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Theodical Individualism against Skeptical Theism


The aim of this paper is to refute the skeptical theism response to the evidential argument from evil. I argue that the principle of theodical individualism (defined below) poses a serious threat to skeptical theism because it signals the existence of pointless evil in the world. Skeptical theists can get around this only by greatly aggravating the familiar moral paralysis problem, or else by making serious concessions that are in themselves implausible.

The Evidential Argument from Evil and Skeptical Theism

If by “the God of theism” we mean a personal being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect, as theists typically do, then the discovery of a single case of pointless evil of horrendous intensity is strong evidence against the existence of such a God. A pointless (or gratuitous) evil is a horrific event for which there is no morally sufficient justification. In its standard form, the evidential argument from evil against the existence of God proceeds as follows:

  1. If God exists, then there are no instances of gratuitous evil.
  2. It is likely that at least some instances of evil are gratuitous.
  3. Therefore, it is likely that God does not exist.

While the first premise has its fair share of critics—namely, theists who argue that gratuitous evil is, after all, compatible with the existence of God—the focus of skeptical theism (ST) is premise 2. Skeptical theists hold that there are only evils that appear to us to lack sufficient moral justification. Given the cognitive limitation of human beings, ST claims that we are never justified in concluding that any evil, irrespective of how abominable it might seem, is truly pointless. God, in his infinite wisdom, might have good moral reasons to permit seemingly pointless evil, reasons that elude us due to our intellectual limitations.

According to skeptical theist Michael Bergmann, ST entails the following three major points:

ST1: We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of are representative of the possible goods there are.

ST2: We have no good reason for thinking that the possible evils we know of are representative of the possible evils there are.

ST3: We have no good reason for thinking that the entailment relations we know of between possible goods and the permission of possible evils are representative of the entailment relations there are between possible goods and the permission of possible evils.[1]

Presumably, ST3 refers to something like the complexity of history as illustrated by William Lane Craig:

The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land.[2]

Theodical Individualism

I take it to be an intuitive and widely accepted statement that it is immoral to inflict any type of suffering, but especially intense suffering, on an undeserving and involuntary agent unless (a) that specific agent gains a net benefit from said suffering and (b) that benefit could not be brought about in any other less painful way. Performing a life-saving but painful medical procedure on someone is not morally forbidden, if, despite the pain, it is the only way the patient gains something extremely valuable: she is going to be alive for a (much) longer time. On the other hand, subjecting an undeserving and unwilling person to extremely painful medical procedures for long periods of time is unacceptable if the benefit she gains does not outweigh the cost (say, it only prolongs her life for two seconds more) or it is someone else entirely who gets to benefit from it.

Theodical individualism (TI) is based on the idea that God himself, being morally perfect, would accept this principle and would act in accordance to it.

As I hope to show, TI strikes a powerful blow against ST because it blocks the theistic attempt to speculate about possible reasons for a certain case of (extreme) suffering outside of the sufferer’s interest. If TI is accepted, there can be no more talk about possible benefits emerging centuries later or in another part of the world. The trouble for the skeptical theist is that there are real-life examples, as I will show below, where it simply cannot be the case that the person who suffered horribly had anything to gain. Thus, her suffering was indeed a case of gratuitous evil.

TI is certainly not a novel idea within the philosophy of religion. The term was coined by Jeff Jordan.[3]

TI can be defined as follows:

TI: Necessarily, God will not permit suffering that is

(a) undeserved;
(b) involuntary; and
(c) gratuitous

vis-à-vis the individual suffering it, if

(i) it does not produce a net benefit for that individual, or

(ii) it does produce a net benefit for him or her, but is not necessary in producing that net benefit.

If, contrary to TI, God were to permit such suffering, that would be equivalent to God exploiting that individual—using her for someone else’s benefit, for another end, or for no reason at all. God would be treating the individual who is suffering as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Since such treatment would be unjust, it would follow that God is not morally perfect, and thus that a morally perfect God does not exist.

Now there are certain situations where we use the innocent in order to benefit others. A child who has a highly contagious and dangerous disease is rightfully quarantined even if this isolation causes her additional suffering. However, such a scenario does not show some flaw in the principle on which TI is built, but illustrates our limitations as human beings. As Stephen Maitzen explains:

These practices reflect our imperfection: it’s only limitations in our knowledge and power (in this case, medical) that make us resort to triage or quarantine. We regret having to do it; we wish we had the resources to make these practices unnecessary.

A perfect God, however, isn’t subject to our limitations in knowledge or power, or indeed
any real limitations in knowledge or power. So no perfect God has an excuse for exploitation,
even if we sometimes do. Furthermore, if God were to face an actual moral dilemma, a case in which he does something immoral no matter what he does, then he wouldn’t count as morally perfect, on the obvious assumption that a morally perfect being never does anything immoral.[4]

Nick Trakakis gives a similar reply to cases related to the trolley problem, where we might be inclined to ‘sacrifice’ an undeserving and involuntary subject for the benefit of others. For example, suppose you see a runaway trolley moving toward five innocent people that are tied up to the track. You have the option of pulling a lever that will change the trolley’s trajectory, but now it will run over another innocent person lying on the sidetrack. It is not obvious that pulling the lever is the immoral option. But such examples pose no challenge to TI. As Trakakis explains:

The above cases, then, are generated by situations involving ‘forced choices’—that is, situations in which we are compelled to choose between the interests of an individual and the interests of some wider group or community. However, we only find ourselves in such situations due to our limited resources and abilities. The choices open to us in the above two cases are clearly not the only ones that would be available to an omnipotent and omniscient being.[5]

TI has good intuitive moral support. It is a common premise in our everyday moral reasoning that human beings are ends in themselves, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant’s formula of humanity of his Categorical Imperative. Humans have inherent value, autonomy, and rights, therefore it is immoral to use/manipulate/exploit them. This is a position that also sits well within mainstream Christianity, according to which human life has intrinsic value because it derives from God, who made human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27).

There is no surprise, then, that leading theistic philosophers have endorsed TI. Eleonore Stump, for instance, argues that:

[T]he sufferings of any particular person are outweighed by the good which the suffering produces for that person; otherwise, we might justifiably expect a good God somehow to prevent that particular suffering, either by intervening (in one way or another) to protect the victim, while still allowing the perpetrator his freedom, or by curtailing freedom in some select cases.[6]

William Alston concurs:

A perfectly good God would not wholly sacrifice the welfare of one of His intelligent creatures simply in order to achieve a good for others, or for Himself. This would be incompatible with His concern for the welfare of each of His creatures.[7]

Marilyn Adams holds a similar position when she writes:

The dimension of Divine goodness most at stake in the problem of evil is not that of producer-of-global-goods, but rather that of goodness-to-created-persons. Thus, what needs explanation is not merely how God can ensure the global defeat of evil by good, but how God could be good enough to created persons, despite their participation in horrors.[8]

As argued above, TI is a formidable challenge to ST because it drastically restricts the range in which a possible and sufficient moral justification for one’s suffering might be found. Possible ways in which that suffering would preserve or bring about some good with respect to other people are at best secondary, and at worse simply misplaced. What matters first and foremost is whether or not the suffering endured by the victim is necessary to produce a net benefit for that specific individual. Indeed, in numerous discussions about the problem of evil, the focus is on the perpetrator (the preservation of her free will, for instance), or on the opportunities that the suffering opens up for some third party (by allowing them to show courage and compassion, for example). As seen in the Craig’s illustration above, skeptical theists are ready to accept the “sacrifice” of a victim of evil if her suffering would bring about some hypothetical goods “centuries later,” when, obviously, the person who suffered horribly would be long dead anyway. But, we should rightfully ask, what about the victim, who is, after all, at the center of the evidential argument from evil? What did the victim gain?

Theodical Individualism and an Example of Pointless Evil

Let us now turn our attention to an actual event. Early on New Year’s Day in 1986, Sue—a five-year-old girl in Flint, Michigan—was severely beaten, raped, and then strangled to death.

Obviously, Sue’s suffering was undeserved and involuntary. Was it also gratuitous? Certainly yes. How do we know that Sue has not benefited in any way from her ordeal? Because there simply was no time interval in which a positive outcome could have come about for her. She died while being tortured.

How do Bergmann’s three points about ST fare with respect to Sue’s case? Let us assume that ST1 is true. For reasons already given, ST1 is completely irrelevant in Sue’s case. There was no possible good that could have emerged for her from her situation, period. There simply was no time for that. Next, take ST2. Again, it may be true that the possible evils that we know of are not representative of the possible evils that exist. But nobody could deny that we know that the brutal beating, rape, and killing by strangulation of an undeserving and nonvoluntary person to be evils of the most atrocious kind. As for ST3, it is irrelevant because, again, there was no possible good in Sue’s case.

Craig’s point about the “ripple effect through history” is also useless in defense of ST unless he is willing to admit that God allowance of Sue’s suffering is equivalent to God exploiting Sue’s suffering for the exclusive benefit of somebody else or for another end.

But what if ST can be applied directly to TI? I can see two ways in which that could happen. A skeptical theist might claim either that:

(A) God has good reasons to think TI is incorrect, and we simply don’t know his reasons due to our intellectual limitations, or

(B) TI is correct, but God has good reasons to overlook or ignore TI, and we don’t know his reasons for doing so because of our intellectual limitations.

Preliminary Remarks

Before discussing these two objections, the reader should keep in mind that my goal here is solely to attack ST. Skeptical theists grant that no theodicy is able to present a morally sufficient reason for God to permit all of the suffering that exists. As such, if the theist employs strategies to answer my criticism that rely on some form of a theodicy or a nontraditional vision of God then, if effect, she admits the failure of ST. Let’s say that the theist claims that God has the right to exploit any human being because we all owe our existence to him. Insofar as the theist takes this path, she no longer argues from a position of skeptical theism and indeed renounces its skepticism. Rejecting such a reply falls well outside the scope of this paper since it is actually incompatible with ST, as I point out in the “Problems with (B)” section below.

Likewise, if the theist invokes Heaven as compensation to an undeserving and unwilling victim of atrocious evil, or the “sanctity” of the libertarian free will of her executioner, or soul-making or any other theodicy, then the theist concedes the defeat of ST as a plausible response to the evidential problem of evil.

Let’s now begin the discussion of (A) and (B).

Problems with (A)

(A) states that God has good reasons to think that TI is incorrect, and that we simply don’t know what his reasons are due to our intellectual limitations. The problem with (A) is that is has catastrophic results for our moral reasoning. This is because (A) becomes an attack on the plausibility of any moral principle that we normally hold. Remember that TI has intuitive appeal and is based on everyday judgments about the value of human beings and about what is just. Moreover, TI is grounded in fundamental claims of theology, like that humans are valuable because they are created by God and, moreover, are created in his own image, no less. But if God thinks TI is incorrect, then surely we must think so, too, because obviously God cannot be wrong. At this point we might as well raise doubts about any moral principles that we normally use, including those that are grounded in basic theological dogmas and percepts. Thus, if we take (A) seriously, skepticism is allowed with respect to any moral principles we hold on grounds like intuition, everyday morality, and basic theological dogmas.

ST already faces the problem of moral paralysis (or aporia). Critics of ST, like Mark Piper, argue that faced with any particular instance of suffering, the adept of ST cannot decide whether to intervene or not because, for all she knows, there could be beneficial consequences that arise from a particular case of suffering. Piper gives the example of a girl that is about to be molested by a rapist and explains that a bystander who accepts ST cannot decide to intervene in the girl’s defense because he cannot choose between two conflicting percepts:

Everything that he [the bystander] has been taught by his upbringing and his religious education suggests that he has a moral obligation to help the girl, but he cannot discount the possibility that goodness might be best served in this case by allowing the girl to be molested…. [The bystander is faced with the following two conditionals:] (a) “I ought to prevent the molestation of the girl (if I can) and if doing so will lead to goodness being best served,” and (b) “I ought not to prevent the molestation of the girl (if I can) if doing so will lead to goodness being best served.”[9]

But if the skeptical theist adheres to (A), then she should also have reasons to think that acting according to (a) will not lead to goodness being served. She might as well renounce all of her common-sense morality and religious education. If this is the case, there isn’t even a balance between (a) and (b): neither of them provides a reason to think they are relevant to the present situation. Thus, if the bystander accepts (A), not only does he have reasons to refrain from intervening, but also no reasons to intervene.

It is precisely in order to avoid such drastic repercussions that skeptical theists like Bergmann insist that the scope of their skepticism should be rather limited. He writes:

I can confess to being in the dark about which of two proposed courses of action will have the best overall consequences without thereby admitting complete skepticism about value…. Likewise, endorsing the limitations mentioned in ST1-ST3 isn’t an acknowledgement of complete skepticism about value…. [W]e should recognize up front that the skeptical theist intends to affirm only a modest form of skepticism.[10]

Bergmann’s prudent position is understandable. Once we become skeptical about our usual moral principles, which in itself poses significant problems, a serious question arises with respect to our very existence: what is the point of our earthly life, from a theistic position, if we do not have a firm grasp on the realm of ethical value? Indeed, according to mainstream Christian theism, God is interested to see how closely we adhere to moral principles, and he will judge our character and conduct. In Romans 12:9 we read that people should ‘abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.’ But what does ‘evil’ and ‘good’ mean if we cannot be reasonably confident about what constitutes justified moral belief? In Matthew 5:48 we are encouraged to be perfect, ‘as our heavenly father is perfect.’ But surely this becomes an unclear and impractical incentive if we lack proper knowledge of what constitutes correct moral principles.[11]

Problems with (B)

With regard to (B)—according to which TI is correct but God has good reasons to overlook or ignore TI, and we don’t know his reasons because of our intellectual limitations—the skeptical theist admits that Sue’s suffering is an instance of gratuitous evil. At this point, classical theism is already in serious trouble, and the proponent of ST is hard pressed to explain how a perfectly moral being could create a world which he knew (if molinism is correct) or at least had excellent reasons to conclude would include, at some point, evil that lacks any morally sufficient justification. Obviously, Sue’s case is, sadly, far from being a single, isolated incident.

Moreover, given (B), there cannot be any positive consequences for Sue. It follows that the allegedly morally valid reasons God might have for not intervening in her defense can only be deontological. However, Maitzen gives good arguments to refute this possibility. He writes:

I know of no version of Skeptical Theism that claims that God might have a non-consequentialist (say, Kantian) duty to permit [the victim’s] suffering, a duty that remains inscrutable to us for non-consequentialist reasons. Nor can I see how such a version could plausibly work. On the standard Kantian theory of duty, we can discover duties by rational reflection alone. Hence, even if it’s possible for us to overlook some existing duties, or mistake for duties what are in fact not duties, it’s less plausible that our reflective understanding of our duties should fail to be even representative of the duties there actually are. A deontological version of ST1-ST3 therefore looks less plausible than a consequentialist version, and so it becomes hard to defend skeptical theism by rejecting consequentialism.[12]

In addition, if God is a deontologist, then duty-based morality must be the correct ethical theory. But if duty-based morality is correct, and if there are deontological principles that we have no idea about—as (B) claims—then, again, skepticism about our morality rears its ugly head because our ethics would be at best woefully incomplete. What’s more, notice that according to (B), there is a moral duty not to intervene to assist an innocent victim of a gruesome evil. But normally we think that deontological ethics would point us in the opposite direction. Hence, it follows that we are in the dark with respect to morality, and skepticism is again justified about the validity of any moral principle that we currently hold. Last but not least, we could ask again what the point of our earthly life from a theistic perspective is if we do not have a firm grasp on the realm of ethics.

The skeptical theist might reply here that deontological duties are relative to the agent. Perhaps God follows a different set of duties from ours, and both are valid. But this reply is implausible since universality is a key feature of deontological principles. Kant thought that it was possible to develop a consistent moral system by using reason. As Samuel J. Kerstein explains:

The supreme principle of morality would have an extremely wide scope: one that extended not only to all rational human beings but to any other rational beings who might exist—for example, God, angels, and intelligent extraterrestrials.[13]

It is therefore hard to believe that when starting from a common rational principle, opposite duties could arise with respect to the same innocent victim’s suffering.

What’s more, notice that ST itself presupposes that there is common ground between God and humanity when it comes to moral principles. In defining ST, Justin P. McBrayer writes:

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance…. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.[14] [emphasis mine]

Thus, what ST entails is that both God and human beings operate within the same moral framework, only that when it comes to specific, particular actions, human beings do not have the relevant knowledge to classify any of them as lacking sufficient moral justification. If we were to have that knowledge, we would understand and agree with the moral reasoning behind them. In other words, ST does not presuppose skepticism with regard to the moral principles God holds. Instead, it runs on the assumption that God holds the same moral principles as we do, only that he has more knowledge regarding actual cases that appear to us to be morally unjustified.

Moreover, theists view God as the loving parent of human beings when inspired by, among other things, verses like Isaiah 64:8. In fact, in the literature dedicated to ST, the parent analogy is used extensively by some theists in order to justify their position.[15] They argue that just as a small child cannot comprehend the reasons her loving parent has for allowing her to suffer justified pain, so we should expect that we will be blind to the reasons that God has for allowing our justified suffering. The idea behind this analogy is that both the human parent and God operate on the same moral principles, and have the same good intentions towards us, but that we cannot see, in every specific case, how their actions comply with these principles. The disparity between parents and children and between God and human beings is a cognitive one, not a moral one. It is doubtful, therefore, that the ST proponent would insist that God follows an altogether different set of moral principles.

Last but not least, if God were to follow moral principles that are radically different from ours, there wouldn’t exist a problem of evil to begin with and, as a result, the ST response to it.

But let us suppose that there are indeed two different sets of duties: one suitable for God, and the other suitable for human beings. This time the theist is faced with skepticism regarding theological dogmas and God’s actions. What expectations might the theist have from God if God follows a completely different set of rules from us? In what sense could humanity hold a loving and trusting relationship with God if he has a completely different set of moral rules? For example, why should we think God would keep his promise that people who believed in his existence and who behaved morally would go to Heaven? Human beings consider that promises should be kept, but there is no reason to think God adheres to the same principle. After all, human beings think that we have a duty to save an innocent and unwilling victim of torture and rape, yet purportedly God has a duty not to save her.


TI challenges the claim made by proponents of ST that we can never know whether a specific case of evil is gratuitous. As I have argued above, when taking TI into consideration we discover real-life examples of horrendous evils that we know do not lead to any positive outcomes for the relevant agent and, therefore, are not morally justified. If this is correct, then the second premise of the evidential argument from evil is vindicated from the challenge posed by ST.

In summary, the ST proponent is faced with a devastating trilemma. She could accept TI and thus admit pointless evils exist; she could use ST to reject TI, which leads to devastating moral skepticism and other unpalatable consequences for theism; or she could use a deontological version of ST, which is not only implausible, but also leads to moral skepticism and has other unwelcome consequences.[16]


[1] Michael Bergmann, “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil” in The Oxford Handbook to Philosophical Theology (pp. 374-399), ed. Thomas Flint & Michael Rea (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 377.

[2] William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Evil” (n.d.). Reasonable Faith website. <https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-problem-of-evil/>.

[3] Jeff Jordan, “Divine Love and Human Suffering.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 56, No. 2/3 (October-December 2004): 169-178, p. 169.

[4] Stephen Maitzen, “Atheism and the Basis of Morality” in What Makes Us Moral? On the Capacities and Conditions for Being Moral (pp. 257-269), ed. A. W. Musschenga & Anton van Harskamp (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2013).

[5] Nick Trakakis, The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe’s Evidential Argument from Evil (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2013), p. 179.

[6] Eleonore Stump, “The Problem of Evil.” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 2, No. 4 (October 1985): 392-418, p. 411.

[7] William Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition” in Philosophical Perspectives 5: Philosophy of Religion (pp. 29-67), ed. James Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1991), p. 48.

[8] Marilyn Adams, “Theodicy Without Blame.” Philosophical Topics Vol. 16, No. 2 (1988): 215-245, p. 235.

[9] Mark Piper, “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Moral Aporia.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 62, No. 2 (October 2007): 65-79, p. 72

[10] Bergmann, “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil,” p. 379.

[11] Sometimes skeptical theists will appeal to divine commands to rescue their position from the threat of moral skepticism. This response is not convincing, however, because “the skeptical theist would need to follow all or only some of God’s commands. If all, her moral view will be deeply repugnant; if some, she will be abandoning her skeptical theism by confidently exercising her independent moral judgment” (Scott Aikin & Brian Ribeiro, “Skeptical Theism, Moral Skepticism and Divine Commands.” International Journal for the Study of Skepticism Vol. 3 (August 9, 2013), pp. 77-96, p. 94).

[12] Stephen Maitzen, “The Moral Skepticism Objection to Skeptical Theism” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (pp. 444-457), ed. Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 9-10.

[13] Samuel J. Kerstein, Kant’s Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 2.

[14] Justin McBrayer, “Skeptical Theism” (n.d.). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <https://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/>.

[15] See, for example, Stephen Wykstra, “The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of ‘Appearance’.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 16, No. 2 (1984): 73-93.

[16] I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for making valuable and helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this paper. I also thank Keith Augustine for giving this paper a suitable form for publication.

Copyright ©2019 Horia George Plugaru. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Horia George Plugaru. All rights reserved.

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