“Skeptical theism,” or humility about what we can know

August 7, 2014

I’ve written about this concept before, although I had never heard the term “skeptical theism” to describe it. Still, like Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I agree with the idea: we shouldn’t be surprised that we often can’t understand why God permits evil or suffering. As Dr. Craig said in a recent podcast:

Dr. Craig: Now that is just a mischaracterization of what so-called skeptical theism holds to. I really dislike the name “skeptical theism.” I think it is very misleading. But the idea basically is this. It is a very intuitive one. Given our cognitive limitations, our confinement to a brief interval of time and space, there is simply no reason to think that God’s reasons for permitting various instances of evil or suffering in the world should be obvious to us. As I say, that seems to me to be just very obvious. God’s morally sufficient reasons for permitting some instance of evil might not emerge until centuries from now, maybe in another country. Every event in history that occurs sends a ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reasons for permitting the occurrence of some event may not appear within our lifetime or frame of reference. So I think that the term “skeptical theism” is simply a convenient handle for the very obvious fact that, due to our cognitive limitations, we cannot be confident that just because we don’t see why God has permitted some instance of suffering that there is no sufficient reason for that suffering to have occurred.

Kevin Harris: So skeptical theism is not a broad description of a person who is a theist who is skeptical about everything?

Dr. Craig: Not at all.

Kevin Harris: It only relates to the Problem of Evil? Is that the only relation?

Dr. Craig: Right. It is merely the claim that just because we can’t see God’s morally sufficient reasons for permitting an instance of evil that therefore there is no reason. I take that to be just very evident given our historical and cognitive limitations.

2 Responses to ““Skeptical theism,” or humility about what we can know”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that we are not in a posture to fully ascertain God’s reasons for particular evils, or disasters, occurring. I also would say that we can trust that those reasons are consistent with God’s character. However, I think we have to be careful to acknowledge that these “reasons,” the actual and ultimate ones, are not necessarily going to be compatible with “modern norms.” For example, Nadab and Abihu being struck dead for offering “strange fire.” To some that seems an overreaction. Similarly with Uzzah’s touching the ark to keep it from falling. But both relate to, at least, God’s holiness. In other words, I think many would still protest against God’s “goodness” even if they actually did know what the ultimate reasons were.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree. Theologian Andrew Wilson has written about this idea when he talks about the “Jesus tea-strainer.” I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago.

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