Monthly Archives: January 2015

Is Experience of Evil a Defeater for Theism?

I’ve never been much impressed by atheistic arguments from evil. I’ve written quite a few articles in the past year on the problem of evil and in the coming months plan to analyse what I think are two of the best arguments: those offered by William Rowe and Paul Draper. What strikes me is just how difficult it is to formulate a good argument against the existence of God from the facts of evil or suffering. A large part of the problem – as I hope to show in forthcoming articles – is that often these arguments try to produce defeaters by pointing out certain probabilistic relationships between certain propositions about God and the facts of suffering. However, defeaters very rarely proceed by way of a person becoming aware of probabilistic relationships between propositions.

In any event, even if I’m right about this (and there are those who disagree with me. Shocking, I know), that does not mean that evil and suffering isn’t a problem of some kind. In fact, I think it’s arguably the most troubling feature of the world that theism must face. But precisely what sort of challenge is it if not, say, a probabilistic one? If there is (as I think) no good argument, in what way is evil still a problem?

We could note perhaps that evil might make the theist angry with God, or make Him seem far and distant. Note those passages in Job where God seems to have become entirely mysterious to Job, and Job demands that God appear and justify Himself, and, more importantly to Job, exonerate him. Or perhaps we might think of those Psalms expressing anger towards God for some state of affairs. And then of course there are those haunting words of Christ himself on the cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” All of these show that evil and suffering can indeed be a problem for the theist as he or she wrestles with God. However, in such cases there is no hint that evil was a threat to the person’s theism. All of those in question remained staunchly theistic.

But, isn’t there a stronger threat to theism from our experience or awareness of evil and suffering? Might not one’s experience of suffering in the world provide a defeater for theism? Think of all the most horrific evils or instances of suffering in the world. We might think of those mentioned by Dostoevsky’s Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, hideous cruelties human beings inflict on each other: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.” Here Ivan is referring to people being nailed to wooden posts by their ears and left overnight before being killed, and cases where babies are thrown into the air and caught on the end of spears in front of their parents. We might also think of the cruelties inflicted on human beings by the natural world: from parasites that gradually eat away the insides of the eyes causing blindness, to the pains and indignities caused by conditions such as motor neurone disease. Further, we might reflect on a figure pointed out by Stephen Law in his debate with William Lane Craig: “for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday.” Or we might be cognizant of the wanton destruction in the animal world: from hyena’s who begin to eat their prey before killing it, to the wanton destruction by wasps attacking bee colonies and tearing the heads off all the bees.

Some instances of suffering are so abominable that it seems inappropriate and downright callous to use them in cool philosophical discourse. When brought face-to-face with such things wouldn’t a rational person simply see that there cannot be a God such as Christians believe in? True enough, perhaps he cannot demonstrate this with a cogent philosophical argument of some kind; he or she might even concede that there is indeed no good probabilistic or evidential argument at all. But still, he might insist, isn’t it just obvious that a being such as God wouldn’t permit such things?

The idea here is that a person who is fully aware and properly attuned to the horrors of the world will simply see – or perceive – or something like that – that such a being as God would not, if He existed, permit it. We might call this phenomenon a “sensus deus absconditus.” In the same way as Calvin spoke of a sensus divinitatis bringing people to perceive the existence of God in the absence of any argument, so, it might be claimed, no argument is needed. (Of course, if Christianity is true a sensus divinitatis makes winsome sense, but on atheism what would account for a sensus deus absconditus?) Our atheistic objector might say something like: “just open your eyes, drink in the sheer horror of reality, the utter loathsomeness of so much of earthly existence.” He might even think that giving arguments from evil is counter-productive, diverting our attention away from all the blood and pain and towards a piece of arcane reasoning. Giving philosophical arguments, it might be said, keeps our attention off the very realities that constitute a defeater for belief in God.

Is there really a defeater here? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The thing about defeaters is that they are relative to a given noetic structure. Whether something is a defeater for some belief I hold will depend on my other beliefs, and how strongly I hold them, as well as my background experiences. Thus, viewing the loathsome evils of the world might be enough to defeat X’s belief in God, but not Y’s. (I’m ignoring the complication that A can defeat B for person S without really being a defeater for B at all).

However, there is a more important point to be made here. If Christianity is true then experience of evil will not be a defeater for theism with respect to fully rational noetic structures. As Plantinga has shown, if Christianity is true then there are cognitive mechanisms such as the “sensus divinitatis” and “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit,” or others very much like these which provide, for the person with a fully rational noetic structure, a clear knowledge of God and awareness of his presence. Such a person may therefore be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own. Such a theist might be greatly puzzled about evil, but abandoning faith simply wouldn’t be on their radar.

Of course, for most of us theists there is no wholly evident presence of God; none of us enjoys such a pristine condition of complete rationality. But of course, it’s also a part of Christian belief that our cognitive faculties are being renewed, our “sensus divinitatis” is in the process of repair (to use Calvin’s language). Such knowledge doesn’t provide an answer to the mystery of evil, but still might provide over-ridding grounds for the person’s theism in the face of life’s atrocities. Whilst we do hear of stories of missionaries going off to the third world only to come back atheists due to what they have witnessed, we also hear of people whose theism in the face of the world’s evils becomes ever more resolute. Some might see the evil of the world as the result of “man left to himself,” desperately in need of God. The hideousness of it all might just as easily drive people towards God. (Note in passing that the vast majority of people who experience the worst atrocities are more likely to be theists). For my own part, whilst my awareness of evil provides possibly the greatest puzzle for me, denying the existence of God seems out of the question. The existence of God – for whatever reason – is among those propositions about which I’m most certain. If, after thinking really hard – as well as I can – on the case for and against God, and on reflecting on how the world honestly seems to me, I stand before the evils of the world with my theism still intact, I can’t see that I – or any other theist – would be guilty of an epistemic faux pas.

It seems to me then that whilst it’s clearly factually correct to say that for some theists the experience of evil has defeated their theism, there is no general defeater – either a warrant defeater or a rationality defeater – to be had here. I think the atheist could only properly claim a warrant defeater for Christian belief by first assuming that Christian belief is false, and thus that there is no source of warrant such as a sensus divinitatis or something else like that. Moreover, there does not seem to be a rationality defeater as long as the theist has considered all the evidence she has to the best of her ability and still finds herself persuaded by theism. The theist who continues to believe in the face of even the most grotesque instances of suffering the world can produce is not therefore, so far as I can see, breaking any epistemic duty, acting contrary to reason, or otherwise epistemically deficient.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Belief, Problem of Evil, Theism

The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:

I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham



The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.



Filed under Bible, Eternal Life, Hell

Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Atheism, Divine Attributes, God