Skeptical Theism:

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.

If skeptical theism is true, it appears to undercut the primary argument for atheism, namely the argument from evil. This is because skeptical theism provides a reason to be skeptical of a crucial premise in the argument from evil, namely the premise that asserts that at least some of the evils in our world are gratuitous. If we are not in a position to tell whether God has a reason for allowing any particular instance of evil, then we are not in a position to judge whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous. And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist. The remainder of this article explains skeptical theism more fully, applies it to the argument from evil, and surveys the reasons for and against being a skeptical theist.

The Evidential Problem of Evil:

The evidential problem of evil is the problem of determining whether and, if so, to what extent the existence of evil (or certain instances, kinds, quantities, or distributions of evil) constitutes evidence against the existence of God, that is to say, a being perfect in power, knowledge and goodness. Evidential arguments from evil attempt to show that, once we put aside any evidence there might be in support of the existence of God, it becomes unlikely, if not highly unlikely, that the world was created and is governed by an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good being. Such arguments are not to be confused with logical arguments from evil, which have the more ambitious aim of showing that, in a world in which there is evil, it is logically impossible—and not just unlikely—that God exists.

This entry begins by clarifying some important concepts and distinctions associated with the problem of evil, before providing an outline of one of the more forceful and influential evidential arguments developed in contemporary times, namely, the evidential argument advanced by William Rowe. Rowe’s argument has occasioned a range of responses from theists, including the so-called “skeptical theist” critique (according to which God’s ways are too mysterious for us to comprehend) and the construction of various theodicies, that is, explanations as to why God permits evil. These and other responses to the evidential problem of evil are here surveyed and assessed.

Is there a deadlock/stalemate between the two positions, indicating that neither side successfully proves the other wrong, thereby suggesting agnosticism (in the sense of withholding judgment) as the most rational stance regarding the question of God's existence?

  • 2
    In philosophical debates, typically, no side can "successfully prove the other wrong", it is all about persuasiveness and plausibility. Considering that even many theists recognize the problem of evil as such, skeptical theism is thin on both, and it spills over into broader skepticism undesirable for independent reasons. It is simply not plausible that God would not give us some indication of his reasons for tolerating evil, if not in "particular instances" then, at least, in broad outline. Indeed, theists traditionally offer such reasons (free will, best possible world, etc.).
    – Conifold
    Feb 13 at 0:33
  • I didn't know there was a technical name for sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la la la la la....".
    – JonathanZ
    Feb 13 at 6:13
  • 1
    Skeptical Theism is just a jargon-y way of saying 'God works in mysterious ways', no? That certainly is a compelling argument for many people. It's not universally compelling, however, and doesn't satisfy all arguments about the problem of evil.
    – TKoL
    Feb 14 at 15:11
  • 2
    "If we ignore all the evidence in favor of X, X becomes unlikely"... wait, what? What sort of reasoning is that? Words like "circular" and "tautological" come to mind.
    – Matthew
    Feb 14 at 15:41

5 Answers 5


No, there is no stalemate.

Theism relies upon the ability to infer intentionality to a God based on the use of theory of mind, and ascribing intentions to God as an explanation. A straightforward application of this principle is in Moses communication with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, when Moses heard words come from the burning bush. Application of Theory of Mind to words, is that they have meaning to the speaker, and the speaker intends to communicate with Moses for a purpose. In general, this principle is applied universally by theists to interpret the will and goals of God to all revealed words.

In natural theology, this principle is further applied to acts of God, as a creator and manager of this universe. The orderliness of the universe, the fittedness of the earth for humans, and of humans to the Earth, were all taken as evidence of deliberate and perfect design by God -- IE God's intentions in design could be inferred reasonably.

With the alternative explanation of evolution for the fittedness of the earth and life, the orderliness explanation is generally limited to the perfection of a God ordering physics, such that the universe could support life. But once more, the properties of God are inferred from evidence.

The discovery that physics is NOT fitted to life, IE that almost all physics should lead to lifeless universes, has further been used to argue for the mind of God. The presumption is that physics is somehow fixed, perhaps outside the power of God to rearrange, BUT that this universe could be tweaked by God the manager, such that it could sustain life. This is the premise behind the Fine Tuning argument. Once again, God's properties and intentions are discernable through observation and reasonable explanation.

With the evidential problem from evil, one looks at the moral structure of our world, and infers the moral properties of its designer. A key moral feature is that all life multiples vastly, and overpopulates beyond its resources. Life then, due to the limited extent of the universe, is "designed" to suffer from scarcity and starvation. Additionally all life is forced to compete with other life for those scarce resources, leading to violence and widespread death caused intentionally by all life against other life. We see this in trees rising above shorter plants, and shading them out, such that they die from photosynthetic starvation, and by every herbivore which (starting in the ocean) ingest small plants and tiny animals and bacteria and digest them.

Extend this to humans, and we have additionally a world where distant earthquakes can kill entire coastal communities, genetic anomalies can lead to horrific and inevitable deaths, and tiny pinpricks can lead to death from gangrene infection. This world is not designed for justice, or consistent human thriving, but only for sufficient quantities of humans to thrive to perpetuate the species. It was not designed by a God who cares about individual welfare.

Extending this observation to God -- a creator God appears to be morally unconcerned with the fate of any individual. Our understanding of benevolence is focused on BOTH individuals AND communities, and an "OMNI" benevolence would be the extreme of benevolence, far greater than we humans can achieve. God, however, does not seem to have this property of merely human benevolence, much less Omni-benevolence. The Problem from Evil is that the assertion of classical Theism of an Omnibenevolent God is falsified by test against this world.

The skeptical theism principle, undercuts all theistic reasoning. IF "we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance", then one cannot ascribe intentionality to Yahweh's voice, the text of any revelation, structure of the universe, etc. What the "skeptical theists" are doing, is NOT applying skeptical theism, but instead SELECTIVELY invoking it, only when convenient to dismiss any falsifications of their preferred conclusions.

IT IS TRUE that we can never be certain of any of our observations, or of our conclusions. This is an intrinsic feature of empiricism, and indirect realism. It is also true of al falsification tests, as the Quine-Duhem thesis points out. YET -- we choose to draw inferences about our world, and falsify poor inferences, despite this lack of certainty. That is because Inference to Best Explanation is a PRAGMATICALLY VERY USEFUL methodology. It is what theists use in interpeting religious texts, etc. It is what science uses to develop our scientific models of the world. And it is what we use in everyday life when trying to learn how to, say, best mix up a cake mix.

Skeptical theists are trying to SELECTIVELY invoke the lack of certainty in Inference to Best Explanation, which they otherwise use in all other aspects of their lives, to dismiss a refuting test case to their religious dogma.

  • A critique of this answer is available here.
    – Mark
    Feb 19 at 10:52
  • 1
    @Mark -- That post does not answer mine. It's focus on either/or absolutism is off subject, I made no use of absolutism, only of pragmatic reasonable inference. Its argument that "sometimes good comes from apparent evil" is only showing that this universe is not under the control of an omni-MALEVOLENT deity. The examples of grace under extreme duress as a defense of duress are easily addressed -- IS THIS UNIVERSE OPTIMALLY DESIGNED TO PRODUCE GRACE? NO! We know how to optimize learning, it is with a clearly described lesson, small steps, with feedback, etc. None are present here.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 23 at 2:54
  • The post denies that one can draw reasonable inference as to what is good or evil in this world, by drawing upon very rare counterexamples of good coming from evil. However, as the writer is a Christian, he/she/it DOES draw reasonable inferences about Godly intentions and character in all other settings. The discarding of reasonable inference is invoked selectively, only when falsifications of his/her/its theology are found.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 23 at 2:57

Of course in any particular instance one might not be able to discern somebody's motives, but extending that to making inferences about somebody's motives in general on the basis of many instances is a very different claim.

If you can't infer somebody's motives in general, you can't infer that somebody's motives are good. If God is defined as a being of a particular type that has good motives, "I can't infer God's motives in general" is either...

  • Nonsense: There most likely exists a being of a particular type whose motives one can infer to be good whose motives one can't infer.

  • Or strict agnosticism: One can't infer whether or not there most likely exists a being of a particular type who has good motives.

  • “Sceptical theism” as characterized by the first quote is a strategy to immunize the god-concept against any questioning. Immunisation from ignorance: “God’s ways are too mysterious for us to comprehend”
  • The “Evidential problem of Evil” is the problem of justifying the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnigracious creator god in the face of all evils in the world.

Sceptical theism rejects the prompt for justification of the evil and seeks refuge in a mystery. That’s not a philosophical position. Instead it means to leave the philosophical discussion. Notably, there is no philosophical stalemate between the two positions.


An evil god provides a plausible explanation for suffering; therefore, its existence is just as probable as that of a good god.

If the god in is actively malevolent, then its actions would fit easily within the skeptical theist understanding. Its reasons may be unfathomable, but its capacity for cruelty would make sense. We lose the ability to confidently question the logic of suffering.

Problem of Evil Undermined: An evil god would take pleasure or indifference in suffering, which could explain the nature of evil in our world. It renders the question of why a good god would allow evil moot.

So the concept of evil god easily solves all these questions. One may say - but the holy books say the god is good, But hey - it's just a part of his malevolence to play with people's minds.

  • 1
    For the evil god claim, one can say any good has some greater evil purpose, much like people claiming a good god has some greater good purpose with any apparent evil. If you say "there must be some reason" for anything contrary to your claim of God having certain traits, that same approach could be used for a claim of God with any traits.
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 14 at 0:19

I don't think there is a stalemate here. Skeptical theism does offer a solution to the problem of evil. In fact, this, I believe, is the message the oldest, by far, and the most elaborate book of the Old Testament -- the Book of Job. In the book Job accuses God of punishing him, for no apparent reason, and humbly asks for explanation. God counters by challenging Job to prove that he actually knows what he is talking about. Effectively God asks Job to refrain from judging something he does not fully understand.1

In fact, a careful reader might notice how, earlier in the Book, a bitter Job inadvertently confessed to harshly mistreating other people, even as he was complaining about those very people (or their children) mistreating him. Maybe it was not God who was punishing Job after all? Maybe it was Job himself who should have taken a long look in the mirror?

Aside from attributing our misfortunes to God's punishment, there is another assumption that is universally made -- it's about God being the creator of everything. If that was true, then yes, God would have to be evil, there is really no way around it. But then again, we don't know if that is true. Is it possible that God exists that is powerful and capable of doing many things that were ascribed to Him, while not being the creator and, hence, not being directly responsible for human nature and human condition?2

1 Note that God was careful not imply that this understanding was beyond Job's capacity. That was the argument of Job's friends and, if you recall, God was rather unimpressed by their performance.

2 “But one thing the gods-as-persons of Homer do not do: they do not change human nature. They manipulate Achilleus, Aineias, Paris, but they do not make them what they are. The choices are human; and in the end, despite all divine interferences, the Iliad is a story of people.” (Richmond Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer)

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