this is a new term for you, then I will give you another example of such an argument. Here we will prove that there is no largest integer. We will do this by first assuming that there is such an integer.

  1. Suppose N is the largest integer
  2. For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
  3. Therefore N+1 is larger than N
  4. Therefore N is not the largest integer
  5. Therefore there is no largest integer

 

Now, do I have to believe that there is a largest integer in order to make this argument? Premise 1 says that there is a largest integer, so surely I believe that. But obviously I do not. Similarly, the atheist makes an argument like this:

  1. Suppose God exists
  2. Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
    ….
  3. Therefore God does not exist.

 

Does the atheist have to believe premises 1 and 2 for the argument to work? No, of course not. The argument is essentially the atheist deliberately taking on the Christian assumptions, like God and evil (and they might even take our definition of evil) in order to show that these assumptions are false, just like premise 1 “N is the largest integer” is false.

So even if the atheist doesn’t know what evil is, even if the atheist is a moral antirealist who claims that there is no good and evil, they can still validly use this argument. Now obviously I think the argument fails, for reasons I gave yesterday, but the objection in question here is not a good one.

Some Christians think that this objection is the one given by God in Job. The Christian reads God’s monologue at the end of Job and hears God saying “Who are you to question me, I am the Lord, I know good and evil, I have the right to do whatever I want. You do not sit in judgment over me, I sit in judgement over you.”

And that’s right, that is what God is saying. But the right interpretation is not that we have no conception of evil by which we can argue. The right interpretation is that we are too small to understand God’s reasons for doing what He does. And certainly far too small to claim that God has no such reasons. I think the response given to us by God in Job is not the argument “You can’t talk about evil if you don’t know what God is”, I think it is “You don’t know all the reasons I have for what I do”. So in other words, I think God’s response is best charactarized by the use of higher order goods, which might be mysterious to us, in order to explain lower order evils. God does have reasons.

But there is another problem here I think. I agree that the atheist does not have a full grounding for evil, since as I’ve said before, moral facts (and all other kinds of facts) are grounded in God. And I do agree that the naturalist, materialist, physicalist worldview is less well equipped to ground moral facts than a theistic worldview. But put aside for the moment the fact that the atheist doesn’t need to believe in evil to use the problem of evil. But I think in general, atheists do indeed know what is good and what is evil.

Consider Romans 2: Paul claims that the gentiles, those who do not believe in God, know what is good and evil because their conscience testisifes to them. And Paul uses this as an argument that the gentiles are guilty of sin: their conscience told them what is right and what is wrong, and they knowingly did what is wrong. Atheists are not without a God-given conscience, so we are not unjustified in saying that atheists in general do know what is good and what is evil. Not as well as the believer perhaps, and they might not know why certain things are good or evil. But most of them not only believe that evil exists, they are usually right about what evil is. They don’t have God to ground it, but it’s not clear why grounding is necessary for them to deploy a problem of evil argument.

So while I do think the problem of evil argument fails, I think “The atheist doesn’t know what evil is because they don’t believe in God” is quite a bad objection to it.

Mackie’s Problem of Evil

John Mackie has presented one of the most popular formulations of the problem of evil, it can be accessed here. I will not reproduce all of his arguments, but he attempts to argue that the existence of a totally good, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of evil.

Of course, many believers have put forward objections to these arguments over the centuries, and so Mackie attempts to show why those objections fail. I think one of these attempts is no good, and I will briefly explain why.

One of the primary tools of the theist here is the appeal to the higher order good. God may allow the evil of fear to exist so that the higher order good courage might exist, for example. Clearly, courage would not exist without fear, and courage is good. Perhaps in God’s mind, the goodness of courage makes the evil of fear worth it. I don’t intend to imply that we can somehow measure the goodness of the situations and compare them numerically, I certainly don’t want to endorse utilitarianism. I only need to say that there is something about the higher order good case that justifies the lower order evil.

Mackie responds that sure, we can say that. But then we also have 2nd order evils, perhaps cowardice. And now we need to justify the second order evil. And of course, the tempting route for the theist is to justify it using perhaps a third order good. But Mackie says (denoting a second order evil by “evil (2)”):

But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n + 1), and a farther problem to be solved.

I think this response is not very good. I think Mackie has assumed without justification that there exist n’th order evils that need to be explained. But it’s not clear to me that that is the case. I couldn’t tell you how high in order evils go, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that good could go a level higher. It’s not surprising that there would be an asymmetry between good and evil, where good is in some sense “more real” than evil. Many classical theologians have formulated notions of good that are convertible with being, so goodness is being and being is goodness. And under an idea like this, we would be shocked to see levels of evil for each corresponding level of good. Eventually, we’d expect to get to a point where good was simply higher than evil, and no equivalent high order of evil existed. There is a sense in which good is “bigger” than evil.

Mackie then moves on to discuss a particular case of the higher order good: free will. Being a Calvinist I am not particularly interested in making a free will defence when it comes to the problem of evil, nor defending a libertarian free will from Mackie’s objections in the paper. But I think this flaw with higher order goods is sufficient for the Christian to remain justified in their beliefs.

Against Deism – Goodness, Consistency, and Evil

Many people object that philosophical arguments for theism such as the cosmological argument do not arrive at the God of any particular religion, but instead prove the existence of a deistic God: who created the world or who upholds existence but who does not interact at all with humanity. I think we can make a good argument against this by looking at Christianity and arguing that this does appear to be the God of philosophical arguments.

But I think also we can extend the philosophical arguments to rule out deism. We can extend the cosmological arguments to show that God actually would interact with humanity, based on what we’ve already concluded about God. And not only that, but I think we can extend them in a way that rules out several of the other contenders for claims about God.

From the philosophical arguments, we conclude that God is good, and indeed perhaps Goodness Itself. At the very least, God is the highest good. We also conclude that God is all knowing and all powerful. So we take these conclusions as premises now.

Supposing that God is all good, He must want good for the entire universe. He wants the galaxies to be good galaxies, He wants the atoms to be good atoms, and He wants the people to be good people. And it seems that for people to be good people, the goodest people they can be, He has to direct their affections towards the good. That is, God must direct their affections towards God. Perhaps not each individual person (He may have other purposes in mind for individuals, see Romans 9), but people in general. It seems that God, being good, must draw the world to Himself. And so He must reveal Himself to them, so that they can pursue Him.

By being good and rational, God must be incapable of lying and self-consistent. So that means that all of God’s revelations must be consistent with each other, and they must be truthful. I believe this rules out Islam, which is inconsistent with the previous revelation from God. Muslims will claim that the previous revelations have been corrupted, but not only is there no evidence of this, there is significant evidence that they have remained in their original form. The Old Testament and New Testament were written over centuries by ~40 different authors, while the Quran was written by one man over a few decades. The New Testament is a perfect fulfilment of all prophecy in the Old Testament, is perfectly consistent with the Old Testament, and presents itself as the final revelation. This is of course only a summary of a fuller argument against Islam that I may one day make, but it gives us plenty of reason to prefer Christianity over Islam.

Returning to deism, I claim that deism does not have a sufficient response to the problem of evil. Remember that if there is a deist God, then that God is still good. So we’d expect some pretty convincing reasons as to why the deist God knowingly (because the deist God is still omniscient and omnipotent) created a universe that contains evil and suffering. Theists appeal to God’s purpose for the universe in explaining why evil exists: in order to bring about some higher order good. Some appeal to free will as a specific higher order good, but I don’t think we need to do that here.

But under many conceptions, the deist God is a God who doesn’t have any specific purpose for the universe, or at least for the rational beings within the universe. But if there is no purpose for the rational beings in the universe, then there cannot be a sufficient reason to ordain that evil would exist.

So it seems that on the whole deism is significantly less plausible than theism, and that Christianity provides the most plausible theism.

Does monotheism entail normative skepticism?

The somewhat intimidating title of this post was taken from a Reddit post of the same title, which presented the argument made in a paper by Sharon Street. I won’t reproduce those arguments here, the Reddit post does a good job of explaining them. I’ve been unable to find a publically accessible mirror of the paper, but I am happy to update this if I do find one. The main idea here is this: If everything happens for a reason, then we have no idea what reasons are.

I think pretty clearly that we must take the agent-relative horn. There are some things that God does that are only right for God to do, and not for us to do. Many of God’s reasons for actions are agent-relative, they are not the kinds of reasons we should have.

In that case, we must answer how we know what is moral and what is not. Seems to me that the Christian can give several avenues of knowledge here. We have moral facts revealed in scripture, we have moral facts as testified to us by our conscience, we even perhaps have moral facts that we have deduced via a secular moral system such as Kantianism. That last statement may be controversial to some Christians, but I think it is reasonable to say that we can use our God-given reasoning abilities to determine what is right and wrong. It’s not like those moral facts are not still grounded in God, as He grounds reasoning itself and indeed all facts.

So with regards to “secular” moral reasoning, the argument is that one of the main “selling points” of religion is that it gives us some advantage in moral reasoning, and if we are forced to appeal to “secular” moral reasoning then religion becomes weaker. But I am not sure this is a very significant problem for the Christian since we are already told in scripture that the “secular” use of the conscience is appropriate, because God gives that to us. Presumably, God gives us reason as well, and so using reason to arrive at moral conclusions is valid. Hence the scare quotes around “secular”: for the Christian, nothing is ever really secular. It is all grounded in God.

But let’s suppose that we do not take this route, and instead, we rely on what we might call a “sacred” moral reasoning. Perhaps this can be written revelation, or a God-given conscience, some kind of innate moral intuition. And now the sceptic launches into another argument: this revelation given by God should be clear and unmistakable. And since the sceptic doesn’t think it is clear and unmistakable, we cannot believe that any such revelation has been given.

I do not agree with the premise that any revelation from God should be clear and unmistakable. I instead would believe this premise: revelation would be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I also believe (as Romans 1 teaches) that the heart of every foolish man has been darkened so that they suppress knowledge of God, and so the revelation that ought to be clear and unmistakable is now no longer.

I might be willing to accept that God ought to give moral revelation (again, including a conscience and scripture) that should be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I don’t see any reason to think He ought to give one that would be so to an unreasonable person. Certainly, He could, just like He reaches in and regenerates someone before they repent of their sin and before they know Him, so that they can do those things. But I don’t think He has any obligation to.

But I might even go a step further and say that the conscience that God has given us is pretty clear and unmistakable. I think the vast majority of people have a pretty accurate innate sense of right and wrong. It can get a bit messy in weird edge cases (like trolley problems) but that’s not a big deal. I think the vast majority of us if we are honest, will say that in the vast majority of the time we know what is right and what is wrong. We might still do wrong, but we know it’s wrong. And for the rare person with a defective conscience (which normally happens because a person has essentially starved it by ignoring it) the fact that everyone else has one is good enough evidence of right and wrong.

This all together seems like a sufficient response to the argument that monotheism entails normative scepticism.