Skeptical Theism and the Resurrection of Jesus

The Evidential Problem of Evil (EPOE) claims that the world’s suffering is evidence contrary to classical theism: that there exists a personal being who is uniquely omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, the creator of the world, and who is called “God”. William Rowe famously offered one version of the EPOE [1], in which he pointed that there are various sufferings which are not justified by the existence of any greater good that we know of (he called these inscrutable evils). Rowe offers the example of a fawn trapped in a forest fire, who suffers a long, horrific, agonizing death and which does not appear to contribute to any greater good. The fawn’s suffering was pointless. Another example, a favorite of one of my professors from graduate school, is the pain felt when we stub our toes: why does stubbing your toe need to hurt that much?

Rowe infers from his observation of inscrutable evils to the existence of gratuitous evils: these are evils which not only appear not to contribute to some greater good, but really do not contribute to any greater good. However, gratuitous evils are largely understood to be logically incompatible with classical theism. While God may allow evils if they contribute to some greater good, evils which ultimately contribute to no greater whatever are incompatible with Her nature.

Michael Bergman, among others, has offered what many take to be the best response to Rowe: skeptical theism [2]. Skeptical theism is the conjunction of a number of skeptical theses with classical theism. The requisite skeptical theses point out that the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations of which we are aware are not representative of the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations that there are. Because our moral knowledge is not representative of Moral Truth, we cannot infer that inscrutable evils really are gratuitous.

Skeptical theism has been challenged on several levels. It has been pointed out, for example, that skeptical theism is incompatible with inferring God’s existence from evidence of design [3]; that it destroys any trust we might have in divine revelation (because we cannot say that it would be contrary to God’s nature for God to lie to us) [4]; that it introduces the ineradicable possibility of global skepticism because God might have morally sufficient reasons for deceiving us at every turn [5]; and that it destroys any possibility for moral deliberation [6]. Given the problems posed by skeptical theism, it might seem as though there is very little reason to maintain skeptical theism.

Nonetheless, I’d like to take a look at one more trouble for skeptical theism: that skeptical theism appears to undermine arguments made for the divinity of Jesus.

Most of our reasoning is inductive: we generalize from a number of example cases to all of the cases that there are. To take a prototypical example, my observation that for every morning in the past, the sun has risen, leads me to the generalization that for every morning, the sun rises. Induction does not guarantee the truth of our generalizations; there might be some morning when the sun does not rise, perhaps for reasons that I cannot fathom. However, we tend to think that induction lends conclusions a certain degree of support. The question arises as to why, given skeptical theism, our small amount of moral knowledge cannot serve as a basis for inductive generalization. After all, the number of mornings that I have experienced are not a representative sample of all of the mornings that there have been or will be.

Inductive generalization serves as a key feature in Christian arguments for Jesus’s divinity. In a footnote in a 2010 paper, William Hasker provides the following quip:

The early Christians reasoned thus: “Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done that except for the power of God; his resurrection demonstrates that God was with him and approved of his mission and message.” It’s too bad the well-known philosopher, Mikaelos Bergmanos, was not on hand to show them the weakness of this reasoning. He had only to point out to them the evident truth of

(STIV) We have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are.

where “representative” means, representative with respect to being such as to enable a dead person to come back to life.[7]

In what follows, I cash out Hasker’s quip in more detail and rigor. Define Skeptical Naturalism: the conjunct of naturalism with various skeptical theses, including (STIV). We can present two arguments based on this footnote from Hasker. I will assume that there is good evidence for Jesus’s resurrection; this may seem like a large concession to my readers with fideistic or naturalistic leanings, but bare with me.

First, given the failure of induction implied by (STIV), both the naturalist and the theist have no reason to infer the divinity of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. If we cannot make inductive generalizations from a small number of cases to a large number of cases (because our sample is not “representative”), then we cannot infer that there is some law of nature according to which corpses do not come back to life. Miracles, following David Hume [8], are disruptions in the natural order; if we cannot infer what laws constitute the natural order, then we cannot recognize violations of the natural order. In other words: given reasoning parallel to skeptical theism, Christians would have no reason to infer that Jesus is divine.

Second, the Skeptical Naturalist response to the Evidential Problem of Jesus’s Resurrection (EPOJR). EPOJR is a problem for naturalism that parallels the EPOE as a problem for theism. EPOJR maintains that the evidence for Jesus’s resurrection (e.g. the empty tomb, Jesus’s postmortem appearances, etc [9]) undermines naturalism; the Skeptical Naturalist response maintains that because “[w]e have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are”, we cannot infer naturalism is false from Jesus’s resurrection.

Christian theists might be tempted to argue that Skeptical Theism as a response to Rowe’s EPOE is not actually parallel to Skeptical Naturalism as a response to EPOJR; but they would need to provide some reason why the two arguments were not parallel. Given argumentative parity, it would be irrational to rule out skeptical naturalism while maintaining skeptical theism.

Moreover, the most obvious ways in which the two cases are not parallel — that there is much less evidence for Jesus’s resurrection than for gratuitous evils — undermines Christian theism. There is less evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than there is for the existence of gratuitous evils. Thus, if the two arguments do fail to be parallel, it’s only in a way that helps the naturalist.



[1] Rowe, W. (1979) The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (4), 335– 41; (1984) Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to S.J. Wykstra. In International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 16, 95–100; (1986) The Empirical Argument from Evil. In Robert Audi & William Wainwright (Ed), Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; (1988) Evil and Theodicy. Philosophical Topics, 16, 119–32; (1991) Ruminations about Evil. Philosophical Perspectives, 5, 69–88; (1996) The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look. In Daniel Howard-Snyder (Ed), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Bergman, M. (2001) Skeptical Theism and Rowe’s New Evidential Argument from Evil. Nous, 35 (2), 278–296.

[3] Bergman, M. (2009) Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil. In T. P. Thomas & M. Rhea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 374-399.

[4] Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. Religious Studies, 46 (4), 509-523; Hudson, H. (2012) The Father of Lies?. In J. Kvanvig (Ed), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Vol V. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 117-132.

[5] Wilks, I. (2014) The Global Skepticism Objection to Skeptical Theism. In J. McBrayer & D. Howard-Snyder (Eds), The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

[6] Sehon, S. (2010) The Problem of Evil: Skeptical Theism Leads to Moral Paralysis. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion.  67:2.

[7] Hasker, W. (2010) All Too Skeptical Theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 68, 15-29.

[8] Hume, D. (2006) The Essay on Miracles. In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. New York: Cosimo Classics, 517-544.

[9] There are various places where Christian theists have argued for Jesus’s resurrection. Those who are interested might examine what William Lane Craig has to say on the topic.


  • February 22, 2015 - 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Very intriguing, stuff like this is why I’m so glad to count you as a (at least virtual) friend.

    It gets me thinking on a tangential topic, in that both naturalism and super-naturalism can end up being dogmatic positions.

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