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Evil and the Existence of God: How Effective is the Appeal to Inscrutability, Part II

March 22, 2011

Yesterday, I gave part I to this paper.  Here is the second part:


IV.  How Effective Is Wykstra’s Appeal?

Let us begin by stating what is minimally required for the theistic philosopher.  In order to offer a response to the evidential problem of evil, minimally, the theist is simply required to provide a way in which we may reasonably question the strength of the evidential case.  Assuming Wykstra’s CORNEA is reasonable, he has shown that the atheologian is not entitled to the claim “It appears that there are instances of evil that have no God-justifying purposes” for the simple reason that humans do not have epistemic access to the ways of God.   In this way, Wykstra’s maneuver is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s “Free-will Defense” in which Plantinga offers a “possible” scenario where every possible world that God created would have at least one instance of evil.   Neither Wykstra nor Plantinga offer an actual reason why God would allow evil (in general) or a specific evil (in particular), but, philosophically, they are not necessarily required to.[1] It is enough that doubt has been cast on the atheologian’s objection.

Yet, unlike the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem’s force lies in the emotional (and intellectual) difficulty of accepting that every instance of gratuitous evil in the world somehow serves a divine purpose.  So, should the atheologian concede to Wykstra’s rebuttal, the atheologian might then press Wykstra to affirm why he believes God has good reasons for allowing each instance of evil.  If Wykstra’s primary response has been his appeal to inscrutability, his answer will likely border on being circular.  In this sense the appeal to inscrutability, even one as sophisticated as Wykstra’s, ends up sounding something like this:  “God is good, yet many particular instances of evil exists, and I don’t have any explanation for how they fit into God’s purposes, but I’m certain there are reasons, because I know that God is good.”  Though he may be able to philosophically provide a case on how this is acceptable, it is not all emotionally or intellectually satisfying.

Even more, it is not at all clear that Wykstra’s CORNEA can withstand intense scrutiny.  Though I am not qualified to weigh in on the debate between Swinburne and Wykstra (and Rowe), Swinburne points out that the strong version of Wykstra’s CORNEA leads to an ad infinitum in that for every reason we have to think that “if p were not so, our experience would be different,” we would need another reason to think that if that reason were not so our experience would be different, and so on.[2] In the end, Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity” seems to be sound, and much simpler to put into practice.  And thus, if we accept Swinburne’s principle, we must admit that the appeal to inscrutability is ineffective and more is needed to counter the prima facie evidence of the atheologian’s objection.  With Swinburne, I conclude:

It follows from the Principle of Credulity that bad states for which no greater-good defense can apparently be provided must count against the existence of God.  In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite this counter-evidence, we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.[3]

It is here that the project of theodicy begins, and the theologian’s task to provide a plausible account for why it is not only logically compatible for God and evil (even gratuitous evil) to co-exist, but why they do, in fact, co-exist.


V.  Theologians Must Go Beyond Inscrutability

As I have noted, though a theistic philosopher can legitimately use the appeal to inscrutability as a response to the evidential objection of evil, he has not at all answered the objection; he has merely escaped its force.  However, in strict philosophical theism, it may be unnecessary to provide any compelling counter-case.  The theologian, on the other hand, has different tasks and responsibilities.  As a theologian, he or she claims to be able to relay some truth about God’s nature, providential aims, and activity in the world.  While a theologian will certainly not be able to know the ways of God exhaustively, it is assumed that he or she will know them substantially.  Therefore, in what is arguably the most important objection to the existence of God, the theologian, should presumably, be able to offer a plausible theodicy as to why evil exists in a world created by a omnipotent, wholly-good God.  This should at least be the theologian’s aim.

Further, as I have mentioned, the evidential problem of evil garners much of its strength from its appeal to our moral and emotional intuitions as human beings.  It is not simply an intellectual problem.  For theists, to maintain belief in a God who is supposedly wholly good and omnipotent, and then not provide any plausible explanation as to why this is so borders on intellectual and moral cowardice.  It is not so much a question of whether or not a theist is rationally justified, but rather, is a theist morally justified to maintain belief in such a God despite not offering any counter-evidence to the evidential objection?  This is even more true for the theologian.

It could be argued that in Christian theism, there is a clear precedent in the Bible for appealing to inscrutability.  After all, does not God clearly say “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9), and doesn’t Paul say that God’s judgments are “unsearchable” and ways “untraceable” (Romans 11:33)?  However, in both these cases, the context of the passages concerns mercy and God’s willingness to show it to Israel; they are not blanket statements for the inscrutability of God.  Even in the book of Job, God’s point does not seem to be that His ways are past finding out simply because He’s God; instead, He appeals to the complexity of creation and the fact that Job (nor any of us) have any idea what He contends with in maintaining order in such a chaotic creation (see especially Job 41 and the mention of Leviathan).  In fact, I would propose that the Christian scriptures go to great lengths to establish exactly what kind of God the Christian God is and that His character is above reproach.  There is certainly a mystery concerning evil in the Bible, but it is not a mystery concerning the character of God.

I suppose I must conclude by offering my definitive answer as to whether or not an appeal to inscrutability is effective.  While acknowledging the nuances in the theistic philosopher’s options, and the technical plausibility of giving such a response, I argue that, in the end, the appeal to inscrutability does very little to effectively counter the atheologians’ objection.  While crafty maneuvering may not allow the atheologian to declare complete victory; more is needed in order to offer a philosophically, theologically, and emotionally satisfying response.


[1] Reformed Epistemologists such as Plantinga usually do not engage in “postive” apologetics.

[2] Swinburne, Providence, 26.

[3] Ibid., 29.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 7:27

    Hey Groover,

    I enjoyed your paper. You’re a great writer. It was a good philosophical piece, but of course, it left me wondering what a good answer to the objection would be. Is there a third post coming? You said you were temporarily leaving option one of the theist defense aside, but I’m not sure that you ever returned to it, so I am hoping that you do…Philosophically, I would seek to discredit the case made by the atheist (why do you use the word “atheologian”?) as being self-defeating. I’m sure you’ve heard this defense, especially in your class, but basically, it states that in order to make a case against God for some objective reality called “evil,” one has to assume a number of things that are only proper to a theistic worldview, i.e. An objective reality called “good,” which we call “God;” the supernatural ability of reason to transcend Nature and identify evil; the idea that it is bad to do evil, which can only be assumed when there is a principle outside of the universe by which it may be judged, etc. etc.

    I loved your critique of the philosophical portion, and thought you nailed it. With that said, I find most theological defenses unsatisfying and unhelpful. Often times, they raise more problems for me than they solve. In short, my initial response to your argument that philosophers may appeal to inscrutability while theologians must grapple with the issues seems…mmm, problematic? I agree that theologians may AIM to answer the question, but I’m not convinced that it is any more their responsibility than a theistic philosopher. You state that the duty of a theologian is “to relay some truth about God’s nature, providential aims, and activity in the world.” But this does not include relaying some truth about the nature of evil, its aims, or its activity in the world…okay, I’m overly critiquing your definition (which I agree with!), but seriously, I’m still not convinced that a theologian needs to go any further than saying “God is good (Nature), God aims to glorify Himself (aim form a Reformed perspective!) by manifesting His love and redemption in the world, and God is actively pursuing us (activity). As stated by you (I know I’m being nitpicky), this fulfills the theologian’s task. Indeed, inherent to theology is the initial premise that “God exists.” Take away that premise, and you’re no longer doing theology. Thus, I would argue that it is not properly a subject of theology to argue for God’s existence. In other words, for a theologian to go beyond the proper boundaries of her field and to try to argue for the basic assumptions of her field as well, she must appeal to something outside of her field. But even if I conceded this point, I would say that a theologian’s task, unlike the philosopher, is to appeal to scripture, or else it is philosophy, and we are back in the realm of the theistic philosopher. So I would conclude by saying that unless the answer to this question has been revealed in scripture in some way that I don’t know about, the theologian has nothing but conjectures based what he knows about God’s nature. At this point, he is back in the realm of philosophy, which again, makes me think that this problem is more philosophical in nature than anything else, and the theologian is justified in appealing to God’s inscrutability.

    I’ll make one last comment (sorry, long response to a long and awesome paper): if you had argued that a Pastor should seek to explain the evidential problem of evil, I would be more persuaded. I’ll nuance that a bit by saying that in a lot of circumstances, a pastor should NOT run into tragic circumstances offering theodicies and trite words that justify God. I think, based on my personal experience, that we must each wrestle with evil. But if a pastor is confronted with the problem and asked for an answer, he MUST be willing and able to give a reason. What that answer should be may vary, depending on the audience, but I think it is necessary.

    I say all of this like the distinction I’m making really matters, but practically, I don’t think it does. I just had to think your argument through a bit and give you my initial feedback. Thanks for sharing…good topic!

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      March 24, 2011 11:43


      You mean you didn’t agree with everything I said??? ☺ Let me briefly address each of your points.

      1. I did not return to the third option. As I continued to write, I found that it was superfluous to the question at hand. The essay was issued around the question of the effectiveness of inscrutability, not an assessment of the atheist’s objection in general. However, I do very much utilize your line of reasoning about the atheist’s objections have to borrow from a metaphysical worldview to even make the objection in the first place. See an earlier paper I wrote on this here:

      Also, the third option I was going to return to (admittedly I forgot), was from an article by David Basinger responding to Michael Martin in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1992). Basically he calls raises the question as to how to competing worldviews are to “assess” what constitutes strong enough evidence. Here is a quote from him:

      “Martin and other athelogians who utilize such argumentation continually use such phrases as ‘positive evidence,’ ‘good reasons’ and ‘rational grounds’ throughout their discussions. But what exactly are these phrases to mean in the present context? What exactly, for example, must be true concerning a piece of data before it can be considered ‘positive evidence’ for or against God existence? And who is to make such a decision? The theist? The atheologian? Both? … In short, it seems to me that inductive inter-world view discussions concerning metaphysical issues ultimately come down to a ‘difference of opinion’” (150-151).

      Now Basinger does interact with the atheist’ position and offers a pretty strong case, but in the end, he challenges the assumptions that the evidential case stands on—namely the evaluation of evidence. It’s an incredible maneuver.

      2. “Why do you use the word ‘atheologian’?” I ran across this word when reading David Basinger (see above). And I just preferred it to the term atheist. “Atheologian” takes on a more neutral tone, while atheist seems to carry baggage with it.

      3. I think in terms of the distinction between “philosopher” and “theologian” I should provide some context to my thought processes. Most philosophical discussions of the problem of evil do so from the stance of “restricted theism” or the minimal qualifications of a personal God: mainly, God as omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good.” This definition could apply to any of the theistic religions (arguably) and so it’s fluid for discussion. However, once we begin to incorporate ideas about the Christian God or the Islamic God, etc., we move into “expanded theism,” and we move firmly into the realm of theology. I would say that “restricted” theism is more of philosophical dilemma, where God is more of an abstraction (and thus a problem to be solved) rather than a personal God who actually does have reasons for doing what He does. I read about this distinction between “restricted” and “expanded” theism in an essay by William Rowe. And so, I felt that in strictly philosophical discussions dealing with “restricted” theism, a philosopher is entitled to appeal to inscrutability as long as he successfully calls into question the validity of the ‘atheologian’s’ argument. He does not have to give actual reasons; and once he does, he is working in the realm of theology.

      4. As to what the “theologian is “required” to do, I think a lot of people would agree with you. There are many who argue that we can only speak of God by which he is not (e.g., the mystics) so we certainly aren’t entitled to say why God would do the things he does. I guess this is just a difference of opinion. I’m under the impression that if we are to attempt to tell people who God is or what He is like, then we must be prepared to give some explanation as to how he can be who He is with evil in the world. That is not to say that we must be able to explain everything (this certainly is impossible), but we should be able to give some plausible explanation. I feel that this is the only way we are entitled to maintain our belief in a “wholly-good” God.

      If as you say, the theologian is only required to say, “God is good; God aims to glorify himself; God seeks to redeem us; etc.,” all he has done so far is make assertions. That is well and fine, but when pressed about how these assertions are compatible with certain seemingly contrary situations, I would hope you would have some explanation as to how you maintain such beliefs. See, once the atheologian is asking the question about how evil can exist in a world created by such a God as you claim, he has already given you your premise—for the sake of argument, he’s saying if God exists, how can this be. He may put it more strongly (God likely doesn’t exist) but I would imagine he assumes that you are going to presuppose God’s existence in your answer and then show how His existence is compatible with the existence of evil. So I not believe the theologian is going “beyond his field” to discuss the problem of evil.

      5. Though I agree that the theologian should operate primarily form scripture, I think you are drawing the lines too sharply to suggest that he never use philosophy in his theological aims. Basically you’re saying that the only kind of theology a theologian can do is “Biblical theology” but that is certainly a narrow field. What about systematic theology which is predicated upon using philosophy to some degree? Also, I think you assume too much with what is expressly revealed in scripture and what is conjecture. In one sense, you’re right, all theology is conjecture, because all theology is in the realm of interpretation. Yet, there are MANY things that have been revealed in scripture that have not been revealed so clearly that we do not need to interpret and make assertions based on Scripture. This is what the whole task of theology is about: taking the “revealed” Scriptures and explaining what they mean and what the reveal about God.

      6. Lastly, I feel that the distinction you drew between “pastors” and “theologians” is far more nuanced than my original distinction. Are pastors not pastors fundamentally theologians? They may not be so in the professional/academic sense, but they are certainly claiming to reveal some truth about God. Even more, I would suggest that one of the main roles of a theologian is to provide information for the pastor. And so, if you think the pastor should be able to offer an explanation if asked about the problem of evil, I would think it would be even more important for the theologian (the one who is so by profession) to have wrestled through the issues already.

      In the end, I think ultimately, it is a matter of opinion to some degree, but as any good wannabe philosopher/theologian…that doesn’t stop me from making my case. ☺

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and giving me constructive feedback. If I ever do deal with this issue more thoroughly, I would happily use your suggestions to clear things up.

      When are you going to post some of your papers??? ☺

      Blessings bro.

      • May 9, 2011 4:19

        Sorry, the semester got away from me, and I had a flurry of finals and papers to do. In response to point 5, I would agree with you. My point is not that a theologian does not use philosophy, but that when he begins to do so (and do so he must!), he is no longer doing theology. This is true of many disciplines, and unavoidable. That’s all. As for your sixth point, I would also agree that pastors are theologians. However, I was thinking of theologians from an academic standpoint. In other words, when I hear “theologian,” I think of a guy sitting at a table with his bible, hammering out exegetical insights, writing books, etc. If this imagined theologian leaves the Word (i.e. God’s revelation) and stops asserting who God is based on God’s revelation, then he is usually doing philosophy. I guess my argument is basically drawing a sharper distinction between reason and faith by contrasting philosophy with theology. Ultimately though, I think they need each other, and work in a complementary fashion. In other words, I think your paper was right and helpful, but like you said, this is a categorical disagreement and not a substantive one.

        My papers are too boring to post. My teachers and I are the only ones who care enough to read them 🙂 But who knows, maybe I’ll find some time this summer to blog

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