Pooh’s Think

… with comments

Narrative, Judicial Analogy, & The Problem of Evil

This is a re-Write, but is still a very rough draft; you’ll also encounter some bibliographic errors here. I’ll have an updated version up end of next week. Let me know what you think!


Some philosophers are rightly concluding that traditional logical and evidential approaches to the philosophical problem of evil are incapable of forcing a solution to problem of evil in life. However, I argue that the traditional philosophical problem and the problem as found in life can be solved jointly by following Stephen O’Leary in treating the problem of evil as a forensic rhetorical problem. To arrive at a solution to the problem of evil, the individual must be persuaded of the truth or falsity of the following proposition: An omnipotent, omniscient being would have no morally sufficient reason for allowing the nature and extent of evil that is in fact in the world. A solution to the philosophical problem of evil is therefore a philosophical explanation of how the problem of life can be solved for the individual, which I propose is found in the forensic nature and narrative structure of the images and rhetoric employed in persuading the individual of this proposition. As ancient tradition has it, God must be put on trial. Following the Story Model of cognitive science, the Narrative Theory employed by a U.S. Supreme court ruling, and recent proposals in analytic philosophy, I argue that it is only story that has the efficacy to force a sufficient verdict, to solve the problem of evil. I defend this judicial method from traditional appeals to the epistemological authority of God as well as recent arguments from theological skepticism about evil.


THE problem of evil is foremost a trans-historical and trans-cultural problem that is rooted in the daily experience of real people; the problem of evil is a philosophical problem only derivatively. To at least some philosophers, the philosophical problem of evil, in both its logical and more recent evidential forms, appears safely cloistered from the originating problem of evil as found in life. Mavrodes (1967) and O’Leary (1996) think that the philosophical problem does not address the problem of life at all. Similarly, Alvin Plantinga (2006) claims that the philosophical problem is not best suited for the typical goals of the atheologian: putting an individual in a situation in which they can become appropriately aware of the true horror of evil is a superior method to the traditional presentation of logical or evidential arguments. What has generally transpired in philosophy up till now would suggest that the philosophical problem and the problem of life are two different problems entirely, requiring two different methods of solution.

But this shouldn’t be so; to see why, we need to go back to the drawing board: Many philosophers, perhaps most, believe that the traditional logical problem does not present a logical contradiction standing alone:

P1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent
P2. God exists
P3. Evil exists (of a particular type, degree, and distribution)

A fourth proposition must be added in order to obtain a contradiction. Nelson Pike proposed what I take to be the best one on offer and sufficient for the task: P4. “An omnipotent, omniscient being would have no morally sufficient reason for allowing instances of suffering.” However, since “allowing instances of suffering” is reference to P3, I will reformulate Pike’s proposal:

P4: An omnipotent, omniscient being would have no morally sufficient reason for allowing the nature and extent of evil that is in fact in the world.

If P4 is not true, if God does have a morally sufficient reason, then we have no contradiction and no logical problem. Therefore, unless a person S can be persuaded that P4 is true or not true, there is no solution to the philosophical problem of evil for S. Solving the philosophical problem of evil, then, reduces to the ability to persuade S that P4 is either true or not true. If not true, then the apparent problem of evil is an illusion. If true, then S will be forced to deny one of the first three propositions.

However, P4 also contains the real life problem of evil. As I will argue, the individual’s struggle over whether God has morally sufficient reason for the nature and extent of evil in the world captures all our important intuitions on the subject. Since the logical problem and the real life problem collapse in terms of S’s persuasion of the truth of P4, the philosophical problem of evil reduces to the philosophical explanation of just how S can be persuaded, in the right sort of way, that P4 is either true or not true. A solution to the philosophical problem of evil is therefore a philosophical explanation of how the problem of life can be solved for S, which I propose is found in the forensic nature and narrative structure of the images and rhetoric employed in persuading S of the truth or untruth of P4. As ancient tradition has it, God must be put on trial, accused of allowing evil without a morally sufficient reason for doing so (O’Leary 1996). Following the Story Model of cognitive science, the Narrative Theory employed by a U.S. Supreme court ruling, as well as recent proposals in analytic philosophy, I argue that it is only story that has the efficacy to force a sufficient verdict, to solve the problem of evil for some individual S.

1. A Rhetorical Problem
A good number of years ago George Mavrodes (1968) published an essay defending the claim that the logical problem of evil does not address the real problem. In what he called his prolegomena to the problem of evil, Mavrodes argued that the high level of abstraction in philosophical discussion had left the practical problem outside. Mavrodes therefore thought it necessary to go back to the drawing board and ask a fundamental question: “What sort of problem is the problem supposed to be?” Mavrodes concluded that the problem of evil was a problem of experience, rooted in life:

The treatment of the problem of evil which is represented in Job, or in a pastor’s statements to an ordinary parishioner after the death of his child, remains close to the living roots of the problem in the life and experience of the persons involved. This concreteness imposes parameters upon the terms in which the problem and its solution are discussed, without the necessity of their explicit formulation. The difficulty which is to be overcome, and not merely some statement about it, is present vividly to those who speak, and it reminds them of what their speaking must attempt to do.

This is the real problem of evil; the philosophical difficulty in dealing with this problem is that “these natural parameters fade out in the dispassionate and abstract treatment of the problem in a philosophical mode.” Up until the time that Mavrodes published this essay, philosophy had traditionally dealt with the logical problem. But according to Mavrodes this meant that the problem “was either non-existent or insoluble, and that therefore no solution was called for,” a result that gives credence to the opinion that “philosophy deals largely with pseudo-problems having no real reference to life at any level.”

It is not clear, for example, how traditional discussions about the logical relations within a timeless and impersonal proposition set have the ability to solve the problem individuals have with a good and perfect God either causing or willfully allowing the following scenario of evil:

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. [1]

And facts about the classical God can be combined with scenarios of evil, making the problem of evil explicit within a given scenario. This is a technique atheologian Sam Harris employs:

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most . . . The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe — as you believe — that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this? No. The entirety of atheism is contained in this response” (2006: 50-51).

Thus, Mavrodes proposed an additional task for the philosopher; the philosophical problem of evil must keep in view the criterion of “psychological effectiveness.” This proposal is really not much more than adding an epistemological constraint: the problem of evil is a problem that must be resolved for individuals; the problem arises by individuals believing that the proposition set leads to a contradiction. A real solution to this problem will therefore arise when the individual becomes persuaded that the proposition set no longer leads to a contradiction: “Since the problem of evil does not exist in abstraction from particular persons it cannot be solved in abstraction from particular persons.” For contemporary epistemologists, this consideration will come as no surprise. It is Mavrodes’ other conclusion that seems more important: this criterion of psychological effectiveness leads the philosopher to understand the problem of evil as “a rhetorical problem.” This is a rather remarkable suggestion.

Alvin Plantinga has recently offered a similar suggestion; after noting the extinction of the logical problem of evil, and after disarming two of the latest probabilistic problems of evil, Plantinga concludes:

…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?…Something like this, I think, is the best version of the atheological case from evil. The claim is 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…an appeal of this sort will proceed, not by rehearsing arguments [of the philosophical sort], 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 (2006: 484).

However, although what a person believes and what their “experience is like” provides the context for an epistemic defeater to belief about God, Plantinga continues framing the issue in terms of, very simply, one belief providing a defeater for another belief. And nothing further is said about just what it is to “appeal” to an interlocutor by putting that interlocutor “in the sort of situation in which the full horror of the world’s suffering and evil stand out” in the right sort of way. Mavrodes was even less clear on what a “rhetorical problem” was precisely and what it is that can offer the requisite “psychological effectiveness.”

2. The Rhetorical Problem is a Forensic Problem
Stephen O’Leary (1996) agrees with Mavrodes’ analysis and goes a good deal further. For O’Leary, the rhetorical problem of evil becomes…. a forensic rhetorical problem. O’Leary comes to this conclusion by first contrasting the “logical problem” of evil with the “practical problem” of evil. O’Leary no doubt had J.L. Mackie in mind here; Mackie wrote:

[The problem of evil] is a logical problem, the problem of clarifying and reconciling a number of beliefs: it is not a….practical problem that might be solved by a decision or an action. These points are obvious…. (1955).

O’Leary claims that the solution to the problem of evil will be found in practical reason: “Many scholars have argued that classical and modern traditions of rhetoric offer alternative models of rationality to those grounded solely in analytic reason and formal logic.” For O’Leary, Mavrodes’ requirement of psychological effectiveness is best fulfilled in terms of a rhetorical model of rationality, what he calls the “juridical pattern of reasoning.” O’Leary calls attention to the fact that judicial rhetorical forms have always been employed in addressing the problem of evil. Not only have deductive methods given way to the “probabilistic criteria of informal logic,” the sort of criteria one will face within a court of law, the

… judicial analogy has proved attractive to both sides in this debate: the image of the trial appears throughout the popular and philosophical literature of theodicy…the prevalence of this analogy establishes the utility of examining theodicies as a species of forensic rhetoric.

Although O’Leary does not make this point himself, perhaps the most decisive reason in his essay to employ judicial analogy is found in O’Leary’s claim that Pike’s fourth proposition regarding God’s morally sufficient reason (P4) is where the rhetorical problem lies. The very question as to whether or not an agent has a “sufficient moral reason” already implies judicial analogy. For O’Leary, then, the problem of evil reduces to a dispute over P4; the problem of evil requires S to determine whether or not God, as a moral agent, has “morally sufficient reason” for causing or at least permitting evil in our world.

What qualifies for sufficient “psychological effectiveness” seems clearer now: as expressed in the title of C.S. Lewis’s collection of apologetic essays, God is “in the dock.” God is on trial. Certain facts of the case are uncontested: the baby was decapitated by the women’s tormentors. The only question is whether or not a sufficient defense is available for God. The question before the court is whether God has “morally sufficient reason” for permitting or causing all the forms of evil we find in the world. If not, God is found guilty and can no longer be considered perfectly good, which would force disbelief in traditional theism. As Kant put it, “The author of the theodicy agrees that the case be tried before the tribunal of reason, and agrees to be an attorney who will defend the case of his client under attack by formal refutation of all the complaints of the adversary” (O’Leary 1996).

This would seem to give us everything we need. Whereas the traditional approach to the problem of evil was abstracted from life and presented in a static perspective, comparing the fact of evil with the fact of God in a timeless fashion, with judicial rhetoric, we now have a temporal perspective, rooted in real life beliefs and emotions about a personal God permitting the evil we experience in the world. We also have the rhetorical tools we need to force the psychological solution, to persuade the individuals of the jury and those later reading the majority opinion of the court.

3. Faith vs. Reason: The Jurisdiction of the Court
Citing Cicero, O’Leary uses the four stasis model of classical rhetoric to further analyze this judicial context, and he notes that it is the fourth stasis of jurisdiction that seems to be the most common place area of disagreement.

This suggestion from O’Leary is perhaps an understatement; the most common Hebraic and Christian response to the possibility of putting God on trial hinges on this fourth stasis of jurisdiction: humans can not legitimately hold a trial for God. In reply to Erasmus’ protest against God’s determination of man’s moral actions, Luther simply has no use for “human reason” at all, “knowing that she talks nothing but follies and absurdities, especially when she starts displaying her wisdom on sacred subjects.” It is perhaps in this spirit that Luther addresses directly a question dealing with the problem of evil: what of God’s goodness or equity in creating men and women that are already damned as the seed from Adam? Luther writes,

…but here God must be reverenced and held in awe…and we must show some measure of deference to His Divine wisdom by believing Him just when to us He seems unjust. If His justice were such as could be adjudged just by human reckoning, it clearly would not be Divine; it would in no way differ from human justice.

According to James Rachels (1971), to acknowledge God as God entails an inability to question God’s moral authority; the term ‘God’ implies total sovereignty, which agrees with John Calvin’s instruction that the mere fact of creation implies complete authority on the part of God over his creation. Rachels thinks that the theist who acknowledges God as God, and thereby assumes the stance of worship before God, must agree with Camus who said, “From the moment that man submits God to moral judgment, he kills Him in his own heart.” As the wise man said, it is only the fool who thinks to himself there is no God (Ps. 14:1). Howard Wettstein speaks on behalf of a religious person: “It is human—perhaps a condition for human dignity—that we love and seek justice. But it is naïve—even arrogant—to suppose that the universe conforms to our sense of justice” (2000). The reply from the Apostle Paul to those questioning the justice of God is similar. It is the ‘power’ of God that shuts doors of the human court:

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay…What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…? (Rom. 9)

And we hear of the trial silenced many ages ago in God’s dealing with Job. Job cries out, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?…then know God has done me wrong…who has denied me justice.” Job demanded that God put him on trial, but with the ultimate purpose of the court finding God unjust in his judgment and actions against Job. “I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me.” But Job’s faithless reason did not fair well:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! (Job 38:1-7)

C.S. Lewis’ judicial narrative suggests that as soon as we attempt to put the gods on trial it is really us who are being judged, self-condemned. Queen of Glome gives us her autobiographical account:

“Uncover her,” said the judge.
A hand came from behind me and tore off my veil—after it, every rag I had on…
“Read your complaint,” said the judge.
I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn’t be; it was far too small. And too old—a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day…It was all vile scribble—each stroke mean and yet savage, like the snarl in my father’s voice…A great terror and loathing came over me…

Yet, the queen read her complaint, and concluded,

“…You’re thieves, seducers. That’s my wrong. I’ll not complain (not now) that you’re blood-drinkers and man-eaters. I’m past that…”
“Enough,” said the judge.
There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times…At last the judge spoke.
“Are you answered?” he said.
“Yes,” said I. (1984: 288-293)

What we see in these traditional responses is really a combination of two replies: First, man is not in a position of authority to conduct such a trial. We are found morally guilty in even attempting to put God on trial. The queen of Glome was just revealing her selfishness and jealousy, not a legitimate allegation. We “kill God in our heart” as soon as we even question God’s goodness and justice. We will be in a place of moral foolishness and unfit to proceed with the trial as soon as the trial begins. Job ceases the trial and submits to and worships God following not much more than a divine rebuke. As Paul asked, should the pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me like this?” Morally sufficient reasons for God’s judgment and actions might be available to us, but they are not of our concern.

Second, man does not have epistemological status to conduct such a trial. Both Luther’s reply and God’s reply to Job make this clear. What is human reason to God? And even if human reason was of the sort of thing that could in principle seek out a morally sufficient reason for the ways of God, the search is doomed to failure; after all, where were we when God laid the earth’s foundations?

However, if we consider the broader contexts of these complaints, we have reason to suspect their incoherence:

a) It is not clear that Paul was not giving an answer of some sort. In a more apologetic context where skeptics were wrestling with evil in the world, we might have found Paul speaking about the universal and unknown God or the poets’ understanding of justice (Acts 17:22-29). Further, we do see prophets arguing with God on a regular basis in the Old Testament, and without the scolding as returned to Job.

b) Contra Rachel, it is not clear that approaching God as God requires brute submission to God as King. The biblical text attempts to make it clear that the Israelites grumbled against God in an irrational fashion given the merciful release from slavery; likewise, the gospel goes out into the world persuading men of the goodness and mercy of God, compelling belief. As Paul said, “knowing the fear of God we persuade men.” The requirement that the apologist cease trial in his own heart does not imply that the apologist will demand that the non-believer cease the trial in theirs. Further, what we find in the first few chapters of Genesis is not a Mosaic Treaty Lord, but a father who warns his children of the dangerous ways of the garden. Just as the writer of proverbs is warning his son about the death found in the lap of an adulterous, so does God warn Adam about the death of the knowledge of good and evil. The creator of the tended world, animals, and people does not yet rule as Lord. Creation alone does not entail a relationship of awe and rule.

c) And there is a sense in which both the queen of Glome and Job did have their trial, and they did see God’s reply. P4 did end up becoming, somehow, false for them on the basis of something additional to common experience. Whatever it was they encountered did force a verdict: they were found guilty for their allegations and P4 was not true. As Howard Wettstein remarked about Job:

One thing that’s relatively clear, in this book in which little is clear and uncontested, is that whatever it is that God says brings peace to Job. This seems not a matter of simply finally meeting up with God, almost face to face, as it were. The book might have been written so as to suggest that it is the awe attendant upon being in God’s presence that does the magic. But Job, as actually written, seems to place enormous weight upon the distinctive content of the speech from the Whirlwind. What Job learns from God seems the key, or certainly one of the keys, to his transformation (2000).

d) Finally, the appeal to jurisdiction is an implicit admission by the theist that there is no rational response available to mitigate the force of P4; as the Apostle Paul knew in dealing with the Roman courts, getting out of court on a jurisdictional technicality was not the best way to prove innocence.

In sum, we have many reasons for questioning the internal coherence of these faith responses to the trial. But more importantly, we have a positive philosophical reason to reject the argument from jurisdiction and authority altogether; Joe Campbell pointed this out to me: it seems we are forced to grant the possibility that belief in the classical God is humanly irrational. The idea here is that there is certainly some possible world in which the nature and extent of evil makes belief in the classical God absurd, irrational, or repulsive to us. It might not be our world; but if there is a possible world in which this is the case then certainly we cannot dismiss the trial on the grounds of jurisdiction a priori. If this possible world is bad enough, we might even be rational to expect that we are to have some kind of “faith” in a good God despite the fact that the evil in the world forces all rational humans to cease “believing” that this good God exists.

But what if we have good reason to believe that if there was a sufficient moral reason, we would not discover it in our human trial? To many, this tension between faith and reason appears inescapable. Perhaps the authority of God does not compel blind assent; but are we not still trapped within a hopeless finitude? I do not believe this is a correct assumption to make. Skepticism about our ability to know about God’s justice would imply skepticism about our ability to know about God’s love, mercy, and goodness. If traditional theism can give us a grasp on God’s goodness, then it should be able to give us a grasp on his justice. For the Apostle Paul, love was a mystery and ungraspable, but he still understood God’s ability to convince men of such love, to experience it, to explain it by analogy to human experience. In the case of the Christian story, then, this seems especially true. I see no reason to assume such a discrepancy about our ability to know of different perfections of God.

Yet, Stephen Wykstra (1984), William Alston (1988), and van Inwagen (1991) argue that we have positive reason to believe that if God did have “sufficient reason” we would not know what this reason is. Alston concludes that “…no one is in a position to justifiably assert that God could have no sufficient reason for allowing E” (1988). Plantinga agrees: “the arguments in these papers [he lists these and some others] seem to me to be conclusive; I shall not repeat them here” (2006: 467). However, it is not clear that they are conclusive, particularly given our new rhetorical staging for P4; and William Rowe (2006) has recently offered a strong response to this sort of reply, taking particular interest in Wykstra’s. Rowe finds the extent of these philosophers’ skepticism about evil to be arbitrary and destructive of Christian theism in general: “for all we know, the good of the fallen angels being redeemed by God far exceeds the good of faithful human beings being granted eternal life.” Given Wykstra’s skepticism, we also have reason to think that we cannot know whether God has morally sufficient reason to torment the entire human race forever, drawing us close to that possible world in which humans are clearly forced to abandon belief in a good God as rational.

So it seems as though we do not have sufficient grounds to dismiss the trial. Should we now let God justify his ways to men?

4. Narrative & Judicial Decision
Not quite yet. O’Leary provides a different sort of reason for remaining skeptical about our ability to prove or disprove that a sufficient moral reason is available for God. He reminds us of our inability to locate a sufficient reason for all sorts of occurrences and actions directly within our own experiential purview until some later time. We regularly do not have the ability to evaluate a certain element in the story of our lives until that story is completed. O’Leary is also skeptical about our ability to explain evil or to explain God’s actions, and he cites the work of Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell in support of this notion. According to Hauerwas and Burrell (1977), Augustine was finally able to address the problem of evil with satisfaction after giving up the attempt Manichean or Platonic attempt to explain the reality of evil; they claim that Augustine finally took rest in a narrative understanding; they write, “The only form which can exhibit an action without pretending to explain it is …narrative.” Following Alasdair MacIntyre they argue that no moral actions are intelligible outside of a narrative context. Narrative is not forced into the courtroom due to a unique failure to locate a morally sufficient reason, but is rather the only appropriate way to force a moral conclusion about any agent’s action. O’Leary therefore proposes “narrative truth” as what a solution to the problem of evil is after.

If the problem of evil is a forensic rhetorical problem, this would seem right. Cognitive scientists Pennington and Hastie (1992) claim that different members of a jury will come with “differences in world knowledge; that is, differences in experiences and beliefs about the social world.” However, they will all be given the same “evidence and have the same general knowledge about the expected structures of stories.” [2] Jurors come to any given trial with “generic expectations about what makes a complete story.” Each juror formulates their own story and then compares their story “to those offered by the parties in deciding the case’s outcome.” According to this Story Model, it would seem that the basic narrative structures employed when grasping the legal significance of human action become the most objective and given aspect of the trial.

The majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in 1997 (Old Chief v. United States) confirms the necessity of story in judicial settings:

The ‘fair and legitimate weight’ of conventional evidence showing individual thoughts and acts amounting to a crime reflects the fact that making a case with testimony and tangible things not only satisfies the formal definition of an offense, but tells a colorful story with descriptive richness. Unlike an abstract premise, whose force depends on going precisely to a particular step in a course of reasoning, a piece of evidence may address any number of separate elements, striking hard just because it shows so much at once…Evidence that has force beyond any linear scheme of reasoning, and as its pieces come together a narrative gains momentum, with power not only to support conclusions but to sustain the willingness of jurors to draw the inferences, whatever they may be, necessary to reach an honest verdict…

… A convincing tale can be told with economy, but when economy becomes a break in the natural sequence of narrative evidence, an assurance that the missing link is really there is nevermore than second best….

This approach can also be fond in more recent analytic approaches to moral philosophy. In an essay discussing moral responsibility, free will, and Frankfurt-Type cases, John Fischer (1999) cites David Velleman’s work on narrative structure (1991). According to Velleman, “later events are thought to alter the meaning of earlier events, thereby altering their contribution to the value of one’s life.” In an example relevant to our discussion here, Velleman compares the life of a person who struggles in marriage for ten years ending in a divorce and a happy remarriage with the life of a person who struggles in marriage for ten years to final happiness without divorce after the relationship matures. Velleman writes:

Both lives contain ten years of marital strife followed by contentment; but let us suppose that in the former, you regard your first ten years of marriage as a dead loss, whereas in the latter you regard them as the foundation of your happiness. The bad times are just as bad in both lives, but in one they are cast off and in the other they are redeemed (1991).

If we extrapolate this principle to the life story of God, we have precisely what is commonly assumed to be the most promising argument for God’s defense. For the Christian, it is the full Christian story of final redemption that promises to provide the morally sufficient reason at the end of time; Plantinga writes, “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” (2000). The evil we experience now might be much like the ten years of a horrible marriage; it is what happens in the distant future that just might provide the full, moral meaning of our current experience. Given the availability of a story about the past and the future, this no longer impedes our ability to find a morally sufficient reason, but rather provides just the sort of reason we need—a reason in the form of story. In asking the question whether God has sufficient moral reason, we are not asking the metaphysical question about the greater good outweighing evil, but rather the meaning or value of God’s causing or permitting particular scenarios of evil; utilitarianism does not have the tools needed to evaluate P4. Ends might not justify the means. This is why narrative structure is crucial: what follows a given action can change the very meaning of that action, its significance as an action. Asking what greater good was brought about by God causing or permitting the decapitation of the baby’s head might not do anything for us as long as the independent moral significance of the decapitation remains unchanged.

If what I said is true about our knowledge of both the goodness and justice of God, then we should expect to know something of the future justice of God, or else be willing to approach this entire subject with skeptical non-attachment. If complete skepticism about the justice of God is in order, then we are justified in at least a bit of skepticism with regard to a God who is all good, omniscient and omnipotent. If we are allowed to become entirely skeptical with regard to justice of God, we no longer have sufficient reason to think we have full knowledge of the goodness of God and the problem dissolves. Plantinga’s appeal to the whole Christian story is an admission to the role the Christian’s knowledge of the future plays in mitigating the problem of evil as a defeater for belief about God. [3] Should not we then let the trial begin? At least in the case of the Christian understanding of the classical God, the story of the world and the life story of God would seem sufficiently available to mount some kind of defense in the trial. This is perhaps even more the case on the pre-Christian Hebraic understanding, which is rooted in historical narrative more so than the New Testament. Let the trial begin.


1. Alvin Plantinga (2000) quotes from Eleonore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil,” in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas Morris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.239.

2. Mitchell 613, fn 51; quoted from Nancy Pennington & Reid Hastie, A Cognitive Theory of Juror Decision Making: The Story Model, 13 Cardozo Law Review 519, 521-22 (1991).

3. Alvin Plantinga (2006) applies his proper function account of knowledge to the problem of evil in a way that would remove the utility of a trial. Plantinga denies that evil is a defeater of God’s existence for a fully rational person; a fully rational person could in principle not be rationally persuaded to hold P4 as true in principle. If Christianity is true, and if Plantinga’s epistemology is sufficiently correct, then the sensus divinitatis when functioning properly would at all times produce “intimate, detailed, vivid, and explicit knowledge of God.” (2006: 485). No matter what is going on with the other faculties related to the sensus divinitatis—such as our abhorrence of evil and our ability to consider our total body of evidence—firm warranted belief about God would always be present. But I think this is an implausible account of how the sensus divinitatis would in fact work, both before and after the damaging fall. I leave this issue alone here for lack of space; I hope to address this issue in a forthcoming essay.

Bibliography in progress…


November 27, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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