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What is skeptical theism?

skeptical theism

Skeptical theism claims that human beings lack omniscience and that their limitation must be considered when attempting to judge the decisions made by God. The target of this skepticism is human beings themselves, suggesting we ought to be wary of objections to God’s actions or existence. This makes skeptical theism one of many responses to the “problem of evil.”

The problem of evil suggests that unjustified evil is incompatible with the existence of God. Skeptical theism replies that the premise “there is no possible justification for God to allow this perceived evil” is unreasonable. From the standpoint of skeptical theism, the problem of evil amounts to saying, “I cannot perceive a justified reason to allow that evil; therefore, no omnipotent, omniscient being could perceive one, either.”

A common summary used for skeptical theism is the “parent analogy.” Common sense indicates it’s possible a parent can be justified in allowing a child’s suffering, even perceived “evil,” in circumstances when the child does not understand or accept those justifications. A three-year-old may insist there can be no good reason for strangers to tie him up and put him in a scary, noisy machine. However, having an MRI is not necessarily unjustified simply because the child thinks it so. The same concept could apply to vaccinations, surgery, and many other issues.

Nonbelievers may reply to that analogy by saying good parents explain their justifications. To simply shrug off the child’s fears by saying “you would not understand” seems unfair and unreasonable. They also note that the evils under consideration are not relatively minor inconvenience; rather, they are issues like genocide, disease, and rape. Such responses often claim that, since God can “do anything,” He ought to provide whatever explanations are needed, suitable to our limited minds.

Skeptical theism, however, would say such objections miss the mark. The point of the parent analogy—and skeptical theism by extension—is that only within the child’s perception are there no good reasons for the “evil.” Those with more advanced perception can clearly see some good reasons (1 Corinthians 13:11–12). Limited knowledge can make it impossible for certain minds to fully understand certain justifications, no matter how strong the justification or how thorough the explanation. Thus, it’s logically possible that an omniscient, omnipotent being has justifications that we do not fully perceive.

The relative scale of various “evils” is also irrelevant, but not because skeptical theism rejects the reality of pain and suffering. Rather, it’s because we are not God (Isaiah 55:8–9) and cannot claim to be infallible judges of His actions (Job 38:1–7). As we grow into adulthood, a great many issues that once seemed simple reveal themselves as more complex and nuanced (1 Corinthians 13:11–12). God’s infinitely more advanced perspective makes it unreasonable to claim there cannot be justification for God to allow some particular evil. The parent-child analogy is used simply because the situation is so familiar; a more apt comparison for God and man might be adults and bacteria.

Another point often missed by critics of skeptical theism is that explanation does not compel acceptance (John 5:39–40; James 2:19). Someone can encounter clear, logical, concise explanations and still reject them—even those that 99 percent of others would accept. Or, as in the case of children, simple selfishness or emotion might override all other considerations. Once again, this proves a narrow point: merely saying, “I do not perceive good reasons for this,” is not proof that such justifications do not or cannot exist. Good enough reason is an inherently subjective phrase, and competing desires often color our views of what we will or will not acknowledge.

Skeptical theism inspires many other criticisms and defenses than those referenced here. There are deeper discussions to be had about our knowledge of God and where to doubt our conclusions—even problems like solipsism. However, the general concept of skeptical theism is biblically and rationally sound. An omnipotent, omniscient being is not disproved merely because the being’s actions don’t make perfect sense to fallible humans (Romans 9:20–21).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022