The Problem of Evil

7. Skeptical Theism

  1. Defence: God has a reason for allowing evil, pain and suffering. However, with our limited and finite minds, humans cannot possibly comprehend what that reason might be.[12]

This argument is not so much a theodicy as a reason for thinking that no attempted theodicy can succeed. It seeks to defuse the problem of evil even before it gets a chance to start. This idea that our diminished cognitive abilities pale in comparison with divine omniscience finds expression in the New Testament.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?

[Romans 11:33–34]

Book cover: The Miracle of Theism by J. L. Mackie
  1. Response 1: This defence raises the question of why God had not given humans an assurance that he has a reason for allowing evil, pain and suffering. We would expect God, at the least, to tell us that he has a reason and why he is not revealing it. This would assure us that there is a plan and this assurance would go some way to making terrible sufferings more bearable.

    It may be the case that God wants to keep us at a distance so that we freely choose to join his presence. John Hick advances this argument in his book, Evil and the God of Love [1968: 317–321]. However, akin to the problem I pointed out with the soul-making theodicy, this approach does not account for the enormous disparity in the distribution of opportunities to know God. This approach is also morally questionable. God's actions here can be likened to the father who deliberately hides himself from his children behind a veil of suffering and ignorance so that his children can admire him freely.

  2. Response 2: The skeptical theist's defence leads to the odd and morally unsettling conclusion that no possible amount or distribution of natural and moral evils will count against the existence of God. Even in a world of immense suffering in which billions of animals and humans experience extreme pain and distress and in which there is little or no pleasure and happiness and few or no righteous acts, God's existence is deemed possible. On this defence, if we had existed in such a miserable world, our extreme suffering would go no way to counting as evidence against God's existence.

    If the skeptical theist concedes that in this imaginary world, such misery would count against the existence of God, then this raises the question of what that level and distribution of evil, pain and suffering would be. That level must lie somewhere between the level existing in our actual world and the level existing in my imagined extremely miserable world. The challenge for the theist is in (a) providing a reason for why there is such a level of evil beyond which God's existence can be questioned rationally, and (b) saying what that level is.

  3. Response 3: The skeptical theism defence is too strong. Epistemically, it allows too much. Consider the proposition that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and omnimalevolent being. Now, there is just as much evidence for the existence of this being as there is for the theist's God. The traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God—the ontological argument, the cosmological argument and the teleological argument—just as equally prove the existence of a perfectly malevolent being.

    In addition, the argument from religious experience can be drawn on to vouch for the existence of a powerful, malevolent being. Sightings of the devil figure frequently in religious literature, including that from the Abrahamic tradition. The existence and the plethora of mutually exclusive revealed religions can also be seen as the expected workings of this perfectly malevolent being intent on confounding us.

    What of the moral argument for the existence of a divine law giver? From the standpoint of the omnimalevolent being hypothesis, the moral argument can be mustered to support the conclusion that the necessary law giver commands that we ought to further our own selfish desires and ignore the needs and wants of others.

    When we point to the amount, nature and distribution of good in the world, the proponent of the perfectly malevolent being idea is faced with a problem for which he needs an answer. How can he reconcile the goods we experience with the existence of a perfectly malevolent being? The problem of evil, pain and suffering is here turned on its head to become the problem of good, pleasure and ecstasy.

    Mirror image theodicies can be made to work here just as well as for the theist. For the malevolent being advocate, free will is granted us by this being so that we can freely choose selfish actions. The soul-making theodicy can be repurposed into an ego-building, narcissist-making explanation. Similarly, on this scheme, pleasure and ecstasy are necessary prerequisites for enticing us towards selfish acts. Taking a cue from Spinoza and Baker Eddy, pleasure and ecstasy can alternatively be thought of as illusions resulting from our distance from the supremely evil being.

    Returning to the skeptical theism defence, the challenge here for the skeptical theist is that if his move is effective for reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, it is equally effective at reconciling the existence of good with the existence of a perfectly malevolent being. The philosophical and experiential case for the existence of a perfectly malevolent being is equally open to the defence that such a being has a reason for allowing good, pleasure and ecstasy. As our cognitive capabilities are severely limited in comparison with those of the omniscient evil one, the argument goes, we are not privy to that reason. Given this agnostic nature of the skeptical theist's defence, the theist's hands are tied by his own reasoning. He cannot then count the existence of goods as evidence against the proposition that a perfectly malevolent being exists.

    The paradoxical nature of this defence is of the same type as that resulting from Pascal's Wager.[13] Considering there are no conclusive objective reasons for believing in the existence of God or for not believing, Pascal asked his readers to bet on the existence of God, for betting on his existence is more prudent than betting on his non-existence. For Pascal, betting on God's non-existence runs the risk of losing everything: missing out on eternal bliss while suffering eternal damnation in Hell. In Pascal's case, his wager ignores the possibility of the existence of a malevolent deity lying in wait to entrap Christians, and so fails to insure against this possible deity's malevolent intentions. As with the skeptical theist's defence, when Pascal's wager is taken to include all possibilities, it equally provides reasons for believing in a malevolent deity who rewards believers in him.

  4. Response 4: The skeptical theism defence is too strong in a second way. In addition to casting doubt on the moral qualities of the universe as a whole, this skeptical defence also casts doubt on our everyday moral judgements. Skeptical theism, or what I will call principium ignoramus (human ignorance as an unavoidable principle), leads to a thoroughgoing moral skepticism.[14] By allowing for unknown moral properties of states of affairs and voluntary acts that can outweigh the badness of some things and the wrongness of some acts, how can we know for certain that any particular seemingly bad situation or evil act is in fact bad or evil and deserving of our moral condemnation?

    When a young child is tortured and killed, how can the skeptical theist be sure that the act was morally heinous, all things considered? Skeptical theism leaves open the possibility that the act has some hidden right-making property that makes the act morally excusable or morally praiseworthy. The same is true of states of affairs, such as the suffering of the murdered child. There may be some good-making property of the suffering that makes the suffering, on balance, intrinsically valuable.

    This is not a problem of moral ignorance that is restricted to some acts and situations and not to others. As every voluntary human act is preventable by an omnipotent and omniscient being, this skepticism applies globally. And it is not an epistemic problem that can be overcome by the skeptical theist with further analysis, for such morally significant properties are unknowable in principle. It seems that the skeptical theist's defence leads to a radical moral skepticism that is, by its nature, inescapable.

Rounding up this discussion of the skeptical theism defence, I conclude that this strategy creates more puzzles than it is intended to solve. The defence leaves God's act of hiding himself morally questionable. Furthermore, it appears to morally excuse a perfectly benevolent being for allowing an almost infinite amount of pain and suffering. It also equally provides an escape clause for the rival hypothesis that there exists a perfectly malevolent being. Perhaps, the defence's most fatal liability is that it inescapably leads to a radical moral skepticsm.


  1. [12] For articulations of this defence, see Wykstra [1984] and Stroop [2002].
  2. [13] For the statement of Pascal's Wager, see Pascal [1670].
  3. [14] A version of the following argument using inductive logic can be found in Tooley [2015: §3.5].

Copyright © 2015

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