« Prev II. Nonargumentative Defeaters? Next »

II. Nonargumentative Defeaters?598598    In writing this section I am indebted to John Cooper (sermon in South Bend Christian Reformed Church, 2/28/92), John Haas (sermon in SBCRC, 5/5/97), and Leonard Vander Zee (sermon in SBCRC, 1/5/97).

These new arguments by Rowe and Draper are subtle and sophisticated; many deep and interesting topics come up in considering them. Upon close examination, however, they fail, and fail resoundingly. They fail to provide a defeater for theistic belief and, indeed, give the person on the fence little if any reason to prefer atheism to theism. They are not much of an improvement over the older “if I can’t see any reason God might have for permitting that evil E, then 482probably he doesn’t have any” kind of argument. If the facts of evil really do provide a substantial challenge to Christian or theistic belief, it must be by a wholly different route; the probabilistic relationships to which Rowe and Draper point do not carry sufficient epistemic clout. And indeed the fact is most defeaters do not proceed by way of the subject’s becoming aware of probabilistic relationships. I have always thought your name was Sam: you tell me that Sam is only your nickname and that your name is really Ahab; I then give up the belief that your name is Sam. But I don’t do so because I think that your name’s being Sam is unlikely, given that you say it is Ahab, or that it is more probable that you would say your name is Ahab on the hypothesis that it is Ahab than on the hypothesis that it is Sam. The defeat doesn’t seem to go via probabilistic argumentation. I see what I take to be a patch of snow on a distant crag; as I approach a bit closer, however, the patch apparently moves; I no longer believe it is a patch of snow—perhaps it’s a mountain goat? Again, I don’t engage in probabilistic reasoning. I thought your zip code was 49506; then I get a letter from you with a return address that includes zip code 49508; I no longer believe that it is 49506, but not because of probabilistic reasoning. In most actual cases of defeat, probabilistic reasoning apparently doesn’t enter in.

And perhaps something similar holds with respect to evil. There is no cogent argument for the conclusion that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God; there is also no serious evidential or probabilistic argument from evil; fair enough. It doesn’t follow that suffering and evil do not constitute a serious obstacle to Christian belief or theistic belief, and it doesn’t follow that they do not constitute a defeater for it. I have argued throughout that belief in God can be properly basic; rational belief in God does not depend on one’s having or there being good arguments for the existence of God. Should something analogous be said for the facts of evil, thought of as a potential defeater for theistic belief? Perhaps the defeating power of these facts in no way depends on the existence of a good antitheistic argument (deductive, inductive, abductive, probabilistic, whatever) from the facts of evil.

Clearly enough, suffering and evil do constitute some kind of problem for at least some believers in God; the Old Testament (in particular Job and Psalms) is full of examples. Indeed, there is the agonized cry uttered by Jesus Christ himself: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—a cry in which he is echoing the words of Psalm 22. In the book of Job, a searching and powerful exploration of the facts of evil and human responses to them, Job thinks God is unfair to him; he is incensed, and challenges God to explain and justify himself. Countless others, in the grip of their own cruel suffering or the suffering of someone close to them, have found themselves angry with God; one can become resentful, mistrusting, antagonistic, 483hostile. Still, these situations don’t typically produce a defeater for theistic belief. It isn’t as if Jesus, or the psalmist, or Job is at all inclined to give up theistic belief. The problem is of a different order; it is a spiritual or pastoral problem rather than a defeater for theistic belief. Perhaps God permits my father, or my daughter, or my friend, or me to suffer in the most appalling way. I may then find myself thinking as follows: “No doubt he has all those dandy divine qualities and no doubt he has a fine reason for permitting this abomination—after all, I am no match for him with respect to coming up with reasons, reasons that are utterly beyond me—but what he permits is appalling, and I hate it!” I may want to tell him off face to face: “You may be wonderful, and magnificent, and omniscient and omnipotent (and even wholly good) and all that exalted stuff, but I utterly detest what you are doing!” A problem of this kind is not really an evidential problem at all, and it isn’t a defeater for theism.

Still, perhaps that’s not the only realistic reaction here: perhaps I could react in this way, but aren’t there other reactions in which I would have a defeater? Couldn’t suffering and evil, under some circumstances, at any rate, actually serve as a defeater for belief in God? Think of some of the horrifying examples of evil our sad world displays. Dostoevski’s classic depiction is fictional, but no less convincing and no less disturbing:

“A Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow,” Ivan went on, seeming not to hear his brother’s words, “told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them—all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement.”599599   The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1933), pp. 245–46.

The list of atrocities human beings commit against others is horrifying and hideous; it is also so long, so repetitious, that it is finally wearying. Occasionally, though, new depths are reached:


A young Muslim mother in Bosnia was repeatedly raped in front of her husband and father, with her baby screaming on the floor beside her. When her tormentors seemed finally tired of her, she begged permission to nurse the child. In response, one of the rapists swiftly decapitated the baby and threw the head in the mother’s lap.600600   Eleonore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil,” in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas Morris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 239.

These things are absolutely horrifying; it is painful even to consider them, to bring them squarely before the mind. To introduce them into cool philosophical discussion like this is distressing and can seem inappropriate, even callous. And now the question: wouldn’t a rational person think, in the face of this kind of appalling evil, that there just couldn’t be an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good person superintending our world? Perhaps he can’t give a demonstration that no perfect person could permit these things; perhaps there isn’t a good probabilistic or evidential atheological argument either: but so what? Isn’t it just apparent, just evident that a being living up to God’s reputation couldn’t permit things like that? Don’t I have a defeater here, even if there is no good antitheistic argument from evil? Perhaps I don’t in fact give up belief in God in the face of the facts of evil: might that not be because I simply can’t bear the thought of living in a Godless universe? Because of some psychological mechanism not aimed at the truth, perhaps the sort of wish-fulfillment Freud suggests? If so, then suffering and evil (or rather, my apprehension of it) would or could be a defeater,601601   A “purely epistemic” defeater; see above, p. 363. for me, for Christian belief, even though it doesn’t eventuate in my giving up such belief.

Something like this, I think, is the best version of the atheological case from evil. The claim is essentially that one who is properly sensitive and properly aware of the sheer horror of the evil displayed in our somber and unhappy world will simply see that no being of the sort God is alleged to be could possibly permit it. This is a sort of inverse sensus divinitatis: perhaps there is no good antitheistic argument from evil; but no argument is needed. An appeal of this sort will proceed, not by rehearsing arguments, but by putting the interlocutor in the sort of situation in which the full horror of the world’s suffering and evil stands out clearly in all its loathsomeness. Indeed, from the atheological point of view, giving an argument is counterproductive here: it permits the believer in God to turn his attention away, to avert his eyes from the abomination of suffering, to take refuge in antiseptic discussions of possible worlds, probability functions, and other arcana. It diverts attention from the situations that in fact constitute a defeater for belief in God.


Suppose we look into this claim. Recall first that a defeater for a belief is relative to a noetic structure; whether my new belief B is a defeater for an old belief B* depends upon what else I believe and what my experience is like. I believe that tree is a maple; you tell me it’s really an elm; that will defeat my belief that it’s a maple if I think you know what you are talking about and aim to tell the truth, but not if I think you are even less arboreally informed than I, or that there is only a fifty–fifty chance that you are telling what you take to be the truth. Coming to see the full horror of the evil the world displays might be a defeater for theistic belief with respect to some noetic structure and not with respect to others.

What I want to argue first is that if classical Christianity is true, then the perception of evil is not a defeater for belief in God with respect to fully rational noetic structures—any noetic structure with no cognitive dysfunction, one in which all cognitive faculties and processes are functioning properly. From the point of view of classical Christianity (at any rate according to the model of chapters 6 and 8), this includes also the proper function of the sensus divinitatis. Someone in whom this process was functioning properly would have an intimate, detailed, vivid, and explicit knowledge of God; she would have an intense awareness of his presence, glory, goodness, power, perfection, wonderful attractiveness, and sweetness; and she would be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own. She might therefore be perplexed by the existence of this evil in God’s world—for God, she knows, hates evil with a holy and burning passion—but the idea that perhaps there just wasn’t any such person as God would no doubt not so much as cross her mind. Confronted with evil and suffering, such a person might ask herself why God permits it; the facts of evil may be a spur to inquiry as well as to action. If she finds no answer, she will no doubt conclude that God has a reason that is beyond her ken; she won’t be in the least inclined to doubt that there is such a person as God. For someone fully rational, therefore, the existence of evil doesn’t so much as begin to constitute a defeater for belief in God.

In an earlier piece of work I explained epistemic conditional probability (roughly, and ignoring complications and qualifications) as follows:

The conditional epistemic probability of A on B, then, initially and to a first approximation, is the degree to which a rational person, a person whose faculties are functioning properly, would accept A given that she was certain of B, knew that she accepted B, reflectively considered A in the light of B, and had no other source of warrant or positive epistemic status for A or for its denial.602602   “Epistemic Probability and Evil,” in Archivo di Filosofia, ed. Marco Olivetti (Rome: Cedam, 1988), p. 574.


Then (no doubt because of youth, inexperience, and epistemic innocence) I went on to say that perhaps the existence of God was in this sense epistemically improbable on the existence of certain sorts of evil (p. 576).

But first, that account of epistemic probability doesn’t have this result—more exactly, it doesn’t clearly apply in this case, or any case where a belief has positive epistemic status or warrant for a person S just by virtue of S’s being rational in the sense in question.603603   Here I am deeply indebted to Richard Otte. On the extended Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model, the sensus divinitatis is among our cognitive faculties or processes; if it is functioning properly in S, then the belief that there is such a person as God will automatically have warrant for S. Applied to the existence of God taken as A and that of any sort of evil as B, the definition will not yield the consequence that the former is improbable on the latter; that is because the condition expressed by the last clause in the definition, “and had no other source of warrant or positive epistemic status for A or for its denial,” will not be satisfied by belief in the existence of God, if the believer’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly.

Further: consider a person S in whom the sensus divinitatis does not, in fact, function properly; S has only a sort of weak and pro forma residual belief in God, left over from the religion of his childhood. Add that S suffers just from that cognitive malfunction (and no other). Now suppose S becomes seriously aware of the facts of evil and thinks about them in connection with the existence of God: perhaps, given these conditions, S will give up belief in God, or come to think it improbable with respect to his evidence. Would it follow that the facts of evil are in some sense negative evidence with respect to the existence of God, evidence that is counterbalanced and outweighed in a fully rational noetic structure by the positive evidence provided by a properly functioning sensus divinitatis? No. For perhaps various modules of the cognitive establishment are designed to work together. If so, the deliverances of one module m that isn’t itself subject to dysfunction might still have no epistemic standing, given the failure of another module m*. m’s functioning in this way—that is, the way it functions when there is malfunction of m* but no malfunction in m, given the malfunction of m*—might not be part of the design plan at all. When the electric current is fluctuating because of a problem in the wiring, the air raid siren emits a weak and pathetic squeak; it doesn’t follow that the vibrating disk that produces the sound is designed to produce that squeak under those conditions. True, it is designed in such a way that in fact it will produce that squeak then; but its doing so is not part of the design plan. Its functioning in this way under those conditions will of course be part of its maxiplan (WPF, pp. 22ff.). It does not follow that its behaving in this way is part of its design plan; that behavior might be, instead, an unintended by-product rather than part of the design plan itself. And the same goes for the sensus divinitatis and the other processes actually involved in the production or 487suppression of theistic belief. Perhaps the sensus divinitatis and the ‘sensus probabilitatis’ are designed to work together as a unit; if so, the deliverances of one in the presence of the malfunction of the other need not enjoy any degree of rationality or warrant at all. Hence the sort of situation envisaged doesn’t show that the facts of evil are any kind of evidence against the existence of God.

On the A/C model, therefore, the facts of evil do not constitute any sort of defeater for theistic belief for a fully rational person, one all of whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly. Nevertheless (so the wily atheologian will claim), that fact is at best of dubious relevance with respect to the question whether Christian believers in God—the ones there actually are—have a defeater for theism in the world’s ills. For according to Christian doctrine itself, none of us human beings enjoys this pristine condition of complete rationality. The sensus divinitatis has been heavily damaged by sin; for most of us most of the time the presence of God is not evident. For many of us (much of the time, anyway) both God’s existence and his goodness are a bit shadowy and evanescent, nowhere nearly as evident as the existence of other people or the trees in the backyard. Relative to a fully rational noetic structure (one of an unfallen human being, say), knowledge of the facts of evil may constitute no defeater for theism; relative to the sorts of noetic structures we human beings actually have, however (so the claim goes), they do. Given the noetic results of sin (see chapter 7), the typical believer in God does have a defeater in the facts of evil.

To pursue this line, however, would be to neglect still another feature of Christian belief: that the damage to the sensus divinitatis is in principle and increasingly repaired in the process of faith (see chapter 8) and regeneration. The person of faith may be once more such that, at least on some occasions, the presence of God is completely evident to her. In addition, she knows of the divine love revealed in the incarnation, the unthinkable splendor of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, himself the divine and unique son of God, on our behalf. Of course this knowledge does not provide an answer to the question, Why does God permit evil? It is nonetheless of crucial importance here.604604   As Albert Camus (hardly an unambiguous defender of Christian belief) clearly recognized. Christ, says Camus, is the solution to the problems of evil and death:
   His solution consisted, first, in experiencing them. The god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity, ostensibly abandoning its traditional privileges, lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the Lama sabachthani and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony. (Essais [Paris: Gallimard, 1965], p. 444. Quoted in Bruce Ward, “Prometheus or Cain? Albert Camus’s Account of the Western Quest for Justice,” Faith and Philosophy [April 1991], p. 213; this passage is translated by Ward)
I read of one more massive atrocity and am perhaps 488shaken. But then I think of the inconceivably great love displayed in Christ’s suffering and death, his willingness to empty himself and take on the nature of a servant, his willingness to suffer and die so that we sinful human beings can achieve redemption; and my faith may be restored. I still can’t imagine why God permits this suffering, or why he permits people to torture and kill each other, or why he permits gigantic and horrifying social experiments such as Nazism and communism, or why he permits a Holocaust; nevertheless I see that he is willing to share in our suffering, to undergo enormous suffering himself, and to undergo it for our sakes. Confronted with a particularly loathsome example of evil, therefore, I may find myself inclined to question God, perhaps even to be angry and resentful: “Why should I or my family suffer to promote his (no doubt exalted) ends, when I don’t have even a glimmer of an idea as to how my suffering contributes to some good?” But then I think of the divine willingness to endure greater suffering on my behalf and am comforted or, at any rate, quieted. And here is a respect in which Christian theism has a resource for dealing with evil that is not available to other forms of theism.605605   Another such resource has to do with the fact that from the point of view of Christian trinitarian doctrine, personal relationships such as love are to be found at the deepest levels of reality; see above, pp. 320ff. Note that probabilities have little to do with the matter. Such a person doesn’t reason thus: it’s not very likely that an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good person would permit such atrocities—but it’s more likely that such a being who was himself willing to undergo suffering on our behalf would permit them. The comfort involved here doesn’t go by way of probabilistic reasoning.

There is much to be said about the Christian meaning of suffering,606606   Some of which is said in Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter of John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), pp. 30ff., a profound meditation on suffering and a powerful effort to discern its meaning from a Christian perspective. and much of it provides further epistemic resources for dealing with evil. Perhaps our suffering is deeply connected with the possibility of salvation for human beings;607607   Salvifici Doloris, pp. 30ff. perhaps we share in Christ’s suffering in such a way that our suffering too is salvific, and perhaps 489even essential to the plan of salvation.608608   As is suggested by Paul’s enigmatic remark: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). Someone who suffers may then look forward to receiving the divine gratitude for taking part in this project of salvation,609609   “According to Julian of Norwich, before the elect have a chance to thank God for all He has done for them, God will say, ‘Thank you for all your suffering, the suffering of your youth’ ” (Marilyn Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. 63 (1989), reprinted with emendations in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn Adams and Robert Adams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 219. The passage Adams cites is from Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 14). and to enjoying forever the love and approval of God; she may then concur with Paul: “We are fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”610610   Romans 8:17. Compare 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” She may thus reflect that human suffering is in a way an occasion of gratitude. There is another way in which it is perhaps an occasion for gratitude. It is plausible to think that the best possible worlds God could have actualized contain the unthinkably great good of divine incarnation and redemption—but then, of course, also sin and suffering. God chooses one of these worlds to be actual—and in it, humankind suffers. Still, in this world there is also the marvelous opportunity for redemption and for eternal fellowship with God, an inconceivably great good that vastly outweighs the suffering we are called upon to endure.611611   Paul continues in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” Still further, in being offered eternal fellowship with God, we human beings are invited to join the charmed circle of the trinity itself; and perhaps that invitation can be issued only to creatures who have fallen, suffered, and been redeemed.612612   Thus Abraham Kuyper: “The angels of God have no knowledge of sin, hence also they have no knowledge of forgiveness, hence again they have no knowledge of that tender love that is formed from forgiveness. Nor have they that richer knowledge of God which springs from this tenderer affection. They stand as strangers in the face of it, and therefore says the Apostle that, with respect to this mystery, the angels are, as it were, jealously desirous ‘to look into it’ ” (To Be near unto God, p. 307). If so, the condition of humankind is vastly better than it would have been, had there been no sin and no suffering. O Felix Culpa, indeed!

Accordingly, those who have faith (those in whom the process of regeneration has taken or is taking place) will also be such that the presence and goodness of God is to some degree evident to them; so for them the belief that there is such a person as God will have considerable warrant. They too, then, like someone in whom the sensus 490divinitatis had never been damaged, will feel little or no inclination to atheism or agnosticism when confronted with cases of horrifying evil. They may be perplexed; they may be shocked; they may be spurred both to action and to inquiry by the presence of appalling evil in God’s world; but ceasing to believe will not be an option. If the salient suffering is their own, they may concur with the author of Psalm 119:75-76: “I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.”

They may also enjoy a blessed contentment. Consider, for example, this letter from Guido de Bres to his wife, written shortly before he was hanged:

Your grief and anguish, troubling me in the midst of my joy and gladness, are the cause of my writing you this present letter. I most earnestly pray you not to be grieved beyond measure. . . . If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, He could easily have caused it to be so. . . . Let His good will be done, then, and let that suffice for all reason. . . . I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to be glad with me, and to thank the good God for what He is doing, for He does nothing but what is altogether right and good. . . .

I am shut up in the strongest and wretchedest of dungeons, so dark and gloomy that it goes by the name of the Black Hole. I can get but little air, and that of the foulest. I have on my hands and feet heavy irons which are a constant torture, galling the flesh even to my poor bones. But, notwithstanding all, my God fails not to make good His promise, and to comfort my heart, and to give me a most blessed content.613613   Quoted in Cornelius Plantinga Jr., A Place to Stand (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1981), p. 35. De Bres (1522–67) was the author of the Belgic Confession.

De Bres suffered greatly; yet he enjoyed a most blessed content. The furthest thing from his mind, no doubt, was the thought that maybe there wasn’t any such person as God, that maybe he had been deceived all along. And this continuing to believe, given the model of chapter 8, betrays no irrationality at all: it isn’t as if he had a defeater for theistic belief in his suffering, but somehow suppressed it and (perhaps by way of wishful thinking) continued to believe anyway. No, his belief was instead a result of the proper function of the cognitive processes—a rejuvenated sensus divinitatis, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit—that produce belief in God.

Of course most of us are not in the spiritual condition of Guido de Bres. Not nearly all of us enjoy that comfort and content in the face of suffering. As Calvin points out (Institutes, III, ii, 15, p. 560), most of us sometimes have difficulty thinking that God is, indeed, 491benevolent toward us; and even the great masters of the spiritual life sometimes find themselves in spiritual darkness.614614   Thus Teresa of Liseaux:
   I get tired of this darkness all around me. . . . It is worse torment than ever; the darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. I hear its mocking accents: “It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country bathed in light, scented with delicious perfumes, and of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! . . . Death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than before, the night of mere non-existence.” . . . And all of the time it isn’t just a veil, it’s a great wall which reaches up to the sky and blots out the stars.
Christians must concede that their epistemic and spiritual situation differs widely from person to person, and within a given person from time to time. Aren’t there any conditions at all, then, in which the facts of evil constitute a defeater for Christian belief?

Well, I should think the right answer is “Probably not.” Consider a person in whom the sensus divinitatis doesn’t work at all well, a person who believes in God in a thoughtless and merely formal way, a person for whom the belief has no real vivacity or liveliness—perhaps such a person, on coming to a deep appreciation of the facts of evil, will ordinarily give up theistic belief. As I argued above, however (pp. 485ff.), that doesn’t show that this person has a defeater for theistic belief. She has such a defeater only if it is part of our cognitive design plan to give up theistic belief in those circumstances; and we have no reason to think that it is. The design plan includes the proper function of the sensus divinitatis; how things actually go when that process does not function properly could be part of the design plan; more likely, though, it is an unintended by-product rather than a part of the design plan.

Nevertheless, let’s suppose, just for purposes of argument, that as a matter of fact such a person really does have a defeater for theistic belief. What it is important to see, here, is that if she does have a defeater, it is only because of a failure of rationality somewhere in her noetic structure (perhaps there is dysfunction with respect to the sensus divinitatis). And now suppose we return to our original question: does a person S who believes that there is such a person as God have a defeater in the facts of evil? We can now see that there is no reason to think so. The very fact that S continues in theistic belief is evidence that the sensus divinitatis is functioning properly to at least some degree in her, and in such a way that knowledge of the facts of evil does not constitute a defeater. It is perhaps possible (if failure to believe in these circumstances is part of the design plan) that she has a defeater; but there is no reason to think so. I conclude, therefore, that in all likelihood believers in God do not have defeaters for theistic belief in knowledge of the facts of evil.


Of course all this is from the perspective of Christian theism. If Christian theism is true, then the existence of the sin and evil and suffering we see does not, in the typical case, constitute a defeater for belief in God. In particular, it doesn’t constitute a defeater for Quinn’s “intellectually sophisticated adult in our culture” (above, p. 358), at least if she has given a little thought to the epistemology of the matter. Now someone who doesn’t accept Christian theism may be unmoved by this fact; he may concede that from the standpoint of Christian theism, suffering and evil do not constitute a defeater for Christian belief; but (so he says) Christian theism is false. Hence this fact—that if it were true, evil would not constitute a defeater for Christian belief—cuts no ice with respect to his claim that, as a matter of fact, evil does constitute such a defeater. But if he is thinking of an internal defeater for theistic belief, then he is mistaken; knowledge of the facts of evil does not constitute an internal defeater, at least for those believers for whom it seems very clear that there is such a person as God and that, indeed, the whole Christian story is true. For such a person, this will seem clear even after he is fully aware of the evils the world contains and has thought hard about them. Therefore there is nothing internally irrational in his believing these things; it is not that he somehow fails to believe what seems to him clearly true or somehow mismanages epistemic matters downstream from experience. So if there is irrationality here, it must be external; it must be that this inclination to believe, this doxastic evidence, is itself a product of cognitive dysfunction, or else of cognitive processes not directed at truth. The Christian or theistic believer, naturally enough, won’t agree: she will see her belief as the product of cognitive faculties functioning properly, functioning in the way God intended them to (and aimed at producing true beliefs).

What we see here is another instance of a general pattern: once more it appears that questions about the rationality of belief in God (and in the whole Christian story) aren’t merely epistemological. What a rational person will do when confronted with suffering and evil depends on what the cognitive design plan for human beings is; but from a filled-out Christian perspective, that design plan will be such that someone who (like Mother Teresa, e.g.) continues to accept Christian belief in the face of the world’s suffering and evil displays no irrationality whatever. Indeed, it is the person who gives up belief in God under these circumstances who displays cognitive dysfunction; for such a person, the sensus divinitatis must be at least partly disordered. The atheologian can properly claim that evil constitutes a defeater for Christian belief, therefore, only if he already assumes that Christian belief is false. But then a Christian believer can’t sensibly be expected to concede that she does have a defeater for Christian belief—at least until the atheologian produces a good reason or two for supposing Christian belief is false. Because she is a Christian 493believer, she will think, naturally enough, that her Christian belief is true, in which case the facts of evil do not defeat it.

This chapter has been devoted to the question whether knowledge of the facts of evil constitutes a defeater for Christian belief. Of course there are many related projects lurking in the neighborhood. One of particular interest is that of employing the resources of the Christian faith in thinking about sin and evil—not in order to defend the epistemic status of Christian belief but as part of a larger project of Christian scholarship, of discerning the ways in which Christian belief illuminates many of the important areas of human concern. This is an extremely important task that hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves from Christian philosophers.615615   For interesting and seminal work in this area, I should like to recommend Salvifici Doloris (see fn. 606), Marilyn Adams’s “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” (see fn. 609), Diogenes Allen’s The Traces of God in a Frequently Hostile World (Cowley Publications, 1980), and Eleonore Stump’s “The Mirror of Evil” (see fn. 600). Here is one issue that arises in this area. According to Christian belief, God is wholly good, but also perfectly loving, loves each of his creatures with a perfect love. If so, could it be that he would permit a person S to suffer for the good of someone else (or, more abstractly, permit S to suffer because S’s suffering is an element in the best world God can actualize)? If he is perfectly loving, wouldn’t he permit S to suffer only in the interests of securing an outweighing good for S herself? This is a fascinating and complex issue; I don’t have the space to deal with it properly. It is clear, however, that we need some distinctions. First, God (assuming that he is perfectly loving) could certainly permit someone to suffer for the good of someone else if, as in Christ’s case, this suffering is voluntarily assumed. Suppose, therefore, my suffering is not voluntarily assumed: I am not able, for one reason or another, to make the decision whether to accept suffering (just as someone in a coma might not be able to make an important decision affecting her life). Suppose also God knew that if I were able to make that decision, I would accept the suffering: then too, so far as I can see, his being perfectly good wouldn’t at all preclude his permitting me to suffer for the benefit of others. Alternatively, suppose I am able to make the decision and in fact would not accept the suffering; God knows that this unwillingness on my part would be due only to ignorance: if I knew the relevant facts, then I would accept the suffering. In that case too God’s perfect goodness would not preclude his permitting me to suffer; and this would be true even if I were myself innocent of wrongdoing. Indeed, suppose what God knows is that if I knew enough and also had the right affections, then I would accept the suffering: in that case too, as far as I can see, his being perfectly loving would not preclude his allowing me to suffer.

There is another distinction that must be made. Perhaps God’s reason for permitting me to suffer is not that by undergoing this suffering I can thus achieve a greater good (the good of enjoying his gratitude, for example: see footnote 609) but because he can thus achieve a better 494world overall. Nevertheless, perhaps it is also true that he would not permit me to suffer for that end, an end outside my own good, unless he could also bring good for me out of the evil. Then his reason for permitting me to suffer would not be that this suffering contributes to my own improvement; nevertheless, he would not permit me to suffer unless the suffering could somehow be turned to my own good. A constraint on God’s reasons (induced, perhaps, by his being perfectly loving) is one thing; a constraint on the conditions under which he would permit involuntary and innocent suffering is another. To return to an earlier example (above, p. 489), perhaps God sees that the best worlds he can actualize are ones that include the unthinkably great good of divine incarnation and atonement. Suppose he therefore actualizes a world α in which human beings fall into sin and evil, salvation from which is accomplished by incarnation and atonement. And suppose still further that the final condition of human beings, in α, is better than it is in the worlds in which there is no fall into sin but also no incarnation and redemption. Then God’s actualizing α involves suffering for many human beings; his reason for permitting that suffering is not that thereby the suffering individuals will be benefited (his reason is that he wishes to actualize a very good world, one with the great good of incarnation, atonement, and redemption). Nevertheless his perfect goodness perhaps mandates that he actualize a world in which those who suffer are benefited in such a way that their condition is better than it is in those worlds in which they do not suffer.

The book of Job gives splendid expression to some of the themes of this chapter.616616   For profoundly insightful comment on the main themes of Job, see Eleonore Stump’s “Second-Person Accounts and the Problem of Evil,” Stob Lecture at Calvin College, January 1999 (Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1999). As the story opens, Satan challenges God: his servant Job, he says, is a toady, a sycophantic timeserver who will turn on God and curse him to his face if things don’t go his way. God disagrees, and then permits Satan to afflict Job, whose friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite come to comfort and console him. After seven days and nights of silence (one pictures them hunkered down around a campfire), they tell him repeatedly and at great length that the righteous always prosper and the wicked always come to grief:

Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. (4:7–8)

All his days the wicked man suffers torment, the ruthless through all the years stored up for him. Terrifying sounds fill his ear; when all seems well, marauders attack him. He despairs of escaping the darkness; he is marked for the sword. He wanders about—food for vultures. . . . Distress and anguish fill him with terror. . . . (15:20–24)


So Job must be wicked indeed to warrant such great suffering:

Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you? Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless? . . . you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked. You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land, an honored man, living on it. And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless. That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see and why a flood of water covers you. (22:4–11)

Job must repent and mend his ways:

But if you will look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place. (8:5–6)

Job is understandably nettled:

Doubtless you are the people, and wisdom will die with you! But I have a mind as well as you. . . . (12:1–3)

Miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? (16:2–3)

He knows that the rain falls on the just and on the unjust, that the wicked often prosper:

Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? They see their children established around them, their offspring before their eyes. Their homes are safe and free from fear; the rod of God is not upon them. Their bulls never fail to breed; their cows calve and do not miscarry. They send forth their children as a flock; their little ones dance about. . . . They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace. (21:7–13)

Job also knows he has done nothing unusually heinous or wicked: “my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure” (16:17). No doubt “no one does good, no, not one”; but Job is described in the prologue as “blameless and upright”; he knows that he isn’t being singled out because he is so much more wicked than the rest of humanity (in particular, he is no greater sinner than Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar). So he begins to accuse God of treating him unfairly in permitting him to suffer in this way:

then know that God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. (19:6)

As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice. . . . (27:2)

He doesn’t fear to speak his mind to the Lord. Indeed, a certain suggestion of sarcasm sometimes creeps in: “Does it please you to oppress 496me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” (10:3), as well as a certain self-righteousness: “So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes” (32:1), and even a touch of defiance: “I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it . . . ” (27:5–6). He believes that he is innocent of all wrongdoing and wants to go to court with God to get this thing straightened out:

Oh that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense [after a lengthy recital of his virtues]—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing. Surely I would wear it on my shoulder, I would put it on like a crown.” (31:35–36)

(Again, that note of sarcasm.) But when he ruefully recalls that God would be prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and executioner, he isn’t sanguine about the outcome:

If I say, “I will forget my complaint, I will change my expression, and smile,” I still dread all my sufferings, for I know you will not hold me innocent. (9:27–28)

There are at least two ways we can understand Job here. In the first way, Job’s problem is really intellectual; he can’t see any reason at all why God should allow him to be afflicted as he is; he is inclined to conclude, unthinkingly, that probably God doesn’t have a good reason. The point here is that the reason for Job’s sufferings is something entirely beyond his knowledge or awareness; but then the fact that he can’t see what sort of reason God might have for permitting his suffering doesn’t even tend to suggest that God has no reason. And when God replies to Job, he doesn’t tell him what his reason is for permitting these sufferings (perhaps Job couldn’t so much as grasp or comprehend it). Instead, he attacks the implicit inference from Job’s not being able to see what God’s reason is to the notion that probably he has none; and he does this by pointing out how vast is the gulf between Job’s knowledge and God’s:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the tempest: Who is this whose ignorant words darken counsel? Brace yourself and stand up like a man; I will ask questions and you shall answer. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you know and understand! Who settled its dimensions? Surely you should know! Who stretched his measuring-line over it? On what do its supporting pillars rest? Who set its corner-stone in place, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? . . . . Have you descended to the springs of the sea or walked in the unfathomable deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Have you ever seen the door-keepers of the place of darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanse of the world? Come, tell me all this, if you know! Which is the way to the home of light and 497where does darkness dwell? And can you then take each to its appointed bound and escort it on its homeward path? Doubtless you know all this; for you were born already, so long is the span of your life! (38:1–7, 16–21)

Job complains that God apparently has no good reason for permitting the evil that befalls him. He suspects that God doesn’t have a good reason because he, Job, can’t imagine what that reason might be. In reply, God does not tell him what the reason is; instead, he attacks Job’s unthinking assumption that if he, Job, can’t imagine what reason God might have, then probably God doesn’t have a reason at all. And God attacks this assumption by pointing out how limited Job’s knowledge is along these lines.617617   Thus inviting Job to consider the possibility that God’s reasons for permitting evil are more like noseeums than St. Bernards; see above, p. 466. No doubt he can’t see what God’s reason might be, but nothing of interest follows from this: in particular it doesn’t follow that probably God doesn’t have a reason. “All right, Job, if you’re so smart, if you know so much, tell me about it! Tell me how the universe was created; tell me about the sons of God who shouted with joy upon its creation! No doubt you were there!” And Job sees the point: “I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3).

There is quite another way to understand Job—a way that can be combined with the first. Taken this second way, the idea is not that Job suspects or is inclined to think probably God doesn’t have a reason for allowing his afflictions. It is rather that Job just becomes angry with God, hates and abhors what God is doing (or not doing), and is expressing his displeasure—and all of this quite independent of whether or not he thinks God has a reason. “Sure, maybe God has a reason—being God, he naturally would, wouldn’t he? But I can’t see the slightest suggestion as to what his reason may be; and why do I have to suffer so that he can attain these no doubt dandy ends of his—without so much as being consulted? without so much as a by-your-leave? I hate it! And I’m angry with him! These ‘reasons’ of his, whatever they are, are wholly inscrutable; and why should I suffer for these things beyond my ken? I don’t give a fig for those reasons, and I detest what he is doing!” Here there isn’t the suggestion that God maybe doesn’t have reasons and is perhaps even unjust; this thought doesn’t really enter, or at least isn’t center stage. There is, instead, mistrust of God, wariness of him and his alleged magnificent ends, hatred of what this does to Job and requires of him, a hint or more than a hint of rebellion. And then when God comes to Job in the whirlwind, it is not to convince him that God really does have reasons (although it may, in fact, do this); it is instead to still the tempest in his soul, to quiet him, to restore his trust for God. The Lord gives 498Job a glimpse of his greatness, his beauty, his splendid goodness; the doubts and turmoil disappear and are replaced, once more, by love and trust, a state of mind expressed in all its Christian completeness by the apostle Paul:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.618618   Romans 8:16–19.

It is time, and past time, to bring this book and this trilogy to a close. In Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function, what I argued, essentially, is that the only viable answer to the question ‘What is knowledge?’ lies in the neighborhood of proper function: a belief has warrant if and only if it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief. (This is the basic idea; there is a good bit of fine-tuning required, including some in chapter 6 of the present book.)

In this, the final member of the trilogy, I argued first in part I (chapters 1 and 2) that there really is such a thing as Christian belief and that (contra Kaufman, Hick, and Kant under one interpretation) we can, in fact, talk and think about God. In part II, the next three chapters, I distinguished de jure from de facto objections to Christian belief; the former are to the effect that such belief is intellectually or rationally questionable, even if true. Although de jure objections have been very common ever since the Enlightenment, it isn’t easy to tell what the objections are supposed to be. I argued that no viable de jure objection lies in the neighborhood either of justification or of internal rationality. The only initially promising candidate for a viable de jure objection to Christian belief, I said, can be approached by way of Freud’s claim that Christian belief does not have warrant, or at any rate warrant sufficient for knowledge. Freud, however, simply presupposes that theistic and hence Christian belief is false; therefore this alleged de jure objection fails to be independent of the truth of Christian belief. If Christian belief were false, perhaps Freud would be right; but the de jure objection was supposed to be independent of its truth or falsehood; hence this is not a successful de jure objection. I argued further that the same fate will befall any alleged de jure objection formulated in terms of warrant. That is because if Christian belief is true, it very likely does have warrant; hence any objection to its having warrant will have to be an objection to its being true; but in 499that case the alleged de jure objection either becomes or presupposes a de facto objection. Accordingly, a common agnostic attitude—I have no idea whether Christian belief is true, but I do know that it is irrational (or unjustified, or . . .) cannot be defended.

In part III, chapter 6, I presented the Aquinas/Calvin model of how it is that belief in God can have warrant, and even warrant sufficient for knowledge. In the next chapter, I considered the noetic effects of sin, and the way in which the existence of sin throws a monkey wrench into the A/C model. In chapters 8 and 9, I extended the A/C model in such a way as to deal both with sin and with the full panoply of Christian belief: trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection. Chapter 10 dealt with objections to this model. Finally, in part IV, I turned to potential or actual defeaters for Christian belief—possible reasons to give it up or hold it less firmly. There were projection theories (chapter 11), contemporary historical biblical criticism (chapter 12), postmodernism and pluralism (chapter 13), and the age-old problem of evil (chapter 14). None of these, I argued, presents a serious challenge to the warrant Christian belief can enjoy if the model, and indeed Christian belief, is, in fact, true.

But is it true? This is the really important question. And here we pass beyond the competence of philosophy, whose main competence, in this area, is to clear away certain objections, impedances, and obstacles to Christian belief. Speaking for myself and of course not in the name of philosophy, I can say only that it does, indeed, seem to me to be true, and to be the maximally important truth.

« Prev II. Nonargumentative Defeaters? Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection